Working with a neurodiverse colleague

ACAS estimate that 15% of the population of the United Kingdom is neurodivergent. The term neurodiversity refers to variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. The neurodiversity movement primarily focuses on autism but encompasses other conditions as well. It rejects the idea that autism is a disorder and sees it instead as a neurological difference: one with a unique way of thinking and experiencing the world. All forms of neurodivergence are experienced along a spectrum and many neurodivergent people are simply able in different ways.

Although this article centres on working with a colleague with Autism, many of the issues raised would be relevant when considering other forms of neurodiversity such as ADHD.

Many workplace issues that neurodiverse employees face stem from them not feeling safe to disclose their differences. Neutralizing stigma, and otherwise opening up the conversation through neurodiversity training, will empower employees to disclose neurodivergence without fear. Understanding the challenges that a neurodiverse person faces can lead to understanding and acceptance within the workplace.

Autism can often be underreported by staff or even be undiagnosed and so you may have autistic colleagues, whether you (or they) know it or not. Autistic people can find the workplace hostile because of their atypical brain wiring when nearly all jobs assume typical brain wiring.  This can be distressing for them and is a key reason why only around 16% of autistic adults are estimated to be in full-time employment. 

Here are a number of simple considerations if you have a neurodiverse colleague

1. Don’t joke, mock or exclude.

Autistic people can have unusual habits or mannerisms and see, hear and feel the world differently to other people.  Your autistic colleague might talk a lot about trains for example – but is that really any less acceptable than endless debates about last night’s TV? Do not ignore or humiliate them just because they have different interests.

You may observe rituals that seem odd. These can help autistic people to regulate themselves and remain calm. If you notice them arranging pens in a particular order, or walking around the office a certain way, does it really make any difference to you? No?  Then ignore it.

Try to include them with invites to lunch or to after-work drinks. However, understand that they may find this difficult and respect their decision if they decline.

2. Be aware of sensory sensitivities

Depending on where they are on the autistic spectrum, some may more sensitive than typical people to some sensory inputs and some less sensitive.  Recognise that your autistic colleague may struggle to work in an area with a lot of background noise or strong smells. They might prefer the lights to be turned down.  They might be very sensitive to touch and not be able to bear the feel of some fabrics against their skin making it difficult to wear the usual uniform. Be accommodating.

3. Say what you mean

Autistic people tend to think literally, so it’s probably best to avoid common phrases such as ‘breaking the ice’ or that you are ‘pulling their leg’.  Workplace jargon and banter can become a problem.  Additional social clues such as gestures or tone of voice can go unnoticed, so be clear and direct when speaking to them.  Explaining unwritten rules, such as the coffee round or birthday celebrations to all new starters can make a huge difference.  Be open and straight-talking – some autistic people are unlikely to be able to gauge whether they are doing a good job without being explicitly told. Hints will not normally be realised.

Do not expect ‘social niceties’ from your autistic colleague.  Many find eye contact with you very difficult for example. They are not being rude or inattentive, but are concentrating on what you are saying rather than what you look like.

4. Avoid changes and disruptions.

Disruption can be very distressing.  Give as much notice as possible of any unavoidable changes. If you agree to do something at a particular time then stick to that, or if it becomes impossible, let them know as soon as possible.  Try to send agendas in advance of meetings to help colleagues know what to expect.

Allow us your colleague to exercise maximum control over how they work where possible. Do not rearrange their desk.  Let them sit in the same seat at every meeting if that makes them feel safe.

5. Show support and solidarity

If your colleague becomes distressed, try giving them extra time and space and also to understand why they are distressed and offer support.  Accept that they may need to have different working conditions -perhaps a mentor or support worker or work different hours.  Some adaptations could suit everyone, for example, all staff could benefit from the introduction of a quiet room, changing the sensory environment, or reallocating duties among the workforce so that each person does what best suits their skills.

Autistic employees can be tenacious, loyal, honest, and hard-working. Some can hyper-focus – in the right conditions they can block out unnecessary stimulation and completely immerse themselves in the task at hand. It might be that you need to remind them to have a break or go home.

Failing to acknowledge that the employee is different and hoping they will just ‘fit in’ will not work well. Make an effort to get to know them and understand them as an individual. If you can’t understand them, accept them as they are and make allowances.

Find out more about neurodiversity employment training and consultancy

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