8 ways you can support neurodiverse colleagues at work

Despite at least 15 per cent of the UK adult population living with a neurodivergent condition, there is still a stigma attached to the neurodiverse community – especially in the workplace.

Neurodiversity encompasses a broad spectrum of neurological differences, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and Tourette’s syndrome.

These differences in neurology could lead to a rich tapestry of perspectives, skills and talents within the workforce if supported and recognised. Supporting colleagues who live with neurodiversity extends beyond acknowledgement; it requires active engagement and understanding to create an environment where everyone feels valued and respected.

However, while many businesses promote their workplaces as neurodiverse, 65 per cent of neurodivergent employees fear being discriminated against, a survey last year revealed.

It’s true that bosses need to take the lead when it comes to special accommodations – offering flexible working arrangement, for instance – but colleagues have a significant part to play as well.

Here are some ways you can support your neurodiverse colleague so they can be their authentic selves and work to their full potential.

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Don’t default to saying: ‘It’s a superpower’

Quite often, neurodiverse individuals hear that having their specific condition “is like a superpower”.

The truth is that it can be quite debilitating, and a constant struggle for many. Many conditions are classified as disabilities and referring to any sort of neurodiversity as a “superpower” minimises the challenges people face.

The idea of possessing any kind of “superpower”can also imply that someone is always “on” or able to use that power, and that creates additional and unneeded pressure on neurodiverse people to fit into a mould that is unnatural for them.

Referring to any sort of neurodiversity as a superpower can minimise the challenges people face. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

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Catch micro-aggressions before they happen

A micro-aggression is a brief but hurtful comment, situation or action that reinforces stereotypes and prejudices towards a marginalised group. While these are often unintentional, they can cause extra emotional strain and lead to a toxic working environment. 

The neurodiverse community are often on the receiving end of these micro-aggressions. Comments such as “I have ADHD-brain today,” and “Everyone gets stressed, you need to relax” minimise the experience of those trying to get through the work day with a neurodivergent condition.

Back-handed compliments, stereotypes such as “You’re autistic, you must be good at maths”, and even excluding neurodiverse colleagues from social situations, increases the stigma around those living with neurodiversity.

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Acknowledge intersectionality

Building a workplace that embraces everyone requires an understanding of different identities, for example sexuality, race, gender and class, and this includes the experiences of neurodiverse colleagues.

Evidence is starting to point to a correlation between neurodiversity and the LGBTQ+ community. A University of Cambridge study in 2021 revealed that autistic individuals are more likely to be queer than those not living with autism. Separate research found that autistic people are more likely to be gender-diverse than non-autistic people.

Research show that autistic individuals are more likely to identify as queer than those not living with autism. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

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Focus on the person and practise empathy

Like the LGBTQ+ community, neurodiversity is not a monolith. Different conditions affect different individuals differently. One person with a neurodiversity might struggle more than someone else with the same condition.

Given the approximately 13 million people estimated to be living with neurodivergence, the chances are that many neurotypical people have a friend or family member who views the world differently. This offers a great opportunity to listen to stories with an empathetic ear and share their experiences.

Sarah, a regional account executive for a global drinks company, believes knowing about that shared experience helps.

“Knowing that they have some understanding of ADHD would make me more comfortable and not have to constantly second guess what I am going to say or do,” she says.

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Be clear and concise in communicating and collaborating

Neurodiverse co-workers can thrive when clear expectations and structured routines are in place. When collaborating with a neurodiverse colleague, offering checklists, visual aids or other guidelines can assist in keeping them organised and on track.

When it comes to communication, no one appreciates the: “It’ll be easier to talk than type” DM, but it can be particularly stressful for neurodiverse people.

Lizzie, a senior account executive at communications agency Conteur, says adopting a “no hello” rule is a good idea. Rather than leaving somewhere hanging on to find out what’s happening, just get right to the point.

“I’d much rather say something along the lines of: ‘Hey Lizzie, how are you? Can you give me an update on that thing you’re working on’?”

The same goes for planning a call: give a reason, “Tell me why you’re messaging me, don’t leave me to panic,” she says.

Neurodiverse co-workers can thrive when clear expectations and structured routines are in place. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

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Support and embrace special accommodations

Flexible working options, designated quiet workspaces and clear communication protocols can benefit the entire workplace, but they can be especially important for neurodiverse employees.

When scheduling in-person meetings, consider providing a hard copy of the day’s agenda, complete with time for breaks. The best way neurotypical colleagues can support their co-workers is by not questioning why they have their cameras off in video calls or are using a stim toy – objects designed to provide sensory stimulation and help regulate the nervous system – during the meeting.

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Be proactive in learning

As with the LGBTQ+ community, neurodiverse people appreciate allyship. If your company is hosting trainings and webinars dedicated to neurodiverse issues, then attend. If the business is large enough to have employee resource groups, get involved and utilise the resources provided.

When asking questions, remember that every person’s experience with their neurodiversity is different. Try to avoid assumptions or preconceived notions. Instead, focus on the individual’s perspective and what works for them.

Flexible working options and designated quiet workspaces are important for neurodiverse employees. (Getty Images/PinkNews)

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Be patient and don’t take it personally

Navigating the landscape of work can be daunting for neurodiverse colleagues and some days require more effort than others, so being patient with co-workers is key. Give them extra time to process conversations, tasks and collaborations.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning again that, at times, neurodiverse colleagues could be struggling, or in a stressful situation that can cause them to “shutdown.” They may react differently than they usually do, and it’s important not to take this personally.

For Clara, an electrical engineer based in Glasgow, her office environment can be overstimulating at times.

“I’ll often go and sit in an area of the office that is quieter, where people aren’t taking calls, the lights aren’t as bright,” she says.

“It’s important that [people] appreciate that I’m not trying to be rude or ignore [them]. I’m just trying to conserve my spoons so I can concentrate and get my work done.”

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