How we make autistic people feel at home at Norwood

Not only do we create an inclusive environment for our clients – but for our staff too


Neurodiversity in the workplace (Photo: FlexJobs)

The number of people receiving a diagnosis of autism is steadily increasing, with recent research indicating that as many as one in 67 people in the UK is autistic. We know that autistic people are more likely to face inequality and reduced opportunities in the areas of education, health, advocacy and employment. At Norwood, we are doing what we can to empower not only the people we support, but all our staff to achieve their goals because we know that when people of all abilities and talents contribute to our communities, we are all richer as a result.

We’re well versed in supporting the individual needs of the people we support, many of whom are autistic, and some of whom also have a variety of learning disabilities and complex health conditions. For the people we support, across the whole range of our services, whether residential or otherwise, our environments are specially adapted to meet the individual’s needs and preferences.

Consistency is key for many autistic people, so many of whom rely on routine to conquer anxiety and sensory processing challenges. But with more than 800 employees across a broad spectrum of roles, environments and locations, we’ve also focused on supporting our staff to better accommodate the needs and preferences of autistic colleagues, who may struggle to adapt when travelling between Norwood services.

Walking into unfamiliar environments can be a source of anxiety for many of us and more so for autistic people, and we’ve sought to tackle it by having floor plans readily available, mapping out interior or office spaces. Similarly, we’ve found that providing an explanation of “unwritten rules” can help better integrate an autistic person into the office environment. For example, being clear about going to the toilet without asking, taking lunch breaks on your own schedule and using our quiet rooms when needed. Circulating an agenda before a meeting may be standard practice, but creating a one-page profile introducing key participants or interviewers can help prepare an autistic person for unpredictable eventualities.

We are also encouraging our staff to regularise recurring meetings to specific times and/or locations. Where change to regular patterns is unavoidable, we try to communicate the change in advance and in a way that the autistic person can process, using clear, concise language.

We believe in giving everyone the same opportunities, and this means that while we treat autistic staff equally to our non-autistic staff, they may need some extra flexibility in order to excel in their roles, and we would always work to make adaptations to support individual needs. Often, many of these involve adjusting environments, attitudes and communication styles, rather than making wholesale changes to infrastructure, and some changes are often far more straightforward than you might think.

We do our best to avoid making unhelpful assumptions about people’s needs and abilities, autistic or not. Being a truly person-centred organisation means listening to the individual’s needs so that we can create a fully inclusive environment, open to participation from all.

Just as we have made a prayer room available in our locations so that people of all faiths can practise their religion, having an available quiet room and clearly communicating it publicly is an essential resource, to allow individuals, whether staff or visitors, to take five minutes out from a group dynamic if the main environment becomes overwhelming.

We encourage staff to be mindful of the different ways an autistic person may interact. They may find direct eye contact challenging, or they may need to pace the room or take a break during meetings in order to regulate themselves. We are working to ensure that every member of the Norwood family is fully supported, enabled and empowered to be the best they can be.

Naomi Dickson is CEO of Norwood

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