Ali Barfield, Head of Neurodiversity and Inclusion at ConnectFutures. 

Ali writes: While the idea of inclusion and diversity in the workplace has been successfully mainstreamed and embedded, what this looks like for our colleagues and communities, and for organisational practices can differ wildly, especially across the range of issues that Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) covers. This is particularly pertinent in the case of one of the more recently considered aspects of EDI: the conversation around neurodiversity in the workplace.

I don’t know anyone who is neurodivergent.” 

Won’t making changes cost a lot to our workplace?” 

I’m scared of using the wrong language as so much seems to change.”

My colleague recently wrote a popular blog “ Neurodiversity. A beginner’s guide” which prompted many comments, queries and positive discussions on our socials and workshops that we deliver nationally on these specific topic. Others began to ask how a societal question manifests in the workplace and some of the ongoing barriers faced by people that’s not “seen” by neurotypical people including the statements above. This has led me to write this piece from a place of lived experiences in a way that’s intended to start conversations at a time when people and organisations are embracing change positively. Some remain unsure on where to start or facilitate a conversation and are keen not to reduce neurodiversity to a set of policies and procedures.

I’d argue that for many reasons – a lack of knowledge within organisations, fear of stigma, exclusion and confusion at how to ‘handle’ the diverse elements that a term such as ‘neurodiversity’ can encompass, means that the conversation on how to better include neurodivergent colleagues within the workplace is often nascent and tentative. Yet, the legal, ethical and pragmatic implications are huge – organisations must actively ensure equality across the workforce from recruitment to retention with positive results: neurodivergent individuals, including those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological variations, bring unique perspectives and talents to the table. Well beyond cynically ‘ticking boxes’, positive, listening approaches can benefit workplaces significantly by creating an inclusive environment that supports neurodivergent employees. Having a baseline understanding that conditions like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia are not deficits but variations that can contribute to a diverse and innovative workforce.

At ConnectFutures, we work with a range of public and private sector organisations to start the dialogue to develop policy and practice that strengthen and transform the experiences of all staff, and the organisation as a whole.  While this blog is not intended to be exhaustive in its suggestions, there are for example, clear and implementable ways in which employers can create inclusive workplaces, from the initial interview process through to supporting pre-existing employees. Creating a neuroinclusive work environment doesn’t have to be a taxing or costly process – it is often the simplest adjustments while fostering an inclusive environment that has the most impactful change. 

Let’s start from the beginning.

The starting point for neurodiversity in the workplace needs to begin by understanding how many employees may self-identify as neurodivergent to understand steps a good employer needs to take.  We already know that only around 35% of autistic employees are fully open about being autistic, with 1 in 10 not disclosing to anyone at work (Buckland Report, 2024).  Disclosure rates for neurodivergent conditions can often be the first point of concern for employers who may      understandably wonder how they can “support people” when it isn’t clear who may need help. Additionally, a focus on diagnosis and disclosure can shift the focus unhelpfully away from realising  the inherent bonuses to all members of staff when neuro inclusive workspaces are created. 

With this in mind, let’s explore a few ways in which employers can support their neurodivergent employees, with some practical steps.  Of course, the list isn’t intended to be comprehensive or conclusive but an initial starter of items to consider. Here are some of the key areas in which change can be effected through consideration and flexibility.

  1. Job application and interviews.

THE CHALLENGE:

  • Only 3 in 10 autistic people are currently in employment in the UK (Buckland 2024), with neurodivergent people currently one of the least employed disabled groups in the country. 

Often the initial application process inadvertently filters out neurodivergent people by having unintentionally exclusionary steps. Examples include situation judgement tests, aptitude tests and personality tests which are often very difficult for neurodivergent people to pass. While there is a broader question as to whether attempting to quantify potential employees thought processes is a useful recruitment technique long term, we understand that it is seen as a pragmatic filter. But there must be a clear understanding that some of the tests result in the active exclusion of neurodivergent people. 

  • Additionally, many employers require an explanation for breaks in employment and training. Due to neurodivergent peoples often poor employment rates, large gaps in employment can happen and this can also be compounded by autistic burnout which may require a break from employment.
  • An additional requirement of some advertised job roles is that of requiring a driving license. Due to a variety of factors, autistic people are less likely to drive or own a car. Having a driving license may be a necessary aspect of some careers, however due to the excellent public transport infrastructure in the UK it is often not a requirement for many roles. 
  • For many with neurodivergent conditions the job interview process is one filled with anxiety and fear. Before the actual interview has commenced, we ask potential employees to dress in uncomfortable clothing, to go to an unfamiliar building and be interviewed by an indeterminate number of people asking questions we have no prior knowledge of. We can see how the traditional interview process instils fear in neurotypical people, and unfortunately it can be extremely difficult for neurodivergent people. 

