Supporting neurodiversity in the workplace

By Lina Arshad

Our differences are what make us special and ultimately, what makes us, us. But for people who are neurodivergent, their differences can make things feel a little more challenging at times—for example, in professional, educational, and social settings. But with the Institute of Neurodiversity reporting that between 15-20% of the world’s population are considered to be neurodiverse, there’s every chance as an employer, you will come across people who are neurodivergent more often than you think within the workplace.  

And with more employers looking for ways to enhance their diversity, inclusion, and equality efforts, it’s more important than ever for people who are neurodiverse to not be left out of the equation.  

In this blog post, we’ll be exploring what neurodiversity can look like, and how you can support employees who are neurodivergent to ensure they feel welcome, accepted, and catered for.  

What is neurodiversity? 

Neurodiversity is defined as the diversity or range of cognitive functioning that occurs between humans. In simpler terms, it describes the way a person’s brain processes information, and how it can differ. This can apply to aspects like sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions.  

Although the term neurodiversity is commonly used to describe those on the autism spectrum, it also extends to include individuals with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysnomia, dyscalculia, and Tourette’s syndrome. Many of the challenges associated aren’t visible and can otherwise be mistaken for a lack of understanding in a certain area, for example with numbers or spelling. But neurodivergence doesn’t just mean these individuals experience more pronounced difficulties, but that they can also have some extraordinary talents and perform significantly better than their peers in certain areas. 

Why is it important to cater for neurodiversity? 

Well, for one, if you’re trying to improve your diversity efforts, you need to ensure you’re aiming your strategy at people from all kinds of backgrounds and abilities, and this includes neurodivergent people. According to our Nigel Frank Careers and Hiring Guide: Microsoft 365 and Azure Hiring Guide 2021-22, just 22% of professionals said that their employer catered for neurodiversity within their internal practices—something which could severely harm diversity and put other individuals with neurodiversity off from joining, which means you could be losing out on some great talent.  

Similarly, having neurodiverse employees on board can bring unique experiences and skills to your office, and having their insight can help you to capture a wider audience through your marketing, as you will have a fresh perspective from a group you may previously have neglected to target. Always remember: the more unique ideas and perspectives you encourage in your business, the more creative and innovative it can be, raising the stakes in your favor, in a market brimming with fierce competition 

And it’s not just the fierce competition from other businesses that you’ll be able to tackle. Hiring professionals who are neurodiverse will also help you do your part in bridging the digital skills gap. By looking outside of your usual target markets, you’ll widen your candidate pool and be able to unlock some potentially untapped talent. In fact, The Centre for Neurodiversity and Employment has reported that approximately 30-40% of neurodivergent adults are unemployed—that’s three times the rate for individuals with a disability, and eight times the rate for those considered non-disabled. So, neglecting to account for this group in your candidate search can mean you miss out on bringing the high-grade creativity and innovation to the team that many of these individuals possess. A report by Drexel University, for example, revealed that 51% of people with autism reported having skills that were higher than required for their current role, meaning there’s a good chance the talent you need is hiding in this untapped pool of candidates. 

Supporting the neurodiverse within your workplace ultimately means setting an example for the rest of their colleagues and ensuring that all differences are celebrated, and everyone is treated equally and fairly within the organization. Plus, teams that are given an opportunity to understand each other better are much likelier to excel—that’s because they’ll know where each other’s strengths and weaknesses lie, which they can use to their advantage to reach success. For example, people with dyslexia often have average or above-average intelligence, with exceptional creative thinking, problem-solving, and spatial reasoning skills which means they can unlock a whole host of solutions to any issues.  

How can you support neurodiversity in your workplace? 

Supporting neurodiversity within the workplace is a non-negotiable for any employer who truly wants to improve their diversity efforts, but also for employers who want to ensure their employees have the best possible experience being part of their organization. While you may already have some policies in place to cater for the diverse talent within your company, it’s important that you also have enforced policies that ensure those who think, and process information differently are given all the tools, resources, and help needed to thrive—and that their colleagues who are non-divergent understand and offer this support to them as well.  

There are an unlimited number of ways you can support talent that’s neurodiverse in your workplace, but if you’re struggling to get started, we’re here to help! Here are our top five tips to get you on track initially: 

  1. Do your research and get buy-in from all angles
  2. Practice flexibility and be willing to accommodate
  3. Remove jargon from communications
  4. Organize full workforce training
  5. Amplify the message and keep feedback channels open

5 tips for supporting employees with neurodiversity at work 

When you’re managing employees with neurodiversity, it’s not always obvious what processes you should have in place for them. Here, we will be expanding on our five tips to ensure you can be inclusive and look after all your employees whose cognitive abilities differ to those who are neurotypical. 

1. Do your research and get buy-in from all angles

Neurodiversity can be a complex thing to understand, even for those directly affected by it, so if you are neurotypical, it’s best for you to start by doing your own research into neurodiversity—the causes, the characteristics of as many as possible, and possible solution to help alleviate stress and promote inclusivity among staff that are neurodiverse.  

Of course, even after extensive research, you’re not going to know everything—and talent that’s neurodiverse will understand that. But as long as you have made the effort to educate yourself and got the ball rolling with some ideas on how to improve their experience within your organization, they’re sure to appreciate it and feel welcome. Some of the most useful resources and information about neurodiversity are published by authoritative bodies, or charities operating to support those living with the challenges it can bring, such as the US Autism Association 

You can further your knowledge by approaching local or national community groups who seek to support those with neurodiversity, their families and direct contacts. These groups will be able to give you advice and recommendations on how best to cater for your staff, depending on their individual characteristics.  

