What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a term used to describe differences in brain function, behavioural traits, the processing of information and interaction with the world at large. It is often used to refer to individuals with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, to name a few. The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined as a positive means of identifying and celebrating the differences that these conditions can bring, in recognition of the fact that there is no one successful way of thinking, feeling, learning or functioning.
Strategies for supporting and celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace
In reflecting on the theme of this year’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week ‘celebrating different minds’ we take a look at strategies for supporting and celebrating neurodiversity in the workplace.
In recent years employers have become increasingly aware that encouraging diversity within the workforce results in greater innovation, productivity, institutional resilience, employee engagement and wellbeing. Despite this, our workplaces and ways of working are often designed with the ‘neurotypical’ mindset in mind, which can create barriers for neurodiverse people to thrive and reach their full potential. Employers should be mindful of this, and how fostering neurodiverse talent will ultimately benefit the workforce as a whole.
So, what can employers do to celebrate and support neurodiversity?
- Reframe the narrative – notwithstanding the challenges that neurodiversity may present to an individual when in the workplace, there are numerous benefits that neurodiverse employees can bring to a role and to their wider team. For example, many individuals with autism may possess greater creative talents, pattern recognition, mathematical abilities, and attention to detail. Individuals with ADHD or dyslexia may be better able to think ‘outside of the box’ and bring a fresh perspective to problems and tasks. Take the opportunity to remind your employees of this and raise awareness of how these differences can strengthen the workforce. Employers that do not yet feel well equipped to do so themselves should consider using externally hosted training sessions or webinars.
- Facilitate diagnosis – equip your HR and managerial staff with knowledge about neurodiverse traits and, where appropriate, encourage employees to seek assessment if undiagnosed and utilise any health and wellbeing offerings your business may have. Where private medical insurance is provided to employees, consider whether you can extend this to cover initial neurodiversity needs assessments, further specialist assessments and early support following diagnosis. Promote the benefits of assessment amongst your employee population as a means of understanding their ways of working and any accommodations they might need. As with any other “hidden” characteristic, respect the decision of an employee to either make their diagnosis known or keep it private.
- Support following diagnosis – A neurodiverse employee may need support, and possibly counselling, to come to terms with a diagnosis, especially if diagnosed later in their working life. Building a strong culture of psychological safety will help to empower your people to approach their colleagues and/or HR personnel to discuss any recent diagnosis and any accommodations that they may need.
Role models here are important. Encourage neurodiverse members of your workforce, especially if more senior, to share their experiences where comfortable doing so and the methods they may have used to enhance their experience of the workplace. Mentorship or ‘buddy’ systems between junior and more senior neurodiverse employees may be an effective way of facilitating this. Mentoring may also be a useful tool for educating the neurotypical workforce, especially leaders, on the perspectives of neurodiverse employees.
- Community and networks – regardless of whether an employee is undergoing a diagnosis, was recently diagnosed, or was diagnosed at a young age, providing them with a community where they can speak to people who have had similar experiences is crucial. Employee networks can be hugely beneficial for minority groups, as they enable employees to share stories, organise and attend group events, and normalise their differences within the workplace. Leaders should ensure that they show support for such networks and that they are well-resourced.
- Diversify recruitment methods – large-scale and uniform recruitment processes are likely to put applicants that do not fit the traditional employee mould at a disadvantage. Interviews and time pressured written assessments may not be the most appropriate way of measuring the ability of a neurodiverse applicant and processes should be adapted where necessary to suit their needs while balancing the core needs of the role. Examples could include adapting any assessment technology and environments to the needs of neurodiverse applicants, permitting candidates to review interview questions in advance and participate in longer project-based assessment periods. Non-traditional work experience or internship programmes may also widen access.
- Appraising and assessing performance – employers should recognise that there is no singular definition of a ‘good employee’. Avoid the pitfall of placing a disproportionate emphasis on certain attributes that neurotypical employees are more likely to possess (such as emotional intelligence, communication, and networking skills) as this may unfairly limit the progression of your neurodiverse staff. Employees in supervisory roles should be trained on what to expect from their neurodiverse juniors and how to appraise them appropriately and fairly by reference to the full scope of their abilities. Be mindful also of the risks of limiting neurodiverse employees to areas or roles that may be perceived as more well-suited to them as, with the right accommodations, a neurodiverse employee may be able to add value in a much wider range of roles.
- Workplace accommodations – Special workplace accommodations may enable performance in areas that neurodiverse employees may otherwise find challenging. Adjustments should be made as and when necessary, in consultation with the individual employee, occupational health and HR teams where necessary. The type and level of accommodation required will vary from individual to individual. Solutions may include providing alternative workspaces, different lighting, noise cancelling headphones, or specialised document review software. Neurodiverse individuals and their neurotypical colleagues may each benefit from training or simple discussion on effective communication strategies when giving or receiving instructions or feedback or interacting in the workplace generally.
Some employees may not themselves be neurodiverse but may have a neurodiverse family member. Be sensitive to the fact that these employees may also require accommodations, such as more dependable working hours/patterns or access to professional guidance on how best to support their loved one(s).
Above all, employers will benefit from fostering a greater understanding of neurodiversity and the benefits that neurodiverse employees can bring to the workforce as well as the challenges that neurodiverse employees may face. Focus should be placed on ensuring adequate support is in place for neurodiverse individuals at all stages of the employment life cycle. This isn’t a ‘one solution fits all’ exercise, and employers may need to think creatively to find a strategy that works for each employee. A culture of psychological safety is vital to ensure that your neurodiverse employees feel empowered to speak up about their individual needs and provide feedback on whether your strategies are having the desired impact. This will ultimately enable managers to have meaningful conversations with neurodiverse employees about the support they need to thrive in the business.
For further information, please contact:
Sinead Casey, Partner, Linklaters