In today’s fast-changing technological environment, an employer needs to recognise the many strengths of neurodiverse individuals: creativity, innovation, outside-the-box thinking, problem-solving skills, unique perspectives and insights, perseverance and resilience. These qualities can, with effective support and understanding, give businesses a competitive edge.
The following guide for employers, line managers and HR personnel examines what is meant by neurodiversity in the workplace, from what protection neurodivergent workers are afforded by law, especially in the context of equal rights at work, to how these workers should be managed and supported. We also look at ways in which neurodiversity in the workplace can be nurtured, harnessing an individual’s unique set of skills, both for the benefit of the business and the individual’s own engagement and progression.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity denotes the natural differences in human brain function and behavioural traits.
The term neurodiversity is used to refer to the different ways in which the brain interprets information, emphasising the fact that people naturally think about things differently, with different ways of processing ideas and data. This is because people have various interests and motivations, and are naturally better at certain things and poorer at others.
Most people are neurotypical, which means that the brain functions and processes information in a way that society expects. In other words, a neurotypical person’s brain-functioning is aligned with the prevailing idea of what is considered ‘normal’ functioning. However, it is estimated that more than 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent, where the cognitive functioning of a neurodivergent individual will differ from the ‘norm’.
Some of the most common conditions demonstrating these differences are:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Tourette’s Syndrome
These conditions or alternative thinking styles bring unique and valuable strengths into the workplace, for example, making unexpected connections, spotting patterns, thinking visually, simplifying processes, processing information at speed and data-driven thinking.
What are the different types of neurodiversity?
Most forms of neurodivergence are said to be experienced along a spectrum, where each neurodivergent individual will have a range of associated characteristics which can vary in combination and degree. This means that the characteristics displayed by a person with one or more neurological condition will not necessarily match another person with the same condition(s). The effects on the individual in question, or their handling of the challenges associated with their condition, can also dramatically differ over time.
As an individual will often present with the characteristics of more than one type of neurodivergence, it is important that anyone suffering with a neurodivergent condition is not stereotyped according to the more well-known characteristics. For example, not all individuals with autism will be highly numerate, neither will all of those diagnosed with dyslexia have insurmountable difficulties with functional literacy. Still, having an overall awareness of some of the traits indicative of each type of neurodivergent condition can be helpful, not least when it comes to understanding neurodiversity in the workplace.
The indicative traits that each type of neurodivergent condition can have are as follows:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD): symptoms of ADHD can be categorised into two different types of behavioural problems; 1) inattentiveness and 2) hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Many people with ADHD will have problems that fall into both of these categories, but this is not always the case. For example, some people may have difficulty with concentration and focus, but not with hyperactivity or impulsiveness. This form of ADHD is also known as attention deficit disorder (ADD), where sufferers of ADD can sometimes go unnoticed because their symptoms may be less obvious.
- Autism: symptoms of autism can include a person finding it hard to say how they feel, or to understand what others are thinking or feeling, feeling anxious about social situations, struggling to make friends or preferring to be alone, having the same routine every day and liking to plan things carefully before doing them. This condition essentially impacts how an individual perceives the world and interacts with others, making it difficult for them to detect social cues and interpret these. Social interactions are often challenging for autistic people as they struggle reading people and expressing their own emotions.
- Dyslexia: this is a learning difficulty that affects language processing, mainly causing problems with aspects of reading, writing and spelling. This condition does not affect intelligence in any way, although a person with dyslexia may have difficulties in processing information quickly and understanding information that is written down, as well as with memory retention, planning, organisation and sequencing.
- Dyspraxia: also known as developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), dyspraxia is a condition that not only impacts movement and physical co-ordination, but organisation of thought. Dyspraxia does not affect intelligence, although a dyspraxic person may have speech impediments or appear very clumsy, struggling with tasks that require balance or the use of fine motor skills, such as writing or using small objects. They might also have difficulties with tasks that demand planning, structure, organisation or time-keeping.
What does the law say about neurodiversity at work?
When it comes to neurodiversity in the workplace, a number of key employment rights and responsibilities arise. First and foremost, all workers have the right not to be discriminated against by reason of a protected characteristic, including disability. A disability is classed as any physical or mental impairment having a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities, including any lifelong neurodivergent condition which significantly impacts on a person’s day-to-day life.
Protection against discrimination is a day one right, where a worker does not have to meet any qualifying service requirement to be afforded protection from unfair treatment. This is a right which continues throughout the lifecycle of employment, including in training and promotion, performance management, as well as any disciplinary and dismissal matters.
