When it comes to supporting neurodiverse employees there are many things great businesses are doing. We can change the way we hire talent, create equitable training opportunities, use inclusive language and nurture an accessible culture. But neurodiversity is one area of the DE&I agenda which can often slip through an HR professional’s net when planning employee events.
Considering how we engage neurodiverse employees at events large and small is essential. Around 15% (or just over 10 million) of Brits are considered neurodivergent, experiencing conditions such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, OCD and dyslexia. Of course, being neurodiverse can present challenges, but it can also bring unique strengths and a neurodiverse perspective can be revolutionary. There are many famous high achievers who are neurodiverse – sport stars Simone Biles and Michael Phelps; musicians and actors – Lolye Carner, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Timberlake and Whoopi Goldberg; entrepreneurs and activists like Greta Thunberg, Elon Musk and Bill Gates.
Whether you’re planning events such as onboarding and internal training sessions, AGMs, large sales rallies, or reward and incentive trips, it’s important to consider making small changes which could make a big difference to your neurodiverse employees
How neurodiverse individuals may experience events
Many neurodiverse individuals experience the world differently. Sensory processing, communication, social interaction and executive function are all areas that can be impacted. Some of your neurodiverse colleagues will have a heightened ability to focus, particularly on specific topics of interest, and they may approach problem-solving in unique and creative ways.
These differences should all impact on how events are planned and on how networking and education content is shaped. Yet most events continue to be shaped around the narrow, neurotypical experience.
At Live Group, our data and insights highlight a complex spectrum of experiences for neurodiverse individuals attending events. We know that, for many neurotypical staff, the dynamic atmosphere of an event, replete with large groups, bright lights, and loud noises, may be positively invigorating. However, for numerous neurodiverse colleagues present at the same event, these elements can trigger an overwhelming sensory excess. This overstimulation may precipitate increased anxiety levels and hamper concentration, but it’s essential to remember that reactions can and will differ amongst neurodiverse individuals.
Likewise, the prospect of networking and socialising with peers at events might be embraced by many neurotypical employees. On the other hand, certain neurodiverse team members may find such social interactions challenging, due to possible difficulties with interpreting social cues or engaging in communication.
When planning an event of any kind, I believe it’s crucial to recognise the diversity of experiences within neurodiversity. Everyone’s experiences and needs are unique, and it’s our responsibility to accommodate them effectively.
Ten ways businesses can improve events for neurodiverse employees
I am genuinely passionate about creating events that are designed around the engagement preferences of neurodiverse individuals (and all other audiences too!).
Including neurodiverse employees in your planning will make your events better, more engaging and rewarding and beneficial experiences for everyone. I find inclusive design and accessible events are more welcoming all round. Behavioural science founder Rory Sutherland makes an interesting point about all of us being differently abled at some point in our lives, saying, “A door built for somebody with arm impairments is just as useful for somebody holding two cups of tea”.
For me, the perfect event is one where everyone leaves feeling it was created just for them. Here are my top ten tips to help achieve that goal.
- Ask for advice
Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong provided you’re willing to change. Listen. Be bold about inclusion. The alternative is doing nothing and that helps no one.
- Solicit feedback
Ask for feedback on your current offering. Events should be inclusive and collaborative, enable people to have their say and see the change their voice has affected.
- Clear delegate communication
Clear communication strategies can help people who struggle with social interactions, so give attendees the choice of receiving typical event comms or ‘simple English’ versions. Delegate comms with too many marketing and excitement words are not always best suited to the neurodiverse.
- Advance information
Offering a schedule or agenda in advance, complete with expected capacities and noise levels, can help attendees to better prepare and plan for their day, reducing anxiety and confusion. Something as simple as offering ear-defenders, noise cancelling headphones or earplugs can make all the difference in the world.
- Buddy up
Introduce a discreet buddy system that can pair delegates with a volunteer to help them navigate the event and lessen networking challenges.
- Go hybrid
For some, nothing beats attending an event in person – they may thrive off the pace and the spontaneous meetings with peers and acquaintances. But for neurodiverse people who find verbal communication challenging or have difficulty with memory recall, in-person events may feel overwhelming. The solution could be hybrid: a mix of in-person for neurotypical employees with extrovert tendencies, plus an option to attend virtually or watch on demand, which allow attendees to take things at their own pace, have breaks to process and reflect, plan social interactions if/when it suits, and watch again in their own time. Whether in person or online, live transcriptions can be incredibly helpful for many people.
- Presentation content
If you’re presenting a lot of information or it’s complex, it can be helpful to ask presenters to break up that information into small, manageable chunks and to use clear, concise language with visual aids wherever possible. Limit the number of actionable takeaways to one or two and don’t expect immediate responses from your audience – many neurodivergent people need time to process what they’ve been presented with.
- Bionic reading
ADHD individuals can find content especially challenging. Offering PowerPoint with a bionic reading font, for example, is hugely helpful and simple to do, yet rarely seen at events. Bionic reading works by strategically bolding parts of words to make text easier and faster to process by letting your brain fill in the rest of each word. Its inventor Casutt claims dyslexic users say they have understood texts more quickly and people with dyslexia and ADHD have said bionic reading helps them focus.
One of the easiest changes to make: breaks, particularly between periods of educational content. Neurodiverse individuals prefer more frequent and lengthier breaks to reflect on and process the content they have just engaged with.
- Sensory room
Providing a sensory-friendly space where attendees can retreat to in case of sensory overload can be helpful and simple to organise. It should be quiet and calm with dimmed lights and comfortable seating.
Bruce Rose is head of audience at Live Group, a global events management and engagement agency. He is a CIS white neurotypical male. His wife and daughter have ADHD and his daughter is also on the autism spectrum. Unsurprisingly, Bruce is passionate about helping businesses to understand how neurodiverse people experience events and other forms of workplace communication and changing their approach, so all employees feel heard.