How dental practices can best support neurodiversity

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how dental practices can best support neurodiversity
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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As people, we’re all different. Here’s how practices can best support neurodiversity and create more inclusive workplaces. By Angela Tufvesson

As modern workplaces embrace diversity of gender, age, race and sexual orientation, one characteristic that has long been overlooked is finally gaining recognition: diversity of thought. There’s growing awareness that embracing neurodiversity—the idea that everyone’s brain develops in a unique way—is good for employees and businesses. 

“We’re far more aware that people around us may identify as being neurodivergent, and there’s been a tangible shift away from the negative lens it has been viewed through in the past,” says Chris Turner, principal consultant at Neuro Advantage, which provides neurodiversity awareness and inclusion training for businesses.

With dentists becoming more experienced in treating diverse and special needs patient populations, so too can practices embrace the valuable perspective that neurodivergent employees can bring to the workplace. 

Thinking outside the box

It’s estimated that up to 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s population exhibit some form of neurodivergence, where the brain functions differently to what is considered neurotypical. 

People with neurodevelopmental conditions like autism, ADHD and dyslexia have historically faced greater challenges securing employment and thriving in workplaces largely managed and staffed by neurotypical people. But a growing body of research shows neurodiverse teams enjoy higher morale and can be more productive. 

Turner says one of the biggest benefits for practices of employing a neurodiverse team is simple: “variety of thought. Having people who think about things a bit differently might help you set up new processes in your practice or figure out a better way to operate your computer system. Having someone who tackles things in a different way could be a fantastic way to engage your clients.”

Somebody who is neurodivergent naturally fits into this approach. They can express their own preferences, and it’s not about them being different—it’s just about them having their own preferences.

Dr Tom Tutton, executive manager, Autism Spectrum Australia

Dr Tom Tutton, executive manager at Autism Spectrum Australia, says employing people who think a little differently to the norm can help practices better solve problems. “Neurodiversity is a healthy sign of biodiversity—we are as human beings stronger if we have different kinds of brains.”

What’s more, he says, neurodivergent employees who are well supported are often passionate, driven and loyal. “Not only will you potentially get an edge in terms of problem-solving, you can get a really loyal and reliable employee.”

Sensory, scheduling and social hurdles

Neurodivergent people are more likely to experience sensory challenges that can be exacerbated by the workplace. In dental practices, bright lights, the requirement to wear a uniform, noisy equipment and chemical smells are potential sources of irritation. “It’s the full gamut of sensory challenges that might be experienced in a dental practice,” Dr Tutton says.

If practical, dimming lighting, offering alternative uniform styles and fabrics, and exploring quieter types of equipment can help. But in many cases, helping staff understand what to expect when they’re on the job, in much the same way as you’d prepare a patient for treatment, can help to mitigate the effects of sensory challenges.

“A lot of sensory challenges are due to surprise—people don’t know things are going to happen, then they experience discomfort,” Dr Tutton says. “Making sure people know in advance what’s going to happen in the course of their work gives them space to prepare for it, or schedule a break afterwards that helps them manage it.”

Putting predictable routines and schedules in place can also help people stay organised at work. “Some people may struggle to maintain focus and attention, so setting things up in a way that’s visual, obvious and routine-based can help with that,” Turner says. 

Having people who think about things a bit differently might help you set up new processes in your practice or figure out a better way to operate your computer system.

Chris Turner, principal consultant, Neuro Advantage

For others, he says, regularly changing things up can boost performance and productivity. “Some people, particularly those with ADHD, thrive in an environment that’s not static where there’s different things to be done across a day, rather than doing the same thing over and over, which can be really difficult,” Turner says.

When it comes to communication and team cohesion, Dr Tutton says it’s important to understand there can be a “mismatch in understanding” between neurodivergent and neurotypical people. Try to avoid viewing any issues through the lens of social deficit. 

“Be really clear about what the social expectations are and let people do things differently,” he says. “If somebody’s having a break, perhaps they prefer to read a book or play a game on their phone rather than have a chitchat about the weekend. Think about whether attendance at the Christmas party or other social events can be optional.”

Preference for inclusivity

Employees aren’t obliged to disclose to their employer that they are autistic or have ADHD—and, indeed, many people are unaware they may be neurodivergent. Plus, there’s no knowing when you may employ a neurodivergent person. So it’s crucial for practices to adopt an broad, inclusive approach that’s affirming for everyone, rather than devise policies or make changes for specific people. 

“One of the most common questions we get from organisations is: ‘We have an autistic person, so how do we share information about that person with everybody?’” Dr Tutton says. “The answer is that you probably shouldn’t do it that way. What we recommend is that as a group of people, everybody talks about their preferences at work.”

He says one of his “communication quirks” is preferring colleagues to send a text message before calling so he can prepare in advance. Other people may prefer to be alone at lunchtime, follow a particular system for client follow-ups or move around during meetings. 

“Somebody who is neurodivergent naturally fits into this approach,” Dr Tutton says. “They can express their own preferences, and it’s not about them being different—it’s just about them having their own preferences.” 

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