How to Bust Stigma About Neurodivergent People in the Workplace

Rachel Worsley  |  18/03/2022

What are some practical tips on busting ND stigma and stereotypes that managers can implement today? We speak to Nicci Richman, the owner of Audir, a neurodiversity consultancy, to share her thoughts on this topic.

1. What are your best tips for busting stigma and stereotypes in the workplace? 

The first thing is to recognise that there is stigma, and there are stereotypes. Even in inclusive workplaces where people say that they are a diverse and inclusive workplace. Are they so diverse in their inclusion?

People will talk about gender. They'll talk about race. But the conversation about neurodivergence is very new and a lot of people aren't there yet, despite saying they are inclusive. 

There’s still some stigma around someone making a comment around “Oh, I'm diagnosed ADHD” and the stigma is “they're not going to achieve anything” or “they're going to be flighty.”
That misses the point of all the value that ADHD employees will be bringing to the workplace. 

Same with autism. You can get your stereotypical comments like: “Well, that person's not going to be good in a conversation. That person is not going to have empathy for others. They are not socially aware.” All those stereotypes which are very harmful and not true at all.

We should recognise that despite the fact that we call ourselves inclusive and non-judgmental, we do stereotype and stigmatise. So the first thing to do to bust that stereotyping and bias in the workplace, is to educate yourself.

And this is where I talk about creating cultures of belonging. It's something that needs to ideally come from the top. Leadership needs to get on board and invite those with lived experience to come and speak to them and to learn about those individual experiences and they'll learn that not one experience is the same.

2. How could managers have those conversations with people with lived experience?

You can talk to people who run businesses like me who can go in and start those conversations, or who can talk to the strengths of different neurodivergent people. But it’s also about inviting those who are actually in the workplace who have disclosed their neurodivergent identity and asking and inviting them for a conversation.

You can ask them: “What is your experience in the workplace? How do you thrive? What types of management support helps you in the workplace? What does your manager do that might make things harder?”Just understanding what part of the work life experience is working and what part isn't.
Then there’s intersectionalities. The more intersections there are for a person, the more their experience can be disabling or result in something called “onlyness”. They feel they're the only people in the workplace who do have this experience. For example, a person who is ADHD, autistic, gender diverse, from a non-English speaking background, their experience is going to be very different to your white cisgender autistic male.

It's recognising that everybody's experience is their experience. It's seeing all employees as individuals and going right to the source to have the conversation to say: “How do you experience life? What can we do to be more supportive in this workplace? What are we already doing really well?”

3. Are neurodiversity employee resource groups (ERGs) useful for breaking down stigma and stereotypes?

If the workplace is big enough for that, then absolutely useful, especially if you have a champion within leadership for that ERG.

Then it’s about having opportunities for learning and opportunities for mentoring. So neurodivergent people are mentoring other neurodivergent people so people are learning from each other.

In organisations that don't have that ERG, then having education sessions for staff where they get to understand each other can be helpful.

4. What other tips do you have for managers to promote neurodiversity at work?

Have shared language. One of the things that can cause challenges in the workplace is the different styles of communications. Having some really great conversations about how different people communicate can be helpful. I use the REACH Ecosystem to help people to give a framework as a starting point for how everybody communicates from, and thinks in different ways.

Having that joint understanding and appreciation for how people communicate and how people think is another way to start building in that culture of belonging. It’s about taking away the judgment and taking away the emotion to “This is how this person works best”.

Another area is to start seeing the person's strengths and asking them about what they see as their strengths. Sometimes individuals can't tell you what their strengths are, because they've spent such a long time thinking about where their challenges are. As managers it’s starting to notice and point out for people what their strengths are and keep building on those strengths.

Don’t place all the onus on the people with lived experience to tell you. They can get a bit exhausted having to tell their story again and again. Don’t speak over the top or on behalf of them, but support them in their experiences. Learn how you can be an ally for these people. There’s some brilliant YouTubers, like “How to ADHD”, as examples of great resources to educate yourself.