Changing the narrative on neurodiversity

A growing cohort of networks and individuals are seeking to create a more neuro-inclusive workplace across government. However, this means overcoming misconceptions about what it means to be neurodivergent - an umbrella term that includes autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dyslexia and dysgraphia.  

“From the get-go people have assumptions around neurodivergent conditions that are hard to correct,” says Andrea Michaels, co-chair of the UK Civil Service Neurodiversity Network (CSNN), who has autism and ADHD. “What they don’t realise is that each day is different. You can wake up one morning and function properly and the next day, it takes you two hours to make a cup of tea because you're so distracted.”

Studies show that neurodiversity can add valuable ways of thinking, but data from the Office for National Statistics shows that only 29 per cent of UK adults with autism were employed. Clearly there is work to be done. 

Common misconceptions

Michaels says there are a slew of common misconceptions and assumptions related to neurodiversity that still need to be overcome: “Things like ‘all autistic people are geniuses’ and ‘everybody is a little bit autistic’ or ‘there’s no way you have ADHD because you function normally’.”

Attitudes such as these are not only dismissive and insulting, but have served to perpetuate a false narrative around neurodiversity that is damaging to the cause, Michaels says. “I think it great that people want to understand and learn more but there is still a lot of work to do - especially when it comes to undoing some of these myths.” 

Michaels reflects on how efforts made to educate away from stereotypes are too focused on the explanation of what the condition is, rather than how to support that individual. “It's like we're being preached to about what our conditions are, rather than how to support us.” She believes that the most effective way to educate people is for there to be a greater focus on real, lived experiences. 

Hels Galley, deputy chair of the CSNN, who is autistic, says: “I recently attended a neurodiversity training event that was being run in government and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. The person leading the session was talking about suppressing tics and fixing autism.

“I was so incensed, and concerned that this damaging narrative was being delivered, especially during a time that we were supposed to be celebrating Neurodiversity Awareness, that I arranged a call with a fellow network member and the facilitator that had arranged the training, which resulted in the training being removed and a replacement version to be created.”

The workshop was a clear indicator for Galley of the urgent need for better quality training on neurodiversity within the civil service. She says she would like to see every department and agency across Whitehall build a formal strategy. 

It was frustrations like these that led Michaels and Galley, alongside a group of colleagues, to launch the Civil Service Neurodiversity Network in 2019 - a volunteer-run staff community focused on supporting neurodivergent civil servants along three guiding principles: to empower, to enable and to educate. Since starting in 2019, the network has grown to around 1000 members. 

The network recommends soft adjustments that can improve outcomes for neurodivergent employees, such as modifying the job to suit an individuals’ skills and interests or allowing for different methods of communication in meetings.

“Listen to what your neurodiverse member of staff is saying to you,” Michaels says. “It’s about understanding that they can still perform the role, just slightly differently to what you're used to.”

Galley, for example, performs best when armed with as much detail on tasks that are assigned to her as possible, as opposed to vague or random instructions. With her autism, she can get hyper-focused, especially on projects she is passionate about, which she says can make it difficult for her to manage a healthy work-life balance. “My line manager is aware of these behaviours and has been really helpful when it comes to checking in with me. It’s about being mindful, which sometimes means managers and colleagues asking ‘what should I do’ and also ‘what do you not want me to do?’.”

As well as providing a safe space for members to turn to for advice and support, volunteers at the CSNN carry out neuro-inclusive training across Whitehall.

Most recently, the network developed a new training package as part of the Fast Stream recruitment process, aimed at equipping managers with the right tools to recruit and manage neurodivergent candidates. It includes preparing managers using real life case studies and training them on interview techniques that accommodate neurodivergent candidates, either by knowing what questions to ask or by interpreting verbal and non-verbal responses. 

Reflecting on the response from those that participated, Galley says: “It was a real eye-opener for a lot of managers. I think we need to see more training like this across government.”

 The CSNN has now launched its latest initiative, the Senior Civil Service Champions, which sees a select group of directors and permanent secretaries across Whitehall engage their departments on best practices around being neuro-inclusive. “Having someone at the top to support our community is going to make all the difference,” Michaels says. 

Championing neurodiverse ‘superpowers’

Another person changing the narrative around neurodiversity is Tony Richards, chair of the Neurodiversity Network in Government Digital Services (GDS), who has dyslexia and dyspraxia. 

