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Neurodiversity at work

'Neurodiversity' is a relatively new term that refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other neurological conditions. These are 'spectrum' conditions, with a wide range of characteristics, but which nevertheless share some common features in terms of how people learn and process information.

Some of these conditions are referred to as 'Specific Learning Difficulties' or SpLD. 'Neurodiversity' is a broader reference to the diversity of the human brain and people's 'neurocognitive functioning' and, unlike the SpLD title, reflects the fact that these conditions are not solely related to learning and also that they can confer strengths as well as weaknesses.

pdf  Neurodiversity at work [1Mb] Ref: 09/15
Helen Bewley and Anitha George (National Institute of Economic and Social Research)
Research paper looking at neurodiversity as an issue that impacts on workplace relations.
 

New research undertaken for Acas has approached this subject of 'neurodiversity' specifically within the context of employment and the workplace. It seeks to identify policies and practices which help people with these conditions get work and flourish within a diverse workforce. It is based on case studies of two organisations who are good practice employers in many ways, coupled with expert testimony from a number practitioners operating in the field. Many of these experts have also contributed posts to a series of themed blogs to accompany the publication of the research.

Across the research, some common themes are in evidence:

  • Problems with underperformance are particularly likely to arise where managers are not aware of somebody's neurological condition. Disclosure can be very helpful in preventing performance issues - but this needs to be handled carefully. A working environment in which employees are accepted and have the chance to play to their strengths is key.
  • When dealing with performance issues, there is a need to be sensitive and conscious of the extent to which the employee needs guidance (or alternatively wishes to input into the process themselves). Clear communications are crucial and these should focus on the individual's strengths as well as their areas of weakness.
  • Recruitment processes can be a potential barrier to neurodiversity and care should be taken to avoid being discriminatory - simple solutions include offering multiple application methods, avoiding ambiguous/generic job adverts, setting only relevant tasks at the interview stage and ensuring that the selection process gives candidates the chance to demonstrate their abilities in different ways.
  • Greater awareness can help. Employers should be proactive in providing information on neurodiversity for those with neurological conditions as well as for those without.  Employees with certain conditions are not always fully aware of the ways in which it might affect their ability to perform particular work tasks.  In particular, having access to a network of employees can be an invaluable source of information and support.
  • Some aspects of good support and management apply to all employees generally, not just those with neurological conditions: giving clear instructions, ensuring staff are not overloaded, providing a working environment that is free of distractions. Allowing staff to channel themselves into tasks where they can excel rather than demanding that they continue to perform tasks where they are less suited can benefit the majority.  Placing too much emphasis on 'all-round' generic competencies can disadvantage staff with neurological conditions who may have highly-specialised skills that could be harnessed differently.
  • Other practices do require tailoring to the individual, for example, in the case of autistic staff, leading discussions and solutions-finding, communicating unambiguously and providing advance notice of changes so that individuals can be fully-prepared. In providing appropriate support, think not just about employees' roles and their work environments but about a wider range of situations e.g. training. And bear in mind that these are spectrum conditions and that characteristics will vary across individuals and how they cope with the associated characteristics of their condition over time.
  • The potential merits of having a neurodiverse workforce should not be overlooked. Positive attributes commonly associated with this group include creativity, lateral thinking, bringing a 'different perspective', development of highly specialised skills and the consistency in tasks once mastered. Provided ways of minimising any areas of weakness can be put in place, employers should be attuned to the possible benefits and even the competitive advantages that may be possible from having employees who think differently.


Neurodiversity blogs

Acas have partnered with expert practitioners working in the field. Read what they have to say in a series of themed blogs that explore the workplace dimensions of some of the different specific conditions at issue.