Neurodiversity In The Workplace: What Is It? Who Benefits?

June 29, 2021

Neurodiversity In The Workplace

Diversity creates stronger, more effective and innovative teams – and neurodiversity is no exception. As the benefits of inclusivity are promoted and actively encouraged across sectors and industries, it is important that neurodivergence features alongside other markers of progress, such as diversity of economic background, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation within our work environments.

With around 15% of the UK population estimated to have brain function classified as neurodivergent, adequate support – as well as recognition of the value of neurodiversity – should be a priority in all workplaces.

Employers need to actively create opportunities for neurodiverse individuals, who may be overlooked or even self-excluded due to lack of value recognition and support. They should also be striving to create welcoming and supportive working environments in which all team members can thrive. Both access and attitude are key to encouraging inclusivity.

This article will explore the concept of neurodiversity and its benefits in the workplace, alongside how to recruit for neurodiversity, build neurodiverse teams and support neurodivergence at work.

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity In The Workplace

The human brain can interpret information in different ways. The majority of the population are considered neurotypical, as they process information in the way society has come to expect. Within neurotypicals, certain individuals will be stronger processing different types of information and within different situations and settings. We all have differing learning styles, motivations and interests.

As mentioned, however, it is estimated that around 15% of the population in the UK is neurodivergent – meaning that the brains of around 1 in 7 of us function in a markedly different way. These differing functional pathways impact the way in which information is processed and retained.

Neurodivergence covers Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, along with other neurodivergent experiences. Individuals who experience the world in these ways are neurodiverse.

The term ‘neurodiversity' was coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer, to recognise the differences in human cognitive functioning relating to how we socialise, learn, maintain attention and regulate mood.

Neurodiversity encouragingly reframes neurological differences as simply variations in brain processing, rather than disabilities. This is helping to shift the focus from the challenges of neurodiverse experience to the value neurodivergent individuals can bring to the workplace.

Workplaces have, however, been slow to adapt in order to achieve true neuro-inclusivity.

Benefits Of Neurodiversity In The Workplace

Neurodiversity In The Workplace

Due to the prevalence of neurodiversity, workforces are already likely to feature a degree of neurodivergence. There is, however, still a lack of widespread understanding around neurodivergent experience and stigmas and misconceptions persist. Recognising and supporting neurodiversity in the workplace is vital in order to create an environment that brings the best out of all members of a team.

Benefits of supporting and actively recruiting neurodivergent individuals include:

  • Helping to dissolve the stigma around neurodivergence – There is still misunderstanding around the challenges and a lack of recognition of the potential of neurodiversity. A workplace that welcomes neurodivergence helps to highlight the value of different neuro-functionalities.

  • Contributing towards breaking down the barriers to access for the neurodiverse – It can be more difficult for neurodiverse individuals to secure jobs and excel in their roles, due to the lack of infrastructure for supporting neurodivergence. This relates to experience both during the hiring process and when embedded in the workplace. When employers actively address this lack and make their careers more accessible, they are encouraging progress across the recruitment landscape.

  • Tapping into a pool of new talent with different skills strengths - For example, some neurodiverse individuals can be particularly strong in analytical and data centric positions, often outperforming neurotypicals.

  • Creating a more competitive and resilient organisation - Neurodiverse individuals can be particularly skilled when it comes to lateral thinking, strategic analysis and innovative approaches. They bring a different perspective and approach tasks in ways that neurotypicals may not consider. Neurodiverse employees can excel in developing highly specialised skills and achieve a high level of consistency once they have mastered tasks.

  • Highlighting your organisational commitment to diversity and inclusion – Which, in turn, encourages other employers to step up to the mark and will likely have reputational benefits for your company.

Building Neurodiverse Teams

Neurodiversity In The Workplace

Diverse teams, featuring individuals who think differently, are invaluable within organisations. Neurodiverse teams help to ensure all perspectives, angles and approaches have been considered in any project or product development process. Building effective neurodiverse teams will help with both productivity and quality of delivery.

Consider the following aspects when forming and supporting neurodiverse teams:

  • Communicate effectively with your team, giving clear instructions and ensuring members are not overloaded.

  • Ensure all members of the team have a good level of knowledge around neurodiversity and know how to adjust their actions and approaches to support their colleagues.

  • Carefully consider the delegation of tasks. Team members should be encouraged to channel their efforts into tasks in which they can excel, rather than left to perform tasks for which they are not well-suited. Whilst this applies across all employees, it is particularly important that neurodiverse employees are allowed the opportunity to work to their strengths.

  • Allow team members to input into the process themselves, if they wish. They may have ideas as to how the process could be optimised to aid their contribution.

  • Be aware that additional guidance may be needed and seek to be forthcoming with the provision of this, to ensure employees do not feel deterred from requesting input or support.

