Neurodiversity in the workplace: how to create an inclusive working environment

October 24, 2022
Simon Brian


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Many employers recognise the importance of having an inclusive and diverse workforce and embrace the many benefits of promoting and managing a culturally diverse working environment.  Neurodiversity, however, is an aspect of diversity at work that is often overlooked and there is much that can still be done to achieve a working world that is more understanding and inclusive of the needs of neurodivergent people.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is about recognising the infinite variations that exist within a human being’s nervous system. It is a concept which helps us to understand that people’s brains all work in very different ways and to appreciate that this is a perfectly natural phenomenon within the human population. Obtaining a basic understanding of this is key to achieving a better understanding of neurodiversity and helps us to move away from stigmatising neurodivergent people.

Typically, where we refer to a neurodivergent person, we are including someone with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, autism and autism spectrum condition (ASC), Tourette’s syndrome, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, although this is, by no means, a definitive list.

Neurodiversity is about valuing the contributions of neurodivergent people.

Disability and stigma

There has long been a traditional view within society that disability is something to be approached strictly as a medical issue. More recently, advocates on behalf of those with a disability are favouring a view that disability is a social issue, rather than a medical one.  The social model aims to reframe how people think about disability and urges a movement away from viewing people with disabilities as having a disease or an illness that needs to be somehow fixed or cured; or that people who are disabled by virtue of their impairments or differences, need some form of correction or rectification to be the same as non-disabled people. 

It is argued that the medical model of disability assumes, therefore, that non-disabled people (or those who are non-neurodivergent) are the ideal, to which everyone should aspire.  The social model opposes that traditional medical model and argues that people are disabled, not by any medical condition or impairment, but by an inaccessible or inappropriate response to them, by the world.  Neurodiversity works within the social model of disability.      

The benefits of neurodiversity in the workplace

In itself, the neurodiverse community is very diverse and there are many benefits of obtaining a greater understanding of the different thinking styles of neurodivergent people. Talking about neurodiversity in the workplace and learning about it will assist in developing a greater awareness and knowledge of it.  Managers should consider initiating such discussions, thereby removing the burden away from neurodivergent employees, who will often have to advocate on their own behalf.  Such discussions and communications should start to demystify and address common misconceptions around neurodivergent people. 

Some of the skills that are often identified within and across the neurodivergent community include, for example, systematic thinking and analysis, which may add significant value in terms of reviewing and improving a process or a procedure and identifying improvements and greater efficiencies.  Clarity of focus, lateral thinking, attention to detail, creativity, critical thinking, and innovation are other commonly identified skills.

The more that we learn to engage and think outside the box, the more we will learn about the attributes and skills of our neurodivergent people.

Practical Things to Think About

Learn to appreciate and embrace the fact that everyone is different.  The steps that employers may wish to take within their workplace will and should depend upon the particular needs of the individual(s) with whom they work.  There are, however, some common themes and ideas that emerge from achieving a greater understanding of a neurodivergent workforce, including the following:-   

  • Generally, many neurodivergent people have increased sensitivity to bright lights and consideration might be given to how to diffuse workplace equipment such as bright fluorescent lighting, or bright displays on IT equipment and devices – e.g. colour filters for screens;
  • Some individuals will require high focus and deep concentration in order to carry out their work effectively, in which case consider removing or eliminating any background noise from their working environment, or facilitating a quiet work area;
  • Manage interruptions for staff by considering when, where and how colleagues make telephone calls and / or video calls;
  • Consider optimum use of flexible and / or hybrid working patterns to best suit the working needs of neurodivergent staff;
  • Consider and adopt whichever forms of communication work best for individuals – is a verbal or a short written summary of a meeting, for example, best suited to them?;
  • “Hot-desking” practices may not be helpful for some neurodivergent people, who may function and work better in a consistent, dedicated or allocated workspace;
  • Think about whether there is any need to eradicate kitchen smells which neurodivergent people may be particularly sensitive to;
  • Consider if there is any need to modify any dress code at work, so as to allow for optimum comfort in relation to individual workwear;
  • Consider allowing comfort toys and aids at work – especially in meetings and group scenarios;
  • Eradicate any inappropriate workplace “banter” around neurodiverse people, which will usually arise out of ignorance and / or from a lack of understanding, and which will potentially amount to unlawful harassment;
  • At your recruitment stage, consider whether you are potentially excluding neurodiverse talent. Are job advertisements in an appropriate font, colour, size and style to reach out to neurodiverse applicants? Is your selection criteria appropriate and accessible to them?
  • Deepen your own knowledge and understanding of neurodiversity to help to unpick traditional assumptions and stereotypes.

It is impossible to capture every possible scenario and / or to provide a definitive checklist of things to consider.  The above are examples but, as a general rule, the more you embrace neurodiversity in the workplace, the more you will learn about the benefits.

Sometimes, a neurodivergent person will be a disabled person within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010, which means that employers need to be aware of their legal obligations to such individuals within the workplace, in order to avoid any potential discriminatory complaints arising.

Discrimination laws can be complex – and costly where errors are made.  For expert advice and support on discrimination issues, or on any other employment law and HR matters, Simon Brian can be contacted at [email protected] or on 07979 682752. Find out more about Simon here.