Outside the box: neurodiversity and the changing workplace

Neurodiversity in the workplace

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, every day brings more headlines about the future of the office. Among the supporters of working from home are top companies, including Twitter, Reuters and Google, which have extended their remote working policy, some well into 2021.

However, one voice stood out from the crowd. In an op-ed for CNBC, David Aspinall, CEO of Auticon US, a company where two-thirds of employees are autistic, said that his neurodiverse workforce was better prepared to thrive working remotely than a purely neurotypical one.


What the pandemic has shown us is that the office must surely evolve, which could be welcome news for neurodiverse employees in particular. We spoke to three neurodiverse professionals about their experiences in the workplace and about making the office a better place for everyone.

What is neurodiversity?

Definitions…

The term “neurodiversity” is relatively recent. Attributed to sociologist Judy Singe and popularised by journalist Harvey Blume in his 1998 article for The Atlantic, it is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of conditions affecting how the brain works.

Neurodiverse conditions are described as occurring along a spectrum. In its 2018 guide, Neurodiversity at Work, the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) describes brain differences as “a biological fact of the infinite variety of human neurocognition”. These conditions are made up of characteristics that vary with each individual and can even change over time. They can link and overlap as well. Most people think of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in this context, but attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and Tourette syndrome are all part of the neurodiversity spectrum.

…and labels

Neurodivergent conditions are sometimes referred to as “invisible disabilities”, which brings up another debate. Not everyone with a diagnosed condition is comfortable identifying with having a disability, while some disability advocates fear that the neurodiversity movement overshadows challenges faced by individuals with more severe cognitive challenges. This concern about terminology is especially strong with respect to ASD.

For Ashley Peacock, a neurodiverse software developer and founder of digital agency Passio, labels are a necessityboth for employees and their employers. “Society as a whole, at the moment, requires us to focus on labels…I need to have a label so I can get the support that I need,” she said.

Aaron Mountford, an engineering consultant, realises that having ASD and an atypical form of dyslexia “means I’m different, both in the way I act and how I’m seen”. That difference gives him a unique perspective. “It doesn’t define me as ‘disabled’, though, and that’s a big distinction. Usain Bolt’s competitors aren’t disabled because they can’t beat him in a race, so why should I be defined as disabled because my mind works differently to yours? I am as I am, as you are as you are,” he said.

Neurodiversity and the law

Neurodiverse employees have long struggled to have their talents recognised. According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of people with ASD are in full-time employment. As for other neurodiverse conditions, there are no statistics at all.

Workplace discrimination towards people with a disability is illegal in the UK. Under Section 6 of the Equality Act 2010, a disability is any impairment that has “a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”. A company has a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled employees, yet neurodiverse individuals might be hesitant to speak up, especially when the legal terminology is so vague. Ensuring workplace support could also mean divulging highly personal information at the recruitment stage.

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Workplace challenges

To disclose or not to disclose?

For Peacock, the question of whether to disclose her condition came up early in her career. She has a diagnosis of ADHD as well as delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). As a result, the traditional 9 to 5 can be a major obstacle.

Peacock was thrilled when she landed an interview for her dream job, designing a reading app for people with dementia, at a top London university. But her excitement turned to trepidation when the interview was set for 9am. She asked if the interview could be later in the day, but they replied that it was difficult to arrange and wondered if her commute across London was to blame. Peacock recognised a great excuse when she saw one, but decided that divulging her condition was a better option. “If I don’t get the job because they think I’m not capable, that’s okay because I’d much rather work in an environment where I knew people would be accepting of who you are,” she said. Mission accomplished: Peacock worked there for two years and built up her experience, which enabled her to launch her own company.

Sadly, not all employers are as inclusive. Mountford took his first step into engineering at a multinational. He initially chose not to disclose his condition, but it came up during informal discussions with HR. “When they said they wouldn’t have hired me if they had known I was neurodiverse, it made me very wary of divulging that information in any hiring process or workplace from then on,” he said.

Getting support

Asking for support can be equally daunting. Some individuals may not know their rights and what constitutes “reasonable adjustments” in the first place. Junior IT consultant Jason Winstanley works in the London offices of Auticon. Having previously worked in both the public and private sectors, he has come to realise that asking for support and getting it is “a mixed bag”.

“Companies want to put in place adjustments to the workplace, and they want to publicise that they have a neurodiverse workforce, but when it actually comes down to it, the onus is on the employee to know what adjustments they need or want, and then there’s a long process to getting them put in place…and in some cases, reasonable adjustments are declined,” he said.

Flexibility and inclusivity

For Peacock, being upfront helped when she needed to request a personalised work schedule. “The university had a general policy that you had to be in by half ten, but they adapted it for me,” she said. Peacock brought a similar approach to her role as CEO of Passio. At first, employees were surprised. “Daily team meetings start at 11am so that individuals with atypical sleep cycles won’t be at a disadvantage,” she said.

Flexibility is also about having the right support systems in place, explains Mountford. It can be a super difficult thing to face, realising you’re neurodiverse. For some, it can switch on a light and make things click into place… for others it can be a really lonely and awkward realisation that you’re almost on a separate path to everyone around you both professionally and personally. Having a support network, or even the option to access professional support, is really helpful,” he said.

Life during lockdown

Passio’s flexible approach helped employees transition to remote working and ensured that the company continued to flourish. Winstanley has also had a positive experience working remotely for Auticon. Before lockdown, a focus on individual needs created an inclusive working environment based on mutual understanding—despite the vast differences among the workforce. “People don’t think you’re being demanding for no reason, they understand that it’s not something you have control over,” said Winstanley. “Everyone in the office either knows and understands what you’re facing, or faces similar problems, so nobody ever complains or gripes about things…and if we are complaining and griping, usually everyone joins in and rallies behind the cause!”

Winstanley appreciates the positives of remote working, but he feels that the lack of social contact is “a real blow”. “Auticon has done a lot to keep us connected, putting on virtual social events and keeping us regularly informed via email newsletters and such. It’s been great to keep in touch with friends made in the office and seeing everyone else soldier on through these times is heartwarming!” he said.

New ways of thinking—and working

The challenges that Covid-19 has brought the workplace mean that nothing is certain. For Peacock, remote working has been so successful at Passio that she plans to continue for the foreseeable future. And what of the future of the traditional office? “The office space is going to be more geared towards being adaptive because it benefits every single person, not just people who are neurodiverse,” she said.

In the UK, the landscape is changing. GCHQ, the intelligence and security centre, has gone a long way towards making brain differences part of their diversity mandate. This inclusive approach seeks to break down the stereotypes about neurodiverse employees, such as the misconception that everyone with autism is a maths genius or IT whizz. As Winstanley said, “A neurodiverse workforce has the capability to cover many more experiences than a neurotypical one and gives a more representative view of the world. With a neurodiverse workforce, we can make many more achievements than we can compared to a non-neurodiverse team.”

Photo: WTTJ

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