I hadn’t heard of the term “neurodivergent” or “neurodiversity” until I began my own personal research into my condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), which I was only diagnosed with when I was 21. Did you know 1 in 7 people (15%)in the UK are neurodivergent? The chances of having team members that sit within this group is higher than you might think, so why are we still lacking the useful information and resources needed to support these people? Personally, I think it’s because mental ‘disabilities’ have only recently become accepted. My grandparents have shared some distressing stories about how people with mental health conditions were treated in the past, from being locked away in a “mental home”, to being drugged up and declared hopeless. If only those people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Tourettes Syndrome etc had the support and understanding we’re starting to see today. No wonder people are hesitant to seek diagnosis and try to ignore their symptoms; we’re recovering from a world where people like us were seen as mental, crazy outcasts!
I saw an incredible video on LinkedIn depicting a hotel (Kimpton Fitzroy London) and their brilliant wheelchair access lift which they managed to “seamlessly integrate with [their] historic architecture”. It was simple, elegant, but most importantly, inclusive without question. As much as I wish more establishments were as proactive in implementing this, it goes without saying that if you see someone struggling physically, you leap in to help them. But what about those with hidden disabilities? How do you know? And how do you build their ideal working environment? Most can walk just fine and they don’t appear to be struggling, so what’s the big deal? It is imperative that we address this mindset to build neurodiverse company cultures.
Neurodiversity simply aims to support all people, no matter how their brains are wired. I always say: We’re different, not deficient. In fact, many people believe that conditions like ADHD, ASD, or other mental health conditions have set symptoms, set needs and don’t cross-over. On the contrary, I firmly believe that being neurodivergent means you have needs spanning across an entire spectrum. I wouldn’t be surprised if a doctor turned around and told me I had ASD too; it’s more common in people with ADHD and I match a lot of the criteria, for example, hypersensitivity of the 5 senses and social anxiety.
We’re all beginning to understand that the need for DEI efforts comes from a lack of awareness of other people’s struggles from those in privileged positions. If you’re a white, able-bodied, straight male, (you get a bonus point for being middle or upper class!) you will not know some of the struggles that, say, a black woman may have faced in her life due to her appearance and gender. Improvements are being made – slowly but surely – and it’s great to see people being honest and talking about how we can stamp out institutional racism and sexism. If we focus all DEI efforts to include people with disabilities too, I truly believe we will have cracked the code for inclusive and progressive industries.
So, how would I describe the perfect formula to build the ideal work culture for ‘people like me’? Firstly, there’s no set blueprint or rules and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but from my own experience, it comes down to these key behaviours:
Gauge authentic discussions and ideas by engaging in focus groups and providing your people with the means to learn. This could be in the form of educational assemblies hosted by experts and people who live with a hidden disability, or simply encouraging your staff to watch resourceful videos. Equipping your team with knowledge and understanding about different needs is the best way to help everyone embrace each and every difference. If my team members fully understood how my ADHD affects my work, I would feel a lot more at ease and comfortable to express myself.
As humans, we grow as individuals by working in fulfilling roles; something that’s meaningful and where we can excel. Too often, people who are neurodiverse are placed in jobs that don’t fit their talents. For example, some might be brilliant at logistics and patterns, system analysis etc, but may be expected to be creative at the same time – that’s not going to work. The same applies the other way round too, as the saying goes; you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. I know from my personal experience that my superpower is being creative, that’s where I thrive. Put me in front of an excel sheet, or ask me to organise a set of systems and I become immobile… it’s just not where my abilities are.
Social and emotional intelligence can be tricky for many neurodivergent people. However, if you encourage a safe space where they can express their personal challenges and discuss what will help, you will witness a more open culture of staff who are comfortable to embrace their individuality. Not everyone is comfortable engaging in laddy, hands-on banter with lots of eye contact, so be aware that other people may be uncomfortable in boisterous environments. If your staff work in the office full time, consider the need for a break-away room where staff can focus on their work in quieter, less stimulating conditions. While I love working with recruitment consultants, they’re on the phone constantly and that can sometimes overwhelm me, especially in an open-plan, brightly-lit office. Thankfully, we have the privilege of being able to work from home 2-3 days a week which is great when I feel I need some space and need to concentrate on deadlines/huge projects that require a lot of my attention.
Going forward, perhaps you could start with an anonymous survey encouraging people to express their personal needs and challenges. It’s important to ensure your people, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent, work together to each other’s strengths to allow each of us to thrive in a more organic, progressive way. Give everyone their unique purpose. You will end up with a cognitively diverse, successful and forward-thinking culture.