Blog post

Supporting neurodivergent colleagues in the NHS

As part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week 21-27 March 2022, Benjamin Ford discusses the importance of supporting neurodivergent colleagues in the NHS

16 March 2022


  • Benjamin Ford
    Benjamin Ford Neurodivergent Cognitive Behavioural Therapist

Benjamin Ford is a neurodivergent cognitive behavioural therapist for a primary care mental health service (IAPT) in the Midlands and has lived experience of autism. In this blog he highlights the progress and barriers for those that have neurodiverse conditions such as learning disabilities, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, Down‘s syndrome and many more.

Autism and my family

My neurodivergent journey began nearly 24 years ago with the birth of my first child.  I knew nothing of autism then but, observation of his differences changed my life forever. Fast forward some 16 years and my eyes had been opened to a very different world. I experienced first-hand the challenges of a parent trying to get a diagnosis for their child. I had also learned enough to recognise my own autistic traits and sought a diagnosis at 53.

That confirmation of my neurodivergent status spurred me on to challenging what I perceived as the appalling lack of recognition of and support for autistic people in mental health services. It felt quite lonely at the time, I was relatively new to the NHS after nearly 30 years in the civil service and had no background in mental health.

Seeking support from my employer

Gradually I made connections with people who would listen and could help me. I found firm support and a good friend with my trust’s equality and diversity lead. I found colleagues in my service were starting to talk to me about autism, not only in connection with their clients but, increasingly, about their personal and family experiences. I was no longer alone!

“With the help of the head of nursing I was able to get my trust to accept the need for an autism strategy.”

Taking strategic action

I was an inaugural member of the trust’s Autism Strategy group, I became the first chair of the newly created Neurodiversity Staff Network group and was recruited onto the trust’s inclusion council.

By mid-2020 my knowledge of autism had expanded greatly. My second son was also diagnosed as autistic. My service colleagues were extremely supportive and hungry for information about neurodiversity. It was all going well however, I was greatly troubled by what I recognised as a lack of any identifiable change for those that we served – our clients/patients.

“Myths and outdated thinking about neurodivergence is still prevalent in the NHS and staff and patients suffer as a consequence.”

Tenacity can be a strong feature of autistic people and I wasn’t going to give up. I become a member of the Midlands Learning Disability and Autism Strategy Work Stream and I also accepted position as co-chair of the Expert by Experience group. The work we have done with the work stream and the connections we have made has been inspirational. We still have a long way to go for observable improvements and services fit to meet neurodivergent needs but, I sense a change in attitudes, and I am optimistic.

Differently Abled Buddy Scheme

Last year I proposed a buddy system for neurodivergent and disabled staff joining our trust and we have just started a 12-month trial for new recruits known as the Differently Abled Buddy Scheme. This pilot project has been funded through the NHS England and NHS Improvement WDES Innovation Fund (staff retention award). 

The scheme seeks to support new staff joining the organisation with disability, long term health conditions or neurodiversity, and pairing them up with a ‘buddy’ who also identifies as differently abled and who is an established member of the organisation.  

The scheme will focus on supporting individuals to:

  • settle into their role and the organisation as quickly and effectively as possible through provision of informal and friendly one to one buddy support
  • more confidently discuss individual needs and preferences in relation to ways of working with their line manager, using the Health Passport as a basis for discussion
  • feel supported to seek and gain appropriate reasonable adjustments
  • navigate the Access to Work process where appropriate
  • link in with other support in the trust, including our staff networks.

Supportive allies makes a huge difference

Many colleagues do not feel able to be open about their neurodivergent status.

Building and maintaining confidence for neurodivergent people is really important.  We have a great deal to offer and we will be an important factor in developing services for neurodivergent patients as the national autism strategy is implemented.

Having supportive allies has made a huge difference to my experience in the NHS, without them I would not be able to raise the profile of autism and neurodiversity, and for that I am very grateful. I wish that this was every neurodivergent employee and patient’s experience.

What can you do?

You may or may not be aware that you are interacting with neurodivergent people on a daily basis but, I can assure you that you are. Some of them are your work colleagues, many of whom choose to remain hidden for fear of the consequences of being known to be autistic/neurodivergent. 

I encourage you to learn about the broad range of neurodiverse conditions, so that you can support those that need it, and create an environment in which your neurodivergent colleagues feel able to be out and proud like me.