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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 really 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.

Updated 8th October 2023

Neurodivergent employees face many barriers at work. Stereotypes, discrimination, and ways employers fail to be accessible. Others take the form And these things can prevent smart, passionate, talented people from leading successful careers.

Employers have a duty of care. We need to do much more to enable our neurodivergent employees. From reasonable support measures to fair treatment and reward. That's why we've written this piece. To explore what it truly means to have a diverse place of work.

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 conditions include Autism Spectrum Conditions, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. And there are many more besides.

The term neurodiversity is meant to encapsulate 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 enjoy their role, they are liable to learn a lot about their area of expertise.

So, they can actually be some of your best employees, no caveats. All they need are the tools to succeed.

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.

So, by failing to be a viable employer for these employees, you're missing out on valuable creative contributions. Even by costs and benefits, you're missing out by not hiring neurodiverse staff.

They can also make sure your products or marketing are friendly to people dealing with specific difficulties, whether they’re symptoms of a 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. Enabling neurodiversity at work means incorporating solutions just like these.

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 damage their mental wellbeing.

The good news is that giving these employees a voice 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

You can't really know what someone needs if you haven't experienced their condition for yourself. That's why you need to talk to neurodiverse employees. They're the ones you should listen to about what they need at work. But here are a few tips to get you started.

Make your recruitment process neurodiversity-friendly

Aspects of your recruitment process can shut out possible applicants. Overly-technical language, or terms like “excellent communication skills” or “great team player” can alienate neurodiverse candidates. In fact, 80% of people on the Autism Spectrum are estimated to be unemployed. And that's 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 it can help to promote neurodiversity in the workplace. Establishing a neurodiverse person's skills and passions is an easy way to see those productivity gains we mentioned. It's also a good way of helping them to thrive as a part of your organisation.

When you know an employee's strengths, you have a much clearer idea of where they'll fit best in your organisation. This means you can tailor a person's role so they're always doing their best work.

Create neurodiversity-friendly spaces

These might vary by the needs of your employees. People with Autism might prefer quiet when they work, 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. For managers trying to support neurodiversity in the workplace, these things can be easy to overlook. Don't assume anything about what people do or don't need.

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 support measures 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. So, make sure that communication doesn’t turn into harassment.

Challenge neurodiversity stereotypes

Damaging stereotypes about neurodiverse people are extremely common. For example, growing up, many Dyslexic people experience negative treatment because people view them as lazy or even stupid. But that absolutely is not the case. People often stereotype those with Autism often as unfeeling or unempathetic due to their difficulty with social cues. But many Autistic people are actually incredibly empathetic.

And even focus on the special skills of neurodiverse people can border on stereotype. Films like Rain Man and other media paint these 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 problems can even affect people by gender. Like how ADHD is often viewed as a male condition. And how doctors diagnose Autism at higher rates in boys than girls. And, because of that, too many people aren't getting the support and understanding they need from an employer. Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace means doing away with these harmful myths.

If you want to learn more about building a diverse work culture, keep checking back. We're always putting out content to keep you informed. Building a fairer world of work benefits everyone, after all.

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