A lack of awareness and support at work has cultivated a climate of fear and exhaustion for social workers with neurodiverse conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.
A pilot study on the experiences of neurodivergent social workers has found that, of 60 responses, 34 participants reported they had received no specialist workplace support. Around 14 of those said this had been the result of a fear of speaking out and asking for help.
According to Deb Solomon, chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) neurodivergent social workers group and part of the team behind the study, managers’ and colleagues’ lack of understanding of neurodiversity has played a big role in that.
The peer support group was set up in summer 2021, inspired by the attention an article of Solomon’s detailing her struggles as a newly diagnosed social worker during lockdown had received.
In the past year, Solomon has found new members have often reacted tearfully on first meetings, once realising they are not ‘the only one’.
“It’s really quite emotional,” she said. “Nobody talks – nobody dares to talk – and it’s really sad. That comes across every time.”
Solomon, who was diagnosed with ADHD in October 2020, attributed that fear to the stigma around the diagnosis of a disorder and the subsequent external and self-imposed doubt around the social worker’s ability to do their job. “[It’s a feeling of], ‘people are going to think that I’m now incapable, that I’ve got challenges, that I am less’,” she explained.
“I’ve had a mental health social worker say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know autistic people could be social workers’,” she added. “There’s a real lack of empathy, real lack of understanding, and that makes people not want to speak.”
Neurodiversity and possible struggles in the workplace
Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that refers to the existing variations in neurocognitive functioning and behaviours among people.
Neurodivergent people often live with neurological or developmental conditions that mean their brains function differently and their behavioural traits differ to what is perceived as ‘normal’.
Some examples of neurodivergent conditions are autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyslexia, and dyspraxia.
According to 2016 research by industrial relations body ACAS, an estimated one in seven adults in the UK is neurodivergent.
The struggles a neurodivergent employee might face in the workplace differ depending on their condition and the severity of its impact on them. Among others, they could experience sensitivity to sound or light, issues with memory, note-taking or organisational tasks, or difficulties with equipment.
A guide for neurodiversity at work created by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR staff, listed bright office lighting, noisy open-plan environments, and equipment (including bright screens, desks lacking personal organisation items, lack of visible instruction on equipment such as printers) as some factors that employers should consider addressing.
‘The effort it takes to appear functioning becomes exhausting’
Neurodivergent social workers who took part in the pilot study listed lack of confidence, anxiety, and feeling ‘resigned’ as the main side-effects of the current work culture.
“People often say to me, ‘How can you possibly have ADHD and say you struggle with executive functioning and organisation and time when you’re organised to a T?’” said Solomon.
“And it’s like, ‘yes, but that’s why’. I actually can’t function throughout the day if I haven’t put all of that time into doing that. I’m lost. It takes me probably an hour before I can even start working to just get my head around what am I doing.”
Because of that, and not being able to ‘function’ at certain points during the day, in the past she would work three or four hours more “just to try and keep up”.
“It’s exhausting. We might be functioning and perfectly fine, but it took a hell of a lot to get there before we’ve even left the house. I can get to a point at the end of the day sometimes where I’ve just run out of words.”
‘I’m less open and honest with how I feel about what my needs are’
Solomon’s experiences were echoed by a social worker from South East England, who, since becoming qualified in 2018, said she has received “mixed responses” to her dyslexia and dyspraxia diagnoses from managers.
Due to her conditions, Megan*, who works in child protection services, sometimes has trouble remembering instructions or learning a new IT system. She also gets overwhelmed by high-pitched sounds and sudden, noisy or intense lighting.
“There’s one phone in our office that has a really high-pitched scream when it charges,” Megan explained. “That can literally stop me dead in my tracks, it can give me tension headaches.” She also uses a purple filter over her screen to help her concentrate and is often unable to sit in front of a computer after a stressful day.
During a work day, Megan is careful to explain her conditions to the families she visits to make for a smooth collaboration.
“I clearly explain I have sensory needs,” she said. “If it is too bright in the house, I might wear sunglasses. And if it is too loud, I might ask that we go into a quiet room. I just really kind of lay it out from there because, if I can’t give them my best or if I am kind of feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimulants, it could transfer on to the way that I work with them.”
However, Megan has found barriers when attempting to communicate her needs with managers.
In her final placement, her practice educator had requested a meeting with her university – without Megan knowing – to discuss her learning needs. The educator’s verdict had been that local authorities wouldn’t be able to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate her needs.
“I wasn’t asking for anything particularly massive,” she said. “I was asking for things to kind of be followed up in writing, just the kind of extra care and attention that you’d expect for a student.”
The experience made her fearful of revealing her diagnosis in her first workplace for months, only relenting when learning there was another dyslexic colleague in the same body.
Years later, when interviewing for her current job, Megan once again struggled to get the adjustments she needed.
Having informed the organisation in advance of her diagnosis and her need to bring notes and to take notes during the meeting, she found herself on the day being refused those adjustments because it would give her “an unfair advantage against other candidates”.
