The next diversity frontier: supporting ‘neurominority’ professionals in the civil service

By on 22/03/2021 | Updated on 27/01/2022
Diversity: the latest challenge is ensuring the correct support infrastructure is in place to enable neurominorities to utilise their strengths and capabilities with minimal adverse effects. Credit: Jack B/Unsplash

Neurodiverse people have extraordinary skills and are huge assets to their teams. Chartered psychologist Dr Nancy Doyle and business psychologist Uzma Waseem explain how departments can put the right help in place to get the best out of their staff

It is now widely recognised that people with ‘neurominority’ profiles – such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourettes and more – often have extraordinary skills that are a huge asset to teams. From supporting the intelligence services to research and analytics with the UK’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department, neurodiversity and inclusion are on the agenda.

But the latest challenge is not just about embracing a new approach to recruitment drives. Rather, it is a focus on employee experience and ensuring the correct support infrastructure is in place to enable neurominorities to utilise their strengths and capabilities with minimal adverse effects.

TATT: Tired a lot of the time

It is only recently that the emphasis has moved away from seeing neurominority profiles as deficits or disorders. This means that many people, now working-age adults, missed out on neurodiversity-based learning and support opportunities during their formative years. Typically, these people were taught about distinguishing their “disorders” rather than valuing them.

Some neurominority adults have developed behaviours that consciously or unconsciously hide their differences so they can fit into their environment. Known as social masking, this can be verbal or behavioural – for example, scripting conversations or forcing themselves to maintain eye contact. Masking can be physically and emotionally exhausting, however. Recent research into Autistic females found that as a consequence of camouflaging, people often needed “time alone to recover” and developed “issues around identity and authenticity”

Some people may choose not to hide their differences, or simply cannot. A person’s capacity to mask can vary according to other factors such as personal life or organisational change. Many outcomes that we have observed amongst our clients at Genius Within include: a perceived lack of control over the working environment, unfair treatment, unsupportive co-workers, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, guilt and shame.

People with neurominority profiles generally cope by increasing their effort around focus, interacting in limited social situations, using assistive technology, taking extra time to understand what others want when communication styles are very different, or avoiding certain environmental distractions. While compensatory techniques help, they can cause exhaustion. Like all invisible conditions, stress can be difficult to identify and can easily lead to burnout. This can be significantly magnified amongst neurominorities, if not supported adequately.

Prepare rather than react

Managers should be encouraged to explore neurodiversity, particularly designing programmes and work environments that will support employees to thrive and reach their full potential. While there is no single approach that fits all, the following considerations can help with developing a more effective neurodiversity support infrastructure:

Build accommodations and adjustments from the outset. Prioritise what needs to be put in place first and try to avoid blanket solutions. Employee experiences are unique, so you risk only benefitting a select few with general solutions. Instead, ask individuals what they need for them to work at their best. What would they like to have happen? What resources they will require, in addition to what they themselves can do? Schedule reflection meetings as an opportunity for the employee to feed back about what has worked well, what hasn’t and what would work better for them. Peer mentors, buddies and line managers with training in neurodiversity awareness can also provide helpful support.

Reframe disclosure as a sharing opportunity. It’s important that all neurominority employees feel they can discuss barriers and challenges without fear of negative repercussions, so it may be worth reviewing how you communicate. Reframe language and certain terms, for example by using “sharing” rather than “disclosing”. This opens lines of communication and creates safe spaces.

Use workplace needs assessments as an opportunity to co-create workspaces and personalise workflows with your team member. Think about maximising resources to support the demands of a role, rather than simply fulfilling an HR activity from a compliance standpoint. It is also important to constantly evaluate: needs will change over time, so it is essential to review adjustments regularly.

Include neurodiversity specific measures in your wellbeing audits. Both the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) psychological risk guidelines or the BDF (Business Disability Forum) People Manager Toolkit are good places to start with this.

The reality is that adjustments tend not to be expensive. Research by UK charity the Royal National Institute of Blind People shows that access for works costs for people with dyslexia, for example, ranged from £586 to £624 between 2011 and 2014. Furthermore, line managers do not have to be experts. By taking a proactive, solution-focused and flexible approach, most managers will be able to implement inclusion, and we are now fortunate to have experts and researchers in the field who are constantly increasing our understanding and awareness of neurodiversity.

Dr Nancy Doyle and Business Psychologist Uzma Waseem are both part of Genius Within CIC.

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