Neurodiversity in Workplaces: tips to build an inclusive environment

Understanding neurodiversity is key to an inclusive company culture. We speak to the experts for actionable tips on building an effective, neuroinclusive strategy.

Our experts

We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality.
Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

It’s common knowledge that prioritising Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the workforce can be enormously beneficial – particularly for improving employee engagement – to businesses.

In a 2022 survey of business managers, conducted by the Global Leaders Forum, over 80% of respondents said they view inclusion as a strategic priority, due to its positive impact on business performance and talent retention.

One area of DEI that’s often overlooked is neurodiversity. In part, this is because it is not visible or well-represented in most workplaces. The word refers to the huge variety in how employees think, process, learn, and behave.

These differences bring plenty of benefits to employers. But they also often require alternate working requirements that need to be fully understood for both parties to succeed.

Below, we hear from various neurodiversity experts on the strategic and managerial changes – big and small – you can make to accommodate for neurodiverse conditions, and ensure you are building an inclusive workplace to attract and retain talent.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity = The differences and diversity in the way our brains work.

As a catch-all term, neurodiversity encompasses various diagnostic labels, including (but not limited to) people with:

  • ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Autism
  • Dyspraxia
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Tourette’s syndrome

There are a broad range of conditions that come under the neurodiversity umbrella. As a result, business owners can fall into the trap of generalising neurodivergent employees who might demonstrate similar performance styles.

Actually, when it comes to neurodivergent individuals, no two cases are the same. In the same way that a neurotypical (individuals with no type of neurodivergence) colleague might be a tech whizz or have an excellent memory, every neurodivergent person brings their own unique skills and behavioural profile to the table.

To supply adequate support, workplaces should therefore take care to implement bespoke support, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to accommodation.

Christine Beardsell is the cofounder of Kiteline Health, a health and wellbeing coaching app. While the idea began as a way to help employees living with a chronic health condition, Kiteline has also recently introduced a new pathway for neurodivergent service users.

Beardsell says personalised health coaching is the most suitable option for support. “Every individual is different,” she explains. “Health coaches don’t treat a condition, they treat what people are going through.”

Christine Beardsell

Christine Beardsell, cofounder of Kiteline Health

What is neuroinclusion?

Neuroinclusion = taking measures to recognise, embrace and support neurodiverse employees

The concept of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in business has been steadily gaining traction amongst HR professionals for decades, as more firms make being inclusive a part of their core company values.

The advantages of an inclusive workforce are common sense. There will be a positive impact on employee health and wellbeing, on top of improved team morale and performance.

On the commercial side, firms which are leading on DEI have also been proven to benefit from strengthened finances, partnerships, and brand recognition.

Analysis from McKinsey has found that firms in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability compared to firms in the bottom quartile. For ethnic and cultural diversity, this number increases to 36%.

The pandemic has helped pick up the momentum. Having successfully shifted to adopt new models of hybrid or remote working, business managers are increasingly recognising there is more than one way to get things done in the workplace.

This has opened up discussions on how a similar approach could ensure equal opportunities for neurodivergent and neurotypical people. Collectively, the idea is known as ‘neuroinclusion’.

How are small businesses responding?

Today, Beardsell explains, most companies are still in the early stages of designing a neuroinclusive policy.

“There’s quite a few people impacted by some sort of neurodiverse condition”, says Beardsell, “and yet, we don’t know how to identify them. People don’t feel comfortable talking about it, and we don’t really have the culture to handle those discussions.”

Kiteline Health – which featured in the Startups 100 Index for 2023 – currently offers both one-on-one or group coaching to educate managers on the tips and techniques for handling neurodiversity as a workplace topic.

“It’s still very early for companies,” Beardsell admits. “Previously, most were working on an individual case-by-case basis for someone. Now, firms are thinking bigger about how to manage the topic as an organisation.”

Kiteline also hosts webinars for those companies in the early stages of a neuroinclusive journey who need a ‘big picture’ understanding of what neuroinclusion means, along with the rewards it can bring to companies.

However, Beardsell tells Startups that for most Kiteline users “the interest is in group coaching. People recognise the need for deeper engagement with this topic.”

Neuroinclusion in the workplace: top tips for businesses

Designing for neuroinclusion is not as black and white as designing an office dress code. Nor can it read as idealistic, like a company mission statement.

Instead, firms should introduce a mix of inclusive policies, programs, and procedures to cater for the broad range of behaviours that characterise neurodiversities.

Hannah Meredith is Health and Wellbeing Partner at the global tech company, MVF. She stresses that, when designing a business policy for neuroinclusion, “it’s important to remember that not all neurotypes will experience things in the same way, nor have the same environmental triggers or adjustment needs.”

As a first step, Meredith recommends that a business simply asks employees what they’d like to see from a policy. “Rather than blanket rules, speak to employees about whether they’d like to request changes in a proactive way,” she advises.

Hannah Meredith headshot

Hannah Meredith, Health and Wellbeing Partner at MVF

Some alterations might feel small. Nonetheless, they can go a long way toward making sure that employees feel valued and respected.

Case study: Deloitte

Socially conscious employers like Deloitte provide good inspiration for SMEs. The company’s policy is to give its dyslexic employees multiple forms of support from day one.

