By Tim Gibson

14 Feb 2024

How can the civil service set up the conditions in which neurodivergent staff can flourish, and deliver their best for citizens? Tim Gibson seeks expert insight


In 2003, a research paper appeared in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine entitled: Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s Syndrome?. The authors, Henry O’Connell and Michael Fitzgerald, compared traits of character reported in Turing’s biography and by his contemporaries with the criteria for diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, which were formally recognised nearly 40 years after his death. They argued there is “ample evidence” to suggest the famous code-breaker had the condition.

No longer a standalone diagnosis, what was then known as Asperger’s is now recognised as part of the autism spectrum, and Turing is widely believed to have been autistic.

In their closing remarks, O’Connell and Fitzgerald added: “One wonders what more [Turing] might have achieved had his particular talents been fostered, and whether he might have had a happier and more fulfilled life in the long term.”

It is a challenge worth considering even today, with far greater understanding of the range of conditions known broadly as “neurodivergence”. Is enough done to support people who are hardwired to think and behave differently? How do employers help such members of the workforce to flourish?

Changing cultures

Today, one in seven people in the UK is recognised as neurodivergent (approximately one in five of the working population) – with many more likely to self-diagnose.

The term neurodiverse refers to people whose brains function differently from the perceived “norm”, meaning they learn and process information in distinctive ways. It is an umbrella term that encompasses conditions including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. As well as differences in brain processing, some neurodivergent people can behave unconventionally or experience awkwardness or anxiety in social situations, as the example of Turing evinces.  

Because of these differences, and despite greater recognition of their conditions and needs, neurodivergent staff report feeling worried about receiving equal and fair treatment from employers.

Consider, for example, recent research undertaken by global assistive technology specialist Texthelp. It found that 19% of neurodivergent people have had a negative experience when sharing their diagnosis at work. Moreover, 42% of those surveyed said they were concerned their managers would view them differently if they disclosed their neurodivergence, with 44% saying they worried it would negatively impact their career.

In consequence, nearly one in three respondents said they didn’t want to share their neurodivergence with their employers: they would sooner carry on without specific support than risk damaging their career prospects.

Such findings are problematic for all employers. They beg questions about the extent to which neurodivergent staff feel supported in their roles, and empowered to deliver their best work: questions the civil service should be keen to answer as it seeks to model best practice in equality, diversity and inclusion.  

An inclusive workplace

Few could doubt the government’s commitment to EDI. In the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion Strategy for 2022 to 2025, for example, it says: “…we want the civil service to have a truly diverse workforce and culture of openness and inclusivity, as a means of delivering better outcomes to the citizens we serve.”

Such a commitment is borne out in the government’s employment data. For example, analysis of Office for National Statistics information by the Institute for Government shows the proportion of disabled civil servants, including those who are neurodivergent, rising from less than 2% in 1988 to 14% by 2022. Even so, this is below the UK working population benchmark of 15.5% – suggesting there is room for improvement.

When it comes to neurodiversity, the inclusion agenda is underscored by initiatives such as the Civil Service Neurodiversity Network and Civil Service Dyslexia and Dyspraxia Network. These voluntary networks provide a means of neurodivergent staff sharing their experiences and supporting each other. Further initiatives like Neurodiversity Celebration Week and the Sir Robert Buckland-led Autism Employment Review express the inclusive culture the government is trying to engender, for both staff and citizens.

“Complementarity within and between teams is the key. If you have a diverse workforce, you’re more likely to deliver good results” Rupert McNeil

“The civil service is better than most employers when it comes to accepting staff of different neurotypes,” says Rupert McNeil, the government’s former chief people officer. “That’s for two distinct reasons: first, it is part of creating an inclusive workplace and thereby accords with the public sector’s values. Second, it is a way of getting the best from your people, thereby delivering good peformance.”

As McNeil reflects, certain parts of the government – particularly in roles where data and analytics are involved – have made a point of attracting neurodivergent staff. “The perspective and personality traits associated with certain neurotypes can be very valuable in certain contexts,” he says. “If you need people who can spot patterns or quickly analyse data, for instance, neurodivergence can be a helpful feature.”

A thriving workplace

The case of Alan Turing illustrates McNeil’s point to strikingly good effect: his autism was key to his suitability for a role at Bletchley Park. But it is the wider productivity gain of creating an inclusive working environment that McNeil regards as being most salient: “Complementarity within and between teams is the key. If you have a diverse workforce, you’re more likely to deliver good results.”

Such a view is echoed by Dr Dan Anthony, a senior lecturer and programme leader at the University of the West of England who used to work for the Intellectual Property Office. Anthony was diagnosed with dyslexia after leaving the IPO, but says the diversity of its staff was key to its success.

“I left just as employers were becoming more aware of neurodiversity,” he says. “But, had we had the knowledge at the time, many of my colleagues would have identified as neurodivergent. Part of what made us a successful team was that mix of talents and perspectives. It’s the same with any group that needs to get a job done. The more diverse the team, the better your chances of success.”

