4 Questions to Ask Your Neurodiverse Colleagues to Enhance Working Relationships

With awareness about and the growing acceptance of neurodivergence, more and more people are becoming comfortable with disclosing their various diagnoses and sharing their full selves. As a result, the need (and desire) to accommodate neurodiversity is growing within the working world.

As more information surrounding neurodiversity (and DEI in general) continues to surface, the more supportive and accommodating managers and colleagues can become. While you continue to learn, it’s important to remain open to new information, and especially, to learn from the neurodiverse people within your own teams.

If a colleague shares their neurodiversity with you, it’s probably because they want to help you understand them better.

Gwendolyn Jones from Educating Matters shares 4 questions you can ask your neurodiverse colleague to enhance your working relationship and to better accommodate their needs…

  1. What Would You Like Me to Know?

This is probably the most important question you could ask. Dr Stephen Stone says, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” This means that Autism is an umbrella term for a group of people who experience their diagnosis differently. ‘Neurodiverse’ simply refers to brains that differ from ones that are deemed ‘neurotypical’. How a diagnosis is experienced is as unique as the person experiencing it.

Your colleague may only want you to know certain aspects about their diagnosis, for example, they might let you know about their keen interest and proficiency in categorising but might not want to tell you about their aversion to writing. Or, rather than disclosing the details of how overstimulation can lead to overwhelm, they may prefer to say that they need to take frequent breaks. When chatting with your neurodiverse colleague or employee, allow them to share without pressing for information that they’re not freely offering.

  1. What is Your Preferred Way of Communicating?

As an ADHD woman, I enjoy verbally processing information. Having a person bounce ideas off or sense checking is highly beneficial to me. A dyslexic person may struggle with long emails, but thrive with a bullet points checklist. An Autistic person may need specific, direct language and struggle to spot implied requests. Note, these are loose examples based only off what some people with these varied diagnoses experience. One diagnoses does not fit all, which is why these conversations are helpful in avoiding misconceptions. The point is, all of the above can easily be catered to by neurotypical workers.

Likewise, I understand that others may need me to sum up my conclusion after verbally processing. So, a Dyslexic person might need to expand on information when bullet-pointed and an Autistic person may need a process to check that all the information was processed correctly.

Communication is a two-way street. It’s a good idea to give your neurodiverse colleague an opportunity to ask for help for their needs. But it’s also a chance to give them an opportunity to meet your needs. This removes any power dynamic that can often cause discomfort. The goal is to become equal partners in communication.

  1. How and When Should I Ask You About or Remind You of Deadlines?

Meeting deadlines is one of the biggest causes of conflict in the workplace, but this is especially true between neurotypical and neurodivergent people. This is often down to two causes: the procrastination coping mechanism and lack of specificity.

It’s important to understand that in this instance, procrastination is a symptom of anxiety. It is often linked to laziness but in truth, it is a coping mechanism for the executive functioning skill deficit of task initiation. Starting the task is so overwhelming that it is avoided until the anxiety of the looming deadline outweighs the task initiation anxiety, forcing the person to act.

Specificity, or lack thereof, is the other contributing factor to conflict around deadlines. If a person is asked to complete something by 17:00, but the real expectation is to have it to someone else by 15:30, the implication is often missed.

Ask your colleague if/how they like to be reminded about deadlines. It may be helpful to break a large task into parts, it may be helpful to do a progress check-in. It’s generally helpful to reveal the other moving parts that rely on their task’s completion. Having a verbal contract on how to communicate regarding deadlines helps people feel supported and able to accept the reminders without feeling judged or panicked.

  1. In What Ways Can We Support Each Other Further?

The beauty of this question is the implied partnership. We are all people in need of support. Some just come with a formal diagnosis. This is where I might let someone know about my stimming movements and give permission to tell me if I am tapping a table without realising it. I might ask if you have any needs that I can support. I might also let someone know that I wear sunglasses to dampen down visual noise. Many threads can come from this question. The most important one is an acknowledgement that accommodations do not come from a place of pity or charity. Rather, they are a right given to all people so that they may access the workplace in the best way possible.

The key to good allyship is a willingness to act in a way that benefits those you are standing beside. Will you make a mistake in your language? Maybe. The question is not whether or not you will make a mistake, it’s what will you do with the feedback? If you are willing to learn and move forward for the benefit of both of you, having these conversations will bring about better working relationships and a positive working environment for all.