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World Autism Week

3rd April 2019

This week (April 1-7) is World Autism Week. It is an opportunity for employers to look at how they are supporting neuro-diversity in their workplaces, both from an occupational and employee health and wellbeing perspective but also in terms of sympathetic performance management.

Employee health and wellbeing – why we need to recognise the value of neuro-diverse workplaces

This week (April 1-7) is World Autism Week, a great springboard for employers and employees alike to think about and reflect upon the value of having, and supporting, a neuro-diverse workforce.

During World Autism Week itself there will be events taking place in schools, “Spectrum Night Walks” in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast, fundraising events and “virtual” challenges.

All of these, of course, are potentially great things to be promoting in your organisation. But, more widely, a calendar marker like this is an opportunity to step back and reflect how you’re doing as an organisation in terms of supporting and promoting neuro-diversity.

It is estimated that only around half of us (59%) can be considered “neurotypical”. Yet just 16% of people in the UK with autism have a job, only 1% of corporate managers have dyslexia compared to a population norm of 10%, and fully a quarter (25%) of the UK prison population have ADHD.

Covered by Equality Act

Because neuro-disabilities will commonly be invisible they are often considered harder to manage, or simply end up being managed as “performance” rather than disability issues. This could be, for example, someone’s ability (or inability) to collaborate “typically” with colleagues, or dress “appropriately” for work.

This is despite the fact neuro-disabilities are covered under the Equality Act 2010 and dyslexia, for one, is the third most frequently reported condition for Access to Work, the Department for Work and Pensions-funded support service.

Some employers are beginning to recognise that, while people with neuro disabilities may be subtly “different” or in need of extra support, the skills and value they can bring to the workplace can be immense. For example, Microsoft has in recent years made of point of hiring people with autism as coders.

When it comes to adjustments, commonly it’s a question of looking at things such as assistive tools and technologies (for example speech-to-text tools), workstation adjustments (such as dual screens), literacy support, schedule and environment flexibility, and training and feedback flexibility.

There is also, of course, an argument to be had that, if nearly half of us are neuro-diverse in some shape or form – whether formally diagnosed or not - then organisations that fail to embrace or recognise this are potentially missing out on a huge pool of talented people.

Mindset as well as physical adjustment

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, makes clear: “Often neuro-diversity adjustments will not be expensive or difficult. In fact, more often than not, it is simply about a mindset adjustment or offering the right training to enable someone to manage or accommodate the needs of the employee effectively.

“The value of organisations having a diverse and inclusive workforce – one that reflects their environment and community and customer base – has long been recognised. Diverse and inclusive teams are often more creative, collaborative and productive.

“Yet neuro-diversity too often gets forgotten in this debate, despite the fact that neuro-disabilities are so common within society. This debate needs to be less about employers focusing on whether employees are ‘neuro-typical’ and more about recognising the positive value – the different skills, approaches and mindsets – a neuro-diverse workforce can bring to the table.

“Expert occupational health support can be invaluable in kickstarting this transformation. But it is also about fostering a more ‘neuro-accepting’ mindset and tackling misconceptions, fears and prejudices. As such, events such as World Autism Week are a great way to start these conversations,” she adds.