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Dispelling myths of neurodiversity in the workplace

Research suggests that 15-20% of the labour force is neurodivergent

The neurodiversity awareness movement has been in full swing for a few years now, and has revolutionised our understanding of individual differences at work.

Today, we’ve got a much better understanding of hidden disability. Those who have trouble with spelling, aren’t comfortable in groups, can’t sit still or get lost easily are different, not difficult.

Judgements such as 'in my day, people were just naughty/lazy/stupid' have been unpicked, and the knowledge that humans have diversity in neurocognitive functions that determine behaviour has landed.

Read more: Neurodiversity and PIPs: Dropping the mask

Even more, we now acknowledge that people who struggle with spelling might be good with visuals; those who aren’t comfortable in groups might be wonderful with data insight, and those who struggle to sit still are incredibly creative. People who get lost easily might be the most intuitive communicators.  

This opening of a compassionate, curious and respectful view of co-workers who are ‘not like us’, is very welcome, but neurodiversity myths still persist.

Myth one: difference is not the same as disability

Diagnosis rates are soaring, and services can’t keep up. But diagnosis does not equal disability. Disability, according to legislation across most developed economies, defines disability as the extent to which one is compromised in normal day-to-day activities. An autistic person who does not have concurrent developmental disabilities, and is in a role and location that suits their sensory sensitivity may not be disabled. A dyslexic who is fully able to use assistive technology and in a suitable role and location may not be disabled.

However, if those individuals are struggling to perform, without adjustments, in an area related to their neurodivergence, they may well be disabled. But it isn’t an automatic for neurodivergence, or indeed many physical conditions such as hearing loss and diabetes.

Myth two: diagnosis must come before disability support

The UK Equality Act’s definition of disability means that we don’t have to wait for diagnosis before we act to support. Indeed, failing to act when a disabling level of functional performance is consistently observed, even without diagnosis, has been found to be discriminatory in legal cases.

With waiting lists as long as they are, waiting for a diagnosis first is the biggest barrier to neuroinclusion.

Read more: Neurodiversity: a legal perspective

The most popular adjustments are reducing sensory overwhelm for tasks that require concentration. These are about flexible use of space and scheduling; they don’t have to cost anything at all. The second most popular adjustments are coaching support for organisational skills and time management. These adjustments have a cost, but far less than diagnosis.

Given all this, why are we waiting to act? The gatekeeping of such adjustments has dramatic effects. It can result in long waits with productivity languishing, managers rescuing, and teams getting into conflict around what is 'fair'.

The point of adjustments is to remove barriers and enable participation at work, that should be our focus.

Myth three: disability does not mean doing half the job

Many managers believe they can’t talk about performance with neurodivergent staff, and then they run themselves into the ground trying to make up the lost work or correcting serious errors. This is not kindness, it is unsustainable. It comes as a great surprise to the neurodivergent individual when the manager runs out of capacity, and they find themselves in a formal HR conversation.

Talking about performance earlier, and more directly, gives the neurodivergent employee time to meet their potential. It forms the basis of solid expectations. For an employee with skills we want to keep, we need to provide adjustments, redesign roles, or redeploy rather than cover up.

Looking to the future

Given that research suggests that 15%-20% of the labour force is neurodivergent and current diagnosis rates are nowhere near those levels, it is time to talk about capacity.

The current model of waiting for failure and helping one person at once is inefficient. We need to flip the cost model and consider how we can flex existing work routines to be more neuroinclusive from the start. Managers try their best but they need permission to adapt environments, equipment and schedules as part of everyday performance.

It is high time for a strategic, universal approach to neurodiversity at work. As theologian Desmond Tutu put it: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

By Nancy Doyle, founder of neurodiversity support organisation Genius Within