Neurodiversity: How Can We Engage in Inclusivity in the Workplace?

I’ve Been Hurting My Son for 18 Years!

Now before you become outraged, let me explain…

My youngest son has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Now I will admit I’ve always known my son is ‘different’ from other kids. He had traits that manifested in his early years. He could do complex jigsaws at the age of two. One with ‘Fireman Sam’ aged 4 would take him seconds to complete. Each week I would buy him another with a different level of complexity. Each time he lay the pieces out, look at them for 30 seconds and then laid them seamlessly together with ease. I even challenged him a few times by not showing him the picture on the box!

As he developed, I found that he needed a strict routine, from timings to laying out his clothes for the next day. If, as kids do, he got dirty and we’d have to change him, he would have a tantrum and be off for days.

He loved playing with small cars and had a collection of over 200 at one point. He’d line them all up around his room and I would play a game where he would leave the room, I’d take one out of the sequenced line and he had to guess which one was missing. He’d identify the missing car within 20 seconds.

His First Drawing With a Crayon was 3D!

He didn’t like drawing for years and anything less than what he deemed perfect in his mind, he would screw it up and say it was rubbish. In his mind it’s either right or wrong, there is no in-between metric.

This was when I started to study his differences. At that time there was no real help. No one was talking about Neurodiversity. The health visitor just said he’s a bright kid and it’s nothing to worry about. He only had a handful of kids he liked to spend time with, and he didn’t seem interested in being around others. He is very close to his elder brother, and that’s never changed.

Now getting back to my scary statement earlier, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I had realised as a parent…

2 year old child solving jigsaw puzzle

I Had Been Hurting My Child!

You see he doesn’t like to be touched and I being his mum have been hugging him every morning and night before he went to bed! I didn’t know. It didn’t enter my head that he didn’t like it. But it came out last year when I removed him from University after experiencing what I can only call a psychotic break. He was stressed due to the environment of online learning, not being able to communicate in the way he needs to, and not having any support offered to him. No encouragement from tutors and last minute changes added pressure. This resulted in him having a manic episode. He didn’t eat or sleep, just walked around in a circle talking to himself for four days!

He finds it hard to talk about difficult things, but it came out that he doesn’t like to be hugged and now I respect that boundary. Now we say good night differently. I asked him how I can express my love for him, and what he sees. I asked him what he needs, and I asked him what he doesn’t need.

The point I’m making is…

I ASKED Him

Now, why am I telling you this very personal story… well bear with me and I will get to the point, so just keep reading… I promise you it will be worth it.

So with my son being recently been diagnosed as having Asperger’s, it made me really think about Neurodiversity in the workplace. As an HR professional, it’s expected that we have a policy on this. No doubt there are still too many companies out there that rely heavily on the handbook than on actually adding impact, but if there’s a policy to be had, you can bet your bottom dollar, HR will have one!

Close up of employee handbook with pen and glasses next to it

I personally think HR lost its way over the years and become so focused on policy and not on people. Less Human. Even though the clue is in the title.

HR will always have a policy on Diversity and Inclusion in that ever-growing handbook which is now eye rollingly* longer than a Harry Potter novel. (* Yes I did just make up that word).

The thing is with a policy, it’s just words and very few companies are truly inclusive, few are walking the talk. So, I wanted to share some insights with you from not only my son but several people I respect from my community (others know it as Linkedin connections).

Let’s Get Neurodiversity Right From the Start

When you start out by saying you can manage Neurodiversity in the workplace with a few ‘reasonable adjustments’ you can see the colour drain from the CEO’s face. They automatically think it’s going to cost more.

In some incidences that might well be the case, however, when we are talking about the Great Resignation and the cost of recruiting people, it will be worth the investment. But on the whole, these adjustments are so minor in costs but the impact being truly inclusive, is insurmountable.

And so what if it takes a bit of effort, wouldn’t it be worth it to have those unique diverse thinking and skills in your business? Isn’t that one way you could stand out from your competitors?  Isn’t that amazing for your brand? Doesn’t that hyper-performance mean you get more for the same?