  • Alert employees to any changes of situation or direction, as soon as possible. Advance notice of changes helps everyone, particularly those with neurodiverse experience, to make any necessary adjustments and feel fully prepared.

  • Note that neurodiverse employees within your team may not be aware as to how their ability to perform certain tasks may be impacted by their neuro-processing. Schedule regular check-ins with your team members to ensure there is a chance to discuss any concerns or extra support needed.

Neurodiverse teams cannot, of course, be formed without a recruitment process that gives neurodivergent applicants a fair and equal chance of securing a job position. Next, let’s explore how to ensure your hiring process is encouraging neuro-inclusivity.

How To Recruit For Neurodiversity

Neurodivergent team

Neurodiverse individuals can find themselves at a disadvantage during the recruitment process, leading to higher levels of un- and under-employment amongst the neurodivergent. Due to this, it is important that HR departments and recruitment teams consider how to make their processes equitable and accessible for those who process information and situations differently.

Recruitment for neurodiversity needs to be an active consideration, with the necessary flexibility in place to allow neurodiverse individuals to convey their talent.

You can improve your recruitment process, so it does not disadvantage the neurodiverse by:

  • Ensuring all recruitment materials, such as job descriptions, are written in a clear and concise manner – avoiding all unnecessary jargon.

  • Clearly displaying which skills are required for application and which competencies are desirable but not essential. Keeping expectations clear can help to avoid deterring neurodiverse applicants.

  • Maintaining the option of video interviews within your recruitment process post the Covid-19 pandemic, so individuals can choose their setting and feel comfortable to display their best. Face-to-face interviews may have become conventional, but they are largely a test of social competence and ability to recall information under pressure. If these are not crucial skills for the job role in question, consider allowing an alternative approach.

  • Recognising that a neurodiverse applicant may be uncomfortable with social norms – such as eye contact - and therefore act in less conventional ways when faced with an intense interview situation.

  • Keep in mind that some neurodiverse individuals may be overly honest about their thoughts, opinions and weaknesses. This level of transparency shouldn’t create a disadvantage during selection.

  • Not putting too much emphasis on all-round generic competences, as this can disadvantage neurodiverse applicants. These applicants likely have highly specialised skills that could be harnessed with a different approach.

  • Make allowances for the fact that neurodivergent candidates may lack confidence within hiring processes due to negative experiences in the past. Do not dismiss applicants based on their level of self-assurance, seek instead to bolster confidence and create an environment in which individuals can demonstrate the talent needed for the role.

  • Recognising the strengths of neurodiverse applicants. They will likely have abilities that neurotypical candidates lack, so view neurodiversity as potential.

  • Educating all members of the recruitment team on neurodiversity and the adjustments needed to support neurodiverse recruitment. Encourage all members to see neurodiversity as value and potential, rather than a challenge.

Once recruited, neurodiverse individuals will thrive within a workplace that understands and supports their individual needs – as is the case for all employees. Now, let’s examine how neurodiversity can be actively supported within the workplace.

Supporting Neurodiversity In The Workplace

Neurodivergent team

A neuro-inclusive workplace needs to both seek to understand and be able to adapt to employee’s needs. It is likely that neurodiverse individuals will need support to feel content and function at their best within a workplace designed around neurotypical norms.

Ways of supporting neurodiverse employees within the workplace include:

  • Considering the adjustments needed to the sensory environment, so it is not detrimental to neurodiverse functioning. For example, the provision of quieter working spaces – free from distraction - can greatly improve the comfort and productivity of neurodiverse workers.

  • Having flexibility around remote working and required working hours.

  • Having a clear standard for your communication practices and considering the adjustments needed to your communication to make it inclusive.

  • Management that considers employees’ strengths and need for guidance (which may be required on a sliding scale across your employees).

  • Improving the awareness of all staff about neurodiversity in the workplace (and how they can adjust their own behaviour to support colleagues).

  • Setting up a network for neurodiverse employees, to provide peer support.

  • Considering how the social component of your workplace is played out. Adjustments or additions may be needed to ensure inclusivity when building social connections.

  • Recognising the benefits of sustaining online meetings (via video or audio), which allow employees to show up in the way they feel most comfortable.

The structures and practices put in place to support neurodiverse employees will benefit others in the workforce, through the creation of an environment that is adaptive and welcomes diversity of approach.

Structural measures for inclusivity only have real impact, though, if they are accompanied by a changing of habits and attitudes. It is important that staff feel confident and secure enough to disclose neurodivergence within the workplace. It may take a cultural shift to enable this.

Ultimately, underpinning the success of all these measures is a workplace structure and culture that considers individual needs and has the capacity to meet them.

Employers should take responsibility for reviewing their workplace structures, adjusting their approaches and training their teams, so they can best support neurodivergent colleagues.

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