What is neurodiversity and what does it mean for people in work?
I went to an event in September 2018 where this was the topic. We were all challenged to ‘hack the world of work. The aim was to envisage a world of work that is more open and welcoming for people on the neurodiversity spectrum’.
We were given an introductory keynote by Jane Green, who was an autism educationalist, lead support at the largest autism charities and Assistant Headteacher, plus specialist advisory teacher to local authorities, trainer, speaker, parent/carer and #actually is autistic and now disabled.
She gave us a brilliant introduction into neurodiversity, what it means for people and how they work.
Neurodiversity means many different things to different people. In an attempt to define it, Jane used this definition in her talk:
Alternative thinking style ‘Neurodiversity’ is a relatively new term that refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyscalculia, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. The neurodiversity movement frames these conditions as natural human variations that should be embraced and supported to bring talent and diversity to the workplace and wider society.
“Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”
Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,2015
“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?”
Harvey Blume, ‘The Atlantic’ 1998.
Jane shared some important facts and stats
- Just 16% of autistic people are in full-time employment (DWP)
- 30% are in part time employment (NAS)
- So about 60% of working age autistic adults maybe unemployed
- 26% of autistic graduates are unemployed (scope)
How can we support neurodiverse adults into work?
- Help them to get the jobs in the first place
- Learn to understand the autistic and neurodiverse spectrum
- Provide the right environment for neurodiverse people when they are at work
- Ensure they have supportive and trusted buddies or mentors at work
- Provide flexible working that allows them to work well and look after themselves too
How can we help people in this group to enjoy and be successful in their work?
- Individually tailor their role
- Listen, talk and share with them during their work
- Provide some structure but allow this to be directed by the individuals
- Recognise that their carers or parents can be key motivators in their lives
- Help them to build their competence and independence
- Understand there are key areas of difference: Language; communication; literalness; social understanding
- Understand sensory dysregulation or sensory processing disorder – hyper or hypo sensitised
- Inclusion includes social activities
An opportunity for employers
There’s an opportunity for progressive employers who recognise the value that creating a diverse workforce can bring to organisations. A diverse workforce reflects the reality of society, brings different perspectives and creative solutions to the work. There’s also an opportunity to look at different employment models that can support diverse workforces with different physical and neurodiverse needs.
How can communicators support neurodiversity at work?
I asked Jane some key questions to understand how communicators support neurodiversity at work.
How can our communication and promotion about jobs and places of work help with attracting people to work in our organisations?
“Most neurodiverse people do not have the ‘right’ networks to be informed about job opportunities. If we haven’t had much experience before, then we have uninformed views about our opportunities and what is involved in getting work. If there’s a way for individuals to experience work or the organisation in a paid role, but without the demands and pressure of a new job, that can help those people who are new to working.
“Sometimes we need a varied role, where we can move around and experience variety (like me). Others need set jobs, and set routines that do not change. This is completely dependent on the individual. This is why it is so important to have a mentor if you’re new to work. They can help you work out what suits you and the employer.
“Application forms need to be autism and neurodiverse friendly. The essential criteria for a job description is often not met because neurodiverse people do ‘not make the grade’ and often haven’t completed their qualifications. They may have been home educated or have taken qualifications at a later time in life than is usual. These aspects do not mean the individual cannot do a job. A work experience trial is really helpful to see what an individual can bring to the role and what interests them most.
“Experiencing the workplace, understanding how it could work and taking in the whole package of work including travelling, the work environment, the social aspect, the hours of work versus individual needs around their health and condition will help us all to find a realistic balance”.
As communicators we can:
- Support our HR teams in their work on recruitment and retention. Provide our knowledge of communication, understanding of its role for people at work, and how it can drive action and change behaviours in these functions.
- Communication to support vacancy promotion, should start with information, then use consultation, participation and then coproduction to support role creation.
- Learn how we can make our corporate communication more approachable to all.
- Create communication training packages that include how to be mindful of your communication approach and diverse individual needs.
- Provide communication support across the organisation, and the forums and networks to help people get the most from work and to stay in work.
- Listening to individuals is key – communication teams are a source of valuable information and understanding of employees. Use this knowledge to help the organisation understand how it can be more welcoming to individuals.
What are the most challenging aspects of working in modern offices for people on the neurodiversity spectrum?
“For autistic people with or without other conditions such as ADHD, dyspraxia, hypermobility etc., there are four key areas of difference that I speak about regarding autism. Although this varies from person to person they are:
- Transportation – getting to and from work
- The building/work environment
- The social setting
- The physical environment
“Without doubt the most challenging aspect is the social aspect. For autistic people, wherever we are on the spectrum, we don’t always fit in and therefore we are vulnerable and at risk of bullying, even in subtle ways.
“So, awareness, empathy and knowing how we support an autistic individual in the workplace is very important. Neurodiversity spectrum training for all people at work helps to increase understanding and empathy and reduce the incidence of the bad behaviours towards autistic and other individuals.”
As communicators we can:
- Support our HR teams in their work in creating job descriptions and scope of roles and how they are communicated. We can also help with the communication that is needed during induction to bring our user focussed view to the way we communicate at these touch points.
- Push for diversity and inclusion training that incorporates understanding autism and neurodiversity.
- Get involved in and undertake awareness training so you can create communication and communities that support different individuals.
- Talk with individuals and understand what they find most challenging and what they enjoy when it comes to communication at work. Listen to their viewpoint and learn how you can make their experience of work better.
