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Neurodiversity at Work
by
Posted On July 18, 2023
My colleague Emma (not her real name) waved my 10-page requirements document at me and said, “This is just wrong!” I was taken aback by the strength of her response and asked her to elaborate. Emma explained that the feature on page 7 I had been telling her about was descoped 2 months ago and was no longer relevant. She was right. I corrected the document accordingly. I worked closely with Emma for 3 more years, and she was always passionate, enthusiastic, and efficient in her work. I couldn’t put my finger on why the relationship between us felt tense. There was some distance, some friction that I didn’t quite understand.

It was only when Emma moved on to a different job that I found out that she had ADHD. This information shone a new light on our interactions at work. When Emma interrupted others or skipped through the niceties of small talk, it was simply because her mind was racing ahead much faster than the minds of those around her. I wish I had known about Emma’s neurodiversity earlier and didn’t assume her to be disrespectful or impatient when she was simply being herself. If I had known about Emma’s ADHD, we could have had a closer, more rewarding relationship because I could have done more to be a good colleague.

HIDDEN DISABILITY

Have you ever thought about how many neurodivergent colleagues you’re currently working with? Do you know anyone who is openly autistic or dyslexic or has ADHD? If you do, do you know how to support them? With more than 15% of the world’s population estimated to be neurodiverse, this is not a conversation that employers can afford to overlook.

Physical differences are easier to see and understand. We respect and take notice of parking spaces for disabled drivers, ramps for wheelchair users, and standing desks for employees with back problems. However, differences in how our brains function are hidden, and if we don’t talk about them, they remain invisible, causing unnecessary stress, misunderstandings, and a loss of productivity.

DO YOU KNOW?

There are a number of things that neurodiverse people would like their colleagues to understand. Here are some examples in relation to autism:

  • High-functioning autism refers to the ability to speak, to read and write, and to perform basic life skills. It does not refer to a level of struggle that the individual is experiencing and does not equate to mild symptoms.
  • Being on the spectrum refers to a variety of challenges that autistic people face. Some of these challenges are more severe and others less so. A person either meets the diagnostic criteria for autism or they don’t. If they don’t meet the diagnostic criteria, they are not autistic and not on the spectrum.
  • Masking means following a step-by-step formula that is known to work in social settings. For example, an autistic person can make a point of forcing eye contact during a job interview, because they have learned that this is expected behavior and that it increases the chances of a successful outcome. Chronic masking is exhausting and damaging. It increases the risk of depression and anxiety, and it delays the diagnosis of autism. Women can be particularly good at masking, and for this reason, often get diagnosed later in life. Fern Brady, a famous Scottish comedian, was diagnosed at age 35.

Here are some facts about ADHD:

  • ADHD affects people of all ages, not just children.
  • ADHD is an unfortunate abbreviation that doesn’t describe the condition—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—very well. It’s not so much about an attention deficit as it is about attention inconsistency, which manifests with periods of inattention along with periods of intense hyperfocus, as well as significant challenges associated with emotional regulation. The hyperactivity element may or may not be present at all; some people may be physically hyperactive, but many are daydreamers. Hyperactivity is less common in adults with ADHD than in children.
  • Running late is common for people with ADHD and is known as “time blindness.” It does not occur due to lack of effort or lack of respect for others.

Here are some facts about dyslexia:

  • Persistent spelling mistakes that dyslexic people make are not a sign of lower intelligence. Jamie Oliver, the famous British chef and a prolific author, recorded his books to work around his difficulties with writing.
  • Some dyslexia symptoms—such as difficulty remembering past conversations or names—may come across as a lack of motivation or care, but this is not usually the case.

BEING OPEN

Disclosing neurodiversity can be difficult and, frankly, terrifying. Saying “I am autistic” or “I have ADHD” can be misunderstood. Managers and colleagues who know little about these conditions may focus their efforts on encouraging neurodivergent staff to better fit in, to suppress their symptoms, and to copy social skills from their colleagues. This approach is not only counterproductive, but also damaging. In the worst-case scenario, sharing information about a diagnosis can lead to reduced career prospects and discrimination.

However, not disclosing neurodiversity is fraught with risks too. Burnout, exhaustion, and conflict resulting from the condition itself can result in neurodivergent people underperforming and facing serious problems at work. While revealing a diagnosis is not easy, with the right support, it can improve the working environment for everyone. Leaders have an important role to play in creating and nurturing a safe space in which sensitive conversations can occur. These conversations are important for everyone. They can be particularly transformative for those employees who are at the beginning of their journey of self-discovery and who are still finding the right language to express their neurodiversity to others. For example, Bella Ramsey, a 19-year-old British actor, found out that they are neurodivergent during the filming of The Last of Us. It was important to them that they were supported, accepted, and understood on set. Everyone, everywhere, deserves to feel the same.

REASONABLE ADJUSTMENTS

Some things that can help neurodiverse people at work are:

  • Acceptance
  • Extra time to process information
  • Extra clarity (clear goals, actions, and outcomes; giving verbal and written instructions)
  • Frequent feedback
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Positivity

One of the most powerful ways to support people is to ask—rather than assume—what helps them. To some degree, all jobs are curated by the employees themselves. It’s only what they choose and agree to do willingly that will have a lasting impact on employers’ objectives. They are the ultimate experts in what helps and doesn’t help them to be the best version of themselves.

CONCLUSION

Inclusive work practices benefit everyone. Having a team with a variety of perspectives and characteristics from both neurodivergent and neurotypical employees is an advantage. Diverse teams foster innovation and creativity and increase team morale. More and more, employers are tapping into the huge opportunities that these uniquely talented people bring to the workplace.


LINKS TO THE SOURCES

Forbes: “Neurodiversity as a Strengthening Point for Your Team and Our Society

Strong Female Character by Fern Brady

Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping With Attention Deficit Disorder From Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey

BBC News: “Jamie Oliver: I Recorded My Books to Avoid Writing

Elle: “Bella Ramsey, Star of The Last of Us, Wants Much More Than Survival

Financial Times: “The Benefits of Revealing Neurodiversity in the Workplace” (subscription required)

Deloitte Insights: “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Creating a Better Work Environment for All by Embracing Neurodiversity

CIPD: Neurodiversity at Work


Marianne Kay (mariannekay.com) is a digital leader, author, speaker, and mentor who works on digital projects in large, complex organizations. Her areas of expertise are digital transformation, agile, leadership, mobile apps, and WCM. Kay currently works as an IT delivery lead at Yorkshire Building Society in the U.K.

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