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The Internal Comms Review: There's a disconnect between the intention to be neuro-inclusive and the reality practiced in the workplace

Too often I see well-meaning businesses fall short when it comes to implementing changes, although there are some positive signs.

Neuroinclusion feels like it is starting to gain traction in the workplace; encouragingly, I hear much more discussion about neurodiversity, see companies offering neurodiversity awareness training, and in my own company a neurodivergent colleague is successfully utilising the ‘Access to Work’ grant.

The topic is something I think about often, as I see the support and accommodations my neurodivergent son needs to access the mainstream school curriculum - and wonder how the workplace of the future will embrace his skills and his learning and communication style.

As a researcher in a communications agency, I observe the communication norms that govern our industry, and despite training and conversations, the disconnect between the intention to be neuro-inclusive and the reality of the norms that are practiced is still significant.

Neurodiversity in Business, in partnership with Birkbeck University, published the Neurodiversity at Work 2023 report, exploring the gap between Neurodivergent employee experience and the perspective of employers - making recommendations to close this gap.

The report found that “some neurodivergent people may be more susceptible to ostracism [in the workplace] due to the difficulties in social communication and interactions”.

A good example is eye contact – traditionally accepted as a sign that someone is listening intently.

But thinking about autistic communication styles, many (but not all) find too much eye contact requires significant energy and can distract from the task of listening, learning, and the cognitive processing required to express concepts and ideas.

A recent experience also brings this disconnect to life. While at a conference, a celebrated leadership coach extolled the virtues of eye contact when having discussions with colleagues. Three times he mentioned how crucial it was to ‘demonstrate that you are listening to your colleagues’, and that ‘lots of eye-contact’ was the right way to do this.

The irony was that this segment came straight after a presentation on diversity and inclusion, a key part of which focussed on the need for greater awareness and recognition of neurodiversity in the workplace.

Emily Hammond, an AuDHD Speech Pathologist who runs the neurowild Instagram account, reminds us that “eye-contact is not required for listening, focusing or understanding”.

Her insightful cartoons and training tools deliver the message that all of us need to recognise that there is no right way of communicating, thinking, or learning and that there should be more focus on understanding different communication styles.

Although I am neurotypical, seeking to understand the different communication styles of my neurodivergent partner and our son has forever altered the way I communicate with others.

I no longer think lack of eye contact is unusual, and I try to pick up on cues on how others like to communicate.

I understand that some people may prefer a considered email or a Teams meeting to a face-to-face chat; and some may not feel comfortable speaking up on the spot or presenting in the weekly meeting.

They will still make valuable contributions to the workplace and need to be given the opportunity to do so - on their terms.

Neurodiversity training in the workplace is a great start. But to build a truly neuro inclusive workplace culture we must forensically examine the expectations we place on employees, ensuring that different communication and working styles are recognised, understood, and encouraged.

This PRmoment Internal Comms Review is written Leyla Hart-Svensson, Head of Research, of PR Agency SEC Newgate

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