Incorporating neurodiversity into inclusion and diversity agendas
2nd July 2021
One of the things I often hear is:
“We love the idea of incorporating neurodiversity into our inclusion and diversity agenda, but we do not know where to start”.
Hearing variations of the above has made me think. How can we better help companies who have the right intentions regarding neurodiversity and inclusion but have no idea how to make them a reality?
Disclaimer: before I dive into this topic, I must tell you that I have never worked at a senior-level position in a large organisation. Therefore some of what I cover may be a bit ignorant. That is not my intention, and I welcome feedback from others that do have this experience.
What I am offering is a realistic take on neurodiversity in the workplace from an outsider's viewpoint. This viewpoint will hopefully be a fresh and reasonably helpful perspective on the topic of neurodiversity inclusion at work.
Neurodiversity is different from other forms of diversity (although it exists within them all).
The above is the first thing to know if you are promoting neurodiversity in your company.
Neurodiversity is not the same as other forms of diversity. In that, people with neurodiversity tend to be disabled somehow, not simply different. You may know this from your own experience.
However, some people may try and put you off the idea that autistic/neurodiverse people are not disabled. If you ever feel conflicted about this idea or challenged by it, chat to us (Aspiedent CIC), as we might be able to help.
Please try not to get hooked in by the idea that neurodiverse people are simply fine as they are, and like other forms of diversity (for example, race and creed), are simply different. Also, neurodiversity affects everyone equally regardless of nationality, religion, or skin colour.
I am not saying people with neurodiversity are ‘less than’. I am saying that they tend to have difficulties that society cannot accommodate fully. True inclusivity relies on mutual understanding and acceptance of both the ‘normal’ people’ and ‘neurodiverse’ people.
It does not matter if it is disability in general, autism, or your culture that creates a barrier to participating in mainstream society and accessing opportunities. If you want to be part of society, you need to take ownership and do what you can to help yourself fit in and get along with other people. Of course, you have to be realistic about what you can and cannot do – and what you can do with some support, whether that support is via software or human support.
In a nutshell, neurodiverse people are not just disabled by society (or their workplace, for that matter). Recognising this is key to making any autism or neurodiversity strategy work in a business.
Do simple research.
Before you do any work on a strategy - it is crucial to ask many within the organisation for their input. An easy way for a web developer to go wrong when developing a website for a business client, for example, is to put all the work in to make it perfect and then present it to the customer. The customer will often want to change it!
When developing a new neurodiversity initiative, you should create a very minimally detailed strategy first. Then present it to interested parties.
Get feedback/ideas/criticisms from these parties and then go back and rethink/redesign. And then take it back for them to feed back on again.
Keep doing this as an iterative process backward and forward until you get roughly positive feedback from everybody (and/or feedback becomes contradictory). Then you have a minimal viable strategy to begin to implement. Remember, this will change and will also never be ‘finished’. It is a living process, as much as running a business or running a department in a company is.
Qualitative methods are popular in social research. However, qualitative research methods can be either over or undervalued. I am confident there is a place for fancy, wide-spread surveys. But what is wrong with dropping into different departments and asking open questions about their thoughts on neurodiversity (do they even know what it is?) What is their view on how to be an organisation that actively makes space for autistic/neurodiverse people?
You may get some unexpected and interesting answers that will inform your direction. If the people ‘on the ground’ have had a say in it, any strategy or agenda in place is more likely to be successful
Send for help!
Leading on from above, there is no shame in valuing and accepting neurodiversity yet admitting that you do not know what it is! Not understanding neurodiversity is, well, understandable. People have different opinions about neurodiversity, and there is also a lot of misunderstanding out there (for example, that autistic people are just geniuses waiting to happen).
To get something really going, you need to understand how you will define neurodiversity before doing anything. The best way to start this process is to ask for some specialist help/training for yourself and other key players.
It is not reasonable to expect yourself to lead on a neurodiversity strategy without help. You may have personal experience with autism or neurodiversity, which is why you are leading the project. However, that only means you know your experiences of neurodiversity/autism. Experiences vary massively from person to person and situation to situation.
As part of your work, you will need to get others on board who do not have experience with neurodiversity.
Those who do not have personal experience may be a harder sell. This means you will have to learn about the topic from different perspectives. Understanding how they feel will help you communicate in a way that gets everybody excited for their reasons. Often, people do not know that neurodiversity is relevant to themselves until they learn what it is.
Make autism & neurodiversity relevant to everybody
Leading on from the above, we often try and stress that neurodiversity and autism inclusion is relevant to everyone in some way, shape, or form. Everybody has quirks and difficulties, and nearly all if not all of the recommendations made for autistic or neurodiverse employees would be beneficial for the workplace as a whole.
We believe there needs to be a culture shift from the ‘us and them’, or the ‘autism’ and ‘normal’ mentality. This mentality issue potentially applies to all forms of diversity. It is just not as clear-cut as autism being one thing and normal being another.
If we think of autism as this mysterious condition which nobody ‘normal’ can relate to, then we are straight away shutting down the conversations. As soon as something is not relevant or seems too difficult to understand, people disengage.
Unfortunately, you will find that many people with differences or disabilities tend to ‘other’ themselves. They may not consider themselves to have anything in common with people they view as in the majority.
There is not much you can do about this. However, there are plenty of people with differences and disabilities who want to show other people they have a lot in common with everyone else.
Do not be disheartened by negative criticism
Again leading on from the last section, do not be put off if somebody belittles your attempts at improving inclusion in this area. Even if belittling comes from ‘neurodiverse’ people. Or people who identify as neurodiverse. You are trying, which is an effort to be applauded.
There will be people who give constructive criticism, which is good. But accept that you are never going to get this perfect, and if somebody expects you to, then that is their problem. Ask them if they can do a better job! It is impossible to please everybody regarding this topic because there are so many different and often very strongly held views about it.
Do not forget, however, that some people with autism cannot help being blunt. So if you get some feedback about what you are doing that comes across as abrasive, for example, take it simply as information to help you do it better and not as an insult about you or your work.
Accept that you are never going to get it absolutely right, and go ahead and do it. Do not let the fear of making mistakes hold you back from trying to do good. I am confident you will find the journey as rewarding as we do daily.