Tips for supporting neurodiverse colleagues at work

A young person has his back to the camera. He has an Apple Airpod in one ear and in each hand he is using a stimulant toy.

With this week (13-19 March) marking Neurodiversity Celebration Week, it’s time we recognise and support our neurodiverse colleagues for their contributions at work.

As our understanding of neurodiversity grows, it’s important for us to recognise the unique perspectives and talents of those with different neurological profiles like autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other conditions. When it comes to neurodiversity within work, it is often accompanied by similar stigmas and discriminations that the LGBTQ+ community face daily. 

In the UK, it’s estimated that 1 in 7 people are neurodivergent – that’s around 15 per cent. Dyslexia is the most common, affecting 1 in 10 people. Chances are, you have colleagues and friends and family members that are neurodiverse. 

Understanding neurodiversity at work

Twenty years ago, neurodiverse individuals were often unable to achieve their professional goals because of their conditions. Like gender, sexuality and race, there has been significant progress made in professional settings, but discrimination still exists.

Many workplaces are still not set up to accommodate the needs of neurodiverse employees. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) highlighted that only 22 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are working, despite that many want to work. The fact is that if companies truly value diversity and inclusion, highlighting neurodiversity must be addressed.

Neurodiversity at work should be celebrated, not seen as a hindrance.

For Sarah Docherty, Chair of the Neurodiversity Employee Network at global drinks provider William Grant & Sons, her own experiences living with ADHD and dyslexia in a corporate setting have been challenging. Yet she sees the positives in her neurodivergencies, stating: “Being able to think in a different way than neurotypical people is the greatest strength of being neurodivergent.

“My ability to see the bigger picture, innovate, think creatively, find the solutions and hyper-focus on projects that I am passionate about, are all unique assets that I bring to a workplace.”

As a coworker or manager, there are many ways you can support your neurodiverse colleagues to thrive in their roles. Through a supportive environment, you can help to unlock their full potential and ensure that they can make valuable contributions to the team.

How to support neurodiverse colleagues at work

A good place to start is to acknowledge that neurodiversity, like sexuality and gender identity, is not a monolith. Neurodiversity is a spectrum of conditions – each with its own unique characteristics and strengths. People with autism often have strong attention to detail and excel in repetitive tasks, while people with dyslexia may have strong verbal skills and creativity. To truly understand how to support our neurodiverse colleagues we must understand how they think and experience the world.

With that in mind, we’ve put together some tips on supporting our neurodiverse colleagues, family and friends.

Two women are sitting outside. One woman is showing something on a tablet while the other woman looks on while holding a cup of coffee.
By embracing neurodiversity at work, you’ll be able to support colleagues who think differently. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

Embrace neurodiversity

Encouraging a culture that embraces neurodiversity will create an inclusive environment for all employees. This includes training, creating a neurodiversity employee resource group, and showcasing the strengths and skills of neurodiverse colleagues.

Be open and supportive

Creating an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their neurodivergent condition is essential. Being open and supportive of colleagues can help them feel more comfortable disclosing their conditions and asking for support.

If you’re a manager of a neurodiverse individual, offer up extra support and guidance when needed. Regular check-ins, one-to-one meetings, and coaching sessions will help develop their skills and overcome any challenges they may be facing.

Provide flexibility

Many neurodiverse conditions can affect work styles and routines – so being as flexible as possible will help neurodiverse colleagues to thrive. Consider flexible working hours, remote working, and flexible workspaces. Essentially, focus more on the work being done rather than how and when the work is being done. If the role involves a lot of video calls, normalise turning the camera off. 

Be clear and structured

Clarity and structure will be helpful for neurodiverse colleagues to understand expectations and their responsibilities. Providing clear instructions, breaking down tasks into smaller steps, and using visual aids can all help to create a more structured environment. Like other items on this list, providing clarity and clear structure will benefit neurotypical coworkers in making their day-to-day easier. 

Avoid sensory overload

Sensory overload can be a significant issue for neurodiverse individuals. This can include bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells. Providing a quiet workspace, noise-cancelling headphones, and reducing visual clutter can all help to reduce sensory overload.

Provide reasonable adjustments

Finally, it’s important to note that employers have a legal obligation to make adjustments to support employees with disabilities, including neurodivergent conditions. This could include providing assistive technology, adapting workspaces, and adjusting workloads.

Creating an inclusive work environment that values and supports neurodiverse colleagues also benefits the entire team. When everyone feels valued and supported, they are more likely to feel motivated, engaged, and invested in the success of the team. So let’s celebrate neurodiversity and work together to create a more inclusive workplace for all.

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