Anne Cockayne: Line managers and neurodiversity

Anne Cockayne talks about neurodiversity at work, and the strengths autistic people can bring to the team.

Anne Cockayne

Anne lectures in HR Management at Nottingham Business School and is researching the experiences of those who manage people diagnosed with an autistic spectrum condition. She is a qualified coach helping managers and employees explore working lives from neurodiverse and neurotypical perspectives.

I'm really pleased Acas has launched this guide as it is full of good tips for employers and a great source of advice for those managing at the front line, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

I've just completed a research study looking specifically at autistic people and their managers where I've discovered that there are plenty of managers out there who know what strengths their autistic people bring to the team. One of those is detail. This is an area where its long been acknowledged that many autistic people have been identified as excelling in highly detailed, systematic work, especially in the technology and engineering sectors. My research showed that managers from a a host of sectors knew this too, and were clear about the huge benefit to their teams of having someone who is really comfortable working with detail. Savvy managers make sure they use this ability.

One manager told me how confident she is knowing that Tom never missed anything from the planning needed in a large and busy restaurant, or had never forgotten the contents of customer orders. Another how he always turned to Bob to check the complicated spreadsheets that his team have to distribute weekly. One manager pressurised to meet operational targets was very grateful that his own reports could be read by Sarah, a team member who just happens to be as good as an expert proof reader and sits at the next desk.

All this of course depends on managers being brave enough to carve up tasks and jobs. This can involve going beyond discrimination law when it comes to reasonable adjustments, since the latter can be pretty narrow as it emphasises changes to environments. Whilst no one is doubting the value of headphones or dimmed lights to accommodate people needing quiet and restful space, I believe looking long and hard at job design pays even more dividends. Take a look at what your team as a whole has to do and don't fight shy of allocating tasks according to strengths. It is the combined capacity of the team that is key here and having an autistic person on your team gives you even wider scope.

Some managers confided their worry that they might be exploiting someone's preferences, but take heart that a neurodivergent person might well have very different ideas as to what they consider tedious or repetitive than you think they have. Given that ASD by definition exists on a spectrum, autistic people are necessarily different from each other too, and as a manager, finding ways you can balance interests and skills alongside the job to be done is key.

What if you don't know that someone in your team is autistic? Unsurprisingly (for instance see Emma Jones' blog), everyone I interviewed reiterated that unless they trusted their boss they would probably keep quiet about being autistic. Telling someone else about such a private matter merits a real conversation, not just ticking the box on the annual disability survey, and building trust is vital.

There are lots more strengths than detail, and if someone is brave enough to decide to disclose what the law sees as a disability, a challenge for managers is to figure out how to more creatively use their strengths. Organisational constraints make this more difficult than it should be, but this research shows it can be done.

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