Understanding the terminology
“Neurodivergent” means having a neurological difference resulting in different cognitive processing and thinking. Basically, having a brain that is wired differently from typical.
Many neurological differences are due to lifelong neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette’s, or a combination of these conditions.
Neurological differences can also be acquired later in life, for example, by brain injuries caused by accident or stroke.
Some mental health conditions can also affect the way brains process information, for example obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some people with neurological conditions identify as disabled and some do not.
Some mental health conditions very commonly co-occur with neurological differences- especially depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD.
“Neurodiversity” means recognising and respecting the differences between all human brains and understanding the unique strengths and challenges of different brains, or “the limitless variability of human cognition and the uniqueness of each human mind” (Judy Singer, 1998).
When a workforce is “neurodiverse”, it includes people with different types of brains, and therefore different cognitive skills and thinking styles, not just people who think alike.
In my view, embracing neurodiversity, celebrating the advantages of including people in the workforce who think differently, is the first step to being an ally to people with neurological differences. Colleagues can also support us with our challenges, help to break down barriers to inclusion, and accept us for who we are so we can thrive as our authentic selves.
How can I be an effective ally to neurodivergent colleagues?
Understanding each individual’s unique strengths and challenges is key, because we each have specific accessibility needs and support needs.
It can be unhelpful to stereotype people based on their neurological condition, so please ask rather than making assumptions. For example, many autistic people feel uncomfortable turning on their videos during online meetings. Personally, video calls do not bother me, but I do prefer people to message me in advance rather than video or voice calling me without warning.
Charlie’s top tips for being an ally to your autistic colleagues
- Understand that autistic people often need extra time to switch from one task to another, so we can struggle with scattered meetings throughout the day and with back-to-back meetings. Please consult us before filling up our calendars with meetings – we may need larger chunks of time to focus on a single piece of work and can become overwhelmed when flitting between meetings and tasks all day. I often simmer into meltdown when my working day involves a lot of task switching.
- Sometimes autistic people need specific instructions, broken down into manageable chunks, and it can be helpful to confirm expectations in writing.
- Be accommodating to people with sensory issues, for example by allowing headphones, earphones, sunglasses, anti-glare screens, lower lighting, blinds. Avoid meetings in noisy areas with people talking over each other. Understand that some autistic people may struggle with video calls.
- Be supportive when we get overwhelmed. Notice meltdowns, shutdowns and signs of burn-out. We might need a fresh air break or an extended toilet break to de-escalate.
- Challenge your own expectations about social behaviours. Some autistic people struggle with small talk and find greetings awkward. Be aware of anxiety caused by unexpected calls and desk visits.
- We can be passionate about our topics of highly-focussed interest, not just our hobbies but this can be something work-related too. This passion can lead to us interrupting people and dominating meetings. Please let us know when to stop talking, and not with “subtle hints”. Others could struggle to speak up in meetings, especially online meetings, and it’s important that leaders and facilitators ensure they still have a “voice”.
- Understand the unique strengths we autistic staff bring to the workplace – see this poster from Harriet Cannon at Leeds University. These are useful skills, particularly in a workforce which has a large proportion of roles requiring logical and analytical thinking (and not just IT roles).
Thanks for reading. Your allyship makes a big difference to us, and helps us thrive as our authentic selves in the social and sensory minefield that is the workplace 😎