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Nancy Doyle: Neurodiversity is a phenomenon whose time has come

Monday 03 October 2016

To accompany new Acas research, Chartered Psychologist Nancy Doyle starts off a new blog series looking at 'neurodiversity' at work.

Nancy Doyle Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window

Nancy Doyle

Nancy Doyle is an occupational psychologist specialising in the workplace support of adults with neuro-differences. She runs Genius Within, a social enterprise that supports people to improve their productivity at work through diagnosis, assessment and coaching of 'neurodiverse' conditions.  Nancy convenes the British Psychological Society's working group on Neurodiversity and Employment and was consulted on the recent BBC 2 series 'Employable Me'.

Neurodiversity refers to people who have dyslexia, autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and more. These conditions often affect a person's ability to learn and influence the way they live their lives at work and at home. 


Ok, big message coming up. This is what I want to say:

"Neurodiversity is a phenomenon whose time has come.  As companies are increasingly required to adapt at speed, innovative thinking becomes an indispensable asset. And many neurodiverse people are at the forefront of innovative thinking."

But let's get some house-keeping out of the way. For obvious legal reasons, many employers are anxious to know whether neurodiverse conditions are classified as a disability. 

The answer is not that clear cut. For example:

  • A person with dyslexia might have excellent fine motor skills and visual perception and make an excellent hairdresser, engineer, surgeon or plumber. But even modern apprenticeships require several months of GCSE standard+ English before embarking on the development of practical skills.
  • A person with autism could be an excellent analyst, in law, finance or IT perhaps, but could struggle in interview situations due to sensory overload and unpredictable questioning. 

In both examples, the individual is experiencing disability, not due to their ability to do the job but because of the entry rules. The following typical workplace activities tend to pose barriers for the neurodiverse:

  1. Recruitment: on-the-spot work sample written test, interviews and assessment centres
  2. Appraisal systems that favour generalists above specialists (e.g. an innovative specialist with autism or ADHD who is required to excel at team and influencing skills)
  3. Changes in line manager, standard operating procedures or location

Another big obstacle that neurodiverse people face is the engrained preference many workplaces have for the perfect 'all-rounder'.  However, as seen in the BBC 2 series 'Employable Me', many employers are excluding talent and skill through applying standard protocols to specialist thinkers.

Thankfully, some large employers (e.g. GCHQ, Microsoft) now actively recruit neurodiverse people for their strengths.  Although we must not gloss over difficulties, workplaces can (and should) be adapted to help make the most of these unique skills. Dual screens and reading stands can improve accuracy in computer work.  Phones and post it notes can be used to minimise load on short-term memory. Individual employees can be intuitive experts - just ask them what would help!  Internal HR staff with minimal training can implement many of these standard adjustments.

When stumbling blocks occur, help is available.  My research has shown that coaching, combined with fairly standard 'reasonable adjustments' improves performance by 43%, as rated by clients and managers, after just four coaching sessions (Doyle & McDowall, 2015).  And Genius Within's longitudinal evaluation revealed that 23% of our coaching clients are promoted within one year. 

It's not only possible, it makes business sense. Neurodiversity is a phenomenon whose time has come, and I welcome Acas' new research looking at the subject specifically within the context of work.  Let's all play an active part.

Read other blogs in our neurodiversity series


1 Comment

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  • Posted by Emma Donaldson-Feilder  |  17 October 2016, 11:07AM

    So good to see neurodiversity starting to get the attention it deserves. It is vital that employers consider how to support individuals across the neurodiversity range - for the mutual benefit of employee and employer.