HR is Not a Doctor

Businesses are starting to recognise the importance of understanding Neurodiversity. However, HR needs more education and support to understand what neurodiversity means fully.

It falls to HR to become the expert and to be quite frank this is such an enormous field of expertise how is this even possible? Companies need to invest in real education for anyone who manages people, not just HR, and recognise this is an area of specialisation.

Neurodiversity in the World of Work 

My son is nothing short of brilliant. Now of course I would say that …I’m his mum., but hear me out.

Neurodiverse people don’t come with a Badge. Being Neurodiverse means you have a set of very specialist skills that you can’t see.

These are the Extraordinary Skills he Brings:

  • 1. He has a partial photographic memory, so can skim read and take it all in and retain it.
  • 2. He draws in 3D because that is how it shows up in his brain.
  • 3. He doesn’t use a calculator…doesn’t need to… his brain works quicker than any excel spreadsheet.
  • 4. He is very computer and program savvy. He can code from learning on YouTube.
  • 5. He can learn other languages with ease.
  • 6. His design skills are mind-blowing.
  • 7. He is a visual learner.
  • 8. He makes all our flat pack furniture since the age of 8! He looks at the box, lays the prices out and without looking at any instructions… sees it in 3D and puts it together with ease.
  • 9. He’s always on time.

Now This is What Struggles With:

  • 1. He struggles in social environments.
  • 2. He can’t read emotions, social cues, and lacks empathy.
  • 3. He needs routine and doesn’t adapt to change very well.
  • 4. He won’t speak out or ask if he’s not sure of something openly.
  • 5. He lives in realms of exactness and literal terms. Anything less than perfect stresses him out.
  • 6. His brain doesn’t tell him he’s hungry …I wish my could learn that trait!!
  • 7. He has OCD, everything is in order of height, alphabet, size, colour.

Aspergers is closely linked with depression and some days he really struggles to get out of bed. If he’s experienced some disappointment, for example when he failed his driving test twice, he couldn’t get out of bed for days.

Anything less than perfect in his head means it sh!t… there is no grey area.

The Way Forward in Neurodiversity… Practical Ideas

Recruitment

Recruitment concept searching for employee with wooden blocks

Stop writing a policy saying you are inclusive when you clearly aren’t.

Offer infographic /visual/video job descriptions rather than two pages of waffle. (I have examples if anyone wants to reach out and ask for them).

It’s customary to shake someone’s hand when you meet them at an interview. Many Neurodiverse people don’t like to be touched. Have you asked people if they prefer a handshake?

Your recruitment practices are not inclusive. How many of you out there, offer any kind of pre-boarding for interviews? Have you checked if the interviewee needs anything to support them in their interview? Have you offered low lighting? Use of a lamp rather than using the overbearing lights in the meeting room? An alternative way of getting to the meeting room, rather than walk through a noisy office. Noise-cancelling headphones while they wait. Have you considered what impact your last-minute changes have on people?

Have You Considered the Questions You are Asking?

Are they able to answer what you are asking? That’s not about them being unable to understand the question BTW. For example, my son was asked “How happy are you today”? His response was “I don’t understand the question”. So they asked him again and then said between 1 -10 how happy are you, again he said “I still don’t understand the question”. Now my son not being able to read emotions couldn’t identify that the person was getting frustrated by his response. They went on to the next question. He said “I can’t answer that question because I haven’t asked the previous one”.

Let me explain. When you ask me how happy I am, that question is too generic. Happy about what exactly? Happiness is a feeling that is associated with a response to something. My question to you is what is that something, if you narrow that down I can answer! What is it you want to measure and I can tell you my response to that. He wasn’t being rude, just exact as that’s how his brain works.

Some people are better working on their own at home, the hustle and bustle of the office is too distracting. I think we have seen the benefits of this through Covid and I hope we don’t lose that learning.

