Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Embracing neurodiversity in the workplace

Research suggests that just 15 to 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment, however, the actual figure is probably much higher than this due to the number of undiagnosed autistic adults.

When we look at the number of people with learning disabilities who are in work, the number is even lower, with around 5% in full-time paid employment.

However, when considering all disabilities, the Office for National Statistics states that around half of disabled adults in the UK are in work, which compares to around 81.3% of non-disabled people.

“So, you can see the employment landscape for neurodivergent people is not great, and one has to wonder to what extent traditional job coaching, careers advice and so on is made regarding the significant difference to the job prospects of neurodivergent people,” Dr Milton said.

Key issues which impact neurodivergent people in the workplace

Dr Milton says there are many factors which can impact neurodivergent people in the workplace. This includes: the sensory environment, spiky profiles, flow states and different perceptions and viewpoints.

Offices can be chaotic, unorganised and overwhelming for neurodivergent people. It is often not clear where things are and where you’re meant to go, particularly if the office uses hot desking.

Neurodivergent people also have ‘spiky profiles’, Dr Milton says. This means that this group often have particular passions and skills, but there are often large gaps in other skill areas, as they have focused most of their time and energy on one particular area.

This is not often understood in workplaces, and when employers have certain expectations and lack flexibility, there can be a breakdown in communication and understanding.

However, Dr Milton notes that neurodiverse people bring a unique set of skills and strengths with these passionate interests, as well as differing perceptions and viewpoints which can lead to a stronger, more diverse team.

Having these differing perceptions and viewpoints, however, can lead to misunderstandings, something Dr Milton terms the ‘double empathy problem’.

This problem can happen between any two people, but frequently occurs in the autistic brain as autistic people often have a different view of the world. This will not only impact your sense of self but also how you relate to others.

Workplaces can therefore cause a great deal of anxiety and stress for neurodivergent people, and often lead people to mask their issues and not be open about their struggles to managers and co-workers.

“The opposite of this is also possible,” Dr Milton says. Office environments can be a good fit for neurodivergent people, as long as there is a sense of predictability, control over one’s environment and knowledge of what work needs to be done and by when.

Transparent and open workplace environments allow employees to raise issues quickly and effectively. However, environments such as these can be hard to find.

The dangers of masking/passing

If you search online for job interview advice, you will likely be met with grooming tips, advice on how to dress, how and when to give a handshake, and you will be told to make eye contact and use an upbeat tone of voice.

However, this advice is typically more difficult to follow for neurodivergent people. While it may be tempting to try and perform these neurotypical behaviours, Dr Milton warns that if you are trying to answer interview questions while simultaneously cognitively process how you’re presenting yourself, you may become overloaded and shut down during the interview.

While masking may have some limited uses in social life (such as to avoid stigma), it is not a good tactic within employment, as putting on a mask all day every day will lead to stress, poor mental health and burnout.

“What I’ve found is, I do best if I throw all this advice out the window,” Dr Milton says. “To give myself the best chance of getting through a job interview, all I can do is be myself and give the best version of myself that I can be.

“If I disclose my autism in advance, and they’re a knowledgeable employer, then this shouldn’t be held against me.”

However, Dr Milton warns that there are dangers to disclosure, and whether it is appropriate is dependent on social context and individual circumstances. In any case, if your employer discriminates against you because you’re neurodivergent, you’re probably better off avoiding that employer anyway.

Furthermore, masking one’s difficulties will always results in problems down the line, and could even cause long-term trauma and damage mental health.

Even so, Dr Milton notes that different jobs will have varying requirements, and each individual needs to navigate their own path and draw upon their strengths rather than trying to overcome weaknesses.

Finding work

Dr Milton warns that using a ‘scatter gun’ approach to job applications (i.e. creating a broad CV and cover letter and applying to every job advert you see) is not often a successful approach.

Instead, he suggests utilising your strengths and interests and doing targeted applications. If you get turned down on your first application, keep applying for future roles so the employer knows you’re really keen on working for the company.

