Neurodiversity Celebration Week: supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

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This year 18-24 March marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a week which was founded in 2018 to change the way neurological diversity is perceived, aiming to create a balanced view of neurodivergence that focuses on talents and strengths as much as the challenges.

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first popularised in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, to describe the wide range of differences in the way that people’s brains work and to shift thinking towards acceptance and inclusion and away from medicalising conditions in a way that assumes that they need to be “fixed”. While originating in the autistic community, the term encompasses a range of neuro-development conditions including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia and Tourette syndrome as well as autism.

Over the last few years, understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD has grown as the spotlight on these conditions has intensified. This comes at a time when companies are looking to increase productivity and innovation, while struggling to fill vacancies against the backdrop of the so-called ‘war for talent’. With some researchers estimating that approximately 15-20% of the population has a neurological difference, employers are realising that there is a strong business case for attracting and making the most of the valuable strengths that neurodivergent employees can bring to their work.

Depending on the way in which a person’s neurodivergent condition impacts them (or conditions – they often go together, with ADHD people also having dyslexia or dyscalculia for example), they may or may not be disabled under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010). If the condition has a long-lasting, adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities (including work tasks) it is likely that they will be protected from discrimination under the EqA 2010 and that the employer will have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to their work to ensure that any disadvantages they face are removed or mitigated.

Top tips for supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

  • Get to know the individual: There is a saying in the autism community that “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. In other words, we are all different – whether neurotypical or neurodiverse. It is important to get to know the person and find out what their unique strengths and challenges are and how they can best be supported.
  • Be open-minded: There can be a fear that employees with neurodivergent conditions will be a problem for the employer, wanting adjustments that are difficult to accommodate and being a risk in terms of employment tribunal claims. However, having an open-minded and supportive approach will build trust, making disagreements and disputes less likely.
  • Consider the working environment: Some neurodivergent employees can be overwhelmed by bright overhead lighting, background noise, kitchen smells and ‘water cooler’ small talk for example. Equipment such as noise cancelling headphones, desk lamps and screen dividers may go some way to alleviating these issues. Having specific quiet spaces that all employees can use may also help. Ensuring there is adequate ventilation and heating is also important.
  • Delegate appropriately: Some people struggle with repetitive, administrative work while others get great comfort from familiar tasks. Try to align work to each team member’s strengths and check in with them regularly to make sure that their needs are being met. For example, people with ADHD might need to take regular breaks, while people with dyslexia may need extra time to read and check their work.
  • Provide training on neurodiversity: There are many misconceptions about neurodivergent conditions. For example, ADHD can be traditionally associated with ‘hyperactive children’. This is stereotypical and unhelpful. Providing training on neurodiversity and making it available to all staff or having safe spaces/ forums for those to discuss their own neurodivergent conditions and symptoms can reduce the stigma. It can also lead to new ideas about how the workplace can be best configured to support those with neurodivergent conditions.

These ‘top tips’ don’t necessarily just benefit neurodivergent employees, but all employees within an organisation. Often these small changes are simple and cost effective to implement, but the difference it can make to help someone feel more comfortable in the workplace (in turn, improving retention) can be invaluable.

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