A guide for organisations wishing to include neurodiverse people in their workforce

Oct 15, 2021 | Neurodiversity

In the third blog in this series for #CyberSecurityAwarenessMonth, we look at how organisations can include neurodiverse people into their workforce and explore the first steps to a more neurodiverse-friendly workplace.

If you are a company of a reasonable size, the chances are, you already have neurodiverse employees. They may not know that they are neurodiverse themselves or they may have chosen not to disclose this. It is currently believed that approximately 1 % of the population are autistic, and figures for the other forms of neurodiversity are even higher with 5-10 % of the population affected by dyslexia and around 3 % affected by ADHD.

Neurodiversity is a term often used interchangeably with autism, but it is an umbrella term describing the many variations of the human brain. It is used to describe several conditions including, but not limited to: Dyspraxia, Tourettes, Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and Dyscalculia.

People will often have more than one diagnosis. For example, it is not uncommon for an individual to be autistic and also be dyslexic, or to have a diagnosis of both autism and ADHD. With this in mind, it is helpful to have a recruitment and retention strategy that addresses the individual needs of your staff members on a person-by-person basis. There is no ‘one size fits all’ and this is true, even if all of your workforce were autistic or all were neurotypical.

The challenges of a typical workplace

Estimates suggest that only 15% of autistic people are in employment. This means that companies are missing out on a lot of talent. Although there has certainly been a will in industry to address this, organisations are not always sure how.

The challenges that autistic people, particularly, face in the workplace can be different from person-to-person and are often invisible to other company members. This is why it is so important to find out what will help each individual person perform to their full potential and put in the right support.

Some general themes come up fairly often when making adjustments for autistic people but they do not apply to all. It is useful to be aware of potential sensory overload, particularly regarding a noisy or busy office space.  It can be useful to have a calm quiet space available to withdraw to, and lighting overlays, neutral décor and sectioned off workspaces can all help reduce visual overload. If you have a dress code that involves a uniform, be aware that this required clothing might create a touch sensory issue for some people.

In addition, autistic people can experience hidden difficulties around understanding situations, following instructions and general communication. Problems often crop up in the area of social navigation, and this can begin in the recruitment process. Attending a job interview is often a difficult experience, even for those without anxiety or communication difficulties, but can be an insurmountable hurdle for someone who is autistic. This is also bad news for the company as they miss out on a potentially excellent employee because they may not perform as well as a neurotypical person in a typical interview setting.

The workplace itself, the traditional working day, and all the other people at work also represent a landscape of minefields for many people on the autistic spectrum. A work environment can seem filled with a hidden curriculum of unwritten rules and codes of behaviour. Many autistic people learn how to ‘pretend’ that they know how to behave socially. This is often known as ‘masking’ and involves intense studying of what other people say and do and then copying the behaviour in an attempt to blend in and seem ‘normal’.  Not only is ‘masking’ hard work and risky (in case something is incorrect), but it is also very tiring and costs the individual dearly.

A frequently overlooked factor is the commute to work and stress this can cause.  Whilst the pandemic has obviously reduced or eliminated recruiting for most, if your organisation plans to go back to an office even part-time, flexi-hours are a must have.  By having strict start and finish times, this forces staff to leave for work at certain times.  If taking public transport, this can cause extra stress and anxiety before the workday has even begun due to being around a large quantity of people, sometimes for a long period of time.

People that have different ways of thinking and who approach problems from a different angle, offer organisations skills and perspectives that they might not otherwise have in their team.  These insights, if harnessed, enable an organisation to be innovative and better than competitors.  In order to benefit from the incredible pool of talent that neurodiverse people have to offer, support and understanding in the workplace is essential.

First steps to a more neurodiverse-friendly workplace

Whether your workforce are home-based, office-based or a hybrid, it’s important to ensure that the workplace takes into account the challenges raised above.

The main first step is listening, communicating and adapting.  You won’t always get it right first time, but not being afraid to talk to your employees about what aspects they find difficult and showing willingness to make changes will put you on the right track.  As Jonathan Ellwood says in his story;

“The first step is to remove the stigma around the whole subject matter and talk.  Engage with individuals to find out what works for them, and remove the obstacles that prevent them from excelling.  One size does not fit all, but if you make adjustments available for everyone, everyone will benefit by selecting what works for them.”

As part of this, ensuring your management teams have appropriate training and support from experts is critical; one of the biggest barriers for neurodiverse employees can be feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed. The chance to talk through any worries with a trusted point of contact, who can then go on to liaise with management and discuss reasonable adjustments on their behalf can help enormously.

Supportive management is key to any successful diversity initiative. What is put in place to support neurodiverse staff will often benefit everyone else and, therefore, support for staff becomes part of the culture of the organisation. IASME discovered that what began as support for the neurodiverse employees (reasonable adjustments,  1:1 coaching and mentoring) soon became support for everyone. It was quickly understood that everyone benefited from access to a wellbeing person at work to support them when necessary. This has been referred to as the ‘Curb cut effect’, named after the curb lowering for wheelchair users which was embraced by people pushing prams, luggage, and even just pedestrians. Building flexibility and understanding into the culture of an organisation, will benefit neurotypical employees and neurodiverse staff alike. Over time, these benefits will be reflected in lower absentee figures and higher staff retention.

It is important to remember that diversity is not just a ‘nice to have’ add on for an organisation. Your customer base will be comprised of people from across all sections of society and it makes sense to have a workforce that reflects that. If your staff consists of people who think differently, come from varied cultures and are different ages etc, then it makes sense that you will also have varied approaches to problem solving and innovation.

Further reading

If you’re looking for additional advice on supporting a neurodiverse workplace, then we recommend looking at some of these great guides and blogs on the subject:

Great Place to Work’s guide on a neurodiverse workplace

Catherine Bean’s experience of working at the ONS with autism

CIPD’s guide to neurodiversity at work