updated on 08 September 2020
The word neurodiversity is a portmanteau of the words ‘neurological’ and ‘diversity’. It is an umbrella term used to describe invisible difficulties, such as:
Neurodiversity is something that is not often considered when we think of wider diversity and inclusion schemes and initiatives. Because the difficulties are often invisible, it can sometimes be overlooked particularly by those in management roles and when recruiting.
Are they disabilities?
Technically, yes. The Equality Act 2010 defines a ‘disability’ as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on day-to-day activities. The above difficulties are lifelong and can have a varying degree of impact in some or all aspects of life, so all are classed as disabilities.
But to some, me included as I live with Asperger syndrome, labelling them as disabilities can be unhelpful when trying to understand the advantages and challenges they can bring and the impact they have, as well as stigmatising if there is a real lack of understanding or desire to learn. Instead it is more helpful to view them as disorders, meaning it disrupts individual functioning rather than limits it.
Should you disclose this, even though it is invisible?
Whether you disclose this is a personal choice and so is up to the individual. Although it is worth understanding that if you need extra support at work to help you do your job or at university to help you study, then disclosing in confidence places the duty on the employer/university to make reasonable adjustments to support you.
What if you’re a student?
You can disclose before or when university starts to the student support team and discuss what you find difficult and what you excel in, so support measures can be arranged to enable you to perform at a level that is reflective of your ability. For me, I received 25% extra time in exams, stop-the-clock breaks and a voice recorder for my post-lecture notes.
What if you’re a job applicant?
You can choose to disclose at this point while feeling safe in the knowledge that recruiters and interviewers can’t base decisions on whether to recruit you based on a disability unless it is ‘objectively justified’ (ie, the job specifically requires someone able bodied/without an impairment).
Look at the whole picture – strengths and challenges
While it is easy to think only about how we are impaired, it is more important to look at the whole picture. There are challenges that come with the above difficulties so extra support, understanding and patience goes a long way! But neurodiverse students and employees often have very strong specialist skillsets that can benefit themselves and their employers, and with the right support can bring the best out of them and make them feel truly included and welcome.
The best way to understand how to support us in the workplace is simple: ask us! We are the ones living with the difficulties, so it is natural that we have learned what works for us.
A personal example
I live with Asperger syndrome and while I don’t have some of the learning disabilities that other people with autism may have, I still have some difficulty with learning. I am proud that I am highly intelligent, yet I still see and interpret the world differently to my neurotypical peers and colleagues and so the learning curve is different for me.
At work, there are times when I find it hard to understand and correctly interpret new information, abstract concepts and difficult language. So, phrasing this information more simply to begin with will be helpful as I can assimilate it. It might take me a few more tries to fully understand it, so that extra patience and understanding from my employer and colleagues means a lot to me.
The same was true during education. For support, as I mentioned previously, I was granted 25% extra time and rest breaks in exams and a voice recorder for lectures and sessions so I could perform at a level that was reflective of my ability.
As for my strengths, I have had to:
With the right support and understanding from our colleagues and management, there is no reason why we can’t thrive and succeed in the profession. The most experienced practitioners were once juniors who had a support network around them that allowed them to grow, develop and become who they are today. This is no different for neurodiverse lawyers – while the support needed may not be the same, the end results will be talented workers who will show no small amount of loyalty, honesty, respect and drive to succeed and achieve with their employer and the profession as a whole.
Phil Steventon is an autistic aspiring solicitor, blogger, content creator and future charity trustee.