I’m a rep: how can I start a conversation about neurodiversity?

Last updated: 14 Nov 2023

Understanding neurodiversity at work

Many neurodivergent people are highly able, leading successful careers and holding positions of authority. However, neurodivergent people can also face challenges at work, often because their employer does not fully understand their strengths and needs. As a result of this, they are not provided with the working environment they need to succeed and flourish.

It is not uncommon for people to be unaware that they are neurodivergent. This may be because their behaviour does not fit with a preconceived idea of how a neurodivergent person behaves, or it may be because they have built up coping strategies throughout their lives.

Even if they are aware, they may face unexpected challenges in the workplace, for example:

  • changes in structures or procedures
  • more stringent performance management systems or appraisals
  • the arrival of a new line manager.

People’s coping strategies may break down and they may struggle to establish new ones.

If you think a member may be neurodivergent and they have not disclosed this to you, it may be that they don’t know themselves. They may also be concerned about how they will be treated if they are open about their neurodiversity.

These situations should always be handled sensitively. You are not expected to be an expert on neurodivergence.

The guidance below is intended to help you start a conversation with members – not to give a diagnosis.

Professional assessments

Not every neurodivergent person will need or want an official diagnosis, but often it can help unlock additional support. Before a diagnosis is made a professional assessment will need to take place. These are available through the NHS or privately but before seeking professional support a person can use online tools like this dyslexia checklist to decide if further support is needed.

It is generally in members’ best interests to disclose their neurodivergence, or likelihood of it, to the employer so that professional assessments can be carried out and reasonable adjustments put in place.

If assessments are carried out privately, they can be expensive. You may be able to make the case that the assessment is a reasonable adjustment and the employer should pay for it.

Members may understandably feel nervous about having a professional assessment. Reassure them that an assessment could explain the differences and difficulties that they have been experiencing for some time.

Neurodivergent Bectu members are likely to have many skills. Making adjustments that allow them to use and develop their skills, maximise their contribution and not concentrate unduly on their challenges can benefit everyone in the team or workplace.

An assessment would also provide a recognition that they would be protected from discrimination and less favourable treatment under the Equality Act.

The assessment report should be treated as confidential and only a few individuals in the organisation should have access to it (a member of HR, the trade union reps, line manager and perhaps a senior manager). This should also help to reassure the member.

Each individual will have different strengths and weaknesses, so workplace assessments and adjustments that are tailored to them will be most beneficial – to them and the organisation. Find out more about the business case for reasonable adjustments.

How to start a conversation

Neurological differences are very common, therefore taking a proactive approach will help those seeking assistance but maybe not sure how to ask for help. There are also likely to be many members who do not want to draw attention to themselves.

The union offers a range of resources to break the ice.

  • Organising a workplace stand that includes Bectu literature.
  • Running a story in your branch newsletter using some of our case studies.
  • Inviting a Bectu speaker.
  • Look out for support days and maybe organise a small event

This will make the union visible.

Representing members

Those with neurodivergent differences may come to you on an unrelated issue. If you think it is relevant to the conversation, it may be good time to ask some tentative questions to determine if the member would welcome support and advice.

Use your listening skills and try not to make assumptions

Make sure you address the concern that the member has raised.

Start with positive questions which are based on the strengths associated with neurodivergence

If the member is seeking representation on an issue like a performance appraisal, find out about their work and where they are most confident. This might be problem solving, creativity, energetic, focused on tasks etc.

Follow up with questions that may reveal some weaknesses

Look for the clues offered in the conversation. These may have been raised by managers and can include:

  • poor spelling
  • lack of focus
  • disorganised
  • difficult to organise thoughts
  • impulsive.

Consider the best way to proceed

You may not feel confident to take the conversation any further forward at this point and if the issue the member has raised with you has been answered you and the member may decide that no further action is necessary.

The member may volunteer information. If this is the case it is probably best to suggest a way of seeking further guidance or speaking to the member about how to raise the matter with the employer.

If you cannot deal with the matter that day, arrange another meeting so that you have time to discuss, and ask the member to consider what may help their situation.

Make it clear what support you can provide

Bectu can provide representation and help a member seek professional support. You may also be involved in seeking reasonable adjustments at work. But you should not commit to support in an area that may need professional expertise. Be clear about your boundaries.

If you think the member is neurodivergent and the employer may have discriminated against them and/or is being difficult about providing the reasonable adjustments they need, remember to let your full-time officer know at the earliest opportunity.

Once an employer knows about an individual’s impairment or disability they cannot justify not providing reasonable adjustments.

Don’t be afraid of speaking about neurodiverse differences

From the initial conversation you may recognise some of the common features associated with neurodivergence. Our guidance gives some advice on the language that is most commonly used. It is a good idea to familiarise yourself but you might just signpost the member to information leaflets, our website or professional organisations.