Richards became a civil servant after joining the Fast Stream in 2015. Faced with challenges linked to his dyslexia and dyspraxia, he took a secondment at Exceptional Individuals, a charity that supports neurodiversity in the workplace. “It was here that I discovered how to re-frame my own dyslexia to focus on the benefits instead of the disadvantages.”

A year ago, Richards saw an opportunity to leverage the neurodiverse “superpowers” across GDS by taking the Neurodiversity Network - a “dormant Slack channel” with about 20 members - and formalising it with regular meetings and a clear set of objectives. Today, there are around 100 members and the once small Slack channel has expanded to include a programme of events and key work streams aimed at highlighting the value of neurodiverse talent across the entire organisation.

“The network has helped on multiple working levels - from getting neurodiverse talent through the door, advocating for neurodiverse talent across GDS and supporting those who have neurodiverse friends and family.”

It has become an important learning resource for senior leadership at GDS, explains Richards, especially when it comes to designing policies that make the recruitment and onboarding process more neuro-inclusive. “A lot of the stuff we post on the Slack channel gets picked up by senior leaders. They can come to us to find out a bit more and understand how to improve ways of working, both in terms of management and recruitment.”

Richards believes the most effective way organisations can help those with neurodiverse conditions is to stop waiting for people to put up their hands and ask for help. 

The network is currently focused on trialling ‘Manual of Me’ across GDS - a tool that helps employees to communicate their working preferences. “It lets everyone lay out on the table what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they like to work, and it does so without necessarily forcing people to put their hand up and go ‘hey I'm dyslexic or autistic.’ It allows managers to play to everybody’s strengths.”

GDS has already incorporated ‘Manual of Me’ into its smarter working toolkit and the Network is working closely with delivery and product managers to promote and trial it across the organisation. 

Like Michaels and Galley, Richards believes there is still a lack of awareness about neurodiversity, driven in large part by the fact that it is a relatively young movement. “A lot of people argue that some of these conditions are not really a disadvantage. But these perceptions are preventing neurodivergent people from progressing further in their career.” 

Richard believes there is still more work to do. He points to studies by the National Career Institute, suggesting the overall neurodiverse population is close to 20%. 

“We've made really good progress at GDS. However, there’s definitely an opportunity to work more with other cross-government diversity networks to share best practice and push this along on a larger scale.”

Listening and learning 

The North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), an independent public body, annually updates its Inclusion and Diversity Action Plan which, in recent years, has included specific actions focusing on neurodiversity. The organisation says it has introduced extensive flexible working policies and procedures that accommodate different working patterns. However, the most valuable part of its ongoing strategy has been fostering the right culture. 

Elaine Smith, Senior People Development and Inclusion Manager at the NSTA, says storytelling has been "particularly impactful", and following some initial powerful stories shared by neurodivergent speakers, a series of these (covering a variety of D&I areas) were then scheduled. “Our focus is on listening and learning right now,” she explains. 

This has led to some staff being more open than expected, Smith adds. “Having seen others share their experiences, people have been more open about struggles they may have had in the past, and we’ve heard anecdotally that this has made it easier for them to discuss what they need from their teams and colleagues.”

She says opening the door to “real conversations” on neurodiversity will help to foster a culture “where people feel comfortable enough to ask for help and where stereotyping is reduced.”

Building the right culture ensures long-term change and prevents initiatives from becoming “meaningless” box-ticking exercises, Smith adds. “There is a danger with many inclusion-based goals around diversity that people can feel that they are simply filling a quota.”

Suzanne Lilley, Head of HR at the NSTA, believes it is easy for organisations to get caught up in facts and figures — and the best way to retain neurodivergent people is by creating a culture that supports them. “One person’s experience of autism will vary very much from somebody else's. It's never going to be exactly replicated so providing bespoke support means being aware of all the different challenges people have to face everyday.”

The challenge, she says, is finding ways to keep the conversation going. “There is a risk that once you have delivered a session or initiative then the pace of day-to-day life means some subjects can be lost, so we are working out how to keep those dialogues open and ongoing.”

The NSTA has engaged with charities such as the British Dyslexic Society and the Grampian Autistic Society to help run awareness sessions and build their understanding of best practices. 

Both Smith and Lilley reflect on the importance of continuously assessing and re-evaluating diversity policies to ensure that they are having the right impact. The NSTA has an annual wellbeing survey as well as an engagement survey that goes out every two years. Additionally, they host an employee engagement forum and have started holding listening workshops where people are invited to put forward the topics of discussion they want to have. “It is very much an open agenda,” Smith says.  

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