Inclusivity & Allyship
This section explores inclusivity and allyship, and guidance on how to create an environment that welcomes and supports neurodivergent people.
Inclusivity is the ongoing active process of creating an environment that welcomes, and is suitable for, as wide a variety of people as possible. This often focuses on those with marginalised identities because current structures and processes tend to suit those who share characteristics with those who society considers “normal”. It is vital that we create an environment in which people can be happy and successful.
Thus, the aim of inclusivity is not to change people to be ‘normal’ to fit into society, organisations, workplaces etc., but it is to remove barriers- in this case for neurodivergent people- to have equity and fairness in those spaces.
You can read an article by the co-lead of the Disability & Neurodiversity sub-group of the VOICE SCS committee, Dr Sebastian Greenhough, on his own lived experience of being neurodivergent and promoting inclusivity within Cancer Research UK here: Embracing a Full Spectrum of Researchers.
Allyship is a term that refers to supporting inclusion for a marginalised group to which you do not belong to. As there are many neurodivergent conditions, allyship can apply from a neurotypical person supporting and being inclusive of a neurodivergent person, to a neurodivergent person supporting and being inclusive of another neurodivergent person with a different condition to their own (e.g. autistic person being an ally to a person with ADHD).
Recognising challenges and strengths
In any workplace, we all bring strengths and challenges that we have to certain tasks, work environments, interaction with others etc. However, because we live in a neuronormative society (Neurotypical & Neuronormativity), our systems are often based on expectations of strengths and challenges that are not as accurate for neurodivergent people, meaning that our “standards”, rules, and environments can create suboptimal working conditions that force neurodivergent people to attempt to function “neurotypically” rather than playing to their own strengths.
Recognising the strengths and challenges of neurodivergent people is vital for understanding the lived experience of the neurodivergent person so that open, transparent discussions can be had about creating supportive working environments.
Challenges Some Neurodivergent People Face
Dr Jonathan Vincent and his neurodivergent colleagues have defined challenges of living in a neuronormative world (Neurotypical & Neuronormative) that are commonly faced by neurodivergent people below.
Please note that these are some examples and that this list is not exhaustive- it is always best to ask the neurodivergent person what it is they have difficulties with and work together to support their working experience.
i) Limited attention + hyperfocus
Some neurodivergent people, particularly those with ADHD, may find it difficult to maintain focus in some situations, particularly those that involve sustained, passive attention. This is because ADHD brains don’t get enough stimulation, which the brain needs to focus. As such, doing something else that stimulates the brain (e.g. listening to music, doodling, etc) can help them focus (for more on this in relation to Higher Education, see Spaeth, 2019).
People with ADHD may also be able to hyperfocus on a task that is interesting to them. Hyperfocus means an intense focus on an interest, activity, or task for a long period of time with the ability to block out the world around them. Although hyperfocus can be a huge benefit to a team/task, many neurodivergent people will forget to take breaks, eat, drink, or move as they are so focused on the task at hand which can affect their health and wellbeing.
ii) Executive functioning
Executive functioning relates to cognitive processing that controls:
a) cognitive inhibition (i.e. the brain’s ability to filter out stimuli that is irrelevant to the concentrated task at hand)
b) inhibitory control (i.e. response to an impulse)
c) working memory (i.e. the ability to hold information for a short period of time)
d) attentional control (i.e. the capacity to control sustained attention)
e) cognitive flexibility (i.e. the ability to switch between tasks and consequential behavioural responses)
Neurodivergent people may have difficulty with one or all the above including:
- Stopping focus on a task and starting a new one
- Keeping focus to one task
- Needing to multitask or fidget to stay focused
- Having involuntary tics and involuntary sensations before a tic occurs (as seen in Tourette’s Syndrome)
- Are unable to hold temporary information
- General difficulties with organisation and timekeeping
iii) Detail orientated
Pattern and fine-detail recognition tends to be a more prominent in neurodivergent people (especially autistic people, and people with ADHD during hyperfocus).
Although this is often seen as a huge strength- particularly in a work context- it is thought that, sometimes, due to the fixation on fine-details and patterns, that neurodivergent people may miss the bigger picture and overall purpose of the task/work. For example, fixation on fine details and patterns can result in spending too much time trying to perfect one part of a bigger task.
