Neurodiversity in the workplace

United Kingdom

13 – 19 March 2023 is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a worldwide initiative aiming to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week is a great time to publicise the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce and for employers to think about steps they can take to better support neurodiverse employees. To do this effectively employers should, of course, be aware of their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010. In this Law-Now we discuss the benefits of embracing neurodiversity within your workforce, practical steps employers can follow to be more neuro inclusive as well as exploring the legal risks around managing neurodivergent employees.

What do we mean by neurodiversity?

The organisers of Neurodiversity Celebration Week describe neurodiversity as “an umbrella term used to describe alternative thinking styles such as Dyslexia, DCD (Dyspraxia), Dyscalculia, Autism and ADHD.” This is not an exhaustive list and, as an estimated 15% - 20% of the population has a neurological difference, employers should bear in mind that the term can cover a broad range of conditions which can manifest in different ways.

The benefits of embracing neurodiversity within the workforce

Most employers will already have neurodiverse employees working for them. Employers who create a supportive, inclusive environment will have the best chance of making neurodiverse employees feel comfortable and therefore encouraging them to thrive in the workplace. Indeed, traits typically associated with neurodiversity can be beneficial to employers, and those who embrace neurodiversity in their organisation are likely to see the benefits of this. By way of illustration:

  1. JPMorgan has had an Autism at Work initiative in place since 2015 and discovered that employees in this programme made fewer errors and were 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.
  2. SAP’s Autism at Work programme was established in 2013 and has a 90% retention rate of hires on the autism spectrum. SAP recognises that individuals on the programme “bring with them new ways of looking at things [which] encourages the whole team to start thinking creatively”.
  3. GCHQ also actively seeks applications from neurodiverse candidates, with Jo Cavan, GCHQ’s director of strategy, policy and engagement, reported in the press as saying “Neurodiversity is key to keeping Britain safe. At GCHQ, some of our most talented and creative people have a neurodiverse profile – including dyslexia, autism, dyscalculia and dyspraxia.

Specific programmes like these are to be welcomed as a step in the right direction, but care should be taken to consider practical issues that can arise. For instance, how long should employees stay on the programme, and what happens as an employee progresses? If the programme only focuses on autism, how will an employer deal with a request from an employee to join where they have another neurodiverse condition? 

Practical steps

As trailed above, the term neurodiversity covers a wide range of conditions and even within a particular condition there will be a spectrum in terms of how it impacts an individual at work. As a result, it can be daunting for employers looking to support employees in this space and make it feel like they are responding in a very ad hoc way. It can also make, for example, having a “Neurodiversity Policy” unworkable and meaningless. Recognising the role of neurodiversity within the workforce, through events or conversations in Neurodiversity Celebration Week is likely to be a more effective way of being inclusive here.


Many traits associated with different types of neurodiversity can be a real a strength and, as a result, many neurodiverse people would reject any notion that they are “disabled”. This means that a condition may not be brought to the employer’s attention, unless there is an issue of performance or misconduct, meaning it may be more difficult to proactively support.

For those with a recognised condition, getting the language right can be a way of demonstrating support but is not always easy to do. Many professional bodies have published helpful resources which give guidance on appropriate terminology to use; for example, the National Autistic Society’s guide “Talking about Autism”. With the agreement of the employee in question, consider upskilling the teams and managers working with the employee on understanding and being able to speak about the relevant condition.

The legal perspective – definition of disability

There will clearly be some neurodiverse employees who meet the legal definition of “disability” under the Equality Act 2010 and trigger the various protections under that Act as a result.

An individual is disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.  Whether a neurodiverse employee is caught by the definition will depend on how the employee’s neurodiversity affects their day-to-day life, and employers should not make assumptions based on other employees or general knowledge. For example, if one employee’s autism meets the legal definition of disability, this does not automatically mean that every employee with autism will be disabled (and vice versa).

