Embracing neurodiversity can bring a range of benefits to a business or organisation, but being an inclusive employer isn’t just a box to be ticked, it’s a journey from recruitment to retirement, and everything in between.

We spoke to Rachael Leisk, Employer Engagement Officer at the North East Autism Society (NEAS), about the range of things you can do to help autistic employees and colleagues feel fulfilled at work and perform at their best.

1. Avoid assumptions and have a person-centred approach.

There are a lot of myths about autistic people, and what those of us who are autistic can and can’t do, but autistic people are as varied as anyone else in skills, experiences, preferences, and needs.

Rachael said: “Every neurodivergent person is different from every other neurodivergent person, don’t assume that just because you know someone who’s autistic that they’re going to be the same as your autistic employee.”

Being person-centred means putting the individual at the centre of decisions about them, including them and listening to what they need, especially if their needs change.

2. Embrace how your employee works best.

Getting to know your team well and how to utilise their strengths is vital to good management. Everyone works differently, and autistic employees may need a different approach from supervisors to get the best out of their work.

Autistic employees may process information differently, and using their preferred style of communication can help break down work tasks and make them more digestible and achievable.

“Do people prefer to receive their instructions, as it were, by email?” Rachael said, “would people prefer to have a conversation? Do people want checking in with every day, every half day, every month?”

Autistic people may also have ‘spiky profiles’ when it comes to skills, excelling at some tasks but struggling with others, and it may be possible to spread duties throughout a team to allow everyone to focus on their strongest skills.

3. Create a culture of Positive Disclosure.

You can’t support a neurodivergent employee if you don’t know their needs, but autistic professionals may have had bad experiences in the past that means they mask their autism at work and do not disclose to employers.

Whether or not they disclose being autistic will always be the individual’s choice, but employers can take steps to create a positive culture around neurodiversity which encourages autistic employees to be more open about their needs.

Rachael said: “It starts from the branding of the organisation and actually demonstrating to people that you’re a good organisation to work with, I then think it’s about the recruitment side of it, giving people an opportunity to say there’s something different about me that I’d like to be able to discuss with you,”

Taking part in externally accredited schemes such as the government’s Disability Confident Scheme, or NEAS’ own Autism Acceptance Award, can help add to an organisation’s branding and appeal to potential neurodivergent staff.

Larger organisations may consider forming network for disabled and neurodivergent staff. While not everyone will be interested in taking part in these groups, it gives staff an alternative way to discuss and raise issues around inclusivity, and helps an organisation gather feedback on the support they are giving.

“Positive disclosure is about good relationships, it’s about demonstrating formally that you’re an organisation that will take it seriously, but it’s also about those informal conversations,” Rachael added.

4. Be proactive with reasonable adjustments.

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments where a disabled or neurodivergent employee would be substantially disadvantaged in carrying out their work.

Adjustments can include small changes to the working space, or how an individual carries out their work.

Questions about reasonable adjustments can be raised as early as recruitment, and applicants can make it known what reasonable adjustments they may require alongside making their disclosure.

Some autistic employees will come to you knowing what reasonable adjustments they need, but for others there may be a process of discovering as they go what support they need.

Rachael said: “Quite a lot of organisations I work with have a wellness plan or an employee wellbeing plan, so it’s built into their supervision.”

Being open about the offer of reasonable adjustments can also draw applicants to your company and help them feel more confident in making a disclosure.

5. Make an Access to Work application

When an employee needs changes above and beyond reasonable adjustments, supporting them through an Access to Work application can help you retain a valuable employee and enable them to thrive.

Access to Work is a government grant that can fund a range of items and services in the workplace. This may include paying for specialist equipment or software, specialist support for the individual in the workplace, taxis to work if public transport is inaccessible to them, and neurodiversity awareness training for their team.

While not every employee will need an Access to Work grant, it is important to identify the potential benefits of an application and start the process as soon as possible, and remember an application can be made before someone starts in your team.

6. Create an inclusive workspace

Creating an environment that allows individuals to make themselves as comfortable as possible by personalising the space around them is an easy way to allow reasonable adjustments.

Workplaces can implement adjustable lighting, headphones to cut out background noise or allow employees to listen to music to help them focus, and have quiet or secluded spaces for employees to use when needed.

This not only has a positive impact on making adjustments for neurodivergent employees, but helps all employees feel more comfortable at work.

Rachael said: “An environment that’s good for a neurodivergent person is just a good environment, really.”

“An autism friendly environment is one that respects that people are different and creates an opportunity for people to say, ‘this is what I need for me,’” She added.

7. Make information clear.

Rachael said: “When I talk to employers about recruitment, one of the things I say is that application forms are really difficult, because they require really high levels of inferencing skills.”

It is often down to an individual to assess what person spec requirements like ‘good communication skills’ are, as the skills needed by a speaker addressing an audience of experts may be different to the skills needed by a salesperson looking to secure a client – both are communicating effectively, but in different ways.

Making job and person specification requirements clearer and cutting down on jargon can help you communicate more effectively to neurodivergent candidates.

Likewise, when working with someone who is neurodivergent, being clear and direct with what they need to do can help avoid misunderstanding and boost productivity.

8. Assess skills, not presentation.

Who really enjoys interviews? They’re stressful at the best of times, and for those of us who are autistic, it can be even worse to be sat in an unfamiliar environment and asked open ended questions by new people.

Feedback from employers often focuses on how well someone maintained eye contact, whether they sat still, and other indicators of formal body-language, that may have no bearing on what someone will do on the job.

Likewise, the candidate who is best at coming up with snappy answers and selling their skills and experience on the day may not turn out to be a good fit once they have the job.

Using interview alternatives like work trials, where candidates complete a short period of work to see if they are a good fit for the job, can give neurodivergent people a chance to show what they can do in a working environment, and give an employer confidence they are hiring the right person.

“We’ve always been all about work trials. Let someone try and actually do the job, give them an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, and don’t just assess how well they can answer questions in an interview,” Rachael said.

This continues into work, where people may be viewed differently on how well they socialise with colleagues, their attendance of work nights out, or being seen as a ‘team player,’ things that have little to do with their actual job!

9. Use mentors and promote development on the job.

Having a mentor or buddy in place outside of the management structure can help anyone during the early days of a new job. An experienced member of staff can help navigate an unfamiliar environment or help when we need someone to ask about new tasks.

Providing good management and supervision can also be easier when a buddy is in place and can give feedback, and help supervisors identify potential for training or development.

Being clear that progression is open to everyone can be a huge boost to autistic employees, especially those who may have felt they have been overlooked for opportunities in the past in favour of more ‘outgoing’ colleagues.

10. Invest in neurodiversity training.

Some people might groan at the idea of training, but neurodiversity training can open you up to a whole different perspective on how we think, learn, and work.

Rachael said: “It’s about changing that narrative from ‘neurodivergent conditions are going to cause a problem for me’ to ‘actually, neurodivergent employees will bring great strengths to my organisation.’”

Training across an organisation helps colleagues understand each-other better, helps management and HR puts procedures in place, and helps neurodivergent employees enter a workplace that accepts them for their strengths and abilities.

“Sometimes it’s just about actually opening up the team’s mind and giving the team a little bit of education about what they need to know to help their autistic employees to thrive.” Rachael said.