The importance of psychological safety for the neurodiverse


Think back to when you were learning to drive.  I know, I know for some of us that is a while ago, so if you are at that age, it may be easier to think instead about teaching a younger person to drive.  We’ve been doing this recently with our eldest son.  I say we, in reality, my husband has been the one willing to sit in the passenger seat whilst I act as the silent observer or coach.

After six months of weekly (expensive two-hour) lessons, we found ourselves stuck in a negative spiral.  Each week, he would come back from his driving lesson increasingly despondent and recounting only the things he had got wrong.  His instructor took to writing everything down and encouraging him to take a photo of the assessment so he could review his mistakes.  As many parents will admit, at first, we would say that it was just a bad week, then we started to rationalise the mistakes offering solutions, to eventually, jumping in the car and driving him along the route so we could demonstrate how things should be done and he could try it at his next lesson.  Sadly, none of it worked and as his instructor got more infuriated with him, so did his graphic descriptions of the damage he was going to do to other road users.  To stop him from throwing in the towel, we chose to step in.  But this wasn’t the first time we’d had to take over as you see, our son is neurodiverse.

Neurodiverse is a word that appears to be taking a leading role of late in the corporate world.  You may hear it explained by the conditions it captures, which include ADHD, Autism and Dyslexia to name a few of the well-known ones, but I prefer the wider description of using it to refer to anyone who’s brain works a little differently to the perceived norm.  It is great to see the big organisations recognising that by making small adjustments to their workplaces, they can gain access to an untapped pool of talent with some outstanding capabilities.  But our son, like so many others in this community, do not just need adjustments to the fixtures and fittings to achieve and thrive; they need a psychologically safe environment to work in.

Another current corporate buzz term which is defined as ‘a shared belief that it’s okay to take risks, to express ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes — all without fear of negative consequences’ or in short – being able to speak up without fear.  Again, a well-meaning movement but, difficulty in speaking up is probably the one thing that most neurodiverse individuals will have in common.  And this was exactly what had happened to our son in his driving lessons – he had become fearful of asking a question or checking something he wasn’t sure of with his instructor.  He chose to mask (another common neurodiverse trait) his behaviour by appearing overconfident and flippant when in fact, he was literally making life and death decisions based on incomplete knowledge and limited skills.

It is great to see the big organisations recognising that by making small adjustments to their workplaces, they can gain access to an untapped pool of talent with some outstanding capabilities

So what did we do, and more importantly, what can you do to provide that all important psychological safety for a member of the neurodiverse community joining your organisation, especially when they are learning something new?

  1. Recognise that a label does not determine how someone learns.

In the same way that not everyone fits neatly into a learning style, nor does a neurodiverse label mean that all people with that condition have the same needs.  The mistake the driving instructor made is that he wanted to label our son to help him to understand rather than taking the time to think about how best he could teach our boy – or even better, to ask someone who knew him well.   He decided he had some form of attention deficit disorder, and as such, made frequent references to it, which did nothing to help their relationship and create a psychologically safe learning environment for our son.

  1. What is it they say about assuming? It makes a fool out of you and me.

Another common neurodiverse trait is the inability to pick things up organically. Many people will know that members of the autistic community often have to be taught the link between facial expressions and how someone is feeling.  What many don’t appreciate is that the same thinking of using pictures, words and actions is used for neurodiverse individuals to learn processes as they do not always pick up individual steps naturally.  This was another failing of the instructor; he had taught steps one and two of approaching a roundabout (think steering and road placement) but then had moved on to step four and five (indication and accelerating out of the roundabout) assuming that our son would naturally pick up step three i.e., how to achieve an ‘appropriate speed’.   The result – some very uncomfortable rides until we stripped back the whole end-to-end process of using a roundabout into individual steps. We could then teach him a specific order and he used the process to approach a roundabout at a suitable safe speed each and every time.

  1. Observe, observe, observe.

People are often great at highlighting a neurodiverse person’s differences and even labelling them using their own limited knowledge, but they frequently do not use these observations of a neurodiverse person’s behaviours to their advantage.  When I sat in the back seat, I could immediately see our son was tense and this was being caused by his driving position.  We changed his position and his shoulders dropped, his hands moved further down the steering wheel, and he was able to achieve a better foot position over the clutch which resulted in a welcomed smoother ride for his passengers.  Even when a neurodiverse person masks their behaviour, they still ‘leak’ signals that are easy to pick up on if you take the time to learn what to look for.

One of the biggest signals is that they will be the ones who are sitting quietly not asking questions.   They will look like they are engaged (masking) but inside they will be in turmoil – trying to unpack in their minds about what they learned ten minutes ago whilst missing what is currently being taught.  All the time their anxiety will be building as they focus on how they are going to get the session notes so that they can start again and piece it all together in their own time, and calculate how they are going to be able to put it into practice.  To the skilled observer, they will recognise their disengagement not as arrogance or lack of interest, but as being overwhelmed.

When this happens, steps need to be taken to re-engage the learner.   After I pointed some of this out to the instructor, he did take some time out with our son to chat to him about what they could do to make it better but, sadly the conversation never continued past one lesson and any progress was quickly lost.

  1. It is actions that count, not words.

Finally, whilst intentions are great, action is what brings about change and consistent action means that change endures.  For a neurodiverse individual to thrive, their environment needs to be stable and predictable.   A psychologically safe environment means that the reaction they receive should be the same, irrespective of what they say or how they say it.   This takes time and effort to create and maintain, especially when experiencing times of stress and time pressure.  The instructor would often talk our son through the required changes he needed to see at the beginning of a lesson.  Our son knew he had to change but didn’t know how and more importantly, didn’t feel that he could ask or when he asked, was told ‘you should know this by now’.

And so back to our son, he is turning into a great driver – in our view.  If he does pass his looming practical test, we are confident he will be a safe and courteous road user.  We have been able to, yet again, unravel a teachers’ failings, pick our child up off the floor emotionally and put him back on the pathway to success.  I say again as we have done this many times in his school life, starting with teaching him what numbers represented by using dice and blocks, as his teachers had assumed this step at aged four and a half was already mastered.  So, whilst I think the movement to be more inclusive of the neurodiverse population is superb, let’s make sure our focus is on creating the right psychologically safe environment as well as the physical one.


About Author

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As an experienced and professional Consultant and Training Professional, I have had the privilege of working across a wide range of companies and business areas predominately in the Financial Services sector. Wherever I am and whatever job role I am undertaking on behalf of a client, you will always find me influencing and driving others to produce results.

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