Neurodiversity In The Workplace: Valuing Individuality and Nurturing Skills

‘Neurodiversity’ is a frequently used term. However, while many employers are aware they should make reasonable adjustments for those with physical disabilities and mobility issues, there is often less support for neurodiverse individuals – commonly due to a lack of understanding, experience, and/or basic training.

This article will inform you of the benefits of hiring a neurodiverse team, and provide you with strategies to better support your staff members.

Neurodiversity Versus Disability

There has been a shift in attitudes towards disability and neurodiversity over recent years.

Whereas the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 merely banned active discrimination against those formally diagnosed with a disability label, the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 broadened the perspective, requiring employers to change to a more proactive approach, by introducing reasonable adjustments for individuals who need them.

Until the late 1990s, the primary model used to assess those with mental health support needs, was the Disability Model. However, at this point, Australian sociologist Judy Singer (who was on the autistic spectrum herself), created the term ‘neurodiversity’, and her approach revolutionised the modern guidance and legislation for supporting neurodiverse individuals.

In short, the Disability and Neurodiversity models can be summed up as:

Disability Model: ‘You aren’t like me. You cannot do the same things that I can do. You do things that I don’t do. There must be something wrong with you to cause this.’

Neurodiversity Model: ‘We are all individuals and everyone has valuable skills in different areas. We will support each other in the areas we find difficult.’

When assessing an individual for a disability, services typically follow a ‘biopsychosocial’ structure, which incorporates elements of both models. They use this to analyse the impact of the person’s condition on their biological, psychological and social needs, then formulate a support plan to meet them.

This is also a good model to use when thinking about your employees’ needs, and when planning with them for future support.

Who Should I Support? And Why Develop A Neurodiversity-friendly Workplace?

You may be thinking, ‘if everybody is somewhere on the spectrum of neurodiversity, do I need to make reasonable adjustments for every member of staff?’

Legally, no.

Rights under the Equality Act and other government legislation are still determined by specific disability and mental health diagnoses, and the diagnosis must have an adverse impact on the individual’s day-to-day functioning, including activities of daily living (washing, dressing, preparing and eating food and drink, working, sleeping, etc).

In order for an employee to be entitled to reasonable adjustments, they should be able to disclose evidence of their diagnosis, and its impact on their daily life.

Please note that it is in no circumstances acceptable for an employer to demand that employees disclose a diagnosis, or to breach confidence. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers may not directly ask an employee at interview if they have a disability, unless it is to offer support, and any responses must be kept confidential.

If this is your policy at interview, you should ask all of your candidates if they require reasonable adjustments, regardless of whether or not they have disclosed a disability, or if they, in your opinion, ‘look disabled’. Remember, not all disabilities look the same; in fact, many aren’t even visible.

However, it is Advisable to be as Accessible as Possible, to Foster A Healthy, Thriving and Motivated Workforce

Here are just a few of the reasons why:

  • You will be supporting existing members of staff to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
  • You can prepare for staff time off better, and may have more notice to plan cover when needed.
  • You may also reduce the likelihood of stress-related time off, or staff departures, and maybe even eliminate them entirely.
  • Some members of staff might not be comfortable disclosing a diagnosis, or may perhaps feel that their diagnosis doesn’t fit them. They could also be experiencing symptoms without having received a formal diagnosis. Remember – just because none of your staff have disclosed a disability, does not mean they don’t have one!
  • Your staff members are more likely to disclose a condition if you are clear from the beginning that you are a disability-friendly employer. This enables you to be more prepared, and to plan your business and management approach more efficiently.
  • Members of staff who do not have a diagnosed neurodiverse condition, but who may suffer from functional mental health issues, may also benefit from disability measures, like for example; regular breaks, quiet rooms/time periods etc.

How Can I Support My Neurodiverse Staff?

  • Provide quiet areas for your staff to take ‘time out’ if they get overwhelmed. If you are operating in a small office, you can also implement regular ‘quiet times’, instead of a designated room.
  • Ensure any documents are available in accessible formats. For example, audio-assisted reading software may be helpful for those with dyslexia.
  • The Access to Work Programme can give you advice and financial support to invest in equipment for your staff.
  • Focus on inductions! While they may feel like a paperwork nightmare, remember that this is your opportunity to optimise your staff’s performance by providing proper training, establishing a supportive management plan for your employees, and building a trusting relationship.
  • Mentoring is a great opportunity to enhance your employee’s performance through guidance and training. By properly mentoring your employees, you can learn about issues before they arise, plan, and more efficiently overcome obstacles to productivity.
  • ASK THEM! No matter how much training or research you do, your neurodiverse members of staff have likely lived their whole lives with their condition. They will know what support they find helpful, and will be able to advise you on this.
  • Disability train (and discipline) your staff! It’s all very well supporting your neurodiverse employees, training them, mentoring them, giving them time off where necessary… but if other members of staff are harassing or bullying them on account of their disability, your efforts will be futile. Ensure all your staff receive disability training, and implement a strict ‘no-tolerance’ attitude towards discrimination in the workplace.
  • Roles and Responsibilities – Use your common sense! Recognise the strengths and weaknesses of all your employees – regardless of any diagnosis. This helps you properly train staff to overcome any gaps in knowledge, and to designate roles to individuals who possess those skills.
  • Avoid stereotypes…yes, even the ‘positive’ ones! While many employers now actively look to employ individuals with a diagnosed neurodiverse condition, stereotypes are neither accurate nor helpful. Education, socialisation, and environment are all factors in our development, and everybody is different.

Written By: Holly Jackson

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