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Empathy and adjustments: understanding neurodiversity in the workplace



This week, around the world, people will be marking Autism Acceptance Week which started in 1962 and is proudly marking its 60th anniversary in 2022. It is also the same week that new research has identified that compassionate leadership is the key differentiator between a good manager and a great one.


Although our knowledge of autism is relatively recent worldwide (compared to other health conditions), research over the years has led us to have an improved understanding, and more people are now being diagnosed.


In the UK, the estimated prevalence in adults is about 1.1%, and there is always a greater proportion in males when compared to females. This gender split is largely thought to be as a result of females being better at camouflaging their difficulties and ‘fitting in’ with society’s expectations (NICE, 2022).


There is much that we need to do as a society and workplace to create an environment that works for everyone, despite their neurodiversity, and this starts with improving our understanding of autism.


What is Autism?

Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, around 1 in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum, and it affects many people, and in different ways.


“If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism” Dr Stephen Shore


Some of the key challenges include social communication and interaction challenges, repetitive and restrictive behaviours, over-or under sensitivity to light, sound taste or touch, highly focused interests or hobbies, extreme anxiety and meltdowns and shutdowns (Autism.org, 2022).


Key facts about Autism

  • It can affect people of all abilities

  • The key challenges can include: difficulties with social communication and thought flexibility

  • The key strengths can include: memory ability, innovative thinking, enhanced observation skills, skills in areas such as the arts and IT

  • It can result in highly developed sensory awareness/less functional sensory processing skills


Autism characteristics might be noticed during early childhood, but often young people may spend a lot of time waiting for an autism diagnostic assessment or may only receive a diagnosis in adulthood (BMA, 2022).


What are our legal responsibilities to protect people with autism from discrimination?

The Equality Act (2010) highlights that people should not experience direct discrimination, discrimination arising from a disability, indirect discrimination, harassment of victimisation due to their protected characteristics.


Autism is a lifelong developmental disability; therefore people with autism are protected under the Equality Act (2010) which defines a disability as:


A person (P) has a disability if:


  • P has a physical or mental impairment; and

  • the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities


You can find out more about the legal definitions here: https://www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010


The law also requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support people with disabilities in the workplace.


How can we improve our support to colleagues with Autism?

If an individual has a disability within the meaning of the Equality Act (2010), and the employer knows, or ought reasonably to know of the disabled person’s disability and that the disabled person is likely to be placed at a substantial disadvantage, we have the duty to make a reasonable adjustment.


Examples can include:


  • Modifying procedures for testing/assessment for recruitment and promotion

  • Acquiring specialist equipment or modifying existing equipment

  • Altering a process

  • Reallocating part of a job to another member of staff with balancing exchange of duties

  • Transferring to another more appropriate job

  • Providing additional supervision or checking


If you feel someone would benefit from an adjustment, it’s important to listen.


If you are aware of a colleague having autism, you should discuss the situation fully and openly and seek views on changes to working practices or physical alterations in conjunction with the individual, centring their experiences to ensure any changes are in collaboration and with consent.


It is also very important to make a full and proper assessment of the employee’s abilities, and seek medical advice about the effects of the employee’s condition and their abilities.


It is important that we give full and fair consideration to all reasonable possibilities and take a proactive approach to redeployment/alternative work


To avoid pitfalls, you should always ensure you don’t make any assumptions about the person’s abilities, don’t let time slip, and ensure you don’t overlook the employee’s skills and abilities, and the benefits these bring to the team.


No, autism is not a ‘gift’. For most, it is an endless fight against schools, workplaces and bullies. But, under the right circumstances, given the right adjustments, it CAN be a superpower – Greta Thunberg: Environmental Activist


To find out more about Autism in the Workplace, take a look at the following Workplace Awareness Sheet by Autism.org.


References

https://www.bma.org.uk/what-we-do/population-health/improving-the-health-of-specific-groups/autism-spectrum-disorder

https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism

https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/autism-in-adults/background-information/prevalence/

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