Neurodiversity in the workplace – what to know, what to do?

The term neurodiversity is probably more recognised now than perhaps 10 years ago, but what does it really mean, especially in the context of a workplace? 

Neurodiversity refers to the different ways the brain can work and interpret information. People can have different ways of thinking about things, different ways in which the brain processes information or responds to stimuli or social situations. 

Most people are neurotypical, meaning that the brain functions and processes information in the way society expects*. Yet neurodivergence is actually very common: it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent.

Some examples of neurodiversity are Attention Deficit Disorders (such as ADHD), Autism (Autism Spectrum Condition, including Asperger Syndrome), Tourette’s syndrome, Dyslexia (difficulty with accurate and fluent word reading and spelling) and Dyspraxia (developmental coordination disorder (DCD), a condition affecting physical coordination). 

Most of these exist on a spectrum, and they are not illnesses but conditions that present differently in every individual. Some, like autism, are recognised as a lifelong disability from a medical and legal perspective. Yet legal and medical recognition of a condition should not, for so many, be an impediment to a fulfilling working life. 

In the context of the workplace, neurodiversity should perhaps just mean more diversity, and a work environment that accommodates and facilitates this. This may sound easier than it is in practice. According to the ONS, the 2021 Census showed that only 22% of people whose main impairment was autism were in paid employment. 

The business-led membership forum Neurodiversity in Business advocates for better inclusion and accommodation of neurodiversity in the workplace for a range of reasons. They argue it makes business sense by allowing for more ‘diversity of thought’, potential for innovation and different ways of problem solving, while it promotes sustainability by reducing talent turnover and accessing ‘hidden’ talent. It is also the right and legally correct thing to do as neurodiversity is covered by the Equality Act (2010). Plus, it would be unwise to exclude swathes of people who have talents and skills, considering there are an estimated 700,000 people with Autism Spectrum Condition and two million people with Dyslexia in the UK.

Neurodiversity in Business have teamed up with Birkbeck University’s Centre for Neurodiversity at Work and its mission to support inclusive organisational practice through research “that is needed to inform interventions in the workplace that will maximise the mutual benefits of employing and retaining the untapped talent of the neurodiverse community”. Their work has translated into useful, evidence-based resources and best practice.   

That’s the high level overview – useful to know, but what can you do in your office or workplace? What are some potentially quick or more long-term investments to make sure your work environment is accommodating and inclusive to those who are not neurotypical, sometimes referred to as neuro-minorities. 

  • Openness and communication in the workplace about neurodiversity
  • Ensure managers have training around neurodiversity, equipping them with skills and awareness to build good relationships with each team member
  • Flexible working to avoid busy travel times that can be more stressful to someone who is very sensitive to noise, and to accommodate those who are more productive in the evening or outside of ‘normal’ working hours
  • In an open plan or hot-desk office, allow people who find this constant changing and unpredictability stressful a fixed desk; avoid sudden changes in the environment 
  • Check how the work environment can accommodate those who may struggle with noise, temperature, lack of personal space and privacy, visual stimuli, movements and smells
  • Allow staff to book meeting rooms for tasks that require a lot of concentration
  • Provide visible instructions next to office equipment and machinery, such as photocopiers
  • Adopt or allow inclusive technology. Specialised technology to adjust for different ways of reading, such as colour filters for screens. 
  • Presenting information in different ways, such as dividing long texts into paragraphs, using visual aids, use of audio; understanding that individuals may approach tasks in a different way 

Sources: Birkbeck University blog: Inclusivity at an organisational level, Government Analysis Function: Neurodiversity in the workplace, Acas: Neurodiversity in the workplace

Creating a more inclusive workplace where every employee can feel respected and valued as they are, without feeling they have to hide or downplay their neurodiversity, is bound to be a happier and more productive workplace.

  • If you are an employee who identifies as neurodivergent, it’s important to know your rights and explore how you can be supported.
  • Here are more resources for employers from the Neurodiversity Hub, and from the CIPD for HR staff.