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Jamie Graham


Business Engagement & Relationship Manager

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Managing the stigma around neurodiverse colleagues

How can HR best manage the stigma around neurodiversity and start talking about the issue?

Stigmas creep into every single aspect of life, stemming from childhood, following through adolescence and into the corporate world we occupy today.

‘Autistic people can only work in coding’, ‘adjusting for neurodiversity would cause a huge upheaval ‘neurodiverse individuals can’t work in a team.’ It’s these subconscious stigmas that we must stand up to, that we must put steps in to address, and ultimately aim to completely remove it from day-to-day life – both in the corporate world and outside.

50% of UK managers state that they would not hire neurodivergent talent

Managing the damage

The damage caused by the stigma attached to the full spectrum of neurodiverse conditions is widespread, both in its long-lasting effects, but also in the frequency in which it occurs. With the impact of global lockdowns putting a renewed focus on mental health, and Google searches for ‘neurodiversity’ peaking at a 300% increase, now is the time to address the issue and work to make a change. 

With one in seven individuals being considered to have a neurodiverse condition – that being an umbrella term used to describe alternative thinking styles such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, autism, and ADHD – these stigmas can impact a lot more than people first realise. These range from the impact they have on a neurodiverse individual’s mental health, to the very job prospects being offered to them – all due to the many misunderstandings and assumptions made about those who are neurodiverse.

This is so much the case that as high as 50% of UK managers state that they would not hire neurodivergent talent. This figure becomes even more absurd when a further study found that autistic professionals can actually be up to 140% more productive than their neurotypical counterparts, and even more so with many neurodivergent traits being associated with much-needed originality of ideas.

Neurodiversity and mental health

When it comes to mental health, the stigma around neurodiversity can have a much more direct and, oftentimes much more devastating impact. It has been found that those with neurodivergent conditions are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and general poor wellbeing. These mental health conditions don’t end with the workday either – they permeate through every aspect of the individual’s life, having knock-on effects on relationships, physical health and much more.

Stigma comes into play as neurodiversity leads to these secondary mental health difficulties, simply due to the fact that, for many individuals, there are large parts of their lives where they struggle to meet the academic or social norms and expectations that are placed upon them. 

This can then lead to many unfortunate situations, ranging from exclusion from social groups, right to dismissal from employment. There has even been a recent study proving this showing a 40% rise in employment tribunals relating to autism alone. A further 2019 study by BIMA, looking specifically at the digital and technology sector, found that neurodiverse individuals were found to have a much higher incidence of anxiety and depression, at 84% compared to 49%, seen in those that are neurotypical.

There also needs to be an awareness that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to meet every single individual’s additional need

This can often be associated with the aforementioned social norms thrust upon neurodiverse individuals, which can lead to masking of conditions. The BIMA study states that 39% of neurodiverse people have not disclosed their condition at work. This could be out of fear of embarrassment, fear of hindering career progress, or as mentioned, fear of complete dismissal.

With all this in mind, what can be done? The most important thing to come to terms with is that there is no one solution that will solve this issue. ToHealth truly believes that for real change to happen, it needs to happen to every fibre of an organisation. Neurodiversity solutions can’t just be viewed as another service or a box-checking exercise. It needs to be a culture change embedded into every aspect of business.

There also needs to be an awareness that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to meet every single individual’s additional need. Supporting neurodivergent employees comes down to just that, the individual – working to support their specific needs and improving their day-to-day life by doing so. This all might seem like an overwhelming task, but it is crucial that this journey starts, and it starts now.

Start talking about it

Change begins with a conversation, and that ethos is incredibly applicable to this scenario. While not addressing the entire issue, awareness and education is often the first step to combating any stigma. Donna Stevenson from the British Dyslexia Association, states that: “Everyone should make a commitment to becoming neuroinclusive, but a lot of people don’t realise that something like dyslexia or dyscalculia is a disability”. 

That being said – awareness is only the first step. Real change has to impact every single step, starting with the recruitment process. Simple adjustments such as making questions available ahead of time, detailing who will be involved in the recruitment process, or simply allowing for a longer time-period to answer questions can go a long way to helping those with autism – something sorely needed, as shown by a 2018 study conducted by Westminster AchieveAbility Commission which found that 52% of neurodivergent people faced discrimination during the recruitment process.

Following recruitment, there is a myriad of steps that can be taken to make the workplace more neurodiverse inclusive, but this again needs to be approached for the individual, not making assumptions based on pre-existing stereotypes and knowledge. Some employees may need a quieter workspace, some may need assistive technology or software, and some may just need more attention paid to tasks and how they are distributed and communicated.

Organisations need to develop a safe and open culture, free of judgement for these needs to be explored

Putting the right culture in place

Organisations need to develop a safe and open culture, free of judgement for these needs to be explored. On top of this, most, if not all of these changes will have little to no impact on those who are neurotypical, but can make the world of difference to others. As Richmal Maybank from the National Autistic Society put it: “Every time we advise workplaces about neuroinclusivity, we find it is actually just best practice in general, and makes work better for everyone.”

This barely begins to scratch the surface of the work that we all need to do to move towards a more inclusive workplace, but removing the stigma around neurodiversity is a huge step. These actions not only provide a platform for a fairer and more balanced workplace, but also genuinely improve the lives of so many individuals, every single day.

Interested in this topic? Read How to embed neurodiversity into your people management.

Author Profile Picture
Jamie Graham

Business Engagement & Relationship Manager

Read more from Jamie Graham

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