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An Introduction to Neurodiversity at Work

An Introduction to Neurodiversity at Work


What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity in the workplace is becoming a hot topic. Around 1 in 7 people in the UK are ‘neurodivergent’, meaning that how their brain functions, learns and processes information is different and this represents a natural form of human diversity. Forms of neurodivergence include attention deficit disorders, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia and these are frequently experienced on a spectrum so that the effects are different from person to person and may also vary over time.

Supporting Neurodiversity at Work

Your school or college is probably already neurodiverse, whether you have recognised this or not. Supporting neurodiversity at work, through raising awareness and supporting staff to achieve their full potential, is increasingly seen to be not just the ‘right thing to do’ for employers who want to offer a high-quality place to work but also recognises there is a business case for championing ‘diversity of thought’, i.e. that having a mix of perceptions, skills and approaches amongst individuals leads to greater innovation and creativity in the team as a whole. Neurodivergent staff often possess more unusual abilities and skills which can be harnessed for the benefit of the whole organisation.

Positive traits which are commonly associated with neurodivergent staff include:

  • The ability to focus for extended periods
  • Creativity
  • Lateral thinking
  • Calmness under pressure
  • Analytical thinking
  • Bringing a ‘different perspective’
  • Development of highly specialised skills
  • Attention to detail and data-driven style.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits in terms of the organisational culture, there is also an important HR issue around compliance with the Equality Act 2010 and the likelihood that many neurodiverse people will also be treated in law as having a disability. By proactively considering how every employee can be treated as an individual, you are also likely to be going at least some way to fulfilling the legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments.

Supporting neurodiversity at work covers the whole spectrum of people management practices, starting with recruitment and selection, and therefore there is wide scope for implementing change at organisational level with the appropriate buy-in from senior managers and governors/trustees. This can seem daunting, however, and does not mean that changes that start on a smaller scale cannot make a real difference. There are various steps that managers can take individually to support neurodiversity in their own team. Many of these actions and behaviours will benefit all staff and therefore have a broader positive impact:

  • Don’t be a one-size-fits-all manager; treat all staff as individuals. Everyone has their own preferred way of being managed, their own preferences over communication style and method, use of workspace, desire for social contact and ways of working. You may prefer to fire off an email, for example, whereas your employee understands what you want them to do much better if you talk to them face to face.
  • Take time to understand each employee’s strengths as well as the areas where they struggle and be flexible in how you organise and allocate work and define job roles. Look at the skills across the team as a whole and consider adjusting individual roles to better reflect those strengths and individual preferences.
  • Aim for simple, clear and regular communication. Neurodivergent staff may not pick up on more subtle expectations and norms at work (for example dress codes or expectations during break times) and therefore it is important during induction and later reviews that such expectations are explicit, not ambiguous. Regular feedback on performance and work issues is of benefit to all staff but can be particularly useful for neurodivergent staff who may be lacking in confidence and need more overt recognition.
  • Adopt a strengths-based approach to managing performance: avoid the assumption that the same set of competencies need to apply to everyone; you don’t need a team of identikit teaching assistants. Is it worth spending time trying to improve an employee’s skills in some areas when you could capitalise on their more unique strengths in other areas?
  • Develop career progression paths in less traditional ways: recognise in particular that upwards advancement shouldn’t automatically mean a move into management, it could mean a specialist role where the focus is on exceptional skills in a certain field.
  • Manage change carefully and thoughtfully: disruption to set routines or ways of doing things can be particularly difficult for neurodivergent staff to accommodate. Communication and prior consultation over workplace change, whilst always good practice, are therefore particularly crucial.
  • Where an employee discloses their neurodivergence, don’t fall back on stereotypes: talk to them about how it impacts on them at work and consider what changes might be needed to help them do well in their role. Seek advice on the legal requirement to consider reasonable adjustments if needed.

Common Themes when Managing a Neurodiverse Team

The common themes connected to the effective management of a neurodiverse team are around being flexible and recognising people as individuals. Neurodivergent staff are not more difficult to manage, they just need to be managed differently. Rather than focussing too narrowly on labels for recognised forms of neurodivergence, such as autism or dyspraxia, it is more illuminating simply to think of every person being somewhere on the spectrum of neurodiversity, including yourself. You have particular skills and preferred styles and therefore, for you to perform at your best at work, your own manager has to recognise this too.