Suggestions:

  • Sending an email beforehand with a picture of the location, a list of attendees, alongside headshots and a list of example questions can help alleviate some of the stresses that the interview process can elicit any prospective employees regardless of neurodivergence.
  • Some major employers such as John Lewis are now sharing interview questions with job candidates in advance to make people feel comfortable. This reduces nerves, anxieties and enables people to consider responses in a less, rushed way. 
  • Allow adequate times to answer and consider questions
  • If possible, provide access to a quiet space, where a person can minimise social stimulation and avoid auditory and visual overload.

2. Creating neuro-inclusive environments/adjustments.

The next step after creating a transparent neuroinclusive interview process is to support your neurodivergent staff. 

THE CHALLENGE: 

  • Your ADHD staff may struggle with time keeping or your dyslexic staff may struggle to understand instructions and acronyms. Giving your employees a level of autonomy to change process even in minute ways by offering flexible working patterns, follow up emails to clarify instructions can make your working environment neuroinclusive.  The key thing is to involve your staff in this process.

Suggestions:

  • Reasonable adjustment: Often we advocate for flexibility with your neurodivergent staff. A reasonable adjustment is an adaptation put in place to enable all your employees to work to the best of their abilities. When I speak to my fellow autistics regarding work, the number one reasonable adjustment we request is the ability to work from home. The sensory experience of a busy office can be extremely difficult particularly when asked to socialise and concentrate. I remember first hand coming home from a day at work and laying on my sofa with my eyes closed. Having a working from home day not only assists the wellbeing of your neurodivergent staff but can increase productivity as tasks requiring concentration can be focused on. 
  • Other reasonable adjustments can be simple adaptations to policies such as desk sharing.  This is notoriously stressful for some people who are neurodivergent and having a permanent desk can reinforce a routine. This can be particularly helpful if the desk is placed in a quieter, cooler corner of the office, reducing the over sensory stimulation. 
  • The government has the ‘access to work scheme’ wherein employers and employees can apply for adaptations to the workplace. This can be as broad as a dimmable lightbulb, adjustable desk to a personal assistant. The access to work scheme is entirely funded by the British government. Information can be found here.

We can see how the environment of the workplace itself can be changed in subtle, often cost-effective ways to creative a supportive environment for neurodivergent staff members. How can you support your neurodivergent staff further?

  1. Culture Shift and policies

THE CHALLENGE: 

  • According to the National Autistic society (2024) 34% of employers think that an autistic person would be unlikely to fit in their team, and that 28% think that autistic people would be unlikely to be a team player. We can see how these in-built prejudices may have real world ramifications for both the obtaining of employment as well as the retention of neurodivergent staff. Misinformation and a lack of understanding can often be the greatest barriers to creating truly neuroinclusive workplaces.

Suggestions: 

  • Fortunately, this is where ConnectFutures can assist. Our range of neurodiversity training sessions facilitated by neurodivergent people focusing on lived experiences can be excellent first steps to enabling your neurodivergent staff to flourish- alongside the space to ask questions. Additionally, we can work with you to create neurodiversity policies, consult and assist with creating a neurodiversity ambassador and give ongoing support to employers.

While the above is a selection of solutions that could be embraced in the workplace, it is not intended to be prescriptive or a complete set of ideas as we recognise each workplace is different in culture, resources and size. The key hook is fostering an environment to encourage employees to disclose, feel comfortable and embed that learning in your corporate culture. At a time when retaining talent, offering supportive workplaces and ensuring the wider EDI message of embedding good practice through challenge and dialogue flourishes, it is important to have inclusivity setting at the heart. Supporting neurodivergent employees is not only a moral and ethical responsibility but also a strategic advantage for employers. By fostering an inclusive and supportive environment, companies can harness the unique strengths of neurodivergent individuals, driving innovation, enhancing employee satisfaction, and improving overall productivity.       

Further reading

Our neurodiversity workshop designed for your staff.

At ConnectFutures, we create and deliver practically minded workshops that seek to develop a sense of citizenship, respect, and intolerance to hate that extends across on/offline worlds.  If you’re interested in workshops for your organisation on this topic please contact us and how we explores how our support systems in the workplace can be better shaped to include neurodiverse colleagues.

Learn how to support and work with colleagues and employees with dyslexia, autism and spectrum conditions and ADHD/C.

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