The need for diversity in organisations and teams has long been recognised. Now, a report from ACAS suggests that around one in seven of the UK population are neurodiverse, the term used to describe someone who thinks differently though conditions such as ADHD, autism, Asperger syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia. These “spectrum” conditions have a wide range of characteristics, but share some common features in the way people learn and process information. In the past these conditions have been viewed as disabilities, but increasingly it has been shown that they can also bring a variety of strengths to the workplace, such as problem-solving, identifying patterns or enhanced visual spatial thinking.
It therefore makes sense that awareness of neurodiversity is raised in the workplace so that neurodiverse people can use their unique qualities to excel in specific areas. However, a survey by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2018 found that 72% of the UK’s employers ignored neurodiversity in their policies. This is changing through with neurodiversity moving up the agenda as organisations become more aware of the skills neurodiverse people bring by providing new perspectives to old challenges. For example, people with autism tend to be logical and data-driven and do not fall into confirmation biases easily. People with dyslexia are often inventive and creative (around 20 per cent of the UK’s entrepreneurs are dyslexic, including Richard Branson, Lord Sugar and Jamie Oliver) and can excel at identifying patterns.
Whilst there are tasks and roles that neurodiverse people are well suited to, there are others that may not be right for them or environments that don’t play to their strengths. Workplaces and work patterns are generally designed by neurotypical people and the ways of working that help neurodiverse people perform may be seen as out of place. Things such as bright office lights, noisy open-plan offices, too bright computer screens and a lack of personal organisation could prove very difficult for neurodiverse employees but are relatively easily adjusted to allow them to reach their potential. Strengths-based management that focuses on enabling people to do what they can do and love to do (whilst avoiding the things they can’t do) and aligns these abilities to what the organisation is trying to achieve, can also help get the best from neurodiverse employees.
Greater awareness can also help. Some aspects of good support and management are equally applicable to all employees – giving clear instructions, ensuring staff are not overloaded and providing a working environment that is free of distractions – but specific knowledge about neurodiversity should also be shared. Teams can then understand and accommodate co-workers and provide help where needed. Neurodiverse staff also won’t necessarily pick up on any ‘unwritten rules’ of your company, so HR departments and line managers should be aware of each member of the team’s strengths and weakness to alleviate any workplace issues.
Provided ways of minimising any areas of weakness can be put in place, there are great benefits for employers having employees who think differently. Creativity, lateral thinking, bringing a different perspective, the development of highly specialised skills and the consistency in tasks once mastered are all skills that allow companies to be more innovative, spot solutions others may have missed and make better decisions as a result. Ultimately though, neurodiversity in the workplace is about helping everyone thrive and seeing everyone as talent no matter how their brain works.