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Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Guide to Creating an Inclusive Environment

For some, the workplace isn’t a friendly environment. What might seem natural and easy for you, can seem hostile and excluding to others. Neurodiversity in the workplace is important for many reasons, and finding ways to include everyone and make spaces accessible is key to unlocking the full potential of any employee team. This blog will explain how you can create an inclusive environment for your team.

This blog will cover the following:

  • Definitions

  • Neurodiversity in the workplace

  • Types of neurodiversity

  • Creating an inclusive environment

Let's get to it.

Definitions

Neurodiversity:

The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, is regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. Neurodiversity is the idea that it's normal for people to have brains that function differently from one another. Instead of thinking there is something wrong (or problematic) when differences arise, neurodiversity embraces these differences inclusively.

Neurotypical:

Someone not displaying autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behaviour.

Neurodiversity in the workplace

There are lots of advantages to promoting neurodiversity in the workplace. Neurodiverse individuals can be incredibly creative. Having spent large periods of their lives having to adapt, adjust and workaround issues and barriers, they can be naturally gifted at creative thinking. This ingrained dynamism is highly beneficial to employers of all types and may lead to previously unforeseen benefits. Who wouldn’t want a team of experienced problem solvers?

In all organisations and communities, diversity adds value. In this sense, we’re talking about neurodiversity, differences in thoughts and actions, and not socioeconomic or ethnic diversity. The benefits are much the same though, by having a diverse mix of people in a team, the strengths of each person cover a greater range, making the team as a whole much stronger and more resilient.

Many neurodivergent people possess a strong sense of fairness and justice. Some people may interpret this as a rigid focus on rules and processes. But in truth, it goes deeper than that. Neurodivergent individuals often empathise very strongly with others, so unfairness can be keenly felt and this leads them to fight for fairness and equity.

Neurodivergent people will not follow the crowd. They will challenge and they will question. This questioning can be a powerful tool to create new efficiencies in their workflows and processes. Autistic individuals in particular will not feel comfortable continuing to perform tasks they see as inefficient or wasteful, which will boost creativity and insights that can drive improvements.

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Types of neurodiversity

Neurodiversity in the workplace encompasses a wide range of ways that some people’s brains work. These are all different ways than how someone who’s neurotypical operates. The term neurodiversity covers all of the many manifestations of these differences, the more common ones are explained below.

Autism is commonly known as a "spectrum disorder" and this is because cases of Autism range from mild to severe. You may have also heard of Asperger's and other similar disorders, but they all fall under the umbrella term of Autism Spectrum Disorder, (ASD). ASD can impact an individual’s behaviours and emotions to varying degrees, and no two people with ASD are the same. There’s a saying, “once you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.”

ASD is a broad set of conditions that may include challenges with socialising and building personal relationships, repetitive behaviours and entrenched beliefs.

Those with ASD can display the following traits: attention to detail, strong ability to focus, and creativity.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a dysregulation of executive function disorder, meaning that those with ADHD may have difficulties managing their thoughts, behaviour, attention and emotions.

Those with ADHD may present as disorganised, fidgety, disinterested or inappropriate.

They may also be described as high energy, great problem solvers, fun, sensitive and kind.

Dyslexia is a form of neurodivergence that involves speaking, reading, and writing. Typically, Dyslexia is understood by most people to mean someone will misread, misspell, or speak with words or letters out of order, but in truth, it’s much more than that. Confusion between certain letters and having difficulty organising words into sentences are common issues, as is having trouble acquiring a vocabulary or pronouncing some words. Dyslexia might also make it more difficult to give and follow directions/instructions.

Those with dyslexia are often ‘big picture’ thinkers. They’re typically good at visualising ideas and concepts and tend to have strong spatial awareness.

There are many (many) other types of neurodivergence. These include dyspraxia, dyscalculia, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression.

Creating an inclusive environment

Understanding what kind of people neurodiversity needs to include is an important step. The next thing to do is make sure that processes and spaces are set up to include these people. In the same way that architects will consider those with physical disabilities when designing a building, we must also consider those whose brains might look at, understand things and communicate in a non typical way.

1. Hire nerodiverse teams

This isn’t a call for businesses to list jobs like ‘Wanted: One Autistic Colleague to Join our Team’, which might be counterproductive. But there are some great ways to make sure job opportunities are attractive to neurodiverse individuals.

For example, the language used in listings and specifications should be precise and clear. You might also mention that your workplace is inclusive and you welcome applications from neurodiverse individuals.

If you have entry level or apprenticeship opportunities, getting in touch with colleges and universities might be a good idea as they will have close links to the neurodiverse population in those settings.

It’s important that you also create a flexible hiring process too. For example, some individuals may find an interview over video conferencing very difficult to access or vice versa.

If your final interview relies on giving a 40 minute presentation to the CEO, you might find that some with Autism and ADHD just find this impossible to complete. You should discuss with them and make changes to support their application where possible, whilst maintaining fairness across all applicants.

2. Create support structures

Once you’ve hired a neurodiverse team, they may need extra support. Most workplaces have 1-1s and review meetings, these could be adapted to ensure that individuals are also able to discuss how their diagnosis impacts their experience of the workplace and the role they occupy.

These conversations can then filter upwards so that barriers can be removed and inclusivity can be increased. If your organisation is large enough, neurodiverse groups could be established to advocate for these employees and raise awareness.

3. Training for all staff

There is already a large burden placed on annual training modules, from fire training to data protection, but it is worthwhile to train staff on neurodiversity in the workplace. It can help change perceptions, make people feel more welcome and increase belonging.

For those neurotypical individuals, those of us that are different may seem ‘weird’ or ‘awkward’, but this is mostly just down to a lack of understanding and awareness. Training staff can help people to find more effective ways of communicating with each other.

4. Change the workspace

This isn’t easy and there is no way to get this right for everyone no matter how hard you try. Neurodiverse individuals however are used to facing challenges and being excluded from spaces, so they won’t expect you to change everything just to suit them from day 1.

Showing empathy and making an effort will go a long way though. Having a conversation with individuals and making small practical changes where appropriate will probably be enough for most people.

Some common sense things can be done for the benefit of everyone though, such as in the equipment and layout of offices.

Having ergonomic keyboards can make a big difference for those with dyspraxia, and signage can take into account the needs of those with dyslexia. Socially, it can also be difficult for the neurodiverse. So, a new employee ‘buddy’ or mentor programme might help, especially if they have received training in neurodiversity.

Social outings and ‘new joiner’ nights can also be made fully inclusive. Although important culturally, those that require employees to give a speech or stand out in some way can cause anxiety and fully exclude neurodiverse people from such events.

In conclusion

Neurodiversity in the workplace has huge benefits and can be relatively simple to achieve. As everyone is different and presents their own needs and challenges, if your workplace approaches inclusion with empathy and goodwill, you will get it right most of the time. But if you’re not sure, just ask the people who are directly involved, having spent a large amount of time being excluded, you might be surprised what creative ways they come up with to improve your business.

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