Neurodiversity refers to the naturally occurring diversity within the human brain and mind. Individuals who are neurodivergent have cognitive functioning that is considered to noticeably diverge from the average (or “norm”).
Unfortunately, neurodivergent employees, such as autistics, ADHDers, and those experiencing long-term mental health conditions, typically face attitudinal and structural obstacles to accessing or thriving in traditional workplace settings. The result is often individual distress, discrimination, and lost opportunities and revenue for employers.
In this interview, April Lea from The Safe Space Collective discusses the immeasurable skills and talents of neurodivergent staff and the importance of ameliorating employment barriers for the benefit of employees and employers alike.
Q1. What was your inspiration behind starting The Safe Space Collective?
It was my own personal experience with facing some adversity in the workforce. When I got diagnosed, I didn’t get diagnosed in an “Oh, I think I might be autistic; I’m going to go and get assessed” kind of way.
I got diagnosed because I had a pretty severe meltdown, off the back of being really unwell, and I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. And it was part of the process, in the intake with the psychiatrist, [they] were like, “You possibly have autism and ADHD. I don’t know for sure; we’ll have to put you on a waitlist to find out.”
Off the back of that severe meltdown and being told that I had burnout and that I had to take time out of work to recover, I had to leave the workforce for six months.
Over that period, I had a mental healthcare team and also a neurodiversity team, an occupational therapist and other things. They were basically explaining to me why I had fallen into such a level of being unwell and subsequently needed to take that time out of the workforce. And [they said] that, eventually, when I wanted to get back into the workforce, I was going to have to disclose to people that I was autistic and had ADHD in order to receive accommodations.
I did that. Once I felt ready to start getting back into the workforce, I disclosed in the later-stage interviews that I was autistic and had ADHD. And I was finding that all of these roles that I was really qualified for, and that they all seemed to really like me for, the minute that I mentioned the diagnoses, I wouldn’t get callbacks for anymore. I was overlooked for another candidate.
It kind of hit me really hard that this was going to be difficult. That my resume, clearly, and my track record, which was just stellar, wasn’t enough. I was going to really struggle. Thankfully, I did finally find an organisation that was really happy to accept me even with all of my “flaws”, apparently!
So, The Safe Space Collective was created because organisations need to have their awareness and understanding upskilled. One of the biggest barriers that autistic and ADHD people face is perceived capability in the role.
There’s a really staggering statistic: 45% of autistic people, that do have employment, are overqualified for the role that they’re in. That, to me, is a no-brainer. Because it’s not their capability or the core functions of the role that are the problem; it’s the surrounding structures, expectations, and obligations that cause an autistic individual to be stuck in that role, and not be able to rise through the ranks.
That’s what the Safe Space Collective is really looking to change. We’re looking to upskill organisations’ awareness and help them support their neurodivergent employees so that that glass ceiling doesn’t exist anymore.
Q2. What unique talents, skills, and strengths can neurodivergent staff offer to workplaces? Can you give examples of what you’ve witnessed?
As neurodivergent people, a lot of our strengths can actually seem quite annoying to others. So, for example, my husband has got ADHD, and so he’s got a very, very interest-based nervous system and executive function. He’s a lawyer and he works at a top-tier law firm. He makes a lot of mistakes on the really easy and boring cases because he doesn’t enjoy that; he likes more of a challenge.
When he gets a really challenging case – he works in litigation – he absolutely nails it every single time. Because he hyperfocuses in and wants to solve and win that problem.
His law firm has noticed that. Rather than penalise him for not being interested in and finding easy cases boring, they just put him on all of the really hard cases. And so, he’s one of their best employees. Because he has the ability to hyperfocus on really interesting and complex cases that, ultimately, nets his law firm a lot of wins and a lot of cash.
[That’s] a huge strength, where anyone else might have viewed that as being a problem. They wouldn’t have been able to look past the fact he finds easy cases boring and he gets sloppy.
Another one might be that you might have someone with OCD, for example. OCD neurotypes often ask a lot of questions because they want to be as confident and as assured of what is being requested of them as possible. A lot of people find that annoying, “That person asks so many questions!”. But in actual fact, some people end up asking a lot of those questions and deliver above and beyond the brief, because they understand it so well.
