Supporting Neurodiversity at Work

Supporting Neurodiversity at Work

This week saw the publication of the first national survey into ‘Neurodiversity at Work’, which takes an in-depth look at the experiences of neurodiverse people in the workplace. 

In its key findings, the Neurodiversity at Work 2023 Report identifies that opportunities for career progression and a psychologically safe work environment are critical for job retention and wellbeing in neurodiverse individuals. The results highlight the need for training to equip managers with the knowledge and confidence to navigate employee experience and provide appropriate support. 

I was eager to delve into this report at the earliest opportunity, as it’s a subject of personal interest. My own journey with neurodiversity began when my son was identified as being dyslexic at the age of 11. 

He had always struggled with reading and writing in school, but he had developed his own coping strategies as a child and his teachers didn’t identify the issue. As parents, I think we had a sense that he was processing information differently, so we arranged for him to be tested. Sure enough, we discovered he has challenges with reading, writing, spelling and speed of information processing. We were fortunate that we were able to arrange the necessary tests – all too often appropriate testing is not available, or it can be very difficult to access. Having a diagnosis meant that we were able to work with the school, and put the necessary measures in place to support my son with his studies. 

What is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity refers to the natural differences in human brain functioning, and includes conditions such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and others. Whilst neurodiverse conditions can make some activities harder, there are also often strengths associated with them. For example, my son is a talented musician and has excellent visual-spatial skills. 

Within the workplace, neurodiversity can often be beneficial: 

·       Neurodiverse individuals can think in unique and unconventional ways, leading to the development of innovative solutions to complex problems.

·       Many neurodiverse individuals have a strong attention to detail and can identify patterns and errors that others may miss, making them valuable contributors to quality control and testing processes.

·       Neurodiverse people bring different strengths and skills to the table, leading to a more collaborative and inclusive work environment.

Neurodiverse Communication

Through my son and my work, my personal experience of neurodiversity is mainly with dyslexia. According to the British Dyslexia Association, around 10% of the population are believed to be dyslexic. The industry I work in has a strong emphasis on science and engineering, which are traditionally areas that have drawn a high proportion of neurodiverse people; reportedly, around 20-30% of engineers are dyslexic. 

There may be reasons for this. The study The Value of Dyslexia found that those they researched with dyslexia often had higher levels of ability in complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity – all cornerstone skills in engineering. Other studies have suggested that engineering focusses on mathematical methods, and the increased dyslexic prevalence within engineering suggests that dyslexic people may be more comfortable with subjects less reliant on literacy. 

One thing I’ve learned through supporting my son and also through working within an engineering environment is that information often needs to be presented in a different way for neurodiverse people. There may be unique communication needs that require specific accommodations. 

Here are a few strategies I have learned to make internal communications more accessible:

Use plain language: Avoid using jargon, uncommon acronyms or technical terms that might be difficult to understand. Use simple language and explain any unfamiliar terms or concepts.

Visual aids: Many neurodiverse individuals may find visual aids, such as pictures, charts, or diagrams, more helpful in understanding information. Use visual aids whenever possible to supplement verbal or written communication. For example, try to ensure that PowerPoint slides contain minimal written words, and instead make use of engaging images or graphics to support the verbal message. 

Allow time for processing: Neurodiverse individuals may need extra time to process information. Allow for breaks in conversation and provide opportunities for the individual to ask questions or seek clarification. Provide meeting agendas in advance so that people have time to prepare. Then enable them to contact you after the meeting with any further thoughts once they have processed the information. Video recording meetings or Town Halls where possible enables people to watch them back at a later time if they wish.

Avoid overstimulation: Some neurodiverse people may be easily overwhelmed by information overload or sensory input. If that’s the case, avoid loud noises, bright lights, or other stimuli that may cause overstimulation. Make quiet spaces available away from busy open plan offices. Noise cancelling headphones are another useful option. 

Use technology: Assistive technologies, such as speech-to-text or text-to-speech software, may help individuals who have difficulty with verbal or written communication.

Listen: Most neurodiverse people have developed their own way of working and they know what does and doesn’t work for them. Listen carefully and they will tell you what they need in order to work most effectively. In the ‘Neurodiversity at Work 2023’ survey, only 11.7% of respondents felt that the support they received was tailored to their individual needs. It’s also worth bearing in mind that sometimes neurodivergent individuals don’t want to be labelled or managed differently from their peers.  

Finally, be patient and understanding: Recognise that everyone communicates differently, and be willing to adapt your communication style to meet the needs of others.

Building teams that understand and embrace diversity is key to ensuring that an organisation can flourish. It’s worth taking the time to make our workplaces a welcoming space for all.

About the research

The ‘Neurodiversity at Work 2023’ research was commissioned by Neurodiversity in Business and conducted by Professor Nancy Doyle, founder of Genius Within, and Professor Almuth McDowall from Birkbeck, University of London (who coincidentally was also my wonderfully supportive academic supervisor!). The report can be accessed here.

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