Ahead of World Autism Awareness Week, employers should be thinking about creating an inclusive and supportive working environment for neurodiverse employees. Kate Burnett shares some best practice.
Many businesses are failing to accommodate an increasingly diverse workforce, despite the benefits neurodiversity – conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism – can bring.
With World Autism Awareness Week taking place next week, employers should consider how they can promote equality, awareness and understanding of conditions like autism across their organisations. To help, DMA Talent is leading a neurodiversity initiative which aims to help organisations become more “neurodiverse friendly”, attract a wider talent pool and seek the most capable individuals.
According to the National Autistic Society there are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK and just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time, paid employment. Over three quarters (77%) of autistic people who are unemployed say they want to work.
A poll conducted by the CIPD in 2018 found that just 10% of HR professionals in the UK considered neurodiversity in their organisation’s people management practices. Alarmingly, 72% said neurodiversity was not included. Given around 10% of the UK population is neurodivergent in some way, more needs to be done to support these characteristics at work.
Increasingly, employers are recognising the skills that “people who think differently” can offer, especially in relation to problem solving and creative input. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone with a neurodevelopmental condition, but the point is that this often overlooked talent pool can be a huge asset.
Over the past year, DMA Talent’s Neurodiversity Initiative has worked with experts and leading industry figures with neurodevelopmental conditions to define best practice and develop a forum where businesses can discuss neurodiversity, providing guidance on reasonable adjustments to recruitment procedures and working environments.
Through workshops around the UK and panel sessions at events we have made significant progress in advancing the conversation around neurodiversity at work. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Sensible and realistic changes
Organisations need to start addressing these alarming unemployment statistics by better understanding what they can do to employ and support neurodiverse individuals.
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Awareness-raising workshops and events are a good place to start, but they should not be considered comprehensive training. In-depth training schemes and post-training support for line managers and HR staff are needed to facilitate sensible and realistic changes to how an organisation supports neurodiverse workers.
Additionally, a platform where consultation is available and best practice is shared would help to sustain progress.
Supporting neurodiverse individuals should begin with the recruitment process. This should very much be individualistic, where possible, and employers should create an environment for someone to thrive – not to catch them out or test them in ways that are not relevant to the role.
For interviews, on-the-spot questioning is not always the most productive way to assess a person’s initiative. Someone with an autism spectrum condition may benefit from taking a task away and analysing it in greater detail, then providing their thoughts at a later date.
Some employers find that informal interviews combined with a work trial or skills testing is a better way of assessing skills than a formal interview.
Once they have employed a neurodiverse person, organisations should think about how tasks are assigned. It can be helpful for someone with autism, for example, to receive instructions in clear, concise, plain English, stating what is needed and when. Keeping to deadlines and giving specific timings, where possible, is also helpful.
Be aware of employees’ sensory preferences. Adverse sensory environments, for example open plan offices, have lots of background noise and lights. Consider using desk partitions and low lights, telephones that light up when ringing and noise cancelling headphones if appropriate.
Something we tend to recommend during our workshops is different working zones, which may be separated for ‘creative’ group work and ‘quiet’ project work where analytical tasks can be focused on, noise is minimal and things like lighting are less intrusive. Not everyone operates best in the same conditions and a lot can be learnt about an employee from observing where they prefer to work.
Peer support is often preferred by neurodiverse employees, who can sometimes feel misunderstood in the workplace. Providing staff with resources and allocating time for employees to meet, share advice, support each other with challenges and have a collective voice to raise awareness, can all be beneficial.
Best practice for employers
DMA Talent, in partnership with Matthew Trerise, training and liaison lead at NHS AWP Bristol Autism Spectrum Service – who has 15 years’ experience working with individuals on the autism spectrum – is developing a new series of free neurodiversity guidelines and toolkits.
The first edition focuses on autism and provides expert guidance about adjustments that an autistic individual may benefit from.
Peer support is often preferred by neurodiverse employees, who can sometimes feel misunderstood in the workplace.”
“Many autistic people use intelligence over intuition, and have developed strategies to navigate social situations and relationships,” says Trerise.
“However articulate or intelligent someone is, never underestimate how much hidden processing they might be doing during an interaction. A person with autism can struggle to process facial expressions or body language, and is therefore more likely to take what someone says more literally.
“Employing someone on the spectrum doesn’t need to be challenging for either the employer or employee, although we must equip key personnel with the knowledge and tools to support a diverse workforce.”
The Autism Employer Guidelines will be available to download from the DMA website in May and will discuss:
- Recruitment – whether work trials and skills testing are appropriate
- Interviews – things to consider before, during and after interviews
- Workplace environments – supporting an employee on their first day at work and build equality into organisational structure
- Employee feedback and appraisals
- Sensory environment – how to limit work-related anxiety
- Career development
- Case studies – reviewing a digital agency’s work experience programme with someone on the autism spectrum.
When considering how to support neurodiverse staff, employers need to look at what is best for their employees – they are all individuals who will thrive given the right environment.