Dr Karam Bhogal: Policy makers and practitioners in the wider sector are becoming increasingly aware of neurodivergence and its potential links to vulnerabilities on a range of issues. ConnectFutures work extensively with children and young people who are neurodivergent, making content accessible in a way that’s understood.  What are some of the insights we can offer to those engaging with neurodiversity in the workplace?

Introduction 

Neuroinclusivity in the workplace is about much more than wellbeing; it encompasses productivity, legal compliance, social cohesion and the dignity of employees. By some estimates, approximately 1 in 5 people are neurodivergent which makes neuroinclusivity relevant to all workplaces. 

What does neurodiversity, neuroinclusivity and deficit thinking really mean? 

Neurodiversity is a term which is acquiring widespread use. As with any concept, it brings with it an array of new language, ideas and legal considerations. As the idea is relatively new, there are different ways of understanding neurodiversity but all of these ways have some things in common. 

The basic idea is that people experience the world and process information in different ways to each other. There isn’t one way of thinking that’s better than the another. People who process information in different ways to the majority of people are neurodivergent. Until recently, conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia were thought of as abnormal and as medical problems. People with these diagnoses were thought to be limited in some way – this is what we call deficit thinking.

Now, thinking has moved on and we realise that people’s differences are normal and natural. Further to this, it is important to realise that there are a number of benefits to this variation; people who think differently often have different skills and abilities to others.

Neurodivergent people are often described as having “spiky” profiles. In other words, they may have real strengths in some areas and have other areas where more support is needed.

Neurodivergence is not necessarily a disability but difference. Neurodiversity affirming approaches recognise that things like autism and ADHD exist, but that society can make life harder for neurodivergent people. In this way, the approach encompasses the social model of disability, within which we understand that aspects of society can act as barriers to people, turning their differences into disabilities. 

Companies have tremendous power and influence over people’s lives. Thinking about individuals entering into your workplace environment, a company’s policies could act as a barrier to an individual’s life. In this way, difference can be turned into a disability.

Neurodivergency classified as a superpower? Not quite.

The benefits of a neurodivergent workforce are numerous. The biggest argument is that having people who process information in different ways means that you will have a wide range of skills. Neurodivergent people will have strengths that others may not have, including:

  • Creativity
  • Entrepreneurship 
  • An ability to focus deeply
  • An eye for detail
  • Seeing things from a different perspective

There are many ways in which neurodivergence is seen positively. However, what we don’t want to do is frame difference as a superpower because we may well ignore any challenges that neurodivergent people face.

Challenges in the workplace – from “stimming” to “double empathy.”

Neurodivergent people can experience loneliness and anxiety in the workplace. There are some challenges associated with neurodivergence and its interaction with society, including the workplace. 

With appropriate training, we can avoid situations where neurodivergent people feel judged. Frequently, neurodivergent people’s behaviour leads to them being judged, stared at, or even avoided because it can look different or unusual. Often, this is due to the behaviour. All people regulate their emotions by moving their bodies; think of a time when you’ve been stressed, maybe you paced up and down, or tapped your foot, or ran your hands through your hair. Some neurodivergent people will engage in self-stimulatory behaviour, colloquially called stimming, that is more obvious or different from the norm. Training can help us all to realise that this type of behaviour is normal and therefore, we can stop the shame attached to it.

There are times when unwritten social rules are not clear to everyone, and this can lead to confusion between staff members. For example, imagine that an employee is late to a meeting and their boss asks the rhetorical question ‘Why are you late?’ to make a point about punctuality. The boss is expecting the employee to sit down and to understand that they should not be late again. However, if that unwritten social rule is misunderstood, the employee may answer the question as if it was sincere, giving a detailed account of their morning so far. This is a sincere response, however, it could be seen as a list of excuses. We must remember that explanations are not excuses. 

Communication differences can lead to some difficulties at work. Some differences, including the use of eye contact, should not be seen as limitations but rather they should be respected as cultural differences.

Whatever the workplace issues are that we are dealing with, it is important to consider what’s called the double empathy problem. What we want here is to increase empathy between neurodivergent and neurotypical people, or processes designed for neurotypical people. What we don’t want is to expect only neurodivergent people to change the way they think and act towards others. Essentially, what this means is that we have to consider both parties as equal. It isn’t fair, or useful, to treat one party as if they are the problem and need to change. Here’s a practical example related to some of the considerations above. If you have an autistic employee who has a different way of communicating, it is likely that you will give advice on how they can communicate more effectively with other members of the team. Whilst that is clearly important, it is necessary to guide others on how they can communicate more effectively with neurodivergent staff members.

Legislative context 

People with disabilities are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (the Act). A disability is described as a mental or physical impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. The Act requires that reasonable adjustments be made for people with disabilities. As neurodivergence is understood as difference rather than disability, there is some debate relating to legal protections for neurodivergent people. Even if neurodivergent people do not have a diagnosis, they may well be protected by the Act. This is because their differences may have a long-term adverse effect on their day-to-day lives. As such, if an employer has any reason to believe that an employee may be protected by the Act, they should investigate it further. Where appropriate, reasonable adjustments should be made.

