Neurodiversity Fairness (2)

Hear from Operational and Culture Change Consultant, Dulcie Swanston, on neurodiversity in the workplace.

Rewind 20 years, and as Head of Corporate HR for a FTSE 250 company, I was responsible for the policies to ensure our leaders made reasonable adjustments to ensure we had a workplace which welcomed part-time women, people of all colours and backgrounds and encouraged more people to be open about their sexuality. 

Back then, I’d have been more than up for making sure another group of high-value people were not being held back from performing at their very best by a workplace that accidentally discriminated against their needs, but ‘neurodiversity’ wasn’t a word I had even heard of. 

Although I am now consulted about my ‘expertise’ in this area (more on why that is in inverted commas in a moment), this expertise wasn’t part of my training in either Employment Law or CIPD qualifications, or even my experience as a coach. 

It started and has grown exponentially from lived experience much closer to home.

Neurodiversity Fairness (1)

My personal experience

My happy-go-lucky, ‘chip off the old block’ daughter started to be extremely anxious about going to school and was feeling permanently sick and dizzy. As a busy working Mum, I initially went into guilt mode that it was about my absence from the school gates.

Two failed courses of CBT and a paediatrician ruling out anything medical later, we were floored when a child psychologist we tried for yet more therapy told us that it might ‘fail’ again, simply because our daughter was probably on the autistic spectrum. 

My daughter didn’t look or sound like any of the autistic children or adults I had met. This can be due to ‘masking’ — becoming really good at sounding and looking like you behave like everyone else. 

Expecting to be able to notice neurodiversity because someone would be ‘different’ so I could ‘see’ it was the first unconscious bias I had. This is where I explain why my ‘expertise’ is in inverted commas. I have found becoming anything close to an expert in what to do to help my daughter and advise other people because of that experience, has taken more patience and personal education than my combined qualifications put together. 

There’s no ‘one-size fits all’ approach 

A neurodiverse friend, mentor and mother explained why very early on: “You know that saying, when you have met one, you have met them all? Well, when you have met one neurodiverse person, you have met one neurodiverse person…” 

That has become my starting point for offering advice to clients. Helping your brilliantly talented team members who happen to be on the autistic spectrum isn’t a tick-box activity. It’s about adjusting to the person and what they need, without always fully understanding the logic behind the need or other people thinking it is ‘fair’ to make that adjustment. 

It is that simple and it is that hard.

So rather than give you that ‘Top 5’ or ‘Top Tips’ I thought that, instead, I would pass on three more simple insights from some of the fabulously talented neurodiverse people I have met. These insights won’t be true for everyone, but I have found when I mention them, often, other neurodiverse people say, “Oh yes, that would help me”.

Neurodiversity Fairness (2)

Work with Circadian Rhythms — not accidentally against them

Circadian rhythms are our day-rhythms. This includes our typical sleep-wake cycles. There are about six identified general patterns for these including the typical ‘morning-lark’ and ‘night-owl’ patterns.  These change as we age. Whilst many people can adapt to others’ working hours, neurodiverse people are often less able. This could be, in part, because those with neurodiversity are already working extra hard to ‘fit in’. 

So do check if early morning meetings or desk-presenteeism that work for those in power is accidentally preventing your best future candidates from adding more value.

“My boss and her boss both tell me I am brilliant. I outperform my colleagues on all the league tables, and I agree with them that I could add real value to new starters and fix things other people haven’t even noticed. However, I have actively decided not to apply for promotion. I haven’t told them why, so they are frustrated with me, but, frankly, I’m not great in the mornings.

“Some mornings are extra bad for no reason I can fathom. Nothing to do with alcohol or sleep. I have learned I need to respect that some days I just need to take time to get my head in a good place for a productive day.

“Our office is quite conventional, so people would view me as being ‘late’ if I wasn’t in before the MD and there’s a morning briefing first thing because that’s how he likes to work. So, that being the case, I’d rather do a job adding less value where I’m on the road so I can adjust to a slow morning without anyone noticing and they think I’m brilliant. I would hate people to see me as not committed, lazy or unreliable.” 

Consider conventional training, for unconventional reasons!

It might be easier than you think to help your neurodiverse leaders to lead with empathy and emotional intelligence if you give tools and models and explain the science about how different people think and make decisions.

“The thing that helped me most as a leader was a 6-month placement in HR that I did 20 years ago — not because of the job itself, but because I got trained in Coaching and Psychometrics.  

“Coaching training helped because I can now ask people questions not from a place of judgement or because I don’t get why someone feels the way they do, but with curiosity and interest because I have been trained to seek to understand, not to ask questions to respond. I am also now conscious of my body language, tone of voice and expressions when I’m asking questions because it was part of the training.

“Also trying to listen to what someone is saying to think about what personality preference they have. I did Myers Briggs — really helps. When I realise someone has an ‘EF’ preference, I can ask more about feelings. When I spot language that suggests that they prefer to work in an ‘IT’ way, I can give them space to come up with a plan. It looks like I’m being intuitive, but, it is just a logical framework for me to be empathetic to people’s needs. I don’t need to understand why someone needs to work in a particular way, to trust and accept that they do.”  

Neurodiversity Fairness (3)

Think about the concept of ‘Fairness’ differently…

I was training a group of senior leaders in Emotional Intelligence and the human threat response when a delegate mentioned the similarity in what I was training to a cartoon they had seen. I have stolen it with pride and many of the teachers and thought leaders on neurodiversity that I now work with have gone on to steal it with pride too.

I asked Dr Iain for a ‘parting shot’ quote about why this is so true…

“A colleague of ours says that ‘there is nothing more unfair that treating everyone the same’. The animal kingdom, which we belong to, requires diversity to allow adaptation of a group or species to survive and flourish – this includes differences in our brains. This means that, through nature and nurture, we are meant to be diverse in being. The result: what is challenging mentally to one is less challenging to another and vice versa. So, to measure everyone against a single task is an inherently unfair test of mental fitness, ability or value.”

So added to:

  • “But she doesn’t look autistic?!”
    Beware. You can’t always spot neurodiversity — people might not look or sound different — you might have to get really close to people and make it safe for them to be themselves with you, even if you are conventionally very close.   


  • “If you have met one neurodiverse person, you have met one…” 
    Adjustments will be personal. Trust the individual knows what they need, but don’t expect it to be something you can replicate, or necessarily fully understand.

…that does give us a list of 5 things. Just not quite in the way you expected for an article about 5 Top Tips. That’s neurodiversity in a nutshell for you! You need to do things a little bit differently.

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