Therefore, it can be very helpful for the wider context to be explicitly stated and explained, rather than assuming it is obvious.
iv) Information, spatial, and sensory processing
Information – some neurodivergent people, for example autistic people, may have difficulty understanding social cues and implied/arbitrary information (e.g. tone, sarcasm, subtle body language etc.).
Information considered by some as “common sense” or assumed knowledge may be absent, especially information that is “obvious” to oneself but not to others.
In addition, information that is not explicit and clear (i.e. superfluous information in a sentence/paragraph) is hard for neurodivergent people to understand- same as most people!
For those who have dyslexia, fonts which are non-dyslexic friendly, italicised, and/or has lots of information, may be difficult to process and understand.
In addition, lots of mathematical information may also be difficult to process for those who have dyscalculia.
Spatial – neurodivergent people may struggle with spatial awareness, coordination, and processing spatial information, with dyspraxia being an example where spatial processing is impacted.
Sensory – hyposensitivity (i.e., a decreased response to sensory input) which may lead to not knowing when you’ve been hurt/cut by something and seeking out sensory input, or hypersensitivity (i.e., a heightened response to sensory input) which may lead to distress in loud, brightly lit spaces, are commonly reported by neurodivergent people. Autism and ADHD are two examples of neurodivergent conditions where response to sensory information is impacted.
Experience in the workplace
As mentioned in the Disclosure of a Condition section of the hub (Disclosure of a Condition), disability is still stigmatised in society. Hidden disabilities, such as neurodivergent conditions, are often invalidated by others because other people cannot see a physical difference to a non-disabled body. People may therefore assume that the neurodivergent person can carry out everyday tasks in the same way, which isn’t always the case, and tensions can arise from these misapprehensions.
In addition, disclosing a neurodivergent condition to an employer, colleagues, and peers can cause worry/anxiety/feel like a burden to neurodivergent people. Often, there is worry surrounding who to tell and how much information to give about their condition as there is fear of being excluded, “othered” (i.e. to treat another person as alien to oneself), and discriminated against.
ii) Delegitimisation and discrimination – when disclosed, what is the outcome?
As mentioned in Masking / Camouflaging, neurodivergent people may mask their behaviour, therefore once they have disclosed, they may be faced with others not believing them and delegitimising their lived experience. Another consequence to masking is that the neurodivergent person puts all their emotional (and sometimes physical) energy into appearing “normal” which leads to burnout.
In addition, disclosing neurodivergent conditions can lead to both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination can include not getting appointed to role and being excluded in team groups or collaborative work. Indirect discrimination can include not being invited to out-of-hours work gatherings where work decisions are made. Neurodivergent people may also be made to feel like the emotions they feel or the way they process the world around them is not legitimate.
Futher to Dr Jonathan Vincent’s findings, autistic people may have Pathological Demand Avoidance (i.e., avoiding everyday demands and expectations to an extreme extent to carry out their regular routine), and those with ADHD may experience Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (i.e., overwhelming feelings in response to either actual or perceived criticism or rejection).
All the aforementioned lead to increased anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Keep in mind that complying with neurotypical standards of behaviour is not a goal that you should ever enforce on someone. This can often be highly detrimental to someone’s internal state. Therefore, we recommend using a strengths-based approach which is outlined below.
Strengths Some Neurodivergent People Have
Below are strengths that many neurodivergent people can bring to the workplace. It is important to create an environment that allows people to work in a way that allows them to thrive, rather than forcing particular patterns because of tradition.
Please note that these are some examples of strengths that neurodivergent people may have and that this list is not exhaustive. We are not implying that neurodivergent people have “superpowers”, only strengths that have been shown in research. Each person has their own unique strengths.
Thinking at the edges- looking creatively at problems
Thinking at the edges is a description that is used to explain how a person, particularly a neurodivergent person, thinks around an idea / the edges of the idea / the bigger picture of the idea. This is a very common strength seen in neurodivergent people and is advantageous in examining a concept/task.
3D visualisations skills
As some neurodivergent people, especially those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or Tourette’s, may struggle to write or process written/verbal communication, thus 3D visualisation of a task or an idea is used. Having these skills is very advantageous in creative arts and other related tasks such as planning/organising events and concept building.
Systems thinking and pattern identification
As mentioned above in the challenges, there are also, opposingly, huge benefits to pattern identification. For example, being very good at planning, organising, and have a high attention to detail.
Also mentioned above in the challenges, hyperfocus, conversely, has great benefits such as producing an incredible amount of productive work in a short period of time whereby task performance improves. This means that productive work habits for a neurodivergent person might look different to what you expect but will provide great outcomes.
