Neurodiversity in the workplace: a Q&A

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Sep 20 2023 by Management-Issues Print This Article

A conversation with Matt Boyd, CEO of Exceptional Individuals, on the subject of neurodivergence in the workplace.

Q: What is Neurodiversity?

A: The term “neurodiverse” is a word which references a whole community of people whose members are neurodivergent.

Those within the neurodivergent community behave, think, and learn differently in comparison to those who are neurotypical. ‘Neurotypical’, on the other hand, is a term used to describe an individual whose brain functions are considered ‘usual’ to society, with brains that function in a similar way to the majority. So, essentially, ‘neurodiverse’ can be used to describe an individual whose brain functions differently from what we consider “normal”.

ADHD, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia and Dyslexia, among others, all fall within the spectrum of neurodiversity and are all neurodiverse conditions, and these neuro-differences are both recognised, and appreciated, as a social category which is similar to differences in ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender.

Encouragement of a neurodiverse workforce aligns with the knowledge that a neurodivergent difference such as, for example, dyslexia is an integral part of what makes someone, them.

In turn, ‘neurodiversity’ reflects the approach to environments which supports the fact that no two humans are the same and that various neurological conditions are the effect of normal changes and variations in the human genome.

Q: Why has the conversation surrounding making the workplace a more inclusive space for neurodivergent people risen to the forefront of people’s minds?

A: Since founding Exceptional Individuals in 2015, I have witnessed a notable shift in culture. It’s gone from mere awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace to organisations actively embracing its strengths. And thanks to the experiences of the individuals we've placed in organizations like Aviva and HSBC, we have seen firsthand how embracing neurodiversity leads to progress and flourishing careers.

Over the past five years, we have seen diversity concerns around LGBT, ethnicity, and gender being addressed, and now neurodiversity has come to the forefront.

In particular, we have seen a greater awareness of the unique strengths and abilities that neurodiverse people bring to the workplace, and the recognition of these strengths has really begun to challenge the traditional outlooks of talent, and overall has resulted in a much more inclusive hiring process.

Additionally, I think that employers are beginning to realise the huge amount of value that neurodiversity can bring to an organisation. We, neurodiverse individuals, tend to excel in areas like attention to detail and problem-solving, which can obviously have a positive impact on the businesses we’re working for. And as the workforce continues to evolve, employees - especially younger generations - are seeking out workplaces that will champion their diversity.

Q: What is inclusive language and why is it important?

A: As background, exceptional Individuals conducted The Exceptional Individuals Language Consultation Report in 2022 to highlight the need for inclusive language when referring to neurodiverse individuals within the workplace.

The study found a preference throughout the majority for the use of ‘person-first’ language to be used when referencing their neurodivergence. Respondents with ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia favoured ‘people-first’ language by 88.9%, 65.5% and 71% respectively.

Person-first language is defined as a type of linguistic prescription which aims to emphasize the person before the disability. 75% of respondents within the Language Report disliked the use of the term ‘disabled people’, instead noting a preference for ‘person-first’ language, such as ‘people living with a disability’ or ‘people with a disability’.

The survey also found that neurodivergent people prefer the term ‘neurodivergence’ (40%) over ‘condition’ (34%), ‘difference’ (20%), or ‘disorder’ (6%). ‘Disorder’ saw the lowest number of votes, with one person noting that they “very much dislike the words ‘disorder’ and ‘condition’”, and another stating “I use ADHD because people understand what that is. However, I really hate the word disorder.”

Q: Do neurodivergent workers feel that they are side-lined and/or discriminated against?

A: A 2023 study conducted by Birkbeck's Research Centre for Neurodiversity at Work surveyed 1,117 people, 127 employers and 990 neurodivergent employees. The results reported that 65% of neurodivergent employees fear discrimination from management within the workplace, whilst 55% fear discrimination from colleagues.

The study by Birkbeck also found that 40% of respondents felt that there aren’t enough knowledgeable staff to help, with the report discovering that all neurodivergent employees reported low levels of well-being - highlighting the importance of ensuring that all members of staff are educated on the topic, and use inclusive language.

Q: Can you share any examples of employers who are ensuring that all their spaces are inclusive and cater for neurodiverse individuals?

A: Clockwise, who provide flexible workspaces in cities across the UK, are a good example. When I spoke to their COO, Alexandra Livesey, he told me that:

“With a growing number of companies offering hybrid and remote working policies, when businesses do ask their employees to come into the office, offering carefully considered environments that support all employees is crucial.”

“The well-being of our members is at the core of all that we do. As a leading UK flexible workspace provider, we have ensured that our spaces are designed in an inclusive way, to cater to all”

“Through strategic design, we have weaved in neurodiverse-supporting features into our offices, considering a range of elements not limited to space, light, colour, and acoustics.”

Q: Is training and development being tailored to neurodiverse workers?

A: This is a point I picked up with Fintan O’Toole, HR expert and owner of The HR Dept who shared his insights into the importance of valuing neurodiversity in the workplace.

“Employers need to embrace the different skills and competencies that they have in their workforce and to explore individual development plans for all staff regardless of their apparent abilities. What may at the outset present itself as an obstacle may well be a strength that can be built on for both the employer and the employee.”

All staff should be made to feel welcome in the workplace. Diversity including Neurodiversity can be celebrated and recognition given to the real achievements of the whole team and the individuals in it. Employers have a duty of care and a legal obligation to provide a safe place of work and should consult with all employees and respond to the feedback they receive from that process.


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