How arts organisations can become more neurodivergent-friendly


Ali stands in front of a black brick wall. Smiling and wearing glasses.

The next piece in Giverny Masso's series on neurodiversity in the arts comes from neurodivergent theatre maker, producer and comedian Ali Wilson. She founded Every Brain in 2021, a project to celebrate and support neurodiversity in the creative sector and support organisations across the country to improve their understanding of neurodiversity. She is also vice chair of the board at Contact Theatre in Manchester.

Giverny Masso is an arts journalist and the senior reporter at theatre newspaper The Stage. She is also a theatre maker, with her most recent project being a devised show as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Mental Health Company.

You can read the first blog post from this series here as well as a readers' reponse here followed by Adam Welsh on his neurodivergent talent agency.

Improving your creative environment to become more friendly to neurodivergent employees begins with wanting to do just that, and ends ... never. When I founded Every Brain in 2021, I set out to build a resource for creative organisations on how to do this. Almost two years on, the advice in Every Brain’s Galaxies of Neurons Firing guide is still a helpful tool for organisations. Best practice, however, is constantly evolving, and so should our approach to supporting and celebrating neurodiversity.

Reimagining how, where and when you ask your employees to work isn’t the radical throw-out of the rule book some might presume. It’s about making informed decisions that positively benefit employees for whom the traditional, inflexible model of Monday to Friday’s 9 to 5 in an office - or whatever that may look like for those working on a theatre production - doesn’t suit. In a broader sense, it’s about celebrating the fact that your employees are unique, and will each offer individual contributions to your collective mission. And do you know what else? It’s also the right thing to do. People deserve to be seen, heard and warmly invited to work in whatever way matches them best.

That’s my corporate-ish pitch to you. Now, for the practical talk.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term encompassing many different experiences, and for each neurodivergent person, the answer to the question ‘how can we adapt our process to better match with you?’ will be unique. When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. However, there are some broader concepts that can nurture a creative environment that empowers people, and (crucially) helps alleviate the anxiety that asking for changes can bring:

Talk about neurodiversity: how does it connect to your collective mission? Where, when and how do you engage with it? Bring neurodiversity into the language of your creative workplace.
Remember your audiences, performers and participants. It’s not just your salaried employees who might be neurodivergent. The work you do to improve your creative working environment will surely benefit others who come into your workspace too.
Celebrate artists and creatives in your field of work who are neurodivergent. Commission them, share their work, tell your colleagues and peers about them.
Share your (insert ‘working with neurodiversity policy’ here) with your team. If you don’t have a policy around neurodiversity, write one. Collaborate with your team, gather their input, ask your board. Do you have a community-programming group? A local reviewer? People who frequently use your building? Regular audience members? A young company? Pay all of them for their input, and create a policy that proactively celebrates neurodiversity.
Invest in training. You’ll never do enough training. (See Every Brain’s Introduction to Neurodiversity, Starling’s neurodiversity training, Touretteshero’s Relaxed Approaches to Making Performance training and more. Sign up to the ArtsAdmin Anchor for regular links to training opportunities in the creative sector).

Invite neurodivergent team members to share their experiences, if they want to. They could host a roundtable, make a short show, build a presentation or write a comic strip about their experience on your team.
Build an access conversation into the one-to-ones with every member of your staff. Ask them what they need. Be transparent about what you can and can’t make happen, and remain open minded. A team member might use a purple light at home that they’re struggling without at work. If your office space isn’t suitable for a purple light, can this team member work in the main performance space when it’s free with a purple gel lighting up the space?
Be open to people saying ‘no thanks’ to the free ticket offers and late-night events. People get tired. Working can be hard. Refuelling for the next day is vital and everyone does it differently. Try not to be upset if your team members need to switch off.

Crucially, when it comes to neurodiversity, let your neurodivergent employees lead you. What we know about neurodiversity is evolving. This means, the kind of support that is useful to the neurodivergent community will also evolve. Let them tell you what they need. They’re the experts.

The key to all of this is to be open and transparent. No one will build a perfect work environment at the click of a button, but invest in practical and cultural changes and watch how things shift. This is about innovation, the joy of finding different and interesting ways to connect with people, and opportunities to build a future that works for us all. Equity, baby.

Are you part of your company's policy to make to access for neurodivergent colleagues easier, what kind of things have you implemented to help? Have you experienced and benefited from these measures first hand or have you been subject to 'one size fits all' support that has hindered your working style? We'd be really interested to hear your experiences so please do get in touch.

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