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Social Work Week 2024: Empowering neurodiversity at work

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Published on 19 March 2024

Zeta Bikova, Senior Lecturer in Childhood, Health and Society Studies (left) and Dr Lesley Deacon, Senior Lecturer in Social Work
Zeta Bikova, Senior Lecturer in Childhood, Health and Society Studies (left) and Dr Lesley Deacon, Senior Lecturer in Social Work

A workshop led by two University of Sunderland academics aimed at empowering neurodivergent people in the workplace is being held as part of Social Work Week (Monday 18 March – Friday 22 March).

The workshop is a collaboration between two neurodivergent academic-based practitioner researchers from the University, Dr Lesley Deacon and Zeta Bikova, and two social work practitioners from Durham County Council, Deborah Cruddace and Shelley Gill. 

Through a mix of group tasks, research and personal testimonies, the online workshop will explore the differences between neurodiversity, neurodivergent and neurotypical and help businesses better understand neurodivergent conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD and autism, so they can put in place the right management styles and practices that can empower all staff. 

Dr Lesley Deacon, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland, said: “The workshop takes a positive approach in which difference is valued and normalised.

“We come from the perspective that if spaces are ‘neuro-comfortable’, then everyone can flourish. This means we acknowledge that we are all neurodiverse and have different learning styles and preferences. In acknowledging this and adopting strategies of universal design, to embrace different neurotypes means that, rather than drawing attention to difference and ‘additional needs’ we celebrate the diversity in neurotypes. So, those who are neurodivergent don’t have the pressure to be the ones having to draw attention to themselves to request adjustments. Instead, differences have already been considered. 

“This is important as many people can be diagnosed later in life, as I was. I would never have known to ask for adjustments, so this highlights a flaw in the current system. Embracing concepts such as universal design in creating neuro-comfortable spaces is a way to address this.” 

Dr Deacon became involved in the workshop after Shelley Gill, Service Improvement Manager / Interim Principal Social Worker at Durham Children’s Social Care, contacted her about the need for training around neurodiversity. 

Being open about being autistic herself, Dr Deacon always wanted to champion increased knowledge about how much misconception there can be around autism. Then having worked for a number of years exploring adults’ experiences of dyslexia, Dr Deacon felt that neurodiversity studies is the next natural step.  

In February 2023, she prepared and delivered the first neurodiversity workshop for Durham Children’s Social Care Leadership Academy programme.

The workshop has also been delivered to Practice Educators at the charity Together for Children on behalf of Sunderland City Council.

Dr Deacon brought Senior Lecturer in Childhood, Health and Society Studies at the University, Zeta Bikova, on board to share her own experiences of being neurodivergent and a parent-carer.

“It wasn’t just about me,” Dr Deacon explained. 

“A thing about being neurodivergent is that whilst we share similarities, we are also very different, and it helps to hear about different experiences. The workshops gave us the opportunities to share previous research findings along, our knowledge of neurodiversity, and our lived experience of being neurodivergent.”

Zeta said: “The workshop is extremely beneficial for professionals from all backgrounds because it gives them the knowledge and expertise to be able to work and understand people with neurodivergence. I believe that learning about this topic is important because historically, neurodivergent individuals have often faced stigma, discrimination, and misunderstanding. 

“We now live in a society where unfair treatment directed against certain individuals or social groups should be prevented. This workshop aims to give you the skills and confidence to help you understand this topic better and discusses real life experiences.”

This week also marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which aims to bring about worldwide neurodiversity acceptance, equality and inclusion in schools and workplaces. 

Shelley Gill said: “The workshop has received wonderful feedback from participants. To champion the voices of social workers, managers and academics with lived experience inevitably brings some vulnerability to this particular learning space, but this is achieved with compassion, empathy and humour. 

“I look forward to working with the University of Sunderland in the future as the feedback has been unanimously positive.”

The workshop – Neurodiversity workshops: facilitating and creating neuro-comfortable spaces through research, knowledge and lived experience has been running since October 2023, and has proved popular amongst social workers and practitioners. So much so, places for this week’s workshop sold out in less than a week. 

For more information on how to book a bespoke online or in-person workshop within the north-east, North Yorkshire and Cumbria (plus costing information), email lesley.deacon@sunderland.ac.uk 

Find out more about the University of Sunderland’s Social Work degree / PGDip Social Work degree apprenticeship / Community and Youth Work degree apprenticeship 

The University of Sunderland is holding a free online event on April 17 about career opportunities for Community and Youth Workers. For more information or to register, visit https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/858813683847?aff=oddtdtcreator