Equally, a job applicant has the right not to be refused employment, or otherwise treated unfairly throughout the recruitment process, by reason of disclosing or displaying common characteristics associated with a neurodivergent condition. For the employer, this means that they must not discriminate against any prospective or existing neurodivergent worker, where any unfair treatment may result in a claim for unlawful disability discrimination.
Employers are also under a statutory duty to make reasonable adjustments for any member of staff suffering with a neurodivergent condition, as well as a duty, so far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of its employees. This means that an employer must take steps to protect a neurodivergent employee from things like working excessive hours, being overloaded with work, and from any bullying or harassment in the workplace. The employer must also provide appropriate support measures to ensure that an individual is not put at a substantial disadvantage, when compared with non-disabled workers, from doing their job role. This could include, for example, the provision of flexible working arrangements, quiet rest areas or additional training and mentoring.
Any failure to comply with the statutory duty to ensure the health and wellbeing of anyone suffering from a neurodivergent condition could result in a claim for constructive dismissal, where that person feels forced to resign because of this. If the employer’s breach results in employee burnout, this could also result in a claim for personal injury, where anyone with a neurodivergent condition may be more susceptible to work-related stress. Finally, a failure to provide reasonable adjustments can again result in a claim for disability discrimination.
Neurodivergence & equality law
The key legislation that relates to neurodiversity in the workplace is the Equality Act 2010. This Act consolidated and expanded previous employment equalities legislation (including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995).
This provides them with legal protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation that relates to their condition.
Understanding disability rights plays an important part of an employer’s role in the context of equality and diversity at work. This means that employers must ensure that disabled workers are not treated unfairly by reason of either a physical or mental impairment, including neurodivergence, otherwise risk a claim for unlawful disability discrimination.
Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments. The Act places additional duties on public sector employers (the public sector equality duty).
Not all neurodivergent workers will consider themselves to be disabled. Workers have the right to identify (or not identify) with the term as they see fit.
Under the Equality Act 2010, neurodivergent workers are, however, likely to meet the legal definition of disability. This provides them with important rights to reasonable adjustments, and protections against discrimination, harassment, and victimisation. There are also additional duties on public sector employers.
The Government’s statutory guidance to the Equality Act states that: ‘A disability can arise from a wide range of impairments which can be …developmental, such as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia and dyspraxia.’
Workers are also protected against ‘discrimination by association.’ This may arise when a worker is treated less favourably because they have a dependent with a neurodivergent condition (e.g. parents or carers).
Disability has a specific legal definition, and claims of discrimination and failure to make reasonable adjustments will be assessed against the criteria that definition sets out. Workers should nevertheless be cautious about making statements to the effect of ‘I don’t consider myself to be disabled,’ as such remarks may be quoted back at them by a hostile employer.
For some claims to succeed, it is necessary to demonstrate that the employer knew, or should have known, about a person’s disability (depending on the category of discrimination).
When an employer disputes the fact that a person has a disability under the Equality Act, the burden of proof falls on the claimant. For invisible disabilities, such as neurodivergent conditions, this is likely to involve the providing or commissioning of expert evidence.
Managing neurodiverse workers
It can be difficult for an employer to know how best to manage and support neurodiversity in the workplace, not least because the range of neurodivergent characteristics can vary from individual to individual. This uncertainty can also often be compounded by the fact that neurodivergent workers may not have openly disclosed their condition at work.
However, having become aware that a member of staff has a neurodivergent condition — either because they have expressly disclosed this, or where a person is having difficulty in dong their job and displays a number of neurodivergent characteristics — the employer’s attention should turn to undertaking a workplace needs assessment to identify ways in which they can support that person. This should be regardless of whether or not the worker is perceived as suffering from a disability, where implementing suitable support measures can help the employer to discharge their duty to ensure an employee’s mental wellbeing.
A workplace needs assessment does not need to be overly formal, but can start with a line manager or member of HR talking to the individual about what they struggle with and where their strengths lie, as well as what they think may assist them. The worker may not have all the answers, but they could potentially identify a number of adjustments that can be used to lay the foundations of a suitable support package.
Having trialled any initial suggestions, and where more support is still needed, the employer should consider securing an occupational health assessment, provided the person agrees to this. This should provide the employer with specific advice and recommendations on what further adjustments could be made to help support the neurodivergent worker, based on their unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the context of their job role.
Subject to the individual’s agreement, adjustments that might be appropriate for a neurodivergent member of staff could include the following:
- adjustments to their work schedule: for example, changing the person’s working day to start earlier or finish later; encouraging other forms of flexible working arrangements, including remote-working; allowing extra breaks and focusing more on their productivity; and allowing breaks to take place when needed, rather than a pre-determined schedule.
- adjustments to their role and responsibilities: for example, reviewing their workload and agreeing what duties they can do; reassigning duties that are difficult and are non-essential to their role; prioritising tasks that make the most of their strengths; and allowing flexibility, where possible, in the order and way in which tasks are completed.