To ensure your efforts are reflected within the company, it’s key that you get all relevant parties involved in the discussion on actions to take. This can include the leadership board, hiring managers and wider team management, staff who are neurotypical but may have relatives or friends who are neurodiverse, or just about anybody who will be working alongside talent that is neurodiverse. And it goes without saying that if you already have professionals working in your company who are neurodiverse, ask them how best you can support them and others who may also feel pressure from their cognitive challenges. 

2. Practice flexibility and be willing to accommodate

Learning is a personal experience, so providing multiple ways of engaging with information is always a good idea. However, when you have professionals who are neurodivergent on your team, you may need some special measures to accommodate them and remove anything that may make it harder for them to concentrate.  

For example, professionals who are dyslexic or dyspraxic may benefit from having some extra time to complete projects, so being sure to plan ahead and give them plenty of notice is sure to alleviate some unnecessary stress and ensure your team meets deadlines to a high standard. On the other hand, some people with neurodiversity will become overstimulated by a lot of background noise and external stimuli, so allowing them to work from home may be a good tool to ensure they’re comfortable and able to do their best work. Alternatively, if they prefer to work in the office, the company could provide them with a quiet working space or noise-canceling headphones if they’d still like to be amongst their team.  

If your teams are working remotely, there may be additional provisions that professionals who are neurodiverse will need. For example, assistive technology, a choice of communication techniques, and assistance to establish structure and routine in their day if the flexibility of remote work overwhelms them.  

No two people who are neurodivergent will have exactly the same set of characteristics, so be sure to ask what you can do to make their lives at work easier, and more enjoyable. They need to know your door is open for any suggestions—within reason, of course!

3. Remove jargon from communications

If you’ve been with your organization for some time now, using abbreviations and specialist language can become second nature to you—but bear in mind that for both new starters and professionals with neurodiverse profiles, this can make tasks particularly confusing and difficult to wrap their head around.  

To avoid this, ensure a sweep is conducted of all documents to identify any words, phrases, or abbreviations which could be considered company-specific or industry-specialist. This might even involve calling in somebody outside of the business to work through the documents and identify anything they don’t instantly know the meaning of, or asking a newer starter to do it for you.  

Working to make documents more readable and concise is in your business’s best interest and can have many positive impacts like slashing time needed for tasks and creating a happier and more productive workforce. 

4. Organize full workforce training

To be a success in catering to profiles that are neurodiverse, you need to make sure there is a shared understanding of what it means to be an ally and for your workforce to be ready and willing to help .  

While implementing a written policy that’s distributed internally is a great first step, you’ll need to make sure your employees have practice learning about and managing situations where they may need to support their colleagues who are neurodivergent—or perhaps when to flag something with a manager. And the best way of doing this is to ensure your whole workforce undertakes diversity training that focuses on, or at least has a good proportion dedicated to neurodiversity.  

Although every training program offered is sure to differ, it could be good to choose one that covers topics like: 

  • What neurodiversity is 
  • What characteristics people who are neurodiverse can display including sensory differences 
  • The extra support profiles that are neurodiverse may need 
  • How to ask people who are neurodiverse if they need some extra support in a sensitive way 
  • Strategies to ensure effective communication 
  • Strengths and challenges people who are neurodivergent may have—and how to manage these 
  • Any specialist collaboration tools colleagues who are neurodiverse may need 

There are also some management and hiring manager-specific training points you should make sure your leadership team are familiar with. For example: 

  • How to create accessible and inclusive hiring practices to avoid recruitment bias 
  • How to create accessible and inclusive onboarding and retention processes 
  • How to make the most neurodiverse-friendly policies 
  • Adapting workspaces to support professionals who are neurodivergent 
  • Understanding what reasonable adjustments are  
  • Available funds/financial support for assistive technology

5. Amplify the message and keep feedback channels open

When you’ve taken the time to develop your understanding on the topic of neurodiversity, it’s important that you are loud and proud about it within your workforce—primarily to motivate others to do the same, and to reinforce the message of how important it is to make everybody feel welcome, accepted, and comfortable while working for your organization.  

Once you’ve set all the processes and adjustments in motion, it’s also important that you don’t forget to keep feedback channels open and encourage any of your team members to make suggestions on what can help them to better support their colleagues who are neurodiverse. This also includes making sure that professionals who are neurodivergent feel confident and able to communicate with you what they need and make suggestions for what could be done to support them further—using 1:1 meetings could be a good time to talk about this, but it’s worth letting them know your door is always open for them to approach you.  

We all need to be doing everything we can to ensure our colleagues are feeling cared for and valued, and when you have team members who are neurodiverse, showing them that you support them and are willing and wanting to adjust processes to ensure they can excel and feel good about their work is crucial. 

Though it can be difficult to know where to start when looking to support professionals who are neurodiverse in the workplace, it can immensely improve productivity, collaboration, motivation, and ultimately, the retention of your teams. So, it’s well worth investing in training and taking our top five tips on board to get started.  

Looking to further your diversity strategy further? We have plenty of helpful articles on diversity, equality, and inclusion which can be used as a foundation to improve your workplace diversity policies. You can also get in touch with us for a no-obligation call to discuss how we can help boost your diversity efforts.  

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