“That should have been the biggest red flag, but my judgment was clouded because I really wanted to be here,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘It could be different once you’re there’. But when I started working there would be comments like, ‘Oh, isn’t everyone a little bit on the spectrum’, or ‘I think I’m a little bit dyslexic, or dyspraxic’. It really made me feel small, unseen.”
As a result, Megan became wary of being open and honest about her needs and of advocating for herself.
Now it is her colleagues that are making the necessary adjustments for her – making sure that one phone charges at a time due to the noise or being aware of bright lights or which items make high pitch sounds – instead of her employers.
The shift happened after another neurodivergent colleague opened up to her about their own diagnosis. Over the next few months, they begun having conversations about their needs, experiences and diagnosis more openly in the office.
Overhearing the interactions, fellow colleagues slowly started to join in the conversation and offer to help make the office a more comfortable place to work in.
“It makes me feel a lot more healthy,” she said. “But it also means that they are probably having to do more work that isn’t their responsibility.”
‘Working with individuals to understand their specific needs’
While not relating directly to Megan’s situation, employers told Community Care that they need to be made aware of neurodivergent employees’ needs in order to respond to them accordingly.
A Cafcass spokesperson said the organisation urged any neurodivergent social worker to inform it of their condition, to enable it to understand their needs and make the necessary adjustments to help them do their job.
“By doing so, it enables us to work with the individual to understand their specific needs and make the adjustments that would help them succeed in their role,” they said.
The family courts body also acknowledged the contributions of neurodivergent social workers, stating that their input is key in raising awareness of conditions and improving the experience of both service users and fellow colleagues.
“Our staff also have access to a growing range of health and wellbeing resources to enable them to fulfil their role, such as guides, handbooks and webinars covering key areas of wellbeing, including neurodivergent related topics such as dyslexia and mental health,” it added.
Training and awareness at all stages
According to Solomon, what neurodivergent social workers need is not necessarily equipment to help them with tasks, but simply “understanding” from line managers.
“I might need to go and work somewhere quiet sometimes,” she said. “Or I might need to wear headphones because I can’t cope with all of the distractions and the noise; when I’m reading something and somebody comes in disturbing and talking to me, I am going to probably forget what I was doing. I’m going to need to start again. Or I am going to need things in writing – because if you’ve given it to me verbally, I’m not going to retain that.”
The pilot study she helped put together urged that, to achieve that awareness, there needs to be some systemic changes made. According to Solomon, those include:
- Awareness training around what neurodiversity is for students, educators, and line managers.
- “A clear path” as to what the process is to access support as a neurodivergent social worker
- Altering recruitment processes to be inclusive towards neurodivergent applicants -“It could be just something as simple as giving that person the questions five minutes before an interview for example”.
- Ensuring there is access to equipment to support neurodivergent needs.
- Encouraging workers to form peer support groups.
“I think peer support is huge,” she added. “We learn a lot from each other, like coping strategies, and nothing works better. We’re talking to someone else who gets it, and giving the space for people to be able to do that is really important.
“And then what that does is it allows these groups of people to be able to influence things like, ‘Hang on, actually, your policy really doesn’t reflect what we need’.”
According to the Equality Act 2010, any impairment – which includes neurodiverse conditions – that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities is a disability.
That means that when an employer is made aware of their employer’s disability, they are required by law to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate their needs.
According to the government’s website, these reasonable adjustments include, among others, adapted equipment, altering the recruitment process, making physical changes to the workplace, training and support for people the new employee works with, and allowing the person to work somewhere else that is more comfortable for their needs – e.g. a quiet place or the ground floor.
Research from employment law firm Fox found that, in 2021, there were 93 tribunals for employees who had allegedly been discriminated for their neurodiverse condition – up from 70 the previous year.
Dyslexia accounted for 40 employment tribunals, autism for 28, Asperger’s for 21, ADHD for 19 and dyspraxia for 12.
Solomon also recently helped pass a motion during the British Association of Social Workers’ (BASW) in June that aimed to raise awareness and support for the neurodiverse workforce.
While the work is still in early stages, the motion will have BASW and the neurodiversity special interest group working with local authorities, universities, and regulators to introduce inclusive training, co-produce a neurodiversity policy, and celebrate good practice examples.
“At the moment for neurodivergent social workers there’s no concrete support,” she commented. “There’s nothing out there that says ‘This is how you get supported’, and I guess that’s what we’re trying to create.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s such a huge mountain to climb, and it’s knowing where or how to do it. We’re trying to get examples of good practice at the minute for one of our campaigns – and it’s hard to find them.”
She went on to explain that it is often “hit or miss” with managers, but if they don’t have the knowledge, “it’s not necessarily their fault”.
“They’re not purposely discriminating, but they just don’t know how to support.”
John Pearce, vice president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), welcomed “efforts to raise awareness of health issues” and recognised that a lack of support is a vital issue for neurodivergent social workers that can affect their mental health and wellbeing and their work with children and families too.
“It is vital that social workers can operate in an environment where great social work can flourish, enabling the children and families we serve to flourish too.”
*Name has been changed for anonymity