Supporting Neurodivergent Employees in the Workplace
Updated: Feb 1
Neurodiversity refers to the natural range of difference in human brain function, but in a workplace context, it's an area of diversity and inclusion that refers to alternative thinking styles, such as (but not limited to) dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and dyspraxia and those persons that may have experienced trauma or attachment issues which in turn has impacted on brain development.
The concept of neurodiversity is formed from the view that there is no single “normal” or “healthy” type of brain or mind or single “right” style of neurocognitive functioning just the same as there is no right or “normal” or “right” gender, race, age.
The term 'neurodiversity' is relatively new and not without those who determine it is simply another definition for a disability; however, it is becoming more important for organisations as they seek to have diversity of perspective and view, since neurodivergent people think differently and often with more creativity.
Some people still think of certain types of neurodiversity in children as the child simply "being naughty" and "in need discipline". They may also talk about how certain conditions never existed in the past - the “in my day” conversation. What about when these children grow up and join the workplace or people who reach adulthood and come to realise that they are not neurotypical?
It is estimated that one in seven of the UK population are believed to have some sort of neurodivergence such as Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome or ADHD.
If neurodivergent people are not supported in the workplace, this can lead to “masking of behaviour” and incredible stress for the employee and importantly the organisation will never get the best from them.
Here are some tips and ideas on how you can create a positive environment for, and effectively support, neurodivergent colleagues.
Recruiting Neurodiverse Talent
Conventional interviews could be particularly challenging for an autistic job applicant, a messy spreadsheet could be problematic for certain dyslexic individuals, or static work might not suit a person with ADHD.
Neurodivergent people have a range of challenges that may make aspects of the workplace uncomfortable, or certain tasks harder to pick up or more problematic. So, when pulling together a skills matrix or person specification remember that neurodivergent people can have profiles that are made up of highs and lows, as there are things, they do exceptionally well but there may be things that they need some simple adaptations.
Employers will have to accept that to unlock the highs which are the brilliant things, they will need some acceptance that there will be areas of lows. This is the case with all teams. Play to your team members’ strengths and find another way of dealing with the weaker areas.
Inducting your New Starters
Do not ignore the things you assume your new employee should know so you decide not to mention or cover because “everyone knows it” or it is just “common sense”.
Neurodivergent people may not necessarily immediately pick up on the ‘unwritten rules’ or social web of your particular organisation and workplace. Some autistic people, for example, can find the lack of clear, direct information particularly challenging.
To help with the onboarding process employers should be explicit in talking their employee through some of the nuances. In explaining the new role, set out expectations clearly and ensure that this is framed correctly in a way that allows the employee to clarify and check their understanding. Consider giving instructions in multiple formats and styles, speak to your employee and find out what works best for them as rushed communication and assumed understanding can lead to stress and confusion - ultimately setting the new employee up to fail.
Getting the Best from your Neurodivergent Employees
CIPD’s research highlights the benefits of a strengths-based approach to performance management. The report suggests that appreciative enquiry can provide a more effective basis for improvement than a deficit model with negative feedback. This approach is founded on a belief that it is more effective to consider carefully what people do well and try to find ways of using these strengths in other aspects of their work than to get them to invest time in areas where they have less inherent aptitude. This method is particularly beneficial with non-neurotypical employees. Organisations shouldn’t be wasting time trying to “train” neurodivergent employees to think in different ways – it can be counter intuitive and unproductive.
Designing and Adapting Roles
We all have our own preferred styles that relate to working patterns or how often we need to socially interact with people even if we are not neurodivergent – but this area can cause much anxiety if not managed well.
Neurodivergent people may have awesome skills in certain areas, leading to outstanding performance on core tasks but there may be struggles with some elements of their role. For example, a dyslexic employee might find it difficult to read quickly or spot mistakes in written copy. Organisations should manage and consider role adjustments that help play to employees’ strengths across the team. You may have an employee with ADHD, and they may find the job too slow in which case they can procrastinate or get distracted. As with all good team management – split the tasks, focus on the strengths of the overall team and give good feedback.
Creating a Supportive Work Environment
When we are (finally) back in our offices think about sensory issues in the working environment i.e. light, noise, space, furniture positioning, distractions, traffic. If not right for the individual person this can give rise to sensory overload and anxiety.
We’ve all seen the media portray non neurotypical people as being ‘brilliant genius types’ who can solve crimes with their logical reasoning. This stereotyping and lack of understanding is widespread. Some employees may find it amusing to play on the literal or blinkered thinking of some of colleagues to solicit or trigger behaviours from them they can ridicule. Employers then too often respond to the behaviour of the person that has been triggered and reacted rather than tackling the bullying issue.
Awareness training on neurodiversity can help develop a general understanding and appreciation of colleagues. This is vital as, for example, there is a risk that uninformed colleagues may see a neurodiverse colleague who is having difficulty with one aspect of their role as getting away with under performance or being incompetent or lazy.
Whilst there are behaviours, we may associate with the various neurodivergent conditions, no-one should assume that because they know and understand the needs of one neurodivergent employee, they know and understand the needs of all neurodivergent employees. This is not a scenario where one size will fit all and that brings us back to treating your employee as an individual and working with them to bring out their best. It's important to talk to team members and take an individual approach to supporting them effectively.
There are also a range of excellent resources and tools aimed at supporting organisations to get the best from their neurodivergent team members. These include:
Information on Supported Internships DfE Information for Employers (preparingforadulthood.org.uk)
The National Autistic society Employing autistic people – a guide for employers (autism.org.uk)
The ADHD Society Employers guide to ADHD draft v1.docx (adhdfoundation.org.uk)
The Dyslexia Association Employers supporting dyslexic workers - The Dyslexia Association - The Dyslexia Association
Dyspraxia UK https://www.dyspraxiauk.com/
If you’d like to talk more about creating a working environment that is supportive and welcoming for neurodiverse colleagues, feel free get in touch with the team at Atkinson HR Consulting.
By Stevie Scott - January 2021