Embracing Neurodiversity in your Workforce

By Dani Mcnabb | News | 9 min read

June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a day that raises awareness about autism spectrum disorder to help allistic people (those not on the autism spectrum) not see autistic people as disadvantaged, but instead as unique individuals. It also encourages neurodiverse people take pride in their differences and see the advantages to the way they see the world. To mark the occasion, we are hoping to provide some education on neurodiversity and ways in which it can be supported in your organisation, which helps autistic people thrive.

Several years ago, I was interviewing for a new role in my growing department. One of the candidates, a young man, initially struck me as very abrupt on a phone conversation. He a wide range of experience, most of which looked like it was through personal endeavours, but we saw great potential in him.

He contacted me about the interview process and said that he had some struggles with sensory overload and asked if we could accommodate some of his needs. He shared that he was autistic with me and having problems finding work that suited him. Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives the world and socialises with others, which can also impact their social interaction and communication. Having a personal link to ASD, his requests were not things that I viewed as issues. I had seen what he was capable of and knew he could complete the job we were asking of him and wanted to give him the best opportunity to succeed.

We interviewed him in a quiet small training room in the afternoon, when the sun was no longer glaring through the front window, with the lights off. He was armed with answers to our questions, and we were careful that if we asked him a question which was not on the list that it tied into what he was just saying, and we were specific. (Did it work? How long did it take? Etc.). I also spent my time in the interview turned towards my colleague who was interviewing him with me.

He interviewed well, was articulate and matter of fact, but we appreciated his honesty. By the end of the interview, it was obvious that as much as we were interviewing him, he was interviewing us. He thanked me for making accommodations for his interview, saying that businesses rarely took his needs seriously. That business wasn’t the right fit for him at that time in his life, but there’s a good chance he may have already been overlooked by the right place because they were looking for his skills in the wrong place. A person sells themselves to you when they interview, so you shouldn’t overlook a candidate due to a preconceived notion of what an ‘ideal candidate’ looks like.

There are so many examples of people who throughout history we look to as innovators in their field, beautiful minds widely considered to be on the autistic spectrum. Without the mind of Alan Turing, how long would it have taken us to decipher the complexities of the enigma code? Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh, Anthony Hopkins, Alfred Hitchcock, Albert Einstein, Jane Austen, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Dan Aykroyd to name a few more people considered to be on the autistic spectrum, known to have challenges with sensory stimulus and social interaction. By now, we have looked at a few examples from different parts of history who have made contributions to several different fields. What would the world be like without these amazing minds?

This point can be extrapolated out to highlight the importance of neurodiversity within businesses as well. How many times have you overlooked someone who was really good on paper because they weren’t what you were expecting in an interview? A candidate might not be up front with you about their condition due to stigma, or they may be undiagnosed. Making accommodations for people with autism can seem like a daunting task, but every person is an individual and it really is often a case of just asking and understanding. They offer an insightful perspective that isn’t always considered.

By acknowledging that the way they learn and communicate can be very different and adapting the way you approach teaching and communication, you can really go a long way. When it comes to both, it’s worth asking for their input and putting a plan together collectively. Every person is different and understanding what they engage with best will help not only the individual, but also help the business develop existing its staff.

The below accommodations are things you might consider as part of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policy within your business to support neurodiverse staff:

Interview process – A formal interview might not be the best way to test the applicant’s ability to carry out a task. There may be better ways to demonstrate their skills than a formal Q&A. If you are doing Q&A, they might find it useful to know what questions you are going to ask ahead of time so they can consider their response.

Sensory needs – people with ASD may struggle with excessive noise, light, sounds or temperature. Having a quiet space in the office where they can retreat and decompress might not always be possible, but there are ways around it. Some solutions you might consider could be to offer noise cancelling headphones, position their workspace in an area where they will have better regulation over sensory needs, use dimming lights or allow them to adapt their workspace to a ’dark mode’. The ability to work from home might be the best place for them to work productively.

Hardware – a person might be particular about their headphones, keyboard, chair, or even their computer, so be accommodating where possible if they wish to use some of their own hardware.

Routine / Fixed workspace – create a predictable routine to help them best plan use of their time. Schedule meetings at regular intervals and allowing them to allocate quiet productive worktime around the rest of their schedule. Knowing what to expect will reduce feelings of chaos. Considerations for this might also include their workspace and not including them in a ‘hot desk’ rota. Change can impact people with ASD by increasing anxiety or stress, so where you can, avoid any unnecessary change and if its needed, give them as much warning as possible.

IT solutions – there are many examples of IT support that can help a neurodiverse person, who often respond well to visual cues. There is a wealth of programmes that help streamline business operations and inadvertently support people with autism. Calendars with alerts can help them keep on task and task boards such as Trello or Jira might help them visualise their workflow and prioritise work. They may also find it easier to collaborate with their colleagues through one of these processes.

Sensory stimulation – one thing that people with ASD may experience is the need to self-stimulate (stim) and may outwardly appear as ‘fidgety’. It may also present as repetitive movement which involve senses, such as feeling a texture or clicking a pen. Stimming helps people cope with emotions and help with concentration. There are many tools readily available that support stimming, such as fidget cubes, tangles, chews or bubble poppers. If a member of staff uses one of these, don’t discourage it. They are often using it to prevent the more noticeable stims and often doing it to maintain concentration.

Embracing differences – Do consider your language when communicating with them verbally and in writing. Many autistic people to take language literally and using figurative language or idioms might cause confusion. Also, there is nothing more anxiety inducing than a meeting request which is sudden or comes without an itinerary. Give as much notice as you can and let them know what the meeting is about.

Buddy system – with the individual’s permission, make sure there are people around them who understand the individual, the condition, and their needs. It would also be useful for them to understand signs that the individual is becoming anxious and be a person that they can come to for support. If a loud fire alarm goes off in the office, the individual might be so overcome with the noise they might not evacuate the building. Having someone who will knowingly look out for them will prevent them from potentially being overwhelmed and in a dangerous situation. A mental health first aider or work friend are the best-case scenarios, but make sure the individual has a say in this support to make sure they are comfortable with the person.

Breaks / Flexible working – a full workday might be overwhelming for someone with ASD. Frequent breaks combined with flexible working is a good way to combat that. The individual might benefit from time away from their desk to do something they like, maybe playing a video game or reading a book, and could work later to make up time spent away from their desk. It’s also worth acknowledging that full time might not be possible for them, and a part time rota may be best for their wellbeing. Quiet time doing something they like is a great way to get a dose of dopamine and reinvigorate them to come back to work with a focused approach.

Neurodiversity in your workplace should not seem like a daunting task. It might seem like a lot to consider, but often its solved by an open and frank conversation with the individual. If you take anything away from this article it’s the consideration that, contrary to the phrase, great minds don’t always think alike.