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Neurodiversity in the workplace: How to support all your employees.

Workplace diversity has taken great strides over the past 20 years, but employees with specific neurological conditions still often struggle to find work, and are massively underrepresented, despite being often able to work extremely well while offering unique insights.

So, let’s look at neurodiversity in the workplace, and what you should be doing to support it.

What is neurodiversity?

To some extent, everyone is a little neurodiverse, in the sense that we all have different patterns of thought based on our unique identities and experiences. But, more specifically, “neurodiversity” is a term used by and for people diagnosed with specific neurological conditions. These neurodiverse conditions include, but are not limited to: Autism Spectrum Conditions, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia.

The term neurodiversity supposedly encapsulates the fact that people (whether they have a neurological diagnosis or not) can range quite widely in terms of their skills or abilities. This does not necessarily make such conditions a “disability,” especially when neurodiverse employees can be capable of outperforming their colleagues.

Many neurodivergent conditions work as a spectrum, with people at different points displaying some or all of a condition’s symptoms to varying degrees, with Autism Spectrum Conditions being the most prominent example.

The key benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

Neurodiversity in the workplace gives you perspectives you couldn’t get from anywhere else. For example, apprentices working for the UK intelligence and security agency, GCHQ, were found to be four times as likely to be dyslexic as participants in apprenticeship schemes with other organisations because people with dyslexia can be skilled at pattern recognition in highly useful ways.

  • Neurodiversity in the workplace boosts productivity: In 2015, JPMorgan Chase launched their Autism at Work program. Six months into their pilot scheme, they found that employees in this program were nearly 50% faster and up to 92% more productive than their colleagues outside of it. While people with autism can suffer from sensory overstimulation, many are capable of incredible focus, and if they’re passionate about their role, they are liable to become extremely knowledgeable about their area of expertise.

  • Neurodiversity increases insight and innovation: Many neurodiverse people have a lot of creativity, which lends itself quite well outside-the-box thinking. Dyslexia’s positive effects on pattern recognition is just one example. People with Dyspraxia can have difficulties with balance and sequencing, but also have a creative streak that can take the form of anything, from music, to drawing, to experimental arthouse film-making.

    They can also make sure your products or marketing are friendly to people dealing with specific difficulties, whether they’re symptoms of a neurodivergent condition or not. For example, a Dyslexic graphic designer will be able to choose fonts and colour balances that emphasise easy readability, which can benefit others with a range of visual conditions or impairments.

  • Supporting neurodiversity also de-stigmatizes mental health: According to the Neurodiversity Association, roughly half of all people with Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia suffer from anxiety and/or depression. While neurodiverse conditions are generally NOT mental health problems, the challenges neurodiverse people face can adversely affect mental wellbeing.

    The good news is that enabling neurodiverse employees to have a dialogue helps to open up the conversation around workplace mental health as a whole. Neurodiverse employees can help to lead the way in normalising employees being upfront with their employer and getting the support they need.

How to support neurodiverse employees more effectively

  • Make your recruitment process neurodiversity-friendly: Aspects of your recruitment process can shut out neurodiverse applicants. Overly-technical language, or terms like “excellent communication skills” or “great team player” on listings for jobs where those things aren’t specifically required can alienate neurodiverse candidates. In fact, 80% of people on the Autism Spectrum are estimated to be unemployed, despite over 60% displaying some exceptional ability or talent.

  • Use a strengths-based approach: Strengths-based management is great for promoting self-motivation in your employees, and that’s no different for neurodiverse colleagues Establishing what a neurodiverse candidate is skilled in or passionate about is an easy way to see those productivity gains we mentioned, while helping them to thrive as a part of your organisation.

  • Create neurodiversity-friendly workspaces: These might vary depending on the needs of your employees. People with Autism might prefer a quiet workspace, free of excessive sensory stimulation. Staff with ADHD might prefer a setup that helps them filter distractions, while a Dyslexic employee should have access to readability and colour contrast options on their virtual setup. Additionally, all paper documents should be printed with Dyslexic staff in mind.

  • Train and support managers: We go on about management training a lot, but it’s especially relevant here. Incompetent management can alienate neurodiverse staff. Managers who lack neurodiversity training can be prone to ignorance and misconceptions about neurodiverse conditions that can cause discriminatory treatment.

  • Communicate with your neurodiverse staff: You should keep your neurodiverse staff in the loop about any steps you’re taking to support them, and listen to any requests they make. But, while many neurodiverse people can benefit from reasonable allowances at work, many technically neurodiverse people function fine without them. In fact, many find the idea of being singled out for special treatment off-putting. Make sure communication doesn’t turn into harassment.

  • Challenge neurodiversity stereotypes: Damaging stereotypes about neurodiverse people are extremely common. For example, growing up, many Dyslexic people are treated as being lazy or even unintelligent, when that absolutely is not the case. People with Autism are often stereotyped as unfeeling or unempathetic due to their difficulty with social cues, when many Autistic people are actually incredibly empathetic.

    And even focusing too much the special skills of neurodiverse people can border on stereotype. Films like Rain Man and other media paint neurodiverse people, particularly those with Autism, as savants. But, the fact is, most simply have their passions and their areas of expertise like anyone else. These stereotypes can even affect people by gender, like how ADHD is often stereotyped as a male condition, and how Autism is diagnosed at higher rates in boys.

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