Risk-taking / taking strong initiative
As those with dyslexia, ADHD, and Tourette’s are suggested to have a strong drive by being more instinctive and also have a very good long-term memory, they tend to take strong initiative in tasks. This is advantageous to have in a working environment as it provides new, fresh, innovative ways of thinking to tasks and team discussions.
The literature and research surrounding the above are outlined in the brackets (Austin & Pisano, 2017; Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019; Kalyvioti & Mikropoulos, 2013; Mottron, 2017; White & Shah, 2006; White & Shah, 2011).
Therefore, it is important to make the most of these strengths to supporting people to succeed in their careers. There is also more guidance on harnessing people’s strengths (as well as your own) below.
The sections on harnessing strengths have been taken from an amalgamation of training provided by Do-IT Profiler and ENABLE Scotland, and a microcredential course from the University of Glasgow titled “Intercultural Understanding and Emotional Resilience in Times of Uncertainty”.
Everyone is different; we all have different habits, behaviours, discourses (both written and spoken), experiences, responsibilities, health conditions (including mental health), and backgrounds. For example, some people:
- Can have bursts of energy and then go quiet;
- May need downtime after spending a lot of energy on zoom/in meeting/contact with others;
- Find certain types of communication easier to process (e.g., written communication over spoken communication);
- Can multi-task and some can only concentrate on one task at a time, and;
- Many more variations of working!
Therefore, the notion that we are all going to work in the exact same way is a bit nonsensical when you come to think of it! So, it is best practice to try and be as inclusive as possible to different ways of working in the first instance to avoid singling anyone out. This will support everyone’s working habits/style/environment.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but by harnessing strengths in others, we recognise the value that person has to the workplace.
How to harness strength in others
*Please note that “others” means someone else who is not yourself, so “others” can be neurotypical, non-disabled, disabled, or neurodivergent persons.
Your interpretation of how another person behaves/communicates is from your own experiences, and this is not inherently bad as this is how we all base our future exchanges on. As humans, our perspective of the world around is formed from what we have learnt/seen/read in the past, which are entirely unique to us as individuals. However, this can easily fall into the trap of “but my ‘normal’ way is the best way / this doesn’t fit in with my/my perception of the university’s ideologies, so it is invalid”. Thus, it is important to observe your own reactions to others and to reflect on your impact.
As said above, you are acting upon your own experiences, which can lead you to form certain expectations from others of what you deem as typical behaviour/communication. This would be the stage where you can ask yourself the following “What else could be happening here? Is there another way of seeing this? What can I do to understand and accept this way of behaving/communicating?”. This respectful internal curiosity will break old habits of holding someone to your standards/perceptions of how someone should behave/communicate that you may have possessed. Viewing others' behaviours and communications empathetically in a generous light, believing that they are good people trying their best, helps you to understand that other people's 'normal' will differ from your 'normal'. From this reflection, you can actively change your normalised perception of someone else to acceptance of different behaviours/communication styles.
Take accountability for your actions
if you do offend/upset/embarrass/distress another person, even if it is accidental, it is vital to take accountability for your actions. Apologise to the person and ask them how you can redeem the situation. This will make you understand why something you did offended/upset/embarrassed/distressed another person so that it does not repeat itself in the future. By taking accountability for your actions, it will remove bad feelings between you and the other person in addition to making the other person feel valued. Always remember the following: listen, empathise, accept, and apply.
Harness the ambition that exists in others- this will activate positive change. The more people who actively change to be more inclusive, by having a broadened perception of others, the better the workforce will be. Moreover, try to make everything as accessible* as possible for meetings, recordings, work materials, access to buildings etc., as this will negate singling anyone out.
Reinforce the idea that other people are different to what you have experienced and/or expect. Everyone is different i.e., neurodiversity!
*for more information on accessibility, please see Accessibility.
How to harness strength in myself
Build positive self-talk
It can feel quite strange to do so, but building up your view of yourself, how you work, and how you want to make a positive impact may help.
If you are a neurodivergent and/or disabled person, building the positive self-talk is very important in a neuronormative world. Remind yourself of how it is the society that disables/impairs you, not that you have something ‘wrong’ with you. You are valid, your lived experience is valid.
