Neurodiversity in the workplace: understanding is key

In this blog, our Head of Inclusion and Diversity Services (South), Addison Barnett, shares his thoughts on why understanding neurodiversity is so important and shares his top tips to support neurodivergent colleagues.

The word neurodivergent was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1997:

“Neurodiversity refers to the virtually infinite neuro-cognitive variability within Earth’s human population.  It points to the fact that every human has a unique nervous system with a unique combination of abilities and needs.”

To Singer, the different way her brain worked as an autistic woman was not a disorder or deficit, it was a perfectly natural difference in a human population of ‘infinite neuro-cognitive variability’. People’s brains work in many different ways. Neurodiversity as a concept helps us to see this difference as a natural part of humanity and moves us away from stigmatising disability. Neurodiversity was originally coined to describe autistic people, but usage has broadened to include ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s syndrome, and chronic mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The social model of disability

Neurodiversity works within the social model of disability. The social model of disability was developed by disabled activists in the 1980s, and aimed to reframe how we think about disability. The social model sits in opposition to the medical model, which views disability as a disease or illness, where people are disabled by their impairments or differences and need to be ‘cured’ or ‘fixed’. The medical model assumes that ‘normal’ (non-disabled) bodies and brains are the ideal to which we should all aspire. The social model of disability flips this on its head, and argues that people are disabled by an inaccessible world.

A common analogy is that when considering a wheelchair user faced with a set of stairs, the medical model would see the person as needing a ‘cure’ to walk up the stairs, and the social model would ask why there isn’t a ramp.

The medical model was the common way to think about disability for much of the 20th century, and we can see its echoes in patronising attitudes towards disabled people and approaches that try to fix the person not the environment, for instance with autistic people trying to train us to make ‘natural’ eye contact, instead of asking whether ‘natural’ eye contact is needed in the first place. Similarly, adjustments for dyslexia and dyscalculia can be as simple as having a proof reader for documents, using dictating software, setting up Excel formulas, and so on.

There is limited support for neurodivergent adults

ADHD and autism are under diagnosed in women and Black and ethnic minority people, and many services only work with children. There is limited support for many neurodivergent adults both pre and post diagnosis. As a result, the experience can be quite isolating and leave the person with more questions than answers. Getting assessed for autism as an adult was a very strange experience for me. The assessment felt like it was for a 4 year old with some minimal rephrasing for an adult. It felt strange to go through what was frankly quite a patronising experience, and then walk into my day job where I have a lot of responsibility and professional autonomy as an inclusion expert!

Neurodivergent employees may have recently been diagnosed, or may have self diagnosed and be mulling over whether to jump through the hoops required to get a diagnosis. I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until this year at the age of 36, and while a lot clicked into place it also means I’m still learning about what autism means for me and what adjustments I need to do my best work. This is worth bearing in mind when talking to colleagues about adjustments: they may be an expert in what they need or they may still be finding out, and those adjustments may change over time. Don’t assume everything is fixed and set. Regular reviews – as you would with any staff member – are important to ensure you are up to date. The Inclusive Employers Inclusion Passport is a useful guide for these conversations and help record what’s been agreed. Many line managers do not feel equipped to have these conversations, so as well as providing a framework for discussion like an inclusion passport, build the interpersonal skills your managers need to have these conversations into your line management training offer.

The benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

The benefits of having neurodivergent colleagues are of course the same as you would expect from a diverse and inclusive workplace: inclusion benefits everyone. But being wired differently means we can be very good at certain skills. For instance I am a systems thinker, meaning I can take a look at a process and see the whole system and its interdependencies in my head, and from there troubleshoot and find efficiencies. Neurodivergent colleagues can bring deep focus, creativity, intense expertise, innovation, and lateral thinking to the table. That said, there’s a saying in the autistic community “if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism”. There is great diversity within the neurodiverse community, assumptions and stereotypes are of no use.

Our top tips

Here are four top tips for making your workplace inclusive of neurodivergent colleagues:

  1. Many neurodivergent people have sensitivity to sensory input. Most standard offices are not ND-friendly: buzzing fluro lights, kitchen smells, background noise, interruptions, expectations of small talk, uncomfortable clothes. Think about your office environment and your hybrid working arrangements with your neurodivergent colleagues in mind.
  2. Create spaces for deep work with no interruptions: e.g. a quiet work area in the office, or periods of time with no Teams calls and chats
  3. Allow doodling and fidget toys in meetings
  4. Deepen your own knowledge about neurodiversity, and unpick the assumptions and stereotypes you will have absorbed from wider society

If you’d like to know more about dyslexia inclusion in the workplace, book a place on our upcoming webinar. ‘Dyslexia: a strengths based approach’.

You can hear from our colleague, Zeinab, about her experiences of work as an Autistic adult in our ‘Neurodiversity in the workplace’ podcast.

Inclusive Employers also offer bespoke training in this area. Please complete visit our Neurodiversity page or send us a quick enquiry. Members can access resources including a Line Manager’s Guide, Neurodiversity Quiz and factsheets in the resources area of our website.