Effective & Inclusive Questions

My friend had a poor review from her boss because she was accused of not contributing or being collaborative enough in team meetings and accused of not taking notes, but just sitting there doodling. The truth was the four most successful campaigns they had run were her idea. She turns up, she listens, and she takes doodle ideas. She then goes away works on the concept and sends it to the team for peer to peer review and she’s not interested in public recognition. In fact, it’s the worst thing you can do for her. Her managers handling of this caused her stress as now she felt she wasn’t good enough and her confidence was severely affected.

She ended up leaving as a result. The other company (one of their competitors actually) asked her a question about one wish about her last job what would that be. She replied they would have managed me as an individual. They asked her what she meant by that. She explained and then they had a conversation about how to get the best from her. That’s all it took. Asking a simple but effective and inclusive question. Both she and the company are thriving.

Questions and question marks written on coloured post-it notes

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Autism is very complex and each person’s experience is different. So the first thing is to sit down with each individual and work out a plan that works for them. They are the experts here, so it’s time to talk LESS and listen MORE.

Environment

  • Make sure you provide flexible working or an area where they can have their own space.
  • Ensure screen tints are set up.
  • Provide different coloured note pads than white.
  • Offices have a lot of fluorescent lighting, so, where possible, arrange a desk where it’s not as bright or you can change to low lighting.
  • Offer noise-cancelling headphones or screens around their desk.
  • A full day’s work followed by a team social event is too much. Total overload. So think about this when you offer beers on a Friday after work. Think about how you socialise as a team.

Man in headphones working on laptop and sitting on windowsill

Communication

  • Don’t point out problems if someone hasn’t completed a task correctly. Instead, explain it tactfully and then explain what should be done instead. Many people may have low self-esteem and may have experienced bullying in the past.
  • Feedback needs to be honest, constructive, and consistent and explain what good looks like. Check back to make sure they have understood clearly.
  • Last-minute surprise changes cause stress, so think about how you communicate work requirements and deadlines.
  • After a meeting, follow up with a few notes of the key actions and who’s doing what.

Provide Safe Space

In an ideal situation, you would have some kind of quiet area so after a busy few hours, there is somewhere to go and chill, switch off, listen to music, or meditate. Intense long periods in a social space, sensory overload, and extended times with social input are mentally exhausting and providing a quiet space will stop burnout. At which point they are far less productive.

Work Load

  • As an employer, you need to provide clear instructions, support with organising tasks and help with prioritisation of workloads.
  • Break work down into bite-size pieces, the overwhelm on big projects can cause too much stress.
  • Regular check-ins and positive reinforcements.

These are just some of the very basic actions which will allow you to operate in an inclusive manner when it comes to Neurodiversity.

SO as my strap line says on my LinkedIn profile… it’s time we put the HUMAN back into HR and manage with kindness.

It’s Time to Recognise We Need to do Better

Some day in the future my son will work with an employer who can provide some of the above, who will take the time to understand where he can add so much value and support him where he needs it. This I know, because after hurting him for 18 years, it’s my job as his mum to make sure no one makes the same mistake I did.

Boss praising male employee with hand on shoulder

HR’s Place in Neurodiversity

Every time a new initiative comes to light, it’s passed to HR to manage, as much as we are classed as people experts this is a very complex field and more people need to be educated on this fascinated and vast field. It’s not just jumping on a webinar from someone who wants to push their training.

So what is? How do you manage someone who is Neurotypical or Nuerostanda and what’s the difference?

If we use the example of Autism here, there is a whole spectrum of symptoms and traits and like fingerprints each person is different.

If You’re Not Sure, Ask

How would you know? Neurodiversity doesn’t come with a badge. I have a friend of mine Luke, who often gets told “Oh you don’t look autistic”.

We are currently in the #greatresignation where the world has turned and it’s no longer the case where employers are saying be grateful you have a job. But a full 360 where it’s now employees saying be grateful I work for you.

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