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My experience: How to best support the neurodivergent employee in the workplace

Every neurodivergent person is different. Every neurodivergent person has their own needs, their own personalities, likes and dislikes and it is important for employers to remember to not make assumptions or stereotypes based on their disability. Some employers may read that an applicant has written on their application form that they are autistic, and the employer may make stereotypical assumptions that the applicant will be demanding and difficult to work with and will make rude and offensive comments to colleagues and customers, thus not offering the applicant an interview.

Many neurodivergent adults are hardworking, intelligent, and committed but unfortunately, many are unemployed. Statistics show that only 16% of autistic adults are working full time and around 5% of adults with learning disabilities have paid jobs. I believe that employers should focus on the strengths on the neurodivergent employee/job applicant rather than areas of weakness. I will begiving an example of my own experience here. I achieved a 2.1 grade in my creative writing and media communications degree which I am extremely proud of, but I have not been given many opportunities due to my nonverbal learning disability. I have met people without degrees, I have met those who achieved a lower grade than me at university and I have also met some people with no qualifications at all who are working full time because they are confident and/ordo not have a disability. Some neurodivergent people can mask during interviews and at work but I cannot mask which has partly prevented me with finding employment (please note that masking can have negative consequences on a neurodivergent person’s mental health and should not be encouraged).

I worked as an intern at a charity called Beyond Autism in 2020 and 2021. Martin, the other intern, and I created a podcast series on neurodiversity and employment and one of the episodes we created was on self-employment. Martin and I investigated why some neurodivergent people choose to become self-employed. The daunting interview process was a reason for choosing self-employment, as well as freedom to be your own boss, time off when needed due to health reasons, the freedom of not struggling with understanding the unwritten rules of the work place and the expectations of socialising with colleagues outside of working hours. However, we also spoke about the disadvantages of self-employment such as, a possible lack of income and isolation. Self-employment should be a choice regardless of disability but for some neurodivergent adults, it is the only way to make an income.

It is my belief that neurodivergent people shouldn’t have to change who they are to make employers/other employees’ lives easier and/or to make them feel comfortable. If there are areas of a job that may make the neurodivergent employee anxious, stressed and/or ill then the employer should make needed changes and adjustments for the neurodivergent employee.

I think that traditional Q&A interviews should be scrapped for neurodivergent employees who request a different interview format. An example of a different interview format could be task/skills based or/and a more informal and relaxed conversation. Job fairs specifically for neurodivergent and disabled jobseekers with employers/organisations who have understanding of disability would be less anxiety inducing for the job seekers. My sister who does not have a neuro diverse condition diagnosis but is very introverted managed to secure her first job by having a casual conversation in a coffee shop which she very much appreciated as it made her less nervous.

A way to support neurodivergent employees is the option to work in non-stimulating environments to minimise sensory overloads. As I have gotten older, I have become more sensitive to noise such as, loud and unexpected noises like clapping, banging, doors slamming and vehicle engines starting. The option should be given to ask colleagues to try and avoid making any noises that could trigger the neurodivergent employee, they should be offered the option to wear noise cancelling headphones and work in an area of the office that is quiet. If the employee does not work in an office, then they could work in part of the store or building that is quieter (I.E in the stock room) or during quieter days and hours where there are less people. For those neurodivergent people who have light sensitivity then the office should not have any bright lights, if possible, employees should not bring in any disco/party lights for office parties or use flash photography in the presence of the neurodivergent employee. It is also important to note to agree to the use of any sensory toys or equipment that may soothe and help the neurodivergent employee. Neurodivergent employees who can work on their own and their role requires the use of a computer should be offered the option to work from home if they feel it is beneficial for them.

It is important for some neurodivergent people to stick to their schedule and routine. An example to help the neurodivergent employee with this is for the neurodivergent employee work the same shifts, to be given advance notice of any changes in responsibilities or advance notice of any changes throughout the day such as, meeting cancellations or emergency meetings.

Every person learns differently, and some people do not learn as fast as others. I am a person who needs instructions written down step by step and I need to practice a new task several times to understand and process the task. Tailored training depending on the needs of the neurodivergent employee should be granted and they should not be left on their own to perform their role unless they feel comfortable to do so.

Some neurodivergent employees will not feel comfortable socialising with other employees, particularly outside of work hours due to a variety of different reasons and they should not feel pressured to take part in activities that are not related to their role. Do not exclude the neurodivergent employee from any activities but do not pressurise them either, I would suggest sending an e-mail to all employees to make them aware of after work drinks for example but not to go around asking each employee if they are attending or not. Neurodivergent people are more likely to experience bullying and exclusion so it is important to make them feel welcome and as part of the team but to not overwhelm them with work socials.

I hope that you find my suggestions helpful whether as a neurodivergent jobseeker, employee, or as a parent of a neurodivergent adult wanting to help their son or daughter. However, I stress that it is important for the neurodivergent applicant, jobseeker,or employee to express themselves what it is they need help and support with. I also urge to contact and access any support services regarding employment such as The National Autistic Society, Access to Work, TheWorking Well Trust and Scope.

Alexandra Farnese

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