For lots of people, neurodivergence falls outside the realm of their personal experience. None of their friends or relations experience ADHD or autism, for example, and they don’t have any neurodivergent colleagues, either.
Well – not that they know of. And this is a crucial point: in unsupportive, low-awareness environments, many staff wouldn’t have a clue that they are working beside neurodivergent people anyway, as the latter would be straining every sinew to conceal their true selves – often terrified of being open about who they are, and suffering in painful silence.
So, when leaders and managers are faced with the prospect of having to work alongside an openly neurodivergent recruit, their first reaction is one of panic: “Oh, gosh – what do I do now?!” That, in turn, leads to one of two responses.
One is complete avoidance, along the lines of, “Well – this person’s fine… why are they coming to me now and pestering me with all these personal concerns?”
The other is well meaning, but similarly misjudged: the leader attempts to make relevant provisions, but does so on the basis of their own preconceptions – rather than by asking the member of staff what they actually need. So, the response comes not from understanding reality, but from stereotypes and – forgive my bluntness – ignorance.
A priority area?
According to a recent report from technology training provider Sparta Global, 79% of employers have taken zero steps to accommodate people with neurodiverse characteristics. Meanwhile, 83% of neurodiverse workers report feeling anxious or fearful about having conversations with their employer regarding their neurodiversity.
Despite those alarming figures, 87% of organisations said that neurodiversity in the workplace will be a priority area for them this year. But that would require employers to close some serious knowledge gaps.
Some of the most common preconceptions and misconceptions come down to ineffective terminology. For example, so-called ADHD – or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – is not actually about a having a deficit of attention! It’s about having a complete inability to regulate it. Which means that you’re either 100%, all-in hyperfocusing on a task and totally forgetting to eat, drink or go to the loo – or you’re just staring at the computer screen for hours, thinking: ‘Where’s my mind gone – how come I can’t do the thing…?’
People often think of ADHD as quite outwardly disruptive, because it’s often used as (lazy) shorthand for challenging behaviour. But, let me tell you, it can be massively inwardly disruptive. For a hyperfocused ADHD individual who’s thoroughly immersed in an important project, the distraction of suddenly being asked to do something as mundane as filling in a timesheet can be ruinous – an extraordinarily difficult thing to grapple with.
Similarly, people with autism aren’t big on small talk. They’re into deeper, wider, more exploratory conversations. When most people are asked – by way of a daily icebreaker – how they are, the most common response is something like, “Not too bad.” But for someone with autism, “How are you?” is a hugely multi-layered question.
Masks and expectations
Those sorts of disparities between how neurotypical and neurodivergent people process and cope with the social and task-based aspects of work have spawned decidedly uncomfortable side-effects. One of them is masking, whereby neurodivergent people strive to speak and behave in ways they perceive will enable them to fit in more readily with their neurotypical peers – a veneer that requires every last drop of energy to maintain, and can therefore be incredibly draining.
Another is something called rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), which is not a recognised diagnosis in the UK, but is in other countries. Neurodivergent people experience RSD when they believe that they’ve failed to meet their own, or other people’s, expectations of them – and its onrush can feel like a catastrophic hit to the chest.
One situation in which a neurodivergent member of staff may show that they’re trying to control RSD is when they’re asked, with genuine concern, “What can I do for you – what do you need?” and they withdraw and say, “It’s okay… I’m fine,” because they don’t want the other person to perceive that they need help, or are somehow falling short of expectations.
Alongside those silent struggles, there’s another dimension to all this: some employees may be completely unaware that they are neurodivergent in the first place, as they have never been clinically diagnosed. All they know is that they routinely experience one or more of the following: BIG feelings, a deep sense of fear, cycles of burnout they can’t explain, chronically low self-esteem, guilt and shame stemming from a belief that they can’t do ‘easy’ things that other people can do and – last, but not least – difficulties with interpersonal relationships.
You – yes, you, reader – may have no idea that a colleague with whom you work very closely has this silent storm going on inside them, because on the surface they seem to be managing so well.
Thriving on challenges
None of which means that neurodivergent people should be regarded as somehow ‘less than,’ or broken. So many game changers in public life have ADHD or autism, or are bipolar, and are also incredibly creative – because on an intrinsic level, they think differently. And that difference is what leaders and organisations are missing when they fail to take appropriate steps to accommodate neurodivergent staff.
We’re tremendous problem solvers. We’re superb crisis managers. We thrive when we’re given big, chaotic, challenging pieces of work to do that we can frame or turn in a different way, and perhaps see opportunities, solutions or ways forward that our neurotypical peers haven’t considered. It’s the monotony of things like timesheets that confounds us!
From a stereotypical perspective, autism is often associated with a sort of in-built geekiness for subjects such as physics and maths – but I can say from my own experience of work that my maths is operations management. I’ve always had an ability to walk into a room where people are puzzling over a complex scenario and say, “Oh – there’s the problem,” and people go, “How did you do that?” and I say, “I don’t know.”
In the workplace, people’s confidence in their team often comes from being able to ‘see the working’ in colleagues’ thought processes. So, when neurodivergent people come along and just spot things, that can be a bit of a curveball. But the important thing to bear in mind is that none of that facility stems from ego. When it comes to problem solving, neurodivergent people are not interested in being right, for our own satisfaction, or to one-up workplace rivals. We simply want the solution to the problem in front of us to be right.
In relation to that, we also have a massive moral compass. We’re extremely passionate about the line between right and wrong – and if you try to interfere with the needle on that compass, you’re going to have a very unhappy person on your hands.
One way I like to picture the contrast between neurotypical and neurodivergent mindsets is that they’re like different operating systems. In technology, we have iOS and Android. Both systems are absolutely fine, and make valuable contributions to how our devices work. But one does not function the same way as the other. They may have different tolerances for memory overload. One may burn through its battery charge more quickly. Some apps work only on iOS, and others only on Android – and if you try to cross-pollinate them without making a few, bespoke tweaks, you may run into technical hitches.
If we think about how leaders approach neurotypical and neurodivergent staff, it’s clear that most of them are familiar with only one operating system. So, it’s important for them to seek out specialist training and advice that will help them widen their knowledge base. It’s also important to ask neurodivergent staff about their workplace experiences. Some may prefer to talk about them in private – others may have no problem with being disarmingly open in group discussions.
But overall, I don’t see this as a ‘neurodiversity thing,’ so much as a ‘helping your workforce in its entirety thing.’ Leaders must have a toolkit they access when anyone comes along and says that they’re struggling. It has to be a whole-staff solution that accounts for difference. While neurodiverse staff may require leaders to make certain adjustments, those tweaks will often be quite minimal – yet could be life-changing for those who experience them.
At the end of the training sessions I facilitate, I’m often faced with managers rattling off a list of things they “can’t change” for neurodivergent people. But the reality is that whatever you change for a neurodiverse mind will impact all minds – and for the better.
Neurodiverse minds require clear, effective communication, zero ambiguity, freedom of thought within a guiding framework, fairness, respect, compassion and a strengths-based approach to management. Now, tell me – which organisation wouldn’t hugely benefit from all those qualities?