Why neurodiversity matters

Adam O’Loughlin is the NPAA Head of Policy, and a Sergeant with Avon & Somerset Constabulary. In this video made for the College of Policing, Adam talks about his adult diagnosis of autism and why neurodiversity is so important for recruitment and retention within the police service.

For College of Policing members, the video may be found in the Case Studies section of the HR Zone.

Putting the person first

Chris Crebbin is a training officer and NPAA Coordinator for West Yorkshire Police – in this blog he talks about the rapidly-evolving lexicon of autism and neurodiversity, which can be confusing for a newcomer

Today, I want to talk about language. There are a lot of terms in use in the autism community and it can be confusing to try and understand them all. It also doesn’t help that there is no consensus around what terms we should be using, and which terms we shouldn’t. So let’s have a look at a few of them.

When a person receives their diagnosis, they will be classed as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Synonymous terms are Autism Spectrum Diagnosis, or Autism Spectrum Condition. In real terms, the three terms all mean the same thing, but with different emphasis. ‘Disorder’ is probably the term which will be on your medical file. Many people think that this is too negative – it’s a difference, not something wrong – so will be purely technical and use ‘Diagnosis’, or more broad-ranging with ‘Condition’. These are abbreviated to ASD or ASC respectively.

When talking about the individual, are they an autistic person, or a person with autism? This is a discussion which occurs in many areas of diversity – person first vs identity first. Like in so many contexts, the right answer is: be guided by the individual. When I’m delivering awareness sessions, I try to use both reasonably equally, because the reality is there is no single accepted ‘right’ answer. Another term which you might hear used is ‘autist’, which simply refers to the person.

When discussing autism, and people with autism, you will often hear the term ‘neurotypical’. This simply means ‘normal’, or not autistic. Note the quotes on the word ‘normal’. When I deliver awareness training, I always stress the quotes, and deploy the old ‘air quotes’ (making little quote signs with my fingers), to emphasise that there really is no such thing as ‘normal’. For reference, I really dislike air quotes, but I struggle to make this point without them.

Autism is just one strand of neurodiversity, which also includes other conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia. We group these together, because they are all categorised by a difference in the wiring of the mind. It’s not that the mind is faulty – it’s not – it’s just wired a bit differently to the neurotypical mind.

Then we come on to Asperger Syndrome, or AS. This is a subset of autism, that is, it’s a specific diagnosis, but falls under the general heading of an autism spectrum condition. A person with Asperger Syndrome may refer to themselves as an ‘Aspie’. Or they may really hate the term. It’s another of those divisive things and, as always, my advice would be to be guided by the individual.

There are a couple of things you need to know about AS. Firstly, it’s not being diagnosed much these days. Depending on which NHS trust you go to, they could be using one of two manuals: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), or the World Health Organisation’ International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). DSM-5 makes no reference to Asperger, having removed it in the current version. Instead, the patient will simply receive a diagnosis of an ‘autism spectrum disorder’. My understanding is that ICD-10 still contains it, but when ICD-11 is released it is likely to be removed. The reason for this removal is for clinical reasons which are beyond the scope of my little blog.

The other thing you need to know about Asperger Syndrome is around the name itself. It’s named after Dr Hans Asperger, who pioneered work in the area. The problem lies when you look at the man himself. In 2018, Edith Sheffer completed her research into him and published her results in a book called “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna”. It turns out that Asperger might not have been such a nice chap. The book details the complicity of Hans Asperger in the murder of autistic children by the Nazis. Understandably, those people for whom his name is part of their identity are wondering if they should be looking for something else. Some people I’ve spoken shrug it off and take the view that he was a figure from 70 years ago and aren’t overly bothered. Others, understandably, are actively looking for a replacement term. I’ve just checked the National Autistic Society web site, and their position is still: “We are listening closely to the response to this news so we can continue to make sure the language we use to describe autism reflects the preferences of autistic people and their families.”

So at the end of this all, what language should you be using? I’d say as long as you use some common sense and are sensitive to the preferences of the individual or group you are dealing with, you can make your own mind up.