- adjustments to their working environment: for example, providing partitions or room dividers to enhance visual barriers and soundproofing between workspaces; positioning the person as far away as possible from any noise or allowing the use of noise cancelling headphones; providing a space to use when they need privacy or quiet, providing daylight desk lamps or adjustable light levels; allowing standing desks; providing whiteboards, cabinets, lockers, post-it notes and/or coloured pens to assist memory and organisation; providing visible instructions next to office equipment and machinery, such as photocopiers; and offering reserved parking spaces to make it easier to get to work.
- technological support: for example, providing an online organiser to help with time management and prioritising tasks; purchasing speech recognition/speech-to-text software; providing a digital recorder to tape meetings and conversations to refer back to later; making information available in alternative formats, such as allowing the font size or background colour of documents to be amended; providing dual screens to increase visible working space; and purchasing apps that help to monitor mood or stress levels.
Other ways to provide a supportive working environment for anyone with a neurodivergent condition could include assigning the worker with a mentor or buddy, offering additional training on the skills and duties that their job requires, and arranging a regular one-to-one with their line manager or team leader to discuss and prioritise tasks.
How should neurodiversity in the workplace be nurtured?
Importantly, employing a neurodivergent worker is not all about what an employer must do or provide so as to help that person, where the potential benefits to employers of having a neurodiverse workforce can be significant. This is because neurodivergent workers very often possess specialist skills or high aptitude in certain areas, where their positive attributes can be harnessed both for the good of the business and for them professionally.
For example, people with ADHD can often be good at completing urgent tasks and pushing on through set-backs, whilst those on the autistic spectrum are often very thorough in their work, punctual and rule-observant. Equally, people with dyslexia can have good problem-solving skills, with high levels of creativity and verbal communication, whilst those with dyspraxia can have excellent literacy skills and a natural ability to think laterally.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which employers can not only help to support any areas in which a neurodivergent worker may struggle, but to play to their strengths, ensuring that these workers flourish. These can include awareness training for managers, especially in the context of equality and discrimination; workplace policies and practices which do not disadvantage those with neurodivergent conditions; and a neurodiversity policy, or an equal opportunities or disability policy dealing with neurodivergence.
In these and various other ways, employers can begin to create a positive, supportive and inclusive workplace culture: one in which staff feel confident to disclose their condition and seek the support that they may need, because acceptance of neurodiversity is the norm, as well as one in which employers can fully realise the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce.
Tips to support neurodiverse employees
Help them understand social rules in the workplace. For example:
- Make clear what is expected of them
- Do not assume they will be able to learn just from observing others
- Explain what is expected of them in unstructured times at work
- Help them understand when to join in
- Making and building relationships/friendships
- Use literal communication in social relations
- Enlist the support of peers
- Provide a ‘buddy system’
- When to refer to others and where boundaries lie
- It is important to make it clear what your role as an employer is and where it ends
- Speak about local support networks and signpost/put them in touch where wanted/needed
- Ensure the individual is involved in this process
In summary, support strategies are:
- Ensure they know what to do during unstructured times
- Break down instructions
- Understand that learning new tasks can take longer
- Multitasking can be difficult so allow them to complete one task before giving them another
- Notebooks or cards can be useful or ensure the individual knows where to find the next task
- Understand some communication roles may be difficult e.g., using the telephone
Neurodiversity in the workplace FAQs
What are the benefits of neurodiversity for employers?
The strengths of neurodiverse individuals - creativity, innovation, outside-the-box thinking, problem-solving skills, unique perspectives/insights, perseverance and resilience - can give businesses a competitive edge.
Is neurodiversity classed as a disability?
For the purposes of equality law, some neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, and dyscalculia, are recognised as disabilities.
What is neurodiversity in the workplace?
Neurodiversity in the workplace refers to the ways in which an employer can create a positive, supportive and inclusive culture for anyone suffering with a neurodivergent condition, such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia.
How do you embrace neurodiversity in the workplace?
A good way for employers to embrace neurodiversity in the workplace would be to allow neurodivergent workers to channel themselves into tasks where they excel, rather than demanding that they continue to perform tasks to which they are less suited.
What are examples of neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity in the workplace is about ways in which employers can support neurodivergent workers, where examples of neurodivergent conditions can include attention deficit disorders, such as ADHD, as well as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Why does neurodiversity matter in the workplace?
Neurodiversity in the workplace is not only important for employers when it comes to discharging their duty to provide reasonable adjustments for anyone with a disability, including neurodivergent conditions, but to ensure that these workers flourish.
Last updated: 11 December 2022