Dr Milton says it is also important to “show your worth”, by providing examples of your work (through a portfolio, for example), or attending a work placement. “This can aid your chances as you’re being judged more on the work you produce than how you present”, he says.

Providing reasonable adjustments

Employers are required to provide reasonable adjustments both during the recruitment process and in the workplace itself.

However, Dr Milton says that reasonable adjustments often do not provide adequate levels of support for disabled people, and the neurodivergent person often has to do far more of the compromising than the workplace does.

Dr Milton says the concept of reasonable adjustments is “very constraining and limited”. He said: “My criticism of it is: reasonable for whom and adjusting from what? The norms being adjusted are that of the workplace and what’s reasonable to them.”

Dr Milton says it is far better to find a workplace that you can work in happily without individual adjustments having to be made.

“What leads to better outcomes for all is what is called ‘universal design’ or ‘inclusive design’. So instead of having to make specific adjustments, you make broader adjustments which are effective and helpful to greater numbers of people in the workplace,” he said.

An example of this would be to make a job advert accessible for everyone in both design and wording, rather than waiting for someone to request an accessible version of the advert.

Meaningful occupation

There is a proportion of neurodivergent people who will be unable to work under current work conditions, or for whom it would be exploitative and not a ‘meaningful occupation’.

“An example of this would be my son. My son has no comprehension of what a job is or what money is. So, if I tried to employ my son, it would be simply exploitative,” says Dr Milton.

However, utilising one’s interests, motivations and strengths can be a good way to attain meaningful occupation in one’s life, without necessarily having a paid job.

Dr Milton uses the example of a young man with a learning disability who began attending a photography group. He had previously been attending a daily living skills class, but hadn’t made any progress while taking the classes.

However, when he discovered his passion for photography, he began to excel in all aspects of his life. Unfortunately, his local council pulled the funding for the photography course, and as soon as he returned back to his daily living skills class, all the motivation he had discovered dropped away.

This shows the importance of ensuring disabled and neurodivergent people have hobbies and passions that they enjoy, even if they are unable to find paid work.

Can mentors be beneficial for neurodivergent people?

Autism mentors can provide academic and employment support for neurodivergent individuals, and Dr Milton ran a two-year pilot project to evaluate mentoring interventions.

The research team looked at setting three goals over a six-month period and analysing progression on those goals. Personal wellbeing was also measured on a number of scales.

At the end of the sixth-month period, although mentoring was not successful in every pair, overall, it did have a significant positive impact on a number of participants. There were:

  • Increases in general wellbeing and what people felt they were achieving in life
  • Increased feelings of safety
  • Significant progress towards identified goals.

Some issues were identified, such as matching the mentor to the mentee, boundary setting of the mentor role and the supervision of mentors and their support systems. However, proper training in these areas improved people’s experiences.

Feeding back on their experience of mentoring, one participant said: “This helped me dig my way out of a life-threatening hole that I could not see any way out of. It reminded me to make progress towards goals. [The mentor] listened when I needed it, was a regular weekly marker in my chaotic life, provided an opportunity to reflect, plan and self-manage. I wouldn’t have done this otherwise.”

In light of this research, it seems mentoring can be a particularly helpful tool for neurodivergent people who are looking for some help, support and guidance while job searching.

Take home points

Dr Milton concluded the webinar with some key points for neurodivergent individuals as well as employers:

  • Whether you’re an employee or an employer, it is important to consider what is under your control and influence, and what is not, before applying for a job or taking on a neurodiverse employee.
  • When looking for work, always target your efforts at jobs that genuinely interest you and at workplaces which have an inclusive culture.
  • Disclosure is a personal choice and can be problematic, but not disclosing your neurodivergence can also lead to significant issues.
  • What is meaningful occupation for one is not for all. We’re all different and have different ideas about the kind of occupational work we want to find.
  • For advisors, mentors and employers: being person-centred is vital and it is important to work with the individual to make the best fit possible.

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