In the age of the “Disability Confident Employer” - why are we still getting neurodiversity so wrong
The most prevalent question I am asked as a neurodivergent person by prospective employers is “can you explain the gaps in your CV?”. I didn’t fully appreciate the ableist nature of this narrative until I unpacked how difficult I have always found the neurotypical workplace – and the reasons for that. I have spent a lot of time since finding out I am autistic reflecting on my experiences throughout my career and the overriding theme is that the workplace is not an environment in which I am naturally welcomed or accommodated.
In fact, being neurodivergent is a direct contradiction of the capitalist way in which we are all deeply conditioned and I have been punished more often than I have been celebrated for my differences. Capitalism has designed a productivity system that demands we all work at the same speed and in the same way, with a goal of the utmost productivity at all times - and it is centered entirely around the neurotypical experience, leaving neurodivergent people out in the cold.
It doesn’t stop with productivity either. We are measured as employees on more than just that factor alone - social premium, or our ability to “fit in” per se dictates a huge chunk of our value. Atypical communication, inability to make eye contact and sensitivity to the increasingly loud, bright and fragrant nature of our capitalist society is often a deal-breaker. Despite one in seven adults in the UK being neurodivergent, a recent study conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that a staggering fifty percent of managers admitted they would feel uncomfortable hiring or managing a neurodivergent employee and it is estimated that forty-eight percent of neurodivergents will experience discrimination, bullying or harassment in the workplace. Despite this reality, I am still expected to apologise and stumble my way through an explanation for any gaps in my CV.
My experience of work is unfortunately a rather typical one for an autistic person. I have had great experience, but that experience has always been unnecessarily difficult and at times, traumatising. One experience in particular has weighed heavily on my soul and inspired this blog for Disability Awareness Month - the theme of which being “not all disabilities are visible”.
Fluorescent lighting, desk after desk crammed into a large open-plan space where hot-desking was the norm. The noise, the smells, the lighting, the utter chaos - the epitome of sensory hell on earth. The only escape I had was a small pod at the far end of the office which quite abruptly cut me off from my colleagues. It was a daily choice – risk sensory overload and get nothing done or be shut off from the team experience that everyone else was free to enjoy, unchained by the constraints of inaccessibility.
I will never forget the hours I spent in that pod, paralysed by the discomfort that I felt. I was disciplined for doing things differently or for taking time off when I (unavoidably) burned out. I was made to feel different and inadequate for just existing as myself. Every day I felt dysfunctional and embarrassed that I couldn’t participate in the same way as my colleagues and I sacrificed my wellbeing and quality of life to continue turning up, because I was so desperate for the job I loved to be a success.
The truth is that this was never my shame to carry. It was the HR department that took well over a year to order an occupational health assessment and ignored my pleas for reasonable adjustments. It was the team leader whose deafening silence when it mattered most will haunt me for years to come. It was the unit head who interviewed me as a disabled candidate to tick a box and then failed to follow up. It was the employment lawyer that told me they “didn’t agree” I was neurodivergent and forced me through a degrading process to prove it.
It is them alone who should reflect on this period and feel the burden of shame and weight of their actions. Instead, it was me, left to sweep up the shattered remnants of what was once my spirit when it all inevitably came crashing down. This is the reality of working life for us, and if you want to know why there are gaps in my CV – I'd urge you to consider if this is an experience you’d be in a hurry to repeat, or indeed, one you would recover quickly from.
The worst part about this is that I am not alone in this baggage, and there is nothing at all remarkable about my experience. Workplace-related neurodivergent trauma is more common than any of us would like to admit, the direct result of a seemingly impermeable bubble of ignorance surrounding professional life. If we manage to get through the door, we are commonly at the mercy of cold, unsympathetic human resource managers without the appropriate training, experience or qualifications to adequately support us - or we are judged by our ability to navigate an environment that is, by its very nature, designed to watch us crash and burn.
What employers fail to recognise in this approach is the swathes of talent, dedication and potential they waste when they fail to adapt to the needs of the neurodivergent population. By making largely inexpensive and easy to implement adjustments, you are tapping into potential that is so vastly overlooked and undervalued, by simply giving us the fair chance that every neurotypical employee is afforded as soon as they get through the door. By not making the workplace accessible, you are not only denying your organisation a wonderful employee, you are loading years' worth of emotional trauma on to a neurodivergent person with so much to offer. It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t be this way.
In the age of the “Disability Confident Employer” performative activism on behalf of employers is creating a false narrative surrounding neurodiversity – we are still so far from a world in which neurodivergent talent is truly harnessed and celebrated in the workplace. Whilst employers continue to discipline neurodivergent staff for being different or taking time off, whilst they fail to make accommodations and whilst they question employment gaps in their recruitment processes – Government-endorsed sticker on their website or not - they are not an equal employer.