How do you support neurodiverse workers with hidden disabilities?
Well, there’s a question and a half! But what does it actually mean?
As everyone is aware, although the saying is ‘great minds think alike’ not everyone thinks in the same way. In other words, although people may have very similar traits, no two brains function in exactly the same way.
Someone who is ‘neurodiverse’ has a brain which works in a different way from the ‘average’ or ‘neurotypical’ person. This can manifest itself in many ways; a difference in social interaction, different ways of communicating, different ways of learning and/or the way in which the environment is perceived.
People with ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and Tourette’s syndrome are all examples of neurodiverse conditions. These are diagnostic labels used to explain the diverse ways of thinking, learning, processing, and behaving.
For the purposes of the Equality Act 2010, people who have these neurodivergent conditions are defined as disabled, even though many people with milder forms of the conditions may not be seen by others as being disabled. This is because many who have these conditions do everything that they can to mask their difficulties. This could be avoiding noisy environments and avoiding crowds due to sensory overload or avoiding very bright areas or flashing lights due to a sensitivity to light.
There are also many people who may have neurodiverse traits but don’t realise that they have. They have never had a diagnosis and may have gone through their lives just thinking that they are ‘a bit different’.
So, how can you help in the workplace?
There are many things which can be done to make a workplace more ‘neuro-friendly’. If your workplace recognises neurodiversity, it’s better for all workers, including those who do not have a formal diagnosis, or even those employees who are not confident enough to ask for changes.
Training your managers to understand the problems neurodiverse people face will help enormously. Try watching the two programmes entitled Inside Our Autistic Minds on BBC iPlayer – this is a real help in trying to understand how people with different levels of autism react in certain situations.
For some people, especially those with some level of autism, they have to have a routine. Deviation from this routine makes them anxious and possibly unable to focus on anything else until they have processed the change. This processing may take some time, unlike an ‘average’ person, who will just look at the change, process it automatically and move on.
So, maybe the first thing to do is to accept those who do have their routine each day.
You should also be aware that these individuals may need more information and time to process that information if there are to be changes in the workplace.
You may need to be more explicit when explaining how things work. Maybe when going through a job description, you may need to explain the unwritten rules of the workplace in terms of how to behave, what to do if there’s a problem, who to speak to if they have concerns, etc. Ensure that they understand that you are trying to help them do their job well rather than making them feel that they are not being good enough.
For those employees who find social interaction difficult, ensure that any feedback is honest, consistent, and constructive if a job isn’t done correctly. Carefully explain what is wrong and explain exactly what they should do instead. Make sure that what you say is very clear and direct as they are unlikely to understand innuendo or someone who goes all around the houses trying to say something. Don’t forget to give positive feedback where it’s due.
You should also be aware that many neurodiverse individuals may have been bullied so their self-esteem may be fairly low.
Most of all, remember that autistic and other neurodiverse individuals make excellent workers, given the correct environment. Many will have a great memory for facts and figures, so may be perfect for an environment where facts/figures/timescales are important, while others will be more visual, remembering every detail of a building or drawing.
So, raise awareness within the company and promote a truly diverse workforce. Always use positive, inclusive language and support neurodiversity in your workplace.