Creating safe spaces for yourself
Building safe spaces for yourself is very important for your mental health and self-esteem. You may do this by being in a quiet room if you feel overstimulated, having a support network of trusted colleagues/peers at the University, or having sensory equipment/assistive technology with you in work settings. For more information on room booking, please go to Support within the University.
Remind yourself of what you have achieved
This may not work for everyone but reminding yourself of your achievements can harness your strengths. It can range from how you were perhaps able to juggle home-schooling/childcare and working from home, to how you were able to cope with overstimulation, to how you wrote a paper published in an academic journal, to how you helped others in the workplace/outside of the workplace.
Importance of intersectionality
The term intersectionality- that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw- is how social identities, especially minority identities and protected characteristics, overlap and are related to systems and structures of domination, oppression, and/or discrimination. Therefore, a person who has multiple types of different protected characteristics may experience different types of oppression or discrimination and will not fit into the stereotype of how one neurodivergent condition is presented.
For example, a cisgender, white neurodivergent man lived experience of being neurodivergent and the opportunities presented to him will be very different to how a black neurodivergent woman will experience her life being neurodivergent and the opportunities that are presented to her. Further information on intersectionality on race, gender, and neurodivergence, please see Vivienne Isebor’s talk here.
Other examples of intersectionality for neurodivergent people are:
- Being part of the LGBTQ+ community
- Having hidden or visible disabilities or chronic health conditions
- Socioeconomic class/background and access to facilities
- Cultural upbringing and current culture
Beyond this, diagnostic criteria often focus on behaviours, rather than a person’s inner experience, and practitioners sometimes only recognise behaviours as being associated with neurodivergent conditions when they align with the most frequently studied groups (e.g., boys/men). As such, people are often turned away because of some doctors’ lack of understanding of how these conditions can affect people differently.
Moreover, some countries do not acknowledge or have the resources to support neurodivergent conditions, therefore experiences and future discussions surrounding disclosure and support will not be the same for everyone.
As mentioned in the Terminology section of the hub, a lot of neurodivergent people might mask their neurodivergent characteristics in order to “fit into” society’s standards of neurotypical behaviour; this is called neuronormative (Neurotypical and Neuronormative). For more information on masking, please go to Masking / Camouflaging section of the hub.
These factors will have an impact on disclosure and the presentation of the person’s own neurodivergent condition. Thus, humans are multifaceted, and as the saying goes “once you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you have met one neurodivergent person”.
Therefore, it is important to bear in mind that neurodivergent people exhibit their conditions in different ways based upon their identity, upbringing, gender, race, and culture, and many other factors, and that intersectionality is present in some neurodivergent people. Thus, it is good to keep an open mind for both awareness and inclusion purposes.
Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning is a framework that helps us think about how we can teach in a way that is proactively inclusive.
Universal Design for Learning centres around three main principles:
- Multiple means of engagement
- Multiple means of representation
- Multiple means of action/expression
You can learn more about these principles on this page: https://www.ahead.ie/udl-practice. Press the arrow next to each "principle" to see practical strategies. If you would like to learn more about Universal Design for Learning, read this webpage: https://ahead.ie/udl-framework
In addition, team member Dr Elliott Spaeth and Dr Amy Pearson (University of Sunderland) have written practical strategies for inclusive practice in relation to teaching with strategies that are covered in Supervisor and Student Communication.
For information on Universal Design “places to start”, please see Professor Jay Dolmage’s online resource here.
For information on inclusivity in science, please see Universal Design for Inclusive Science.
Neurodiversity-friendly Moodle template- STAFF ONLY
Dr Elliott Spaeth, Leigh Abbott, and Sophie Mason have been working together to research and develop a Moodle Template Course page which aims to be accessible and inclusive, with a particular focus on neurodiversity. This template is available for staff to use as a starting point for their own Moodle courses.
To do this, they brought together existing knowledge on digital accessibility and different learning needs and analysed over 100 Moodle Sites (mostly from other HE institutes), along with the work done by Leigh and the Wellcome Trust project team, Drew McConnell, Kirsteen Allison, Gordon McLeod (to name but a few).
Laura has created multiple versions to accommodate various Moodle layout styles that may be utilised across your School/College/Institute so that staff can pick and choose which style to use and move sections around to accommodate their needs.
Please find the link to the Neurodiversity-friendly Moodle Template here. Please note that you will need to login to Moodle to access this template.
As with any work on inclusion and accessibility, there will likely be aspects that could be improved. If you have any feedback on this, please contact Elliott or Sophie.