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The emotional challenges of parenting can increase stress and leave many working parents feeling drained and less productive on the job. But what about families of children with disabilities? How are they being supported in the unique challenges of raising neurodiverse children?

This is where Rethink comes in. Rethink Benefits, a web-based program geared toward supporting parents of children with developmental disabilities, identified a need for employers to provide resources to neurodiverse families. Through flexible consultation plans, lessons, and individualized care programs, employers can offer a unique benefit to their employees. With many schools across the U.S. closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this benefit gains even more relevance for parents who find themselves home with their children and in need of innovative solutions for at-home learning and child care. 

More recently, the company has also begun offering guidance to companies supporting neurodiverse employees in the workplace. Rethink Benefit’s mission is to support the inclusion, equity and advancement of neurodiverse individuals throughout their lifetime.

We interviewed Angela Nelson, vice president and executive director of clinical services and Connie Donnelly, vice president of business development, about the organization’s goal of supporting parents, particularly those of children with autism. With the approach of Autism Awareness Month in April, they provided these insights:

From Day One: Why do companies see a need to provide this now?  

Connie Donnelly: The latest is one in six children being diagnosed with a developmental disability. There are obvious gaps in care where Rethink comes into play. There's also a tremendous impact to the bottom line, because with parents and caregivers of special-needs children, there are challenges retaining those employees. Often a parent of a special-needs child will stop working because he or she can't manage the stress or there's higher absenteeism or mental-health issues. These are all factors that contribute to an organization's bottom line. 

Then in terms of the neurodiversity-hiring piece, there's a war for talent right now. Organizations are really recognizing we need to hire these people. We need to make sure that these individuals can thrive in our workplace. 

(Photo by Shironosov/iStock by Getty Images)

When you’re working with families of neurodiverse children, what are the first steps?

Angela Nelson: One of the biggest pieces of the caregiver platform is having a consultation with someone on our team who's a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). They get to meet with the same clinician every time and they have a set number of hours throughout the year, like a bank of time. The BCBA’s role is to provide them with personalized tips and strategies, troubleshooting opportunities, and recommendations of certain pieces of content in the Rethink platform, books, and websites. So that's how parents start their journey and how we engage with them. 

Donnelly: We're a therapist in their pockets. Because we're available when they need us, 24/7, to help with all the day-to-day.

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your service?

Nelson: Luckily, Rethink is 100% remote and web-based, and thus, we haven’t had to change our model. We are reminding our families that they can have their consultation calls from the comfort of their home and also certainly focusing on specific topics right now like creating schedules, incorporating academic time, increasing play skills (including independent play), and coping with unexpected changes in routine. We’ve seen a major increase in consultations being scheduled because this is one resource in their lives that isn’t being disrupted right now.

How has your umbrella of services grown?

Nelson: We have expanded beyond autism to include not just developmental disabilities, but anybody that has a child with learning, social, and behavioral change. We're able to support a wider variety of folks in that space. For example, someone with ADHD could be under that neurodiversity umbrella.  

Do you have the same kind of resources for neurodiverse adults?

Donnelly: For individuals who are neurodiverse, there's no aging out of our services. Our solution is also supporting the employers and the managers of neurodiverse individuals in the workplace. We have e-learning modules and content to educate organizations, managers, human resources–all employees, really–about understanding their diversity work. We focus on hiring best practices, direct-report communications, and peer-to-peer understanding. But then we also provide clinical support to those managers who are working with individuals who are diverse.  

How has society’s outlook on neurodiversity evolved?

Nelson: We've come a long way in terms of the stigma, and people are starting to really understand that people with disabilities have so many amazing talents to bring. I think that there's a shift in our society for people to just accept people for their unique strengths and not label them as somebody that has a disability. I think people are opening up and realizing that sometimes it's a risk, right? They've never hired somebody with a disability before. And they're not really sure what the unknowns are. But they're starting to really branch out and see the success, the high performance, and the higher retention and productivity rates. 

Can you give an example of how your work helped an employer manage a neurodiverse employee?

Nelson: There was a gentleman on the job who had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). And he was having a hard time filling a frozen-yogurt cup. Sometimes it would be inconsistent. Sometimes it would be half-full. Sometimes it would be overflowing. 

What did you help to implement?

Nelson: I'm a big fan of sustainable practices, and using what you already have. So this particular jobsite had very thorough and colorful picture manuals of how to fill the frozen-yogurt cup. So I said, “Let's get that!” And we put it on the side of the frozen-yogurt machine so that he could reference it. Now he had a visual aid, something that they already created. It took very little effort on their part. That's important to me. If we want to help managers feel confident and empowered to support these individuals, we have to make it easy. 

What does it mean to be “inclusive” vs. “adaptive” in the workplace?

Donnelly: There’s an important difference. Adaptive, you're making an accommodation for one person or for one population. And often with that, then you also need to make sure that person discloses their disability. Being inclusive means having things like a universal design. You're putting things in place, proactively, that are going to be really supportive for those who need it, but not necessarily disruptive for those who don't. 

What does that look like in practice?

Donnelly: The example that I give personally is, I'm legally blind. If I check into a hotel, and I say that I'm legally blind, an adaptive hotel will give me a room by the elevator. But an inclusive hotel has already gone a step further and has Braille signage on all of their doors. So the Braille signage is really helpful for me, but it's not disruptive for someone who doesn't need it. It makes it an even playing field. For everyone.  

Nelson: We're not talking, you know, big asks here. These are just simple things that we could do. Things like using multi-modality in a meeting, as some person might be an auditory learner or a visual learner. Giving a presentation, you might have visuals, you might have a handout, you're giving frequent breaks. Giving a checklist so people know how to break something down. So there might be a barrier of just adopting that style. But once managers get into it, they realize this is actually not hard.  

Donnelly: I think if some of the employers in my history had had a benefit like Rethink, the support that it would have given my parents would have been phenomenal and so valuable. But also, if an employer of mine had a benefit that was educating managers that different is good and different can actually be really valuable, it may have made my experience a little bit easier in past roles. 

You’ve had to truly blaze your own trail.

Connie Donnelly, vice president of business development
Angela Nelson, vice president and executive director of clinical services

Donnelly: It wasn’t always easy, but trailblazers are trailblazers to make the trails available for others. And that's what's so cool about it, because now other employers are getting there. That’s why I'm here, because it's just incredible.

Nelson: We make it okay to say, “I'm a parent of a special-needs child,” or “I'm an employer who wants to understand special needs in the workplace.” So we take down that whole barrier, the stigma, the fear. We empower that employer to just make it okay for everyone, whether you are a parent who has a child at home, or whether you're someone in the workplace who needs support. We put those tools into place to break down the stigma.

Having made progress, where do you think Corporate America is headed in terms embracing neurodiversity? 

Donnelly: I think it is the next frontier, and we're seeing it's rapidly being adopted by employers in the U.S. and globally. More and more employers are getting it. So my expectation is that in the next several years–obviously, it takes time to change–this is going to be part of the norm. 

Nelson: I'm actually really inspired. I'm very encouraged by the future. And already, Connie and I meet with a lot of organizations who are committed to this. They say, “You're preaching to the choir! We already know this is amazing. We want to get started!” They just want to know what the next step is and want to be better. And you look around and you can see there's already a lot of things in place. I think we're on a really, really good path.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.