We Need to Talk About How We Treat Library Workers Who Are Neurodivergent – Part One

By Kelley McDaniel

How does your library encourage and accommodate patrons who have dyslexia or other learning differences? What about patrons who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other neurobehavioral differences? And how about patrons who have dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or other developmental differences? What these diagnoses have in common is that they all fall under the umbrella of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is a relatively recent term (coined in the 1990s) that recasts the notion that there is only one “normal” or “right” way that the human brain perceives, processes, and interacts with information, but rather that there are many different ways, i.e. a natural diversity of neurologically-based processes and behaviors. Now, consider the same questions as above, but with respect to library workers instead of library patrons. “Neurodiversity at Work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults” (British Medical Bulletin, 2020) provides an oft-cited “reasonable estimate” of 15-20% of the population as neurodiverse, and The Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation estimates that 30-40% of adults who are neurodivergent are unemployed —which is “three times the rate for people with disability and eight times the rate for people without disability.” 

I have a loved one who is neurodivergent and it has been heart-breaking to watch them confront stereotypes and face the stigma and “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — especially in the workforce. Speaking as a former librarian, I’d like to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in libraries specifically with respect to people who are neurodivergent. 

In my experience, librarians tend to do a good job promoting their diverse and inclusive collections and programs, including programs designed specifically to appeal to and serve the needs of children patrons who are neurodivergent. 

I would like to address neurodiversity in library employment, because those neurodivergent children who will grow up loving and feeling welcome in libraries will become neurodivergent adults who may choose jobs and careers in libraries. What will happen to them? Will we welcome neurodivergent adults as colleagues the same way we welcomed them when they were child patrons? 

The Autism @ Work Playbook: Finding Talent and Creating Meaningful Employment Opportunities for People with Autism is a great resource for employers who want to do right by neurodivergent employees. It was created by scholars and employers who, as they say in the introduction, “… are focused not only on finding great talent for our companies, but in sharing and helping others begin their own inclusive hiring journeys … [because] … Many individuals on the autism spectrum have the capabilities businesses need, and with an under- or unemployment rate of 80%, they can become a key part of the solution.” 

This Playbook starts with big ideas like planning and program models but also includes boots-on-the-ground issues like recruitment, interviewing, training, onboarding, retention and career development. In the chapter on making “The Business Case” for an Autism @ Work program, they list “characteristics that, in general, individuals with Autism demonstrate that make them desirable employees” — many of which would be highly beneficial for library employees — including attention to detail, analytical thinking, accepting repetitive tasks, systemizing, and innovation.

The same institutional values that inspired librarians to develop targeted programs and services for families with neurodivergent children can (and should) be used to justify employment programs that focus on neurodivergent adults: the desire to make a positive social impact for an underserved community.

I believe that libraries can and should be part of the solution to the unemployment and underemployment of adults who are neurodivergent. The very first step is educating ourselves about neurodiversity, so that we can confront our own personal prejudices (e.g. believing the idea that library workers with ASD can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t want to provide direct service to library patrons). Institutional barriers like organizational communication can be made more neuroinclusive by slowing down, providing written agendas, and holding online meetings. Some things are just good work culture practices (e.g. timely, specific, and actionable feedback and asking employees what they need). 

 

In part two of this article, you will hear directly from a library worker who is neurodivergent. In Question & Answer format, they describe their experience trying to establish a career in libraries. The library profession needs talented, committed personnel who make valuable contributions when given the chance, and runs the risk of missing out on a large pool of qualified people who also happen to be neurodivergent.

Kelley McDaniel was a school librarian in Maine for eighteen years. She was the Walter J. Taranko Library Media Specialist of the Year in 2005 and a Carnegie Corporation/New York Times I Love My Librarian Award winner in 2010. After being a librarian, she pivoted to becoming an ELL teacher and a special educator who taught empowering literacy.