Toolkit launched to help NICS managers support neurodivergent staff

Guide shares information on workplace challenges faced by people with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and other conditions
Allowing staff to wear headphones could help minimise distractions, the toolkit says. Photo: Adobe Stock

The Northern Ireland Civil Service has launched a “neurodiversity line manager’s toolkit” to help create a more inclusive working environment for neurodivergent civil servants.

The toolkit aims to improve managers’ understanding of neurodivergence and how they can best support neurodivergent staff, as well as their legal obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act.

It includes information on common workplace challenges faced by people with autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia, alongside common strengths and advice on how to support people with each condition.

For example, it advises line managers with ADHD staff in their team to consider how they could reduce distractions by considering their office layout or allowing staff to wear headphones, and to encourage them to take regular short breaks to avoid burnout due to hyperfocus.

People managing autistic staff, meanwhile, are encouraged to set clear expectations and consider factors that could trigger sensory issues in the working environment, such as bright, artificial lighting or noise.

The toolkit also includes information about the less commonly known dyscalculia, which impacts someone’s ability to do number-based tasks; dysgraphia, which affects a person’s handwriting; and tic disorders including Tourette’s syndrome.

The guide is being launched during Autism Awareness Month and supports the Department of Health’s commitment in its Autism Strategy 2023-28 to “seek opportunity for increased understanding of autism in the workplace to enable individuals to feel supported within employment and enhance career opportunity”.

It has been developed by NICS People and Organisational Development following engagement with the Diversity Champions Network, staff networks, neurodivergent staff and external stakeholders including Equality Commission NI and disability sector representatives.

The guide stresses that someone’s decision to share their neurodivergence with a line manager may depend on factors including their working relationship with that manager and the team’s culture. “Your actions, behaviours, decisions and language are therefore crucial,” it says.

It also notes that a neurodivergent person “may be classified as disabled, depending on the impact of the condition on them”, and would therefore have legal protection from discrimination.

Line managers have a legal obligation to consider any reasonable adjustments – such as changes to work patterns or duties, physical changes to the working environment or provision of different equipment – where disabled people are put at a disadvantage by workplace practices or premises.

“It could mean adjusting your management style to adopt different practices around how you communicate, allocate work or approach tasks,” the toolkit says.

In a foreword to the toolkit, finance minister Caoimhe Archibald wrote that embracing neurodiversity is “a key part of the civil service’s commitment to diversity and inclusion”.

“It reminds us all that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ brain or ‘right way’ of thinking/learning, in the same way there is no ‘normal’ or ‘right’ religion, gender, sexual orientation or race. We all have unique strengths and talents and deserve to be to be accepted for who we are and treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

“While many of us may feel that we have a certain level of understanding of neurodiversity, often these views are based on stereotypes created by tv, film and media or on outdated beliefs,” she added.

Launching the toolkit, Archibald said: “I welcome the launch of this new resource during Autism Awareness Month.

“The civil service is committed to creating workplaces where everyone is treated with dignity and respect and feels able to participate and reach their full potential. The toolkit is a positive step in embedding an inclusive workplace culture where alternative thinking styles are embraced and celebrated”.

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