The legal perspective – reasonable adjustments

There is a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees where those employees are placed at a disadvantage by policies or practices operated by the employer. What is reasonable will depend on factors including the size of the employer, the practicability of the proposed adjustment, and the cost of making the adjustment, amongst other things. Adjustments that might help to support neurodiverse employees could include:

  1. Writing down the “unwritten rules” of the workplace for neurodiverse employees who may have difficulty understanding social cues;
  2. Providing a workspace with fewer distractions and background noise for employees who are more sensitive to stimuli, for example by providing a desk in the corner or providing noise cancelling equipment;
  3. Offering different ways of working such as co-working sessions;
  4. Offering workplace buddy systems for support;
  5. Providing assistive technology such as a screen reader or tinted screen for dyslexic employees;
  6. Providing executive functions coaching, for example to help improve memory, concentration and time management;
  7. Providing additional support at the recruitment stage, for example additional time for competency tests; and
  8. Looking at different ways to manage an autistic employee. For example, short catch ups through the day, rather than a weekly one to one if that system works better for them.

What is reasonable for a particular employee will vary, and specialist advice should be sought. For example, in Everitt v Regal Consultancy Limited, an autistic employee requested to have a family member accompany him to a disciplinary hearing, but his request was refused. He was subsequently dismissed, while a colleague in the same circumstances who performed better at their disciplinary hearing received only a written warning. The tribunal held that his dismissal was discriminatory, his employer should have allowed him to be accompanied by a family member and the failure to do so amounted to a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

Employers who proactively think about steps they can take to support neurodiverse employees will reduce the risk of opening themselves up to these types of legal challenge.

The legal perspective – cause & effect

Where there are concerns about the performance or conduct of an employee with a known neurodiverse condition, it is essential that the employer seeks an Occupational Health assessment to understand whether the behaviour is linked to the neurodiversity, and if so, whether there are adjustments that can be put in place to help manage the behaviour.  In more serious cases, such as where a disciplinary sanction is likely to lead to dismissal, it is often advisable to seek further advice from a specialist instead of relying on OH input alone.

There will always be rare cases where, even with reasonable adjustments, an employee’s conduct or performance remains unsatisfactory. Employers can address this, provided they have put in place reasonable adjustments and have given consideration to the reason why they need to take action and looked at alternative ways of achieving this outcome. 

This point is illustrated by a November 2022 case, Morgan v Buckinghamshire Council. An autistic and dyslexic social worker was dismissed for misconduct after she gave gifts to a child without permission and wrote a case note which was inappropriate. She claimed that her poor judgment had been caused by her autism, and that her dismissal had therefore been unfair and discriminatory. While the Tribunal agreed that her misjudgement was likely a result of her autism, it also found that her employer was justified in dismissing her as this was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, namely the maintenance of professional boundaries.

Whether or not potentially discriminatory action can be justified will always be a case-by-case assessment, and it was particularly relevant in this case that the employee had declined an Occupational Health assessment so her employer had not been able to judge the likelihood that the behaviour would be repeated (and therefore the ongoing level of risk if the employee was not dismissed).

Case law by its very nature deals with problems; it is not necessarily representative of the wider issues faced by neurodivergent employees who are trying to get jobs or who may be struggling with the lack of support from their employer. Claims from neurodiverse employees are rare but increasing.  According to one study, in 2021 there were 91 employment tribunal claims, up from 70 in 2020. 

Taking action to support employees

The primary reason for employers being proactive to support neurodiverse employees is not about avoiding legal risk; it is about embracing diversity and removing barriers. According to ONS figures from 2022 only 29% of autistic people are in employment.

Employers can play a major role in improving opportunities by increasing understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace and putting in place a framework of support and adjustments.

Each neurodivergent employee should be viewed on an individual basis. There is a saying in the autistic community, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”


Neurodiversity Celebration Week is a great opportunity for employers to learn more about the benefits of neurodiversity and to think about whether there are steps they can take to improve the support they provide to their neurodiverse employees, while being mindful of the legal risks and practical considerations which arise. This is not a one-off analysis, however, and employers should make sure they regularly review their approach. Developing an employee resource group or neurodiversity group to sense check their approach and gain recommendations on strategy should be a critical part of the plan. Many of the changes that are required are small steps to the way work is organised, but they can make a big difference.