Neurodiversity is a term that many people may not have heard of or may not understand. However, being neurodivergent is incredibly common, and while it can make work challenging, there are many ways to foster neurodiversity in the workplace.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity refers to the way that the brain works. Some people process information differently, which leads to different strengths and weaknesses. The sister term to neurodiversity, neurotypical, means that the brain functions in the most common way, or the way that society tends to expect.
Many types of neurodivergence are experienced along a spectrum. The symptoms of neurodivergence vary from person to person, and some people can have more than one type.
Types of neurodivergence include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – ADHD affects the ability to control attention span, concentration, and impulses. People with ADHD may appear not to pay attention when people talk and can get distracted by small things, but they show exceptional strengths in pushing through setbacks in their work.
- Autism – autism affects how a person sees the world and how they interact with other people. People with autism often struggle to pick up on social cues and dislike change. Those with autism are often very punctual and thorough and may be experts in a specific special interest. It is estimated that approximately 700,000 people in the UK are autistic.
- Dyslexia – dyslexia is a common form of neurodivergence. Approximately 10% of the UK population are dyslexic and have problems with reading, spelling and writing. Some also have problems with memory retention and organisation, but dyslexic people often excel in verbal communication and creative thinking.
- Dyspraxia – also known as developmental coordination disorder, dyspraxia affects muscle coordination and perception. Many people with dyspraxia are viewed as clumsy, although this is not the case as this condition impacts their coordination.
- Tourette’s syndrome – Tourette’s syndrome (often shortened to Tourettes) is a condition that causes people to make involuntary movements and sounds. People may swear, make animal sounds, or cough repeatedly without being able to control it.
These are only a few types of neurodivergence. The neurodivergent spectrum is diverse and wide-ranging, and neurodivergent people have many strengths that can help them thrive at work.
Some of the values of neurodivergence include data analysis, seeing things from a fresh perspective, and spotting patterns or trends quickly and consistently. These strengths vary depending on the type of neurodivergence presented but can sometimes be overshadowed by the unique challenges that neurodivergent people experience at work.
Fostering Neurodiversity at Work
Neurodiverse people can sometimes struggle in the workplace. They may struggle to concentrate or find certain sounds or smells too much to cope with. Some specific challenges that neurodivergent people may face at work include:
- Social interaction – many neurodivergent people can find social interaction challenging and may be unable to grasp social cues, sarcasm, or metaphors.
- Overstimulation – neurodivergent people can struggle with overstimulation at work. Also known as sensory overload, overstimulation can come from being in a loud environment, being around too many people, or the texture of clothes and fabric.
- Distraction – neurodivergent people can struggle with feeling distracted during work, partially because they are less able to block out extra sensory input. They may struggle with paying attention in meetings or switching tasks quickly.
There are many ways to help neurodiverse people thrive at work with relatively minor adjustments, such as:
- Adapting to certain sensory needs, such as allowing people to wear noise-cancelling headphones or use fidget toys to improve overall concentration.
- Clearly communicating with employees, avoiding the use of sarcasm or implications and providing written instructions for tasks as well as verbal, and vice versa.
- Creating a personalised plan of action with neurodiverse individuals for their development at work.
- Assigning tasks appropriately based on specific talents – e.g. someone with ADHD may struggle with intensely focused tasks, so giving them more varied tasks can be helpful.
- Allow employees to take a more flexible approach to work – e.g. allowing those with ADHD to take more regular breaks.
Making small adaptations can help neurodivergent people thrive at work, which helps them maximise their strengths. According to the Equality Act of 2010, employers should always make reasonable adjustments if someone requests it; however, neurodivergent people can sometimes struggle with voicing their needs and wants, so employers should take a proactive stance on neurodiversity.
Many neurodiverse people in the workforce bring unique talents and skills that benefit the companies they work for. However, there is a risk that these individuals are often passed over, and their skill sets are not being utilised as much as they could be.
Companies can change this by making their workplaces more adaptive and inclusive. Small changes such as allowing employees to wear noise-cancelling headphones at work, shaking up job roles, and implementing clear communication channels can help neurodiverse people thrive.
 Left stranded: The impact of coronavirus on autistic people and their families in the UK. National Autistic Society. www.autism.org, published September 2020
 Neurodiversity in the workplace. ACAS. www.acas.org.uk, accessed 23 November 2020.