How to change your workplace to better support neurodiversity

This week (28th March to 3rd April 2022) is World Autism Acceptance Week. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK (National Autistic Society).
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are one of a number of neurological conditions that are considered “neurodiverse”. Neurodiversity includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia. According to Acas, it is estimated that around 1 in 7 people in the UK (more than 15% of the population) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently.

Given that such disorders affect such a high number of our friends, family and colleagues, it is important that these differences are addressed in the workplace in order to support greater diversity and inclusivity.

At AJ Products we focus on ways that improving the physical workspace can increase employee wellbeing and business productivity. So how can you adapt your workplace to make it more accessible for neurodivergent employees?

How to reduce distractions and other obstacles in the workplace to support autistic and neurodivergent employees

1. Put up screens to reduce background noise and block peripheral vision

High noise levels and too much visual exposure can lead to sensory overload for autistic employees; these are a major issue in open-plan offices. Desk screens and floor screens are a very simple way to help reduce surrounding noise, limit peripheral vision and provide privacy. They are an affordable and easy-to-install solution that can have an immediate impact.

Another way to address noise levels in offices with high ceilings and a large open layout is through the use of acoustic wall panels and ceiling baffles. Acoustic solutions are designed to absorb sound reverberations that would otherwise bounce off any hard surfaces and add to the overall noise level. Adding soft furnishings and textiles can also help.
Close up of a woman at a desk with desk screens
Open office with a row of deska dn chairs separated by screens
2. Provide additional equipment to help with noise reduction

Equipment such as noise-cancelling headphones or dual-ear headsets for the phone can help block out background noise and allow the individual to focus better on their tasks.

3. Address lighting in the office

Many autistic people experience hypersensitivity to bright lights. Allocate workspaces with plenty of natural light for employees who struggle with office lighting. If this is not possible, provide desk lighting that can be adjusted by the user so they can get the right lighting level for them.

4. Think about where you place people in the workplace

Don’t place employees who struggle with overstimulation in noisy, crowded areas. Without excluding them from their team, is there a workstation available where they may experience fewer distractions? For example, away from the main walkway, away from printers or not next to a colleague who is expected to be on the phone all day.
Woman standing up to work in an office quiet zone
Woman sitting on high-sided acoustic sofa in an office
5. Create quiet work zones

Have meeting rooms or other spaces available as quiet work areas and make it part of the office culture that employees aren’t expected to work at their allocated desk all day but can choose to work in a space that better suits them as and when they want.
 
6. Keep the office design uncluttered

Redesign the office space to remove bright or busy artwork on the walls and limit the amount of information that is displayed around the workplace to help with sensory overload.

 7. Offer flexible working arrangements

Do staff need to be in the office full time? Homeworking is an effective way to give your employees complete control over their working environment. For some, this may be an ideal way to allow them to flourish in their work tasks while avoiding the challenges of a busy, open-plan office.

If it is important that the employee is physically present in the workplace full or part time, then consider if you could offer flexible working hours. Doing so would mean that employees could choose to avoid crowds at the beginning and the end of the day, both coming into and out of the workplace itself and on any public transport routes they rely on during their commute.

8. Create an inclusive environment

Most importantly of all, create an environment, both physical and psychological, where employees feel safe to speak out. Wellbeing and performance issues are often caused by neurodivergent employees not feeling safe to disclose their condition and so not asking for the adjustments and support they need at work.

It’s also vital to understand that the characteristics of ASDs vary from person to person, so the challenges they face and the type and level of support they require will be different. Don’t be afraid to ask neurodivergent employees how the business can support their needs and what changes would best suit them to ensure you provide tailored and effective adjustments. Trust them to know what they need better than you do.
Bird's eye view of a flexible open office space with high-sided sofas and desks separated by screens

Why does it matter?

First of all, being neurodivergent will usually amount to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, even if the person does not consider themselves to be disabled. This means that organisations have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace and/or the employee's role in order to remove any potential disadvantage.

What’s more, healthy and motivated employees whose wellbeing is placed front and centre by their employer are more likely to perform well, have good attendance levels and be engaged in their work.

Above all, there are lots of benefits to welcoming a more diverse workforce into the business, including:
  • different perspectives
  • creative thinking
  • problem solving
  • new skills and insights
By making small and reasonable adjustments to the workplace, your business can benefit from a wealth of new skills and experiences!

Resources

The above is intended as a starting point for organisations looking to improve workplace inclusivity and diversity. AJ Products is not an expert in this field. For more information and support we recommend the following organisations and resources:

Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) www.acas.org.uk

National Autistic Society www.autism.org.uk

DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) Autism and Neurodiversity Toolkit for staff and managers  www.autismandneurodiversitytoolkit.org

[Correct at time of writing, March 2022]