Embrace difference

Supporting neurodivergent staff to be comfortable and successful at work is beneficial for everyone. Charlotte Goddard talks to nursery managers to find out more

“Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?” wrote American journalist Harvey Blume in 1998. In the early years sector, there is a burgeoning move to support neurodivergent children with a strengths-based approach, celebrating their differences and promoting positive self-awareness.

Need for support

However, when it comes to supporting neurodivergent staff, nursery managers are not always as well-equipped. Dr Rebecca Wood, principal investigator of the Autistic School Staff Project and a lecturer in inclusive education at the University of Glasgow, has studied the experiences of autistic educators. She found one early years teacher was sacked after being diagnosed, while a supply worker said she feared not getting bookings if she was open about her diagnosis.

“There is a truly shocking lack of awareness of the needs and aptitudes of autistic education staff, meaning that many end up leaving the profession,” says Wood. “But one message that is loud and clear from our study is that autistic people can be well suited to the education sector at all levels and in all roles. They can bring a really important understanding of neurodiverse children and alternative learning styles, and also be role models for children and their parents. This is especially important in early years settings, when children are at the start of their education.”

Dr Rebecca Wood

What is neurodiversity?

The term neurodiversity can cover a range of different ways of thinking including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and autism.

“Neurodiversity is a relatively new term, but it contains so many different umbrellas. There are many different layers of autism, for example,” says Rob Fox, owner and manager of Happy Bunnies Nursery School on the Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire border, who is neurodivergent himself. The support that Fox puts in place starts with understanding the individual needs of each practitioner.

“As a manager, it is about responding to the individual needs of the person involved, recognising their individual learning style. Rather than looking at neurodivergence as a disability, look at it as a superpower that you have to enable,” he says. “We talk about knowing our children, but we should also know what makes our staff tick, what are their strengths.”

Rob Fox, Happy Bunnies Nursery School

Not all staff feel comfortable in divulging their neurodivergence to line managers so the creation of an environment in which the disabilities and differences of staff, children and parents are recognised and supported is a vital first step, says Wood, whose research focuses on autistic employees.

Good practice

 “Being able to listen to the autistic staff member is key, particularly if they ask for certain adaptations that they need,” she says. “This might include not insisting on wearing certain items of clothing, such as a tabard, understanding that the autistic staff member could need some time alone during breaks, and recognising that staff social activities can be difficult for autistic staff to engage with, and perhaps therefore suggesting quieter alternatives.”

Fox supports staff members who are dyslexic and dyspraxic, checking whether they need extra time for their observations, a notebook to record instructions or a whiteboard to record ratios. Dyslexic staff members might prefer to deliver observations in the form of voice notes rather than writing them down, he says.

 Managers might also need to understand different communication styles. “Looking at interactions and tone, neurodiverse people might come across as short and sharp,” Fox says. “People have told me I am quite abrupt, but when every process takes time, it is not rudeness, it is just I can’t find a way to articulate words.”

Jake Forecast, manager at Kids Inc’s Enfield setting, has been diagnosed with ADHD. “I forget things quite quickly, sometimes I find that a bit of a struggle,” he says. “We have a whiteboard and I have to write things down because otherwise it is going to go straight out of my head. Sometimes I can get overstimulated so I have to take five minutes, when it is appropriate, to ground myself, something I have started learning to do.”

 Grounding techniques are often helpful for people with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and anxiety disorders, but can be useful for anyone who needs to regulate their emotions. They include breathing exercises, rhythmic tapping and the multi-sensory 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which involves identifying five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

Jake Forecast, Kids Inc

Unique strengths

Nurseries are often noisy and cluttered, with lots of visual displays, and this can be something that autistic staff struggle with. However other aspects of early years work make the sector a positive career choice. “In some ways, early years settings can work well for autistic staff, as they tend to be relatively small and flexible, with plenty of opportunities for time outdoors,” says Wood.

Wood’s book Learning From Autistic Teachers: How to Be a Neurodiversity Inclusive School highlights the unique strengths autistic staff can bring to a setting, such as relating to neurodivergent children, conveying passion and enthusiasm for a subject through intense interests, or demonstrating particular skills in leadership.

 “For me the benefits of being neurodivergent and working in a nursery is that no two days are the same, but there is also a routine,” says Forecast. “For example, we have hourly headcount, so there is a routine, but every day is different with the children.”

Being neurodivergent also gives Forecast a better understanding of the children in the setting. “I can get really silly, and people can look at me and think I’m crazy, but that kind of helps in a way, being able to work with the children and understand things from their perspective.”

Recruitment advice

The Buckland Review of Autism Employment, supported by charity Autistica and the Department for Work and Pensions is currently looking at how best to support employers to recruit and retain autistic people and reap the benefits of a neurodiverse workforce. Advice includes providing detailed information in advance of an interview, such as who to ask for at reception, and sharing questions with candidates a week in advance.

 “You should reach out to people and ask what we can do to guide you through the interview process,” suggests Forecast. “For example, if someone is ADHD you might want to have fidget toys available, if the interview is going to take quite a long time.”

Every individual brings unique strengths and perspectives that will ultimately benefit the children in the nursery. Nurturing and recruiting neurodiverse staff not only empowers individuals but also fosters an atmosphere of acceptance, inclusion and growth.

Further information

Autistic School Staff Project A range of resources including webinar recordings and booklet Amazing Autistic Teachers: How to Learn from Them

Neurodiversity at Work 2023: Demand, Supply and a Gap Analysis, Neurodiversity in
Business. Practical advice based on the findings of a survey of 990 neurodivergent

The Employers’ Guide to Neurodiversity, Autistica. Resources on making the
workplace accessible, inclusive interviews, and talking about neurodiversity at

Join our mailing list

Stay up to date with all our events, awards and publications.

Information you provide us with will be kept private at all times, and will be used for communication and research purpose only.