With up to 20% of the UK workforce estimated to be neurodivergent, it’s a significant factor that should be taken into consideration when managing teams and fostering an inclusive environment. Managers should learn both how to accommodate neurodiverse employees and how to benefit from their advantages and uniqueness. Here, we’re unpacking the best ways to support your staff – from recruitment to retention and job satisfaction – to promote a safe, welcoming and progressive workplace.
What is neurodiversity?
A person might be described as neurodiverse if their brain works differently to other people. Sociologist Judy Singer first coined the term “neurodiversity” in 1998, in recognition that not everyone’s brain develops in the same way. “Neuro” refers to the nervous system, aka the brain, and “divergence” means difference.
It’s important to bear in mind that neurodivergence isn’t a medical term or diagnosis. This can apply to people with medical conditions (such as those with Down Syndrome) and those without (for example, people who have dyscalculia tend to struggle with maths).
We use the term “divergence” rather than “deficit” because being diagnosed as neurodiverse doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lacking or struggling in all areas. For example, people with dyslexia might find it difficult to read, but they’re generally better at processing or mentally picturing 3D objects, suggesting they might be better suited to jobs in graphic design or architecture than the average person.
What conditions might be considered neurodiverse?
There are a wide range of conditions that might make someone neurodiverse. Some of the most common include:
- Autism spectrum disorder (and what used to be known as Asperger’s syndrome)
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Down syndrome
- Dyscalculia (when a person struggles with maths)
- Dysgraphia (when a person struggles with writing)
- Dyslexia (when a person struggles with reading)
- Dyspraxia (when a person struggles with coordination)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Mental health conditions (like bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder)
- Prader-Willi syndrome (a genetic condition that causes a range of physical symptoms, learning difficulties and behavioural challenges)
- Sensory processing disorders (when a person is overly sensitive to stimuli)
- Social anxiety
- Tourette syndrome (a condition of the nervous system)
- Williams syndrome (made up of intellectual disability or learning problems, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features and cardiovascular problems)
Why is it important to support neurodiverse employees?
Supporting neurodiverse employees is key for your business to be successful overall. Over 10 million people in the UK consider themselves to be neurodivergent, and each come with their own struggles and talents. It’s not a case of “supporting the minority”. We’ve already seen how many conditions fall into the neurodiverse category which shows how common these are – everyone from your CEO to your summer intern could be classed as neurodiverse and, as a manager, it’s your responsibility to bring out the best in your team for the sake of the business.
It’s no secret that diversity and inclusion benefits everyone. From enhanced creativity to different perspectives and experience, the more diverse thinking you can bring to your business, the better. While neurodiverse workers might struggle with writing or reading, they offer many other qualities. For example, Birkbeck University did a study that found that 80% of neurodiverse participants reported the ability to hyperfocus – an invaluable skill to have at work. Not to mention, people with autism generally present higher IQ scores than average.
Ultimately, it’s not just important to accommodate your neurodiverse colleagues; it’s the law. While people can choose whether or not to self-identify as neurodiverse, under the Equality Act 2010, neurodivergent workers are likely to meet the legal definition of disability. This gives them the right to reasonable adjustments, and protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation. There are also additional duties on public sector employers, whereby they’re allowed to treat some minority groups more favourably.
But understanding neurodiversity is essential to improving working conditions for those with the disability. And with 64% of employers admitting they have ‘little’ or ‘no’ understanding of neurodiverse conditions, it's time to change that.
What can you do to support neurodiverse employees?
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to change the way you treat, manage and develop neurodiverse people at your company.
Understand and react
The first comes back to understanding. To treat everyone fairly, you need to understand how neurodiverse people think, communicate and do their best work in order to make appropriate changes. For example, some people might need quiet spaces to be able to concentrate and work efficiently, so you could install some breakout areas or focus rooms in your office where staff can go when they need to do deep work. Those with sensory processing disorders might prefer to use noise-cancelling headphones or have a dark space to work in. Similarly, someone with social anxiety might prefer to work from home so they don’t have to face a packed commute and constant interaction during the working day.
Acknowledge different communication styles
People with neurodiverse conditions often have difficulty communicating, whether that’s through reading, writing or speaking. It’s a good idea to look at every touchpoint to see where small changes could make a big difference. Maybe your job descriptions are currently very wordy, which could put some people off applying. Could you make these more concise or swap your company values paragraph for a video, for instance, to make it more digestible? Or maybe you could adjust your interview process so it’s less heavily reliant on social cues like body language and speaking for a long period of time, which can be challenging for neurodiverse applicants. You might like to try our tips for removing unconscious bias in your hiring process.
Offer DEIB training
Diversity Equity Inclusion and Belonging training is a great way to foster an inclusive workplace, one where everyone feels safe and welcome. Courses can include steps to building a diverse organisation, how to become an effective ally, how to measure progress towards equity and lots more. You’ve probably heard the saying “walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge them” and DEIB training helps to give people a flavour of what it’s like to think differently. Make sure you offer this training to everyone across your business – not just managers – to make sure everyone has the skills to understand the varying working styles and needs of neurodiverse people.
Create a neurodivergent community
While you might already have an office book club or running club, do you have a neurodiverse community? Setting up a safe space for people who identify as neurodiverse (and anyone else who’s interested) can help your colleagues spread awareness, share resources and experiences, and generally feel like they’re not alone. You might want to gauge interest and start with a simple Slack group, which could lead to regular meet-ups and presentations in company meetings – the opportunities are endless. If you nominate a ‘chairman’ or ‘lead member’, they could be effective in reporting back to senior leadership how the community is feeling and any changes the business could make to better accommodate them.
These are just some examples of ‘reasonable adjustments’ you could make as a business to help your neurodiverse employees feel comfortable and reach their potential. With one in seven of us identifying as neurodiverse, embracing it is not only the right thing to do but it makes financial sense if you want your company to succeed.