How Can We Support Neurodiversity in the Workplace?

By Yvonne Saxon, (Head of HR, Diversity and Inclusion Services Vista Employer Services)

Neurodiversity is usually used to describe a range of neurocognitive variations such as autism, sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia. All of these have innate factors in the way an individual relates to the world, which are somewhat different from ‘neurotypical’ people.

Research has also identified that people suffering with depression frequently have differences in brain lobes, and therefore, some would argue they should also be considered neurodivergent, because of this neurological basis. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety don’t tend to be classed in this way, but it’s worth considering that the nature of these conditions can result in some similar experiences for the individual.

Many employers worry that they don’t know enough about neurodiversity or that they may struggle to make adjustments to support an employee. It’s important to note that neurodivergence affects individuals in very different ways and covers a range of challenges and needs, some of which may be relatively straightforward and others much more complex.

So, we want to highlight some simple things that you can do as an employer to support these needs, which may benefit other employees too.

Ask the Employee!

Make a start by asking the individual what they feel they need, what they find helpful, what they find difficult, or what makes their work harder. They are the expert on their experiences and can usually provide clarity about the challenges they are facing, what they need, or what has helped them previously. This will help you to then source further guidance or support if necessary. There may also be situations or tasks that the individual may not fully appreciate the impact of, and this is where involving someone knowledgeable about their needs can be helpful.

During recruitment, make sure to ask all candidates if they have any particular needs to enable them to participate in the recruitment process, that way, you can plan appropriately. Offering a candidate the opportunity to look around the workplace before the interview and providing as much information as possible beforehand is likely to be appreciated. In some cases, a work trial may be the best way of enabling a candidate to demonstrate what they can do without the pressure of an unnatural interview or assessment situation. Ensure that those involved in recruitment are aware of neurodiversity and their responsibilities around diversity and inclusion.

Assistance for any special equipment or physical adaptations required can be obtained from Access to Work. For example, speech recognition software may be useful to employees with dyspraxia or other hand-eye coordination challenges.

Consider the Working Environment

Some people may find background noise at best distracting, or at worst distressing. Simple ways to reduce this can be the use of noise cancelling headphones or locating someone in a quiet area. Visual overload can also be challenging, so turning the lighting down in an area can be helpful, or locating the individual where surroundings (such as walls) are relatively neutral coloured and don’t have busy patterns or too many posters.

If you are lucky enough to be planning a workplace refit or redecoration, it may be worth considering using neutral colours and simple décor which not only looks smart but creates a calmer atmosphere for everyone. Fitting controls for lighting, heating and air conditioning for each room or area can make a huge difference too.

Provide Structure and Flexibility

Many neurodivergent people have a particular need for routine, structure and certainties. It’s worth looking at the design of their jobs and the systems and processes they use to make them as predictable as they can be.

Remove as much ambiguity as possible by ensuring that verbal and written communications are very clear and that there is advance warning of deadlines. Specific and regular feedback is key to making sure that it’s clear what they are doing well and should continue to do, and what they may need to do differently. Some employees will need to absorb information in their own time, so making sure that the format and timing of communication works for them is enormously helpful, as is providing sufficient breaks and flexible ways of working to suit an individual’s requirements.

‘We can all find change of any sort stressful, and therefore, employers who explain change clearly and well ahead of time make the process easier for all employees.’

Making a more significant effort to explain, plan ahead carefully and cover lots of detail about even the smallest changes will be helpful for anyone who finds these things particularly challenging.

It’s also helpful to consider reasonable adjustments. This could include adjusting any absence management trigger processes for those who may have a higher absence rate due to a disability. When there are formal consultation processes, support from a family member or friend may be more appropriate for some employees than the usual work colleague or trade union official.

Working in Teams

Due to some of the challenges faced with social interactions, employees on the autistic spectrum can struggle in perceiving the actions or expressions of speech of others. Their colleagues can also have difficulty with what they may see as unusual responses in communication and eye contact.

Providing some education to managers and colleagues is important in these circumstances. In large organisations, you could do this as part of Diversity awareness training. It’s also possible that the individual themselves could convey some key information about their specific needs, either to their colleagues or via a team manager. This can be particularly important for people with high functioning autism as their characteristics don’t appear to be that different from everyone else and so are more likely to be misunderstood.

Training and Development

The individual’s needs are paramount here., so employers must make sure that their learning and development initiatives are tailored carefully to their needs. Learning environments need to be considered too. Whether they could be over stimulating or distracting or if they are in a place which is not familiar to the individual. It may prove challenging for someone with autism or ADHD to focus on mandatory training that may be outside of their interests in a usual classroom approach. People with dyslexia may have difficulty with presentation materials.

There is usually a way to enable learning to take place more easily by giving some thought to using different methods according to the individual’s needs. This isn’t that unusual if you consider the different learning styles in the neurotypical population, and how good training is adapted to meet those needs.

We shouldn’t forget that providing managers with awareness training will enable them to support the training, development and overall performance of neurodivergent employees.

Getting Further Information and Help

We’ve collated some further information that can help employers find more information, and receive any assistance that may be required to support neurodivergent employees in the workplace:

National Autistic Society

ADHD Foundation

British Dyslexia Association

Dyspraxia Foundation


About Yvonne

Yvonne looks after HR and Diversity for Visa Employer Services, who are based in Cheadle, Greater Manchester.   Yvonne has worked across a range of industries and environments  and puts a practical and human approach into HR, whether that’s in a large international organisation or a small growing business. Vista are exceptionally proud to be the first organisation to achieve the British Standard for Diversity & Inclusion!

Follow Yvonne on Twitter @yvonnesaxon

Support our campaign

Neurodiversity At Work

  1. The case for neurodiversity at work
  2. Open up your mind
  3. How to create a neurodiversity-friendly workplace
  4. Understanding the benefits of neurodiversity
  5. How can we support neurodiversity in the workplace?
  6. Strengths not disorders 
  7. How inclusive is your organisation? | Ignite Talk
  8. Responding to neurodiversity amongst customers and employees
  9. Neurodiversity and Performance Management

The CIPD Manchester Branch campaign will include Twitter chats, some podcasts, and an Ignite presentation from DisruptHR York, as well as a blog series. The blogs have been written by a range of people, from within the HR and L&D world as well as outside. Some are from a personal perspective of being neurodivergent and others from neurotypical people. We are very grateful for people’s contributions in helping us explore how we can support neurodivergence in our organisations, and help us to step-up the pace of change and inclusion.

If you would like to contribute a blog and share your personal experience or that of your organisation, please get in touch.

We look forward to your reading, listening and contributing to this campaign. Leave us your comments below and don’t hesitate to share this article with your networks. Together we can make a difference by raising awareness.

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