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How Big is Your Umbrella? - March 2024

Updated: Jun 4

With Neurodiversity Celebration Week coming up on 18-24th March, let’s take this opportunity to reflect on not only how we create inclusive school cultures for children, but also for our neurodivergent staff.

Under the Equalities Act of 2010 employers are required to make reasonable adjustments for neurodivergent staff but “If you’re truly committed to inclusion then you should be looking at how you attract, recruit, retain and develop neurodiverse talent within your organisation, not out of compliance, but because of the benefits it brings to your workplace and overall performance as an organisation.” (Adrian Ward, Business Disability Forum).

The Autistic School Staff Project (ASSP), led by Dr Rebecca Wood, recently published their research in Learning From Autistic Teachers. Sadly, a third of the staff surveyed had already decided to leave the profession. Those remaining cited many examples of burnout, both at the end of each day, but also meltdowns on site, leading to further distress and extended time off sick.

As compassionate colleagues, I offer you this month’s reflection piece to consider more fully how you can be part of creating a truly inclusive working environment where everyone can thrive.

As ambitious leaders, I offer you this prompt to focus on the fact that across the country, we are missing a valuable opportunity to harness an array of talent which, given the current recruitment and retention crisis, is an attrition channel worth investigating.

For generations, neurodivergent people have been held in a place of responsibility to communicate their needs and to change their natural ways of thinking and behaving to fit societal and workplace norms. Society has not understood them, and so encouraged them to change.

‘Double-Empathy Theory’ outlines how whilst neurodivergent people can often struggle to understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of neurotypical people, the converse is also true. So how can we all stand underneath the umbrella together, comfortably leaning into each other’s strengths, and supporting each other’s challenges?

In this podcast, the point is well made that alongside individualised adjustments, much can be done systemically, and culturally, to create an inclusive workplace.

One such strategy shared in Dr Wood’s book is having access to regular, non-judgemental 1:1s with a designated supportive colleague or mentor. “There was no attempt to ‘fix’ me. My autistic identity was accepted and I certainly did not feel that I needed to mask my autistic traits.”

Another contributor describes her positive experience of being invited to complete an “All About Me” profile during induction. The welcoming approach enabled a safe disclosure of her diagnosis.

Several others describe their positive experiences post-disclosure including a feeling of psychological safety to express their needs, being valued, being happier and more successful in their role and having more energy at home.

“Nothing about us without us” – the principle of full participation of disabled, minority and marginalised communities in any decisions which affect them.

Mental Health England has initiated ‘My Whole Self Day’ on Tuesday 12th March. Their free webinar aims to encourage individuals and organisations to cultivate systemically inclusive workplaces because the benefits to mental health are so powerful. Webinar Registration - Zoom

Pink & Emery, in their accessibly light read about ADHD, ‘Dirty Laundry’, addresses the fact that many people feel a sense of shame about their traits, hence the common practice of masking them, which then often leads to burnout or unhealthy coping strategies. Many of our neurodivergent colleagues may be undiagnosed: some may be completely unaware and frustrated, others may be struggling to come to terms with their emerging awareness. Whether diagnosed or not, to truly thrive, Pink & Emery state that individuals need to:

  • Stop believing they are fundamentally broken

  • Stop judging themselves by the standards of a neurotypical world

  • Communicate their struggles to those who love and care for them

So how far does your school’s love and care for them reach? How big is your umbrella?

I couldn’t write this article without mentioning my Year 9 daughter, Katelyn, who was diagnosed with autism last year. Even before then, she had set-up The Umbrella Club at her school, for any student preferring to spend lunchtime in a calm environment, celebrating differences in the way people think, communicate and behave. She’s created an interactive website and has delivered two whole school assemblies. If she, as a single autistic teenager, can do this for her peers, surely as a group of diverse adults, we can facilitate something similarly inclusive for ours?

Neurodiversity Celebration Week provides the perfect opportunity to start positive conversations about the strengths we recognise in our colleagues. People with autism often have unique specialist interests and a deep subject knowledge; are organised and reliable, taking energy from highly structured routines and clear expectations; manage interactions through learned scripts which can bring consistency to conversations around behaviour and learning; provide honest and direct feedback. ADHD colleagues often bring vision and innovation, creative flair, a love of challenge, risk-taking and adventure, are highly engaged in the moment and cope well with unpredictability.

In addition, neurodivergent adults are often deeply motivated to support children with different minds; they can be strong advocates and role-models for both children and their parents. In 2017, an APPGA survey found less than 50% teachers in England felt confident about supporting a child with ASD. Harnessing these highly valuable skills and interests benefits our whole community.

So, a few moments to reflect on your own context, perhaps?

  • What is already being done to encourage colleagues to talk about their neurodivergence?

  • What else could YOU do to encourage conversation about this across all staff?

  • What specific benefits could this bring to your school?

PURE coaching can of course be a valuable and safe space for any person to reflect on the personal benefits and challenges of their own neurodivergence, or to give thinking time to whole-school approaches. Please reach out if you’d like to know more.

Warmest (& driest) wishes to all


Leadership Edge is a growing team of experienced school leaders who have seen person-centred coaching create high-performing, happy and healthy cultures within our schools. Our mission is to empower other school leaders to create positive workplaces where staff are solution-focused and actively responsible for their own personal wellbeing and professional development.

Our 3-Tier Coaching Accreditation Programme is low-cost and self-sustaining, providing a systematic and structured model for staff across your school to become powerful coaches for each other, enhancing colleague relationships and their feeling of being valued as an individual within a supportive school community.

Connect with us: Twitter/X @EdgeSchools | Linked In: Leadership Edge – Coaching in Schools

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