One little snippet to finish. You’ll have noticed that I’ve shied away from telling you words that you must or mustn’t use. I will include one though: please don’t use the term ‘suffer’ (‘suffering’, ‘sufferer’, etc.) when referring to those on the autism spectrum. An awful lot of people within the autistic community will get very upset with this. I’ve found this meme on social media which attributes a quote to Anne Hegerty (The Chase, I’m A Celebrity). I don’t know whether she actually said it, but it rings true: “People say ‘you suffer from Asperger’s’. No: I have Asperger’s, I suffer from idiots.” ∎

This blog was originally published on the College of Policing members’ website – it is reproduced here with kind permission of the author

A quick guide for managers

This blog was originally circulated by Leicestershire Police to its officers and staff as part of Autism Awareness Week 2019 – reproduced here with permission

Because of the issues people with autism have with communication, it will be necessary for managers to make adjustments in how they would normally communicate, to enable an employee to perform at their full potential, or at least to ‘level the playing field’ so they’re not being held back by some aspect of the job or working environment. It should be viewed as a positive step to get the best out of the employee, and not agreed to grudgingly by management.

Managers (and colleagues) should consider the following reasonable adjustments:

Communicate with the autistic person via email, including requests for meetings and individual emails regarding any instructions, changes in routine, role, tasks, duties, etc. Many people with autism, are able to understand and explain things much better through the written word. Verbal conversations on the emails can confirm and check understanding of what has been communicated/written.

  • This will prevent misunderstandings and ensures the message is communicated in a format and way the person can understand, digest and remember
  • Having instructions, and in particular, changes, written down, helps the autistic person learn and adapt quicker. It will be a written reminder / record for the autistic person, and in the case of any changes or instructions, they can be memorised and learnt at their pace, to enable the person to adapt, do what is required of them, and to perform well
  • Clear, factual and concise instructions in writing will help avoid any ambiguity and uncertainty. If instructions were to change, written instructions and saying they have changed will avoid confusion
  • It will prevent the autistic person from becoming stressed and anxious, which can lead to sickness absences
  • They may need something to be repeated to them again and again, if you only communicate verbally, or demonstrated in practice, for the autistic person to understand what is required of them

Allowing time for a response

  • Autistic people may spend a bit more time thinking about what they need to say to get their point across
  • They will need time to process what is being said
  • If the person feels they has missed something, explain to them what they have done well but what else is needed to improve the work

Managing change

  • An employee with autism can deal well with changes to their schedule, however very large organisational changes may cause stress and anxiety. If this happens they are likely to become very quiet and may stutter when speaking
  • Sometime a person with autism doesn’t always realise when they are stressed, so they could ask that staff point out to him that their mood is different. They may need a quiet space to calm down and allow time for the stress / anxiety to pass
  • Try to avoid changes to the employee’s timetable without a minimum of a set amount of notice being given

Sensory needs

  • Bright lighting, particularly in small rooms, can cause eye twitching, difficulty reading and writing, and quickly cause headaches. A reasonable adjustment would be placing employee in a suitably lit area or keeping a particular light permanently switched off putting the person in an area of the office with lower lighting levels
  • Additional breaks during the working day, which will enable them to have down time to restore calm and over-sensitivity for a while
  • Working in a noisy office will greatly affect those with autism and their ability to focus, do their job and remain calm. This is easily remedied by allowing regular and possibly extensive use of earphones or earplugs. There is a headset device which blocks out ambient noise and enables the person to hear for example, someone on the phone and allows them to concentrate on the call and what they need to do
  • Whenever possible, reduce the person’s exposure to the noisy environment. This could be by placing the employee at a desk to the side of the office so at least one side of them which has no sources of sounds, or allowing the employee to work in a quieter area from time to time if needed
  • Staff need to be aware of the employee’s sensitivities and why they may use certain equipment at times, which helps keep them calm, focused and enables they to do their job well

These are only a small proportion of issues people with autism may face in the workplace. By considering and adjusting the needs of the autistic person, they will be supported in their role, you will get the best out of them, and use their strengths to the benefit of the organisation. Making reasonable adjustments will show you respect the individual’s learning style – we should work with it, not against it.

The government’s Access to Work scheme has been set up to consider funding applications for many different types of reasonable adjustments in the workplace including assistive resources, support workers, training and workplace assessments. ∎