Anthony has taken that mindset into his role in higher education – a context he says is “ahead of the game” when it comes to diversity and inclusion. “We make sure we deliver our teaching and learning in ways that account for all neurotypes, as a matter of course. The idea is that no one should feel disadvantaged by virtue of how their brain functions, which is an approach that applies to staff as well as students.”

Delivering support

This speaks to what McNeil sees as the key feature of a successful approach to neurodiversity in the civil service: “It’s not always about dealing with specific neurotypes, but about creating an environment in which everyone can be at their best. Of course, there are specific adjustments employers need to make for staff who are autistic, say, or who have ADHD. But there are also things you can do for everyone that improve productivity, whether or not they identify as neurodivergent.”

An example McNeil gives is dictation software. “Twenty years ago, this was seen as a helpful tool in supporting people with dyslexia,” he says. “But it’s widely available now, and useful for anyone to access if they’re short of time or struggle to sit in front of a computer and write. So while it’s a good intervention for neurodivergent staff, there are clear benefits to making it universally available in a workplace.”

Despite the gains of mainstreaming such technology, Dr Nasser Siabi, founder and CEO of Microlink PC, says more bespoke interventions also have their place.

"Ultimately, this is about improving performance. If you help your people work better, you’ll get better productivity, reduced absenteeism, and less anxiety and fatigue" Dr Nasser Siabi 

“The Equalities Act 2010 commits employers to making ‘reasonable adjustments’ for staff with disabilities, including neurodivergence,” Siabi says. “But I advocate a programme of ‘workplace adjustments’ that go beyond what’s required by law. If a member of staff is struggling with an aspect of their job, a good manager should ask them what they need support with, then put that in place. It may be through an adjustment like specialist software or flexible working, or noise-cancelling headphones.

“Whatever the intervention, if it helps improve productivity, it is worthwhile, and a good use of resources – even without a formal diagnosis of neurodivergence.”

Siabi’s proposed approach, which he says clients such as Lloyds Bank and HSBC have successfully adopted, demonstrates the organisational advantages of responding to staff need.

“Ultimately, this is about improving performance,” he says. “If you help your people work better, you’ll get better productivity, reduced absenteeism, and less anxiety and fatigue. You also reduce your exposure to charges of discrimination, because, proactively, you’ll have identified staff with disabilities and delivered the required reasonable adjustments.”

To drive such change, Siabi says organisations need senior-level buy-in, plus a dedicated programme manager who can shape the culture and approach. “The investment case can be made by reference to the money saved and the improvement in performance,” he argues. “So the challenge is about delivery. That’s especially true in a government organisation, where the sheer scale of the task can seem overwhelming. When you look at the results, it’s well worth pursuing.”

Shaping attitudes

One thing widespread availability of assistive technology and other interventions can’t change is attitudes to neurodiversity. As the Texthelp survey revealed, there remains a fear of stigmatisation among those who are neurodivergent, which can lead to them withholding information about their needs. Moreover, neurodivergent staff may need help understanding their value to their employer.

“One of my biggest weaknesses has often been asking for help,” wrote Abigail Agyei from the Department of Health in a blog post in March 2022. Agyei has ADHD, and said: “Even after my diagnosis, I’m still having to reframe my thinking and remind myself of the many strengths my neuro-differences add to my work – such as my strong sense of fairness, empathy and emotional intelligence.”

“Even after my diagnosis, I’m still having to reframe my thinking and remind myself of the many strengths my neuro-differences add to my work – such as my strong sense of fairness, empathy and emotional intelligence” Abigail Agyei

Anthony speaks of a similar experience in his university role, and says it is partly caused by the sense of neurodiversity being a “problem” or “condition” in need of a “cure”.

“Interventions like assistive technology and extra time allowances to complete tasks are great,” he says. “But what would really bring a step change is clearer recognition of what people who are neurodivergent add to organisations. In fact, I’d like to see workplace cultures in which every individual’s characteristics are celebrated for the unique contribution they make.”

McNeil makes a similar point, arguing that organisations should resist  automatically “medicalising” neurodivergence, since it can be something which brings benefits alongside challenges. “We need to acknowledge that fact, while providing the right support for those whose brains work differently,” he says.

So the challenge is universal, but meeting it will yield particular benefit to those who are neurodivergent. “The best workplaces are those in which everyone can thrive,” concludes Siabi. “But if you set up the right conditions, it is especially good for people who are neurodivergent, because it helps them understand their value and deliver their best.”

That sounds like a world worth pursuing. After all, few would deny Turing’s brilliance, or the scale of his impact. But, as O’Connell and Fitzgerald intimated in 2003, he may well have been happier and more fulfilled were his neurodivergence more fully understood.

This article first appeared in the winter 2024 issue of Civil Service World. Read the digital magazine here


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