- Help to create and set a culture of openness and acceptance to everyone and difference.
Everyone is unique, but in broad terms, what should leaders consider when they are communicating directly with people on the neurodiversity spectrum? (this may be about allocating work, giving instructions, giving feedback, appraisals, day to day interactions etc.)
“Again, this would come under autism and neurodiverse spectrum training. Training should be undertaken so that leaders can understand how to communicate well with people on the neurodiversity spectrum. This training is of course best provided by an expert, someone who really knows what it’s like to be autistic. Someone who is autistic”.
As communicators we can:
- Arrange training for leaders as part of any communication training that we manage to include specific training on working with and managing neurodiverse people at work.
- Coach leaders to be authentic and to listen to employees and their needs.
We use a range of different communication channels at work utilisting: online; print; and face to face methods. Which do people who are on the spectrum find more welcoming, and which do they find most challenging?
“Some people only like email and are quite able to use email, apps, and messenger for example. However, they might think they have already replied. In their mind they have, but they may not have actually done it. Some people hate using the telephone but others prefer it. Some prefer face to face. Ask them what they would prefer?
“Ideally all the telephone and face to face meetings and important interactions should be backed up with visual reminders. Use notes and minutes to record what was agreed and the actions arising. The visual modality is very strong in autistic individuals, so notes help us to remember. I find meetings quite difficult, because I don’t know when to interrupt, when I have good ideas and when I can share them, so this can make me anxious. We appear present, but we may be waiting for the right moment to raise a point. We can get fixed on one idea sometimes and can take things very literally at times too. So, we might misinterpret what is actually being meant in verbal communication and take it too literally. Equally neurotypical employers might take what we say too literally.
“For me, it is also important to know when to stop. The demands of work can be overwhelming and so if I receive work emails at night or when I was meant to be on holiday I would work on them. I also didn’t know when to call in sick because I have had contradictory diagnoses from the doctors so despite being ill, I’d still go to work for example.
“It’s important to understand that neurodiversity can sometimes be accompanied by other health conditions, and if I don’t look different, or sick, it doesn’t mean I’m not”.
As communicators we can:
- Be mindful of different communication preferences for different individuals
- Talk to individuals so that we know what works for them
- Support leaders and managers in communication training – specifically that meetings and electronic media can present different challenges for some neurodiverse individuals
- Meetings need structure and everyone needs to know when they can interrupt and ask questions. Pay attention to meeting participants and encourage them to input.
- Clear minutes / notes to clarify what was said, actions and responsibilities
- Set clear boundaries so that out of hours communications do not put undue pressure on individuals
What is the one thing that people who are responsible for the corporate communication in a workplace do to make the workplace more comfortable to people on the neurodiverse spectrum?
“Inclusion is needed right from the top of the organisation. Co-production can help us work with others to make the workplace work for us. Inclusion isn’t just about training and environment but it is also about inclusion in non-work events, lunches, drinks, Christmas parties or ‘company dos’. “Unconscious bias training and specific autism training is good to help people understand their own biases and how to work with them.
“Attention should be given to include us. So, consider the structure of the event, write it down for the employee, including the when, where, how long, and what it consists. This will help them process and understand what to expect from the event. Consider their seven sensory issues (Touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell, proprioception (body awareness), and vestibular (balance and movement) ) at work. Different people can find different senses heightened and uncomfortable.
“For example, if an individual is noise sensory, they could be in sensory overload in a noisy workplace or busy café for example. But being offered the option of a quiet room where they can still join in with others in the group when they want to can be a simple solution. Creating workplaces that work for individuals means that everyone can benefit, there are often others who prefer the choices available”.
As communicators we can:
- Advocate inclusion training that incorporates neurodiversity and ideally the 7 sensory areas
- Instigate methods of co-production and co-creation in work and show that it can be done. If this approach is part of every day work, it’s more routine everyone.
- Be mindful of different communication channel preferences for different individuals
Is there anything else that I have not asked, that you think we should know or understand so that our workplaces work better for people who are on the spectrum?
- Guidelines on what happens at work and what individuals can do or can’t do in different situations is really helpful – even interpreting what is appropriate behaviour when the Chief Executive makes a joke can be difficult for neurodiverse individuals to assess.
- Inclusion is not just about being happy and getting a job but actually about having an accessible career path in the company. We want to make progress like anyone would.
- Having an independent mentor is very helpful to guide us and be our point of support and contact.
- The 7 senses all need to be taken into account to help neurodiverse individuals in the workplace.
- Adjustments at work in the way we communicate and the working environment should be made to accommodate people across the spectrum from the neurotypical to the neurodiverse. These adjustments can be reasonable and straightforward and do not need to be extreme.
- We can be the most creative and innovative people in the workforce so it is for all of our benefit as well as employers to make use of our unique skills.
If you’d like to provide training on neurodiversity, Jane provides a training programme for different organisations.
BSc (HONS) Psych. Adv. Dip Ed. Child development
PGCE Secondary, MA Ed (Leadership and Management)
EDS/Hypermobility advocate education, employment, transport and autism
Thanks for stopping by and reading my thoughts. I hope you’ll be inspired.
I work with businesses of all shapes and sizes to help them communicate clearly, reveal the human connections that matter and get meaningful results. If you would like to find out what people think and feel about your business, and communicate with them better, get in touch.