How to talk about neurodiversity at work

4 minute read

Neurodivergent employees are being let down. Workplace dynamics expert Richard Martin shares guidance for better supporting neurodivergent individuals, starting with good conversations


How we communicate with each other is an often under-appreciated aspect of working life. How often do we stop to really think about it?

The pandemic saw significant raising of awareness of individual mental health and wellbeing – there was a huge uptake in training, wellness apps and other initiatives focusing on individuals. But these support initiatives, while important and worthy, do not change workplace culture: conversations do.

At Byrne Dean we have spent decades working on the behaviours and cultures found at major organisations, reacting to issues or proactively helping them become kinder, fairer and more productive. One universal truth we’ve noticed is that in every aspect of our work, sooner or later, it comes back to the quality of conversations that take place, with our peers, leaders and the people we manage.

Conversations are where we learn about each other and where the company culture actually lives. You can have nicely worded values on a wall or a company-wide email, but what really matters is an individual's personal experience of day-to-day conversations and if they feel those values are being genuinely shown within them.

And it’s critically important to get it right. For example, a study by Glassdoor showed that company culture is more important to your people’s satisfaction than salary and benefits. Meanwhile, there is a plethora of research on self-determination theory showing that our motivation at work is largely impacted by our feeling of connection to others.

Neurodiversity – a conversation not happening

There are many conversations that workplaces don’t get right, having drastic knock-on effects. A specific example we see regularly is on the topic of Neurodiversity, which is either avoided or often handled poorly.

You may be surprised to know that around one in five people in the UK have a neurodiverse condition. There will be neurodivergent people within your workforce, and very likely many with well-known conditions such as ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorders, whether they are aware of it themselves or not. As knowledge spreads with the internet at our fingertips, children are being assessed much more, and their parents and other adults are learning more about themselves. We can expect this awareness to continue to grow.

Certain professions may even have an inadvertent propensity to hiring people with neurodiverse conditions. In the legal profession, for example, two extremely beneficial skills are fact retention and detached objectivity, which are traits common to some conditions. Conditions that might previously have been labelled ‘disorders’ may in fact be strengths.

Our failure to talk about the topic properly, however, is holding people back in the workforce. Recent research has shown that less than a quarter of HR professionals have had specific training to support neurodivergent employees, resulting in 1 in 3  feeling that they are not able to disclose their condition. Meanwhile, a survey of nearly 1,000 people with such conditions found that 2 in 3 (65%) fear discrimination from management.

We need to get better at talking about the topic broadly at work, to ignite discussions on how someone’s condition is relevant to their working life, what a person’s strengths are and what support they might need.

How do we start talking about it and better support these people?

The best place to start is simple awareness and observation. We see that in small, everyday workplace conflicts people often get labelled as being inherently ‘difficult’ or, put frankly, a ‘pain in the arse’. ‘It’s just how they are’. What we don’t do enough of is observing their behaviour and considering the drivers. Does someone react to situations very differently from how you do? Why might that be? It doesn’t mean that they have a condition but the awareness that they might is critical.

Taking that one step further would be proper training and education. The majority of people simply don’t understand neurodiversity, and humans tend to stigmatise things they don’t understand. Having training where it’s explained and talked about, with effective storytelling, can be a powerful tool to help with this.

Thinking more big-picture, the foundations for having good conversations about sensitive topics are really laid in the culture of your company. Do you honestly have a conversation culture where your people are confident talking about personal matters and stigmatised subjects respectfully?

To do this, you can encourage your people managers (whilst explaining why) to be good role models at being vulnerable to their teams and regularly sharing their own feelings. This could be having regular 1:1 catch-ups and ensuring they touch in on non-work stuff, and starting the conversation with something as simple as ‘how has your week been’ or ‘how are you feeling at the moment?’, rather than jumping straight into work. Do this often and trial new approaches. Make sure you allow time for discovery, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Be aware of different communication styles

When talking to someone who has disclosed to you that they have a neurodivergent condition, you should be aware of the different verbal and non-verbal communication styles involved, and keep these in mind, respectfully.

For example, a conversation can be more comfortable for some people in different formats - for some people it might be easier to put down in writing how they are feeling and having a written exchange rather than talking, or to have their camera off rather than on in a video call. For others, eye contact can feel uncomfortable (often associated with autism) and some people need to move or fidget to be able to listen or focus (often associated with ADHD or sensory processing differences). For some people conversations are very direct and factual and they struggle to understand sarcasm or unwritten rules (often associated with autism). 

Ultimately, what's important here is leaning into it and actually asking people how they work best and what adjustments may need to be made. This is very difficult without the other elements I previously mentioned, educating yourself properly and being a part of a culture where you can talk about sensitive topics respectfully.

Finally, when doing all of this – respect people’s comfort zones. Everyone is different. Someone might tell us, and we can ask if we’re not sure. ‘How would you feel if we spoke about X?’. With time and regular conversations, you should begin to get to know someone better and what might work for them. Always be led by the person you’re talking to.

Neurodivergent employees are being let down. Let’s start talking about it.

Richard Martin, pictured below, is mental health lead at workplace dynamics consultancy Byrne Dean. Their latest training programme, Human Conversations, can help your people talk about topics like neurodiversity at work

Richard Martin, mental health lead at Byrne Dean

Published 19 July 2023
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