Examples of procedures include access to an occupational health colleague and a private internal network to share challenges, tips, and resources. Creating an Employee Resource Group that’s focused on neuroinclusivity is another tactic to consider.

Examples of programs include access to mind-mapping software, dictation tools, and further resources to aid with literacy.

How to do.. neuroinclusive working

1. Consider office design and environment

We’ve written previously on how noisy workspaces are putting off workers from returning to the office post-COVID.

Be aware that environmental triggers may be more than just irksome for neurodivergent individuals. For some, they can be overwhelming and even debilitating.

Designing an inclusive office layout will satisfy both parties, employers and employees. As Meredith relates, “common adjustments I see being requested are around noise reduction, lighting, and limiting change of routine (so hot desking may be more difficult for some).”

2. Educate colleagues

Company-wide education and awareness training is key to helping individuals understand their colleagues’ needs – and articulate their own. This will also leave less room for misunderstandings or conflict.

“Make everyone in your organisation aware that we all have a unique way of thinking and set of skills to bring to the workplace, as a starting point,” Meredith expands.

Webinars and other online content give employees a base-level understanding of the topic. Even more helpful are role play scenarios that give staff practical advice and steps to put into action, like how to assist if they see someone struggling.

3. Keep communication clear

Neurodivergent people – especially those with autism – tend to express themselves differently to neurotypical individuals, which can make it harder for both groups to understand each other’s social behaviour and feelings.

“Neurodiverse people may struggle to understand unwritten rules or social cues,” Meredith agrees. “Ensuring there is clear and direct communication across your business will reduce the risk of any misunderstandings.”

4. Encourage a compassionate working culture

Kiteline Health began as a health coaching app for workers living with a chronic illness. “These individuals often don’t talk about their condition because there is a stigma about it,” Beardsell elaborates.

Fostering an organisational culture of empathy and understanding will demonstrate that the company values inclusion. This, Beardsell says, will help a person to “feel more open to talking about their experience and the employer can put a support plan in place for them.”

Adopting a tactful and empathetic outlook on neurodiversity will also help to build team trust with workers, who will feel more comfortable about disclosing their diagnosis to a HR manager – further bolstering employee engagement.

5. Maintain anonymity

Beardsell acknowledges that, while the tide is changing, many neurodivergent people still feel uncomfortable about disclosure. “They feel they’ll be penalised or that they’ll be discriminated against if they say anything,” she laments.

Choosing to disclose a neurodivergent diagnosis is a very personal decision that should be made by the employee, not the employer. It is important to handle any information relating to neurodiversity sensitively.

How to do.. neuroinclusive recruitment

Research has shown that, of the global population, approximately 10% are dyslexic, 6% are dyspraxic, 5% have ADHD, and 1-2% are autistic.

The real number is likely far bigger, however. Poor education and difficulty accessing assessments has historically made it difficult for neurodiverse people to receive a formal diagnosis.

Fortunately, recognition is increasing. In the UK, autism detections have increased by nearly 800% in the past 20 years.

Companies with the systems in place to provide an understanding and encouraging environment for neurodivergent job seekers will be best-placed to compete for market talent – particularly as the number of people identifying as neurodiverse grows.

As Meredith highlights, neurodiverse individuals tend to excel in specific behavioural areas that can have a hugely positive impact on output and productivity. Examples include stronger problem solving skills, creativity, attention to detail, and the ability to be hyper-focused.

Duncan Lambden works at a marketing company in London. Lambden was diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager. He says the disorder enables him to be effective at doing multiple things at once.

“If I have five tasks on my plate, I can work on one for a bit, then switch over to another without the loss of any momentum,” he explains. “When I do manage to get myself into a state of hyperfocus, I can also accomplish a significant amount of work in a short period of time, like writing a 3,500 word article in four hours.”

Steps for designing a more inclusive recruitment strategy

Organisations should examine their employee selection process to ensure they are attracting neurodiverse talent, for whom the traditional, high-pressure structure of ‘CV > Interview > References’ can often exclude.

“On every job listing, ask if the candidate would like to request any adjustments to the interview process,” Meredith recommends.

Examples of the kind of “supportive adjustments” a company could make include:

  • Allowing for extra time to complete tests or tasks
  • Giving all information in advance
  • Providing exact details of who the candidate will meet and how long things may take
  • Giving the option for information to be provided in different formats

Training interviewers or hiring managers in neurodiversity awareness, and how to coach prospective employees through the process, is another good step for businesses to take.

Many recruiters still focus on finding a ‘cultural fit’ for an office. While a good idea in theory, this perspective can inadvertently limit the hiring potential for neurodivergent people, who sometimes struggle to recognise social cues.

What help is available?

UK small businesses should also utilise the government’s Access To Work scheme, provided through the Department of Work and Pensions. Signposting this program to all employees will encourage neurodivergent people to feel comfortable completing a workplace assessment.

Should the employee choose to share their workplace assessment results, the employer will then be given suggestions for training, equipment or assistive technologies.

Neurodiversity resources for employers

Neurodiversity is a complex topic for business owners. Don’t feel embarrassed or overwhelmed if you’re not fully conversant with all the correct terminology and definitions. Reading a guide like this one is the right first step for developing a successful neuroinclusive policy.

For more help and guidance on how to properly embrace neuroinclusion, Beardsell recommends several online sources that can provide more information on developing and implementing a neural inclusive action plan:

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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