Neurodivergent people are fighting and winning employment tribunals, using the Act to argue their case. This shows that there is an existing problem with the way we employees experience work and that the law on often on their side.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people in the workplace are neurodivergent. One of the main reasons for this is the stigma still attached to difference and disability in our society. This stigma leads to people not disclosing differences or diagnoses to their employers.

The other problem is getting a diagnosis. It can be difficult to get a diagnosis, especially as an adult. There are long waiting lists and private diagnosis can cost thousands of pounds, making it unaffordable for some. These points mean that employers should offer neuro-inclusive environments for all and should not be asking for proof of diagnosis before offering any reasonable adjustments.

Designing a workplace environment. Some practical suggestions.

In addition to reasonable adjustments, it is important to apply universal design principles to the workplace. Universal design requires us to design processes and access in the workplace in a way that anticipates the accommodations that people will need due to the variety of differences. This is preferable because, as we saw earlier, there is considerable variety in how people process information and employers are unlikely to know about all people who would benefit from reasonable adjustments. While the suggestions below are not exhaustive, some of the ways in which universal design can be implemented are:

  • Adjustable desks so that people can change the level at which they work.
  • Flexible start times so that people can avoid overwhelming commutes.
  • Desks in quiet areas to avoid distraction.
  • Giving people extra time for work which may take them longer, for example, if it includes lots of reading or processing. 
  • Reducing the number of phone calls an employee has to take – it may be better to rely on email so that there is a lasting, visual record of the conversation.
  • Assistive technology such as screen readers or closed captions for virtual meetings.
  • For some staff, it might be useful to avoid using idioms and stick to concrete language.
  • Ask people how their life at work could be made easier, in one-to-one meetings with peers or managers.
  • Offer multiple ways to complete a task.
  • Make the goals of the organisation clear for everyone as well as how they will be achieved.
  • Be clear in meetings – how long will it last, will there be a break, how can people contribute to the discussions.
  • Share visual organisation charts.
  • Have clear roles and responsibilities for all staff. Staff should know what their job is and how they can perform their duties successfully.

Universal design is anticipatory. We anticipate that people will need a neuro-inclusive environment and reasonable adjustments instead of putting adjustments in place only when requested by individuals.

Adjustments for recruitment 

Recruitment is the first barrier to neuro-inclusion. A diverse workforce is beneficial to the overall functioning of a workplace. However, recruitment practices frequently act as a barrier to employment for neurodivergent people. There are some simple things that can be done to make things better.

When writing descriptions, be specific about the skills needed for the role as well as the tasks that will be carried out. Too often, parts of job descriptions are copy-and-pasted from old job adverts leading to a confusing new advert. A potential employee should be able to envisage the job they’re applying for and know what their working day will actually look like when they start the job. Something as simple as including your commitment to inclusion in a job advert can make it more attractive to prospective neurodivergent employees.

Similarly, interviews can be adapted to be more neuroinclusive. Processing and memory are factors to consider with interviews. Ask questions in chronological order instead of jumping from one part of the interviewee’s life to another.

Avoid multi-part questions where possible so the interviewee can answer questions instead of processing each part of the question and possibly forgetting how the question started. Additionally, questions could be sent out in advance to prospective employees. This will help the employer as they will receive a fuller answer and the employee because they can get all the information across that they need to. For each question, explain what it is looking for. 

The exception to these rules is when being put on the spot is part of the job. Only then is it a relevant interview technique to ask questions with no prior warning, in any order and not explain what you’re looking for. Otherwise, interview processes should focus on testing the skills that are relevant to the job.

While the above is only intended to be a bird’s eye view of understanding neurodiversity in the workplace, it’s important to understand the types of question the pipeline from school to employment will create in our current and future workspaces.  In essence, it’s ensuring we all learn about diversity of needs through better training, knowledge and understanding.   Here’s my final top tips for employers.

My top 10 takeaways:

  1. Neurodiversity is the natural and normal variation in how people process information and experience the world.
  2. All workplaces will have neurodivergent staff; around 1 in 5 people is neurodivergent.
  3. Neurodivergence is not a limitation or a deficit. Neurodivergent staff members may have strengths that will help your organisation to succeed.
  4. Processes in workplaces can remove barriers to inclusion for neurodivergent staff.
  5. Where neurodivergent people are expected to alter the way they communicate for others, the same should be expected in return.
  6. Neurodivergent people may be protected by the Equality Act 2010 and as such will require reasonable adjustments to be made.
  7. Reasonable adjustments for individuals are not likely to meet the needs of all staff. 
  8. Applying Universal Design principles to the workplace will anticipate the needs of staff members.
  9. Adjustments should be made for all parts of the workplace, including the recruitment process.
  10. Legal advice should be sought where employers are unclear on their duties to neurodivergent employees.

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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