Let me introduce you to two members of staff. They’re not real people, but the chances are they’ll remind you of someone you know at work.

Luke works in the computer department of a bank. He is bright and a real whizz when it comes to trouble-shooting and solving technical problems. Despite his value to the organisation, his colleagues tend to regard him as a bit of an outcast – a geek, who doesn’t really fit in. He dresses oddly, in clothes that are functional rather than fashionable. He is obsessed with certain things, like computers, but has little awareness of other aspects of popular culture. It is hard to have a conversation with him as he doesn’t seem to obey the normal conversational rules. He is very routine-driven and gets irritated if meetings or venues are changed.

Charlie works in PR and is a popular member of the team that he joined six months ago. He is full of ideas and his enthusiasm is infectious. However, there are areas that are causing concern to his line manager. He is always late for work or for meetings. He is disorganised and invariably forgets to bring important documents along. Meeting deadlines is a major problem – while he is very good at the ideas stage, getting him to actually follow things through to their conclusion is very hard. He never keeps still, is always fiddling with things or tapping his legs, which is awkward because he gives the impression that he is bored. He is very sociable, but often blurts things out without thinking and interrupts rather a lot.

You might have realised, Luke and Charlie each have a hidden disability. It’s not immediately obvious from initial contact, and yet it can cause them more problems in the workplace as time goes by. Luke has Autistic Spectrum Disorder Syndrome (ASD) while Charlie has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Most workplaces will have a Luke or a Charlie, or someone who seems a bit ‘odd’ but who really has what, in the educational arena, is termed ‘special needs’.

According to the TUC, there are 113,084 workers in the UK with ASD (around a third of those of working age with the condition).1 The challenge for organisations is to know how to deal with, and get the best out of, employees with special needs or hidden disabilities.

This can be particularly challenging, given that employees with hidden disabilities may choose not to disclose them to their employer for fear of discrimination (either at the interview stage or later on). Furthermore, a great many do not even know that they have them. While diagnosis of conditions like ASD, ADHD and dyslexia is more common now at school (due to increasing awareness), many employees will have been at school before assessment and diagnosis were widespread. They may have gone through their entire education knowing that they were different in some way, but not understanding why. Employers need to be aware that even if they suspect a hidden disability, great sensitivity is required as they may be alerting an employee to an undiagnosed condition.

Hidden disabilities can include a wide range of medical and mental health conditions such as hearing or visual impairments, depression, sickle cell condition or renal failure. However, my focus is on those conditions that cause neurological impairment in otherwise ‘normal’ individuals. The most common of these conditions that managers are likely to come across include dyslexia, ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. All of these tend to attract some degree of special help nowadays in schools, but once young people have left full-time education, there is far less awareness of the need for accommodating their conditions – even though their disabilities are lifelong.

Workplaces can and should make reasonable adaptations to help get the most out of an employee, despite their difficulties. For example, if a manager is aware that a team member is dyslexic, they might supply screen-reading software or speech-to-text software or adapt computers with anti-glare covers, or coloured backgrounds on Word documents. Adaptations for people with ADHD can include providing workplaces that are as free from distractions as possible (if not a private office, then the quietest cubicle possible) or allowing use of white noise (eg a fan or earphones) which can help minimise distractions. Employees with ASD can be helped by providing a quiet workspace where possible, especially one where they can be a little more isolated from office chit-chat, which can feel bewildering, and by assigning a buddy or mentor to help with social situations in particular (answering questions, or even explaining hidden nuances when other people talk).

Employees with hidden disabilities can add value to the workplace but may need some help to harness their skill base. The wise manager will be eager to provide this support rather than lose the knowledge, expertise and skills of any member of their team.

Dr Sandi Mann is Senior Lecturer in Occupational Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire and Director of The MindTraining Clinic. She is author of several psychology self-help books including Manage Your Anger and Overcoming Phobias and Panic Attacks (both Hodder and Stoughton).


1 Booth J. Autism in the workplace. [Online.] https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/autism.pdf (accessed 4 June 2015).

Useful resources

The British Dyslexia Association
AADD-UK (Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder)
National Autistic Society