Managing Neurodiversity in the Workplace – How to manage neurodiverse employees effectively.

February 27, 2020 - Adjust

This blog provides advice for managers that want to learn how to manage neurodiverse employees effectively. At Adjust we use the term Neurodiversity to cover Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, dyspraxia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The advice provided in this blog is by an autistic woman called Suzanne who also has ADHD. Below she tells her story and offers clear and practical advice for any managers wanting to manage neurodiverse employees effectively . 

I received my diagnosis of Asperger’s and ADHD 5 years ago at the age of 38 following a 17-year long career. Sadly, my overall experience of ‘being managed’ has been a far from positive one. In the last four years I’ve had six jobs. But I’d like to give examples of when I’ve been managed badly and also when I’ve been managed really well – and offer practical advice for employers with autistic employees.

In each job I have either been managed no differently to a neurotypical (NT) employee or treated like a child and micro-managed. Every job has had a detrimental effect on my mental health. I have been patronised, bullied, criticised; called negative, aloof and been ostracised. I don’t pick up on hints so often miss subtle nuances in conversations. I have no interest in office politics, gossip or spending time outside of work with colleagues, so I am branded unsociable. Few managers or colleagues have looked beneath the label and got to know me as a person.

“Few managers or colleagues have looked beneath the label and got to know me as a person”

With no support forthcoming and feeling unable to ask for help, in each situation I have eventually resigned out of sheer exhaustion as I simply could not maintain the ‘normal’ façade that was apparently expected. Going home and collapsing in floods of tears, sleepless nights and weight loss whilst all the time being terrified that people would notice I wasn’t coping not only constitutes poor management, it amounts to a failure to retain a very capable employee.

Suzanne goes onto describe a positive experience of being managed:

However, I felt things were different with one employer. In this job I had two managers and an assistant manager. As I began struggling to cope with aspects of the job (mostly due to sensory issues), the two managers tried implementing strategies which (although well-intentioned!) did nothing to empower me and only made me feel even more of a problem and a failure.

The assistant manager intervened and one day suggested going to the canteen with a sheet of flip chart paper and some coloured pens. We spent an afternoon creating a mind-map of the things I was finding difficult and shared ideas around solutions. As a visual person this was perfect for me.

One issue we identified was the lack of opportunity for me to exercise which, owing to my ADHD, I rely on heavily to burn off anxiety and to physically tire myself out otherwise I don’t sleep which has a detrimental effect on everything. I joined a nearby gym and went swimming at lunchtimes; a simple but highly effective strategy that worked. I also adapted my working day slightly in other ways.

“We spent an afternoon creating a mind-map of the things I was finding difficult and shared ideas around solutions. As a visual person this was perfect for me”

All three managers and some members of my team came to a talk I gave for National Inclusion Week about living with Asperger’s. Although they didn’t always get it right, they listened, they tried and they continued investing in me, making the effort to get to know me as a person which made me feel valued and respected. When I left the role, the assistant manager gave my leaving speech and called me an inspiration.

He was friendly, approachable, not over-bearing and treated me like the highly skilled, intelligent, professional person I am. He trusted me to get on with my job without micro-managing me by being positive, creative and pragmatic. This was a perfect example of good management.

Lots of managers fear they are doing the wrong thing with an autistic staff member. But the worst thing a manager can do to an autistic employee is not manage them at all. Few autistic people will do a job they are incapable of, or don’t want to do. Acknowledging the condition, learning how it affects your employee and adjusting your management style accordingly is key. Failing to acknowledge that the employee is different and hoping they will just ‘fit in’ will not bode well.

Being treated the same as other employees is very damaging. I didn’t want special treatment, but I did need to be managed differently. I declared my Asperger’s in every job application I submitted and in fact, used it as evidence that I was an extremely competent, reliable employee; I was successful in getting every job I applied for.

“The worst thing a manager can do to an autistic employee is not manage them at all”

However, where managers were keen to accept the positive attributes of the condition, few made any effort to educate themselves about autism. Few broached the subject with me, and most showed no interest whatsoever despite my willingness to promote awareness by being open about it.

Managers open to educating themselves about autism – how to elicit the strengths as well as managing the challenges would make employment still feel like a realistic prospect.

Here are Suzanne’s three key points that she believes every manager needs to know when it comes to learning how to manage neurodiverse employees effectively:

1. Every autistic employee is an individual

Having five autistic employees may require five individual strategies. Reading an article about autism and adapting your management style to suit this will not be effective. The autism community is just as diverse as the NT population and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another.

Autistic employees need to be managed differently to NT employees. That’s not discriminating (which a lot of employers are wary of) it’s making reasonable adjustments for an employee who simply functions differently to your other employees.

“Having five autistic employees may require five individual strategies”

2. Invest time and effort

The only way you will achieve the trust of an autistic employee and thus benefit from their skills is by taking the time to get to know the person in far more depth than you would any NT employee. Information about themselves is unlikely to be forthcoming so you need to find a way to communicate with them which may be different to how you would your other employees. It may even have to be done through another person – an advocate in work, a friend/partner from outside work even. Make them feel valued – that you are genuinely interested in getting to know them as a person. But beware, despite some autistic people finding it difficult to “read” people, many will quickly be able to spot a disingenuous manager.

“Make them feel valued – that you are genuinely interested in getting to know them as a person”

3. Keep your mind open and be willing to be flexible and creative

Workplaces are designed to suit NT employees – but this makes a typical day at work for an autistic person far more taxing. Anything that makes life easier for your autistic employees means as an employer, you have a lot to gain. Autistic employees can be tenacious, loyal, honest and hard working – often having to be reminded to have a break or go home. Some can hyper-focus meaning in the right conditions we can block out unnecessary stimulation and completely immerse ourselves in the task at hand.

Don’t be condescending; autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, not a learning difficulty or a mental health condition. Trust that they are perfectly capable of doing the job otherwise they wouldn’t have applied for it. If they do appear to be struggling, consider that it is the work environment causing issues. I can confidently say that of all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve been more than capable of doing them – usually overqualified in fact – and if I’ve struggled to cope it’s because of the physical environment affecting my sensory issues or the structure of the working day itself which are issues easily addressed.

“I can confidently say that of all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve been more than capable of doing them – usually overqualified in fact”

The best piece of advice I can give to managers in relation to managing an autistic employee would be: make an effort to get to know them and understand them as an individual. If you can’t understand them, accept them as they are and make allowances.

Discuss with them how best they can be supported; ask how they would prefer to be managed; consider alternative communication methods – many autistic people are unable to verbalise their feelings but excel at writing. Be open and straight talking – some autistic people are unlikely to be able to gauge whether they are doing a good job without being explicitly told. Hints will not normally be realised.

“Discuss with them how best they can be supported; ask how they would prefer to be managed; consider alternative communication methods”

A new job is stressful for any person but for an autistic person, it is absolutely terrifying. All our senses are on overdrive; we worry excessively about whether we’re doing the right thing; whether we’re ‘behaving normally’, fitting in, performing adequately – the list of worries is endless. For the sake of some extra investment in the form of time, the rewards will be reaped in the longer term. Understanding, accepting and thinking outside of the conventional management box is what is required.

We hope that reading about Suzanne’s personal experiences has been insightful and has helped you feel more confident to manage neurodiverse employees. Everyone is different, so other autistic employees will have other experiences and a different journey. As Suzanne says “Having five autistic employees may require five individual strategies”.

If you are an employer, you can contact Adjust to ensure you are confident to manage neurodiverse employees effectively. We offer training and consultancy to provide you with the tools to retain, recruit and manage neurodiverse employees.