Relational Safety: The most important workplace accommodation of all, for Neurodivergent teamsMar 02, 2023
Every time I bring someone new onto our team at inTune Pathways or into my own home as a support to our neurodivergent family, I notice a few things that are reflective of the way we've been conditioned to live within the social and cultural constructs of a Capitalist society. These people, however, are not just anyone. They are neurodivergent people. Skilled, compassionate, passionate, determined, nurturing, creative forces to be reckoned with. And yet, they ALL share a common set of characteristics as a result of unsupportive workplaces and classrooms. I too, share these experiences.
1. They feel unworthy.
They *think* they need to work harder, work more, struggle or suffer, be tired or sore at the end of the day or not enjoying their work. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. Many of us have been raised inside of families that have exhausted themselves day in and day out, as a means to measure their worth as a human. How hard one 'worked' was equated with their value as a 'worker'. This began during the days of hard, physical labour and have transitioned into productivity in the corporate sector, among other areas.
Most people work toward KPIs or OKRs that benefit the company or employer. Meeting those deadlines to bring in those numbers, hitting those test scores with students to prove worth as an educator, there are many variations among many professions and industries.
The consistent apologies for being unwell, needing time off, children needing their parents, having to step out for appointments.
2. They are traumatised.
Bringing kindness to my role as an employer, offering flexibility, setting up hours and roles and tasks in collaboration with a team member's strengths and capacity; and in a way that is both sustainable in combination with their personal life is not always received with trust.
People predominantly think it's lip service and will expire, because this has been their history with other employers and other workplaces.
It takes time, compassion, connection; and deep, active listening to form trust within teams.
People are not typically treated like human beings with families and lives outside of the workplace, and it shows. It is devastating to witness this, and a privilege to hold space for the healing that occurs as a result of radical acceptance of the lack of trust and need for consistency that as employers, we are given the opportunity to provide.
Teams must be built on relational safety.
For myself as an employer and contractor, relationship is everything. This means bucking the trend, taking risks and shutting out all of the neuronormative ideas and standards around the workplace and how we work with, and relate to one another.
It involves a lot of self doubt, vulnerability, allowing our teams to witness our humanness, and being "in community" with them, not above them.
I know others will say otherwise. They'll say this is dangerous, unboundaried, puts the business at risk..and what I hear predominantly is that employers don't trust their team.
I think this is normal, because we the employers get burnt too, and there is trauma often associated with being a neurodivergent employer.
I've experienced loss and grief with people in business.
And, I'm autistic. ADHD. Demand avoidant. I have a diagnosis of CPTSD. And, these are all incredible strengths for me in terms of leadership. Because I get to model my humanness and create space for growth and healing together.
My team are all either neurodivergent, or parents of neurodivergent children. They are all employed based on their lived experience and we have worked together to hone in on their incredible skillsets because most of them have not had the opportunity to be valued enough to notice.
This means I'll often bring people in to certain roles, and then as soon as I spot potential for something different, I raise it with them, change their role and provide training with a suitable pay rate and flexibility.
Autistic, ADHD, demand avoidant, traumatised, chronically ill workplaces don't always have to be hard work. Yet everything I read about us as team members is cumbersome. We're often not provided the accommodations we require because relational safety as a foundation is non existent.
Bringing in a new team member entirely for the purpose of adding to a machine will not work with someone like me.
I am riddled with empathy, compassion, determination and grit; however if you don't meet me in the human arena, show me who you are and where you're coming from, I will never bloom.
Who are you as an employer; as a leader?
Where are we going? Who are we serving?
What are you passions and why are you here?
When I know I am safe, that I am in community with a fellow human, I will thrive.
Neurodivergent folk need safety first, in relationships. The practical accommodations come second.
We are far more than a generic framework of notes on a board, timers on a desk, brain breaks and sunglasses indoors.
Challenge the idea that neurodivergent folks are the populations requiring communicative skill building in a neurodiverse workspace by default.
Research contributions such as (Crompton et al., 2020, Rifai et al., 2021) demonstrate autistic peer groups being able to communicate effectively with one another, whilst when in spaces with non autistic people, communication becomes challenging. This introduces the idea that autistic vs non autistic communication is based on culture and not disorder.
It is the same in the workplace as it is in the classroom.
Employers, stop looking to neuronormative solutions and persons for education on employing neurodivergent folks, and start asking about who your team are.
Build relationship in a sincere and genuine way.
Conversations, curiosity and openness. Not group sessions and menial questions for "team building" exercises.
Crompton, C. J., Ropar, D., Evans-Williams, C. V., Flynn, E. G., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism, 24(7), 1704-1712.
Rifai, O. M., Fletcher-Watson, S., Jiménez-Sánchez, L., & Crompton, C. J. (2022). Investigating markers of rapport in autistic and nonautistic interactions. Autism in Adulthood, 4(1), 3-11.
Photo by Mateusz Dach
BA (Pol Sci, Lit, Film & Media) Grad Dip. Ed
Au ADHD PDA CPTSD
Educator, Autism & Neurodiversity Support
Director - inTune Pathways: Positive autistic identity, culture and family lifestyle
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