Managing neurodiversity: look beyond the label to the individual


Jack Dyrhague has plenty of experiences of poor treatment at work, on account of being autistic.

It’s these experiences that inspired him to set up Neuropool, which connects neurodiverse talent with employers and raises awareness of how to help neurodivergent talent thrive. It also educates employers about the commercial and environmental benefits of hiring people with neurodiverse conditions like autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD.

In one role he was once asked to be “less autistic”. In another situation, he disclosed he was autistic in the interview and was asked if he needed any adjustments or adaptations to be made to do his job.

‘Be less autistic!’

“I said ‘no’,” he says. “But then in my first two weeks with the company my manager left an A4 piece of paper on my desk with the font in size 42 with instructions in capitals. I know she was trying to be nice but that’s an example of someone making an adjustment herself, assuming that’s going to be helpful.”

Dyrhague felt singled out and uncomfortable and wondered “why didn’t she do that to everyone? And why didn’t she talk to me first? Or at least email?”. He ended up leaving the company after that.

As he says, the big learning here for employers is not to make assumptions and to treat everyone as an individual:

“There is no one-size-fits-all for neurodiversity but it is true that neurodivergent people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, so it’s important to ensure they feel supported and understood, while not been seen to be ‘getting a hand out’ by their peers who might resent them if they feel they have it easier.”

Treat people as individuals, not labels

Kirsty Cook, global director of D&I services at neurodiversity consultancy auticon wholeheartedly agrees with the need to treat each person as an individual, over and above any labels of neurodivergent conditions:

“Whether someone is on the spectrum or has ADHD, how these traits present themselves or how mental health is affected will be different. The type of support that works best that enables someone to thrive will vary from one person to the next, even if they have the exact same condition.”

That’s why auticon spends a lot of time with every new autistic technology consultant during their on-boarding to really understand them, their condition, traits that present as challenges and traits that are unique strengths. Investing time at the crucial beginning of the process will help them to flourish later.

A culture that supports neurodiverse talent will support all talent

“By taking a person-centred and individually tailored approach, you can also better support someone that may not even realise they’re neurodivergent or aren’t ready to share that information with their employer,” she says.

As all the experts who we consulted for this feature said, many of the recommendations that they make to organisations on helping neurodivergent colleagues thrive are actually just best practice principles of a good working environment. Therefore all employees will benefit, it’s just, as Cook says, that “the pay off” for neurodivergents is “far greater”.

Dyrhague adds that, because the benefits are largely universal, there’s no need to label accommodations or adjustments as specifically for neurodiverse employees. “Offer them to everyone,” he says, “Or you risk creating a stigma or favouritism around that particular condition.”

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

Stigma and stereotypes around neurodiversity

Indeed, there is still a stigma and lingering stereotypes which impact negatively on wellbeing, believes entrepreneur Richard Peachey, around neurodiverse conditions, especially ADHD (think ‘troublesome kid who wouldn’t do as he was told’, he says) and autism (‘that loud kid that goes off and does silly things’).

Because of stigma, Peachey himself hasn’t disclosed his condition until very recently, after starting a company called Lemonade, which supports organisations to enable employees to be their whole selves at work. Like Dyrhague, he says he’s left “nearly every job” because of his neurodiversity. He also agrees that adjustments and accommodations that particularly suit neurodivergent people ideally shouldn’t be labelled as such:

“Why don’t we just have a conversation about supporting high performers to be high performers, rather than labelling everybody who’s gone and got a clinical diagnostic for thousands of pounds? Do you need to label them? Or can you say ‘Jonny needs ABC to be really good at what Jonny does’.”

The power of storytelling

That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea for line managers to be given some knowledge of neurodiverse conditions. Many companies are telling the stories of their neurodiverse colleagues (see this KPMG case study here) and starting a conversation about neurodiversity.

“Yes, it might be helpful for line managers, but this knowledge should always come with the caveat that a person might not sit in front of you and present perfectly like the description you’ve read said,” says Peachey.

Caroline Eglinton, head of inclusion, East West Railway Company, who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD, applauds companies which are getting the conversation going. However she hates the trend for neurodiverse strengths to be described as “super powers”. To her, this isn’t normalising neurodiversity; it’s positioning it as extra-ordinary and, therefore, not ‘normal’:

‘I hate when people say neurodiversity is a superpower!’

“I hate when people say that neurodiversity is a ‘superpower’. It’s useful to see the benefits that thinking differently brings and the fact it will help organisations to deliver more, be more productive and make more money…. But when you put someone neurodiverse on a pedestal like that, it means it’s harder to talk about the things you’re not doing as well, or as strong in, because you’ve been held up as this ‘brilliant disabled person’ with these ‘superpowers’. It’s nice, but it’s putting a lot of pressure on that person.”

Eglinton and Peachey both advocate stripping the emotion from the conversation taking a more balanced view, with the latter recommending Caitlin Walker’s guidance on ‘clean communications’.

Dyrhague believes that the conversations will inevitably be normalised in the coming years because, with more money being put behind medical research, “there are other potential conditions that could come out that we could recognise”. He believes the next neurodiversity conversation to take hold in companies will be around ‘cognitive diversity’; people with different thinking styles and perspectives because of their backgrounds.

“It’s about time that society changed and recognised that we all think differently, we’re all on a spectrum. You can even develop neurodiversity after a car crash. It’s a mad world. All of us are unique.”

If you’re interested in how personalisation can underpin successful wellbeing strategies, including approaches to appreciating neurodiversity and our uniqueness in thought and learning, you can join the workshop which Virgin Pulse is running at this year’s MAD World Summit on 11 October in Central London. Full details about the event are here.

If you’re an EMPLOYER, you can sign up for 3 x 15 minute 1-2-1 meetings with exhibitors at the Summit. This will also entitle you to a FREE DELEGATE PASS WORTH £595.00 and access to all sessions. Terms and conditions apply, view here.

You might also like:

KPMG Case study: helping neurodivergent colleagues thrive

Rethinking Your Job Descriptions – A Way to Promote Inclusivity in the Workplace




Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.