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It’s time employers started celebrating neurodiversity at work

2 Apr 2019 By Andrew Sutherland

On World Autism Awareness Day, Andrew Sutherland explains why organisations should be creating workplaces that work for neurodiverse staff

Neurodiversity is a relatively new term for describing the diversity of human brains – recognising the fact that we’re wired differently and don’t necessarily think alike. This includes autistic people, as well as those with dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia – minority ‘neurotypes’ with a range of characteristics that share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information.

Many of us will have colleagues with these and other neurological conditions: Acas’s new guidance, Neurodiversity in the Workplace, points to estimates that around one in seven people in the UK have a form of ‘neurodivergence’, equating to more than 15 per cent of the population. Moreover, this isn’t new: as renowned autism spokesperson Temple Grandin once said: “Some guy with high-functioning Asperger’s developed the first stone spear; it wasn’t developed by the social ones yakking around the campfire.” It’s an affirmative statement but it also serves to underline how times have changed – because, to oversimplify, that guy with Asperger’s now needs to convince organisations who promote teamworking that he’s the right fit for their workplace. It’s a reminder of the simple fact that a person’s competence doesn’t exist in a social vacuum – rather, it’s defined by the values of the culture to which we belong.

That’s doubly true of the workplace, which reflects and even amplifies our wider culture, with its emphasis on certain standardised forms of behaviour. Case in point: the current corporate fixation on ‘emotional intelligence’, set against the inherent interpersonal communication challenges that many autistic people will face. But autism confers strengths as well as challenges, and overly rigid managers risk missing out on this group’s unique skills and abilities, which can help organisations thrive – for instance, thoroughness and attention to detail, punctuality, bringing a ‘different perspective’, development of highly specialised skills and consistency in tasks once mastered. 

These and other attributes were highlighted by Acas research looking at neurodiversity specifically within the context of workplace relations. Through case studies of best practice employers, coupled with testimony from experts in the field, the research identified policies and practices which can help autistic and other neurodivergent staff to flourish within diverse workforces. Above all, the research identifies two important keys for unlocking this group’s potential:

Having enough flexibility in job roles to allow individuals to play to their strengths, rather than a rigid approach which takes no account of comparative advantage. Placing excessive emphasis on ‘all-round’ generic competencies can disadvantage neurodivergent staff who may have highly specialised skills that could be harnessed differently.

Raising awareness among managers and employees, including neurodivergent staff. People are not always fully aware of the ways in which their condition might affect their ability to perform particular work tasks. Setting up networks of employees can be especially helpful.

There is perhaps a tendency for those with an inclusive approach to neurodiversity to drift towards presenting an idealised view of the world, and to disregard the fact that many of the characteristics of a person’s neurological condition will have a bearing on their management of working life. 

The answer must be around creating a working environment which is sufficiently flexible that all employees can benefit.

From an employer perspective, this is not necessarily a question of social conscience but of being attuned to the possible benefits (and even the competitive advantages) that may be possible from having employees who think differently.

Andrew Sutherland is a senior research officer at Acas

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