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How to support neurodivergent individuals in your workplace

Neurodivergent

How neurodiverse is your workplace? Are you aware of how to support neurodiversity within your team? In this post, Stephanie Davies, shares some helpful strategies to ensure you’re supporting the members of your team who need it.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity may sound like a troupe of brainy street dancers, but it’s actually the term that describes one of the most important trends currently happening in workplace practice.

Around one in seven people in the UK are neurodiverse, meaning the way they think and process information differs from the norm. Neurodiversity covers a range of neurological conditions including: dyslexia, autism, ADHD and dyspraxia. Each of these exist on a spectrum.

In some people, they may be barely noticeable. In others they may be debilitating. Neurodivergent people may have different interests and motivations, and not all will display the same skills or behavioural profile. However, there are some themes common to many which can include differing levels of social awkwardness and preoccupation with process and detail. 

There’s a growing understanding that neurodiversity isn’t always a disability, but rather that neurodiverse people are differently abled. While they may struggle with some skills others take for granted, such as small talk, problem-solving or reading, they can have above-average abilities in areas such as analysis, innovation, information processing and pattern recognition.

Characteristics of neurodiversity

As someone who has dyslexia, and who has supported a family member with a diagnosis of Asperger’s and dyspraxia, I’ve gained insight into the advantages and challenges for workplaces.

My neurodivergent cousin, for example, was employed at Laughology. His computer skills and advanced knowledge of travel, including identifying the cheapest travel options, were a big help. Feedback, however, was difficult. He was also prone to saying inappropriate things and would often do something because he’d found a better way, not realising that there were implications for customers.

Meanwhile, my dyslexia continues to create challenges. Even when writing this blog, I realised I’d described my cousin as being ‘asparagus’, rather than ‘Asperger’s’. The condition also impacts my ability to navigate hotels successfully. I often find myself lost inside a labyrinth of corridors, unable to remember where I’ve come from. And it has nothing to do with the minibar!

But neurodivergent individuals have unique strengths and characteristics which equip them to excel at various types of work. Exceptional creativity, inventiveness, strong attention to detail, sustained focus and capacity to visualise, are all key skills for many employers. For this reason, organisations are increasingly seeking to integrate neurodiversity into the workplace.

There’s also a legal onus on employers. Certain traits associated with neurodivergence could be considered disabilities under the Equality Act 2010. In these cases, there are legal obligations for employers.

Challenges for neurodiverse people

The pandemic has created particular issues for neurodivergent individuals. It’s important for organisations to understand that remote and hybrid working can be beneficial or challenging for them, depending on their characteristics.

For example, some people with autism spectrum disorder may find home-working beneficial because it limits the stress of commuting and casual social interactions, while introducing increased predictability. However, consistent communication and connection remain important.

For others who rely on structure and consistent patterns, a sudden shift away from the predictable work schedule can cause adjustment problems. Managers and teams need to be aware of the impact changes can have.

Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

Ultimately, there are lots of measures workplaces can introduce to ensure the wellbeing of neurodivergent individuals. Here are a just a few:

  • Create awareness with teams and help bust the myths about neurodivergent conditions.
  • Busy, noisy, open-plan environments can be challenging. Consider locating individuals away from the main flow of traffic in the office or, if working remotely, allow them to be off-camera when joining team meetings. Ask them how best to communicate information, as team meetings may be overwhelming.
  • Reduce visual stress by lowering lighting levels and providing desk lamps or access to natural light. Adjust fonts, background colours, brightness and contrast on monitors. Coloured filters are available through assistive software.
  • Adapt working hours to allow extra breaks if needed, or to allow people to travel at quieter times, if travel is necessary.
  • Avoid hot-desking if working in an office. Having a space that’s consistent is important for neurodiversity. There may be visual reminders that a person needs around them to feel secure or to simply help them do their job.
  • Provide advance agendas and reading material for meetings, and be clear about the purpose of the meeting. Stick to the agenda and timings where possible. 
  • Provide fidget-spinners or pens for doodling, and be open to understanding how different people listen and take information in.
  • Ensure breaks between meetings. 
  • Establish a buddy system for large meetings or conferences, if appropriate. For some people this would be uncomfortable, so ask. 
  • Identify alternative mechanisms to allow neurodivergent staff to contribute to group discussions and decision-making.
  • Break big tasks down and be clear about the priority of tasks given.
  • Set up a system to organise paperwork, for example using colour-coding rather than complex file systems.
  • Provide structure, such as a regular timetable of tasks and meetings.
  • Have regular catch-ups to check progress. Do this using the medium that works best for the individual and accept that this could be via text or email.
  • Provide time to practice tasks and automate processes where possible.
  • Provide clear, written instructions. Be aware that impromptu conversations about work tasks for some neurodivergent people can be difficult.
  • Consider increasing time allowances for reading and written work for individuals who find written communication challenging. Encourage the use of spell-checking, proof-reading and text-to-speech software. Provide templates for written work and use bullet points rather than lengthy passages of text where possible.

The most important thing to remember is there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach and we all have our part to play in really understanding the person in front of us. While it might seem like a challenge to ensure an inclusive workplace for neurodivergent individuals, the benefits for workplaces and those within them are huge. 

Assume nothing and be open to challenging your own beliefs and misconceptions. For someone who might come across as socially awkward or disorganised, they will have a hidden super power that just needs to be tapped into.

Whether that’s exceptional problem-solving skills, innovative thinking or being able to make vegetables out of words.

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