That ability to really just nail into the details is so important. That’s what unlocks innovation. Numerous studies have backed that up. Neurodiverse teams are six times more innovative – Harvard has proven that, and that stat is very often highlighted – because of the detail that a neurodivergent mind goes into and our ability to look at a problem from multiple angles.
Q3. How might neurodivergent employees struggle and face barriers to reaching their full potential at work?
Not being able to work in the way that best suits them is a massive barrier. So often, organisations have aligned themselves to a neuronormative culture. They truly believe that the only way for a workforce to be highly engaged or happy is when mandated in-office attendance happens. Or you meet after hours for drinks in the name of “loosening up” and getting to know each other.
When an organisation has it deeply embedded and believed that the only way they’re going to get high engagement scores, on their workforce engagement surveys and things, is through these very specific practices, you are always going to be putting your neurodivergent and other disabled employees on the back foot.
If a role is in quality assurance, data entry, or data analysis, why does a person have to wear a particular set of clothing, and sit in a particular location in an open-plan office, in full view of bright, overhead fluorescent lights and noise and distractions? It doesn’t make sense.
Because the core function of the role is to do data analysis or quality assurance, or something like that. And yet, that’s not what the neurodivergent person struggles with. They struggle with the fact that they have to wear certain clothes, present in a certain way, and be in a certain location. Those are the barriers that will always exist as long as organisations don’t recognise the full gamut of humanity.
Interviewer: I’ve thought this a few times: Of course, Covid was terrible and the pandemic and everything. But I do think there were some good things that came from it. For example, flexibility at work. It normalised working from home, hybrid work, and that sort of thing.
100%. Covid was a terrible thing, as you said. But also, it just highlighted that organisations can, right? You can do the thing, and you can succeed. It’s really disheartening to see so many organisations defaulting back to in-office mandates after having been successful remotely for so long.
Q4. Why are flexibility, inclusivity, and ongoing education so crucial?
The research into neurodiversity, and the human brain in particular, is changing so rapidly. What we know today is so different to what we knew 20 years ago. Staying current and up-to-date with the latest research is the key to ensuring that we continue to break down the barriers that exist for neurodivergent people.
Neurodiversity is so intersectional. Neurodiversity doesn’t discriminate. It’s not as though there is any particular human being on this planet that is more or less inclined to be neurodivergent. I’m sure, genetically speaking, there are bits and pieces. But on a broad scale, neurodiversity exists everywhere, and so it’s really important for us as a society to continue to break the rigid structures and fabric that ostracise so many people today.
That’s only going to happen through us continuing to educate and upskill ourselves and becoming more flexible and inclusive.
Q5. How does The Safe Space Collective equip employers to support their neurodivergent workforce best while leveraging the benefits?
Our workshops and programs are a precursor to what The Safe Space Collective does. It is a portal that organisations can purchase that then becomes their safe space, their hub, for all things neurodiversity. People and leaders can download checklists and templates and catch up on the latest news regarding neurodiversity.
DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging] specialists can learn about how other organisations are doing DEIB for neurodiversity inclusion purposes. Neurodivergent employees can access coaching services.
It’s a full gamut, and it’s meant to be a turnkey solution for organisations that want to do something in this space but don’t really know what it is that they need to do.
It provides really practical tools for leaders to support their neurodivergent team members. The secret sauce is in that always-on partnership. We are always available for anyone within an organisation to go into and access resources that will help them better understand how to support their workforce and stop feeling unequipped to do so.
So much of the research that came out when I first came up with this concept was that a lot of organisations want to do something, but they don’t know where to start. They don’t know what they need. The Safe Space Collective solves that problem for them: Here is an off-the-shelf solution. You jump into it and you will immediately be given options and be able to access things that you need at the click of a button.
Interviewer: How do you incorporate feedback from neurodivergent employees?
Within the portal itself, they have the ability to reach out for additional support.
To learn more, visit The Safe Space Collective’s site.
Monique Moate is a writer, editor, wife, cat mum, and night owl who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. She cares about mental health awareness and destigmatisation.