To be neurodiversity inclusive look at the whole workforce and avoid labels

It isn’t useful to divide staff into neurodiverse and neurotypical camps, says Professor Boddison

Professor Adam Boddison, Chief Executive of the Association for Project Management, knows a lot about neurodiversity from his former role at the National Association for Special Educational Needs (nasen).

As Chief Executive, he shifted the use of language around learning disabilities from talking about learning difficulties and learning disabilities to learning differences: “It’s about difference rather than deficits. We must recognise that differences are normal,” he says.

Neurodiversity inclusive – employer perceptions

Boddison is passionate about speaking about learning differences as a strength and believes doing so in the workplace will help firms get more from their neurodiverse employees, whose contributions will be seen as valuable, adding that inaccessibility isn’t the fault of neurodiverse individuals but is due to “the way in which society is set up around them.”

While careful not to make generalisations about neurodiverse conditions, he gives a picture of the positives they can bring to the workplace.

Highlighting dyspraxia first, he says the adversity many have experienced can make them “extremely motivated”, talented strategic thinkers, and good leaders, who can use innovative ways to solve problems. He then moves on to autism, citing the ability of autistic people to quickly develop expertise in what can be very niche areas. “Some of those I’ve met have an incredible memory and real attention to detail” including, he adds, strong analytical skills and the ability to spot patterns that others may miss.

While we’re hearing about more neurodiversity support in schools, this can be lacking in the workplace, but Boddison agrees it’s more to do with poor employer knowledge than being intentionally uninclusive. Many employers, he says, are concerned about causing offence by using the wrong language and fear ending up on the wrong side of equality legislation for failing to provide reasonable adjustments. These mounting fears, driven by lack of knowledge, he continues, makes them see neurodiverse talent as a risk rather than a benefit to their organisation.

For employers to become more inclusive to neurodiverse people, eliminating misconceptions is essential, but can only be done through increasing awareness about the facts. One of them is around ability. “While there are neurodiverse people that have some intellectual disabilities, equally, there are others who are incredibly gifted in their intellectual and cognitive abilities.”

Seeing neurodiversity inclusion as part of wider workforce inclusion

Perhaps controversially, he believes providing workplace adjustments purely for neurodiverse staff can be ineffective: “The things that will work to make a workplace more accessible and inclusive for neurodiverse people are often just good practice for all employees,” he explains.

The key, Prof Boddison infers, is not to divide staff into neurodiverse vs neurotypical camps but provide workplace adjustments that benefit all. He gives the example of low stimulation workstations, which are desks situated away from busy areas in an office and can help neurodiverse and other staff concentrate.

Allowing for regular movement breaks throughout the day is another suggestion as well as providing standing desks. “As you replace desks through the natural office cycle, replace everything with adjustable desks so employees can choose whether they want to sit or stand. That’s the kind of thing I would expect leaders to be putting into place as the standard in the future,” he says.

Another reason not to take neurodiverse employees as a separate group is the fact that there are so many of them in the workplace. Boddison refers to statistics from the ADHD Foundation that suggest in a typical business around 30-40% of people are neurodiverse. He adds that, in a large organisation of 250 employees, this means there could be between 75 to 100 people with neurodiverse conditions. This considered it’s clear why he believes that adjustments made to improve their experience should be implemented as a workforce-wide approach.

Turning the conversation to work styles, Boddison advises employers not to assume that all neurodiverse employees will prefer one form. “When we think about remote and hybrid working over the past couple of years, some people have really valued the flexibility it brings. But equally, some people have found it very difficult, and I think that’s true for neurodiverse people as well.”

When it comes to neurodiverse talent, he thinks that some employers worry about the communications aspect of their roles and whether they are comfortable in social situations. “Remote and hybrid working could be good for some neurodiverse people if it removes some of the social situations they find difficult in the physical workplace, but it’s a double-sided sword because equally, if they’re trying to pick up on social cues, and that’s already something that is a challenge, then trying to do that in an online environment, such as a Teams or Zoom meeting, can be even harder,” he says.

When in doubt – opt for flexibility

Boddison advises that employers opt for work style flexibility for all staff, regardless of their characteristics. This is something his current organisation has embraced, where they are only required to be in the office for a minimum of four days a month and are given flexibility about when to do it. “From our perspective, risk is a key area of project management. I would say there’s greater risk in trying to force employees to operate in a particular way that may not work for them.”

“We don’t explicitly identify neurodiversity within the workplace, and I don’t think we need to,” Prof Boddison concludes. “The key is focusing on developing a really inclusive workplace environment so that those with neurodiversity feel welcomed and can thrive. It’s not about saying ‘well you’re neurodiverse and you’re neurotypical’. In fact, I saw a great a great poster on the tube in London which said labels are for bottles, not people.”

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