Recent estimates put the number of neurodivergent people at around 30% of the population. With more employers realising the benefits of having diverse skill-sets amongst their workforce, it’s essential that business leaders are aware of neurodiversity traits in order to prepare themselves for any adjustments that may be necessary to allow these employees to perform at their best. These are also useful to keep in mind for those staff members who may be neurodivergent but are undiagnosed at present.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ was coined by Judy Singer, a sociologist who herself is on the autistic spectrum. Rather than treating neurodivergence as a range of conditions to be treated, Singer emphasised that those with the likes of autism, ADHD, dyslexia or Tourette’s syndrome have different thought-processes instead.
Singer’s work helped the neurodiversity movement grow, resulting in greater awareness from the medical profession, which has since translated to other areas of day-to-day life, such as employment. Read our article on why your business needs to adopt an inclusive recruitment policy to find out more.
The key takeaway is to keep an open mind and to constantly top up your own knowledge. Being non-judgemental in challenging circumstances can lead to better outcomes, and enable neurodivergent individuals to focus on their strengths, benefitting your business and securing an advantage over your competitors.
Those with neurodivergence may find typical communication difficult. They may dislike eye-contact, be unable to function in a multiple-voice scenario, and prefer certain communication methods over others – for example, a preference for email over the telephone. Small-talk is a challenge for many, a behavioural trait which may come across as aloof or unfriendly if there’s a lack of knowledge or understanding from others.
Sensory issues are often a challenge for neurodivergent employees. There may be a sensitivity to bright light, temperature, crowds of people, noises that neurotypical people don’t notice and background distractions such as other people moving around.
It’s often pointed out by experts that neurodivergent individuals have an ability to think ‘outside the box’, finding original ideas or solutions to workplace problems. The Neurodivergent Magic self-help site explains this as thinking in spirals rather than straight lines, enabling people to see multiple points of view rather than a one-option, linear approach.
Research shows that neurodivergent people can be 30% more productive than their neurotypical colleagues. This is very much dependent upon allowing individuals to work to their strengths. Challenges when working with neurodivergent employees often arise when they’re given mundane tasks to complete that they’re unable to focus on, as opposed to enabling them to play to their strengths.
Most people have interests, but neurodivergent people may become hyper-focused on their own interests, more than neurotypical. This could be perceived as a fixation or obsession, and when discussing their interests, they may become over-animated or garble their language due to excitement or the verbal processing of their thoughts.
Most of us daydream, but neurodivergent people may appear to daydream more than others, particularly those with ADHD. This isn’t down to laziness or a lack of desire to focus on the work required. It’s simply because some people find the contents of their imagination more stimulating than the contents of the outside world. Consider ways to keep work varied, stimulating and deadline oriented.
One of many symptoms of neurodiversity is taking longer to fall asleep and sometimes having sleep apnea. This can lead to further difficulties when it comes to day-to-day work. For example, having set working hours can be a real challenge for those who’ve been unable to sleep the night before.
Furthermore, another neurodiversity symptom to be aware of is quicker fatigue. Some everyday interactions, such as small talk or group meetings, may be draining for someone with autism or ADHD.
Some people with neurodivergence may be unable to process their emotions in commonly-accepted ways. It’s often down to overstimulation, caused by too much noise or multiple activities occurring at the same time.
An overstimulated neuroatypical person may simply need to remove themselves from a situation and have quiet time alone. Failing that, behaviour such as a verbal or physical outburst or a ‘clamming up’ may occur, which may be surprising to others who feel no stress whatsoever from a particular situation.
Some neurodivergent people may exhibit physical symptoms such as facial tics or leg tremors. These may occur more frequently at times of overstimulation. Understanding and identifying these as neurodiverse-related symptoms is very useful to the individual in question, as opposed to drawing attention to them.
Neurodivergent employees may not be the loudest voices in the room nor show much interest in team socials or other such events. Don’t be offended by a lack of sociability, and remember to focus on skill-sets and work-related behaviour. Joining in with every activity simply isn’t for everyone and should have no bearing on a person’s ability to thrive at their job.
When it comes to managing neurodiversity symptoms, a little knowledge goes a long way:
Being aware of neurodiverse behaviour can prevent problems and challenges from escalating. This should go beyond management – all levels of your business should be aware of neurodiversity and receive regular training updates. This can help when it comes to hiring a neurodivergent employee as well as when working with someone whose neurodivergence may be undiagnosed. Organisations such as Creased Puddle are a great source of information and guidance for employers looking to increase their understanding.
Many of the challenges associated with neurodiverse employees can be reduced by forward planning. You can discuss potential challenges with an individual and work with them to create a bespoke workplace solution that will enable them to thrive. For example, they may simply need a quieter space in the office or be able to work undisturbed by colleagues.
If a person in your workplace feels confident that they will be supported when disclosing their challenges, they are more likely to do so. Keeping an open mind and being flexible with ways of working can help neurodiverse employees thrive and achieve their full potential. Reacting to neurodivergent behaviour in an authoritative way is unlikely to bring a positive solution. But being adaptable when it comes down to individual needs may be all it takes.
Alongside making changes within the workplace, consider the benefits of flexible hours or work-from-home/hybrid options. Discuss any options with the person involved – provide opportunities for a person to excel, and they probably will.
Working alongside neurodivergent individuals offers a huge opportunity to learn and grow as a business. Identifying ways to support specific employee needs early on, can help minimise any potential negative impact on the employee experience and allow your team to move forward as one.
Maximise your awareness levels of neurodivergent symptoms, and your business will be able to reap the benefits of highly talented skill-sets, making your workplace an accessible place for everyone to thrive.
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