October marks ADHD awareness month. I wanted to take the opportunity to explore neurodiversity, a topic that’s close to my heart, and share with you some of my thoughts and experiences and how employers can look to support their neurodivergent employees.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
– Audre Lorde
Slotting into place
As a team we were recently joined by the fabulous Jamie Shields from Disabled by Society, who came to talk to us about his lived experiences and support us on our journey of making our content more accessible and inclusive. Jamie is, in his words a registered blind AuDHD Rhino; he explains that ‘Rhinos are just chubby unicorns with poor eyesight’.
Amongst Jamie’s incredible insights and top tips for accessibility, he talked about his own experiences in society as a person who is blind, and also his relatively recent diagnosis of autism and ADHD. The bit that sticks with me was his talk of self-diagnosis, regarding his ADHD, and in particular the emphasis that he placed on the validity of self-diagnosis. Having suffered with (mis-diagnosed) anxiety for most of his life, his own self-awareness and learning journey took him to a place where he knew he was neurodivergent, everything slotted into place and his subsequent diagnosis of autism and ADHD felt like it was really just a formality for him.
I found this personally to be incredibly validating. It was one of those life-defining moments and I remember it just stopped me in my tracks. I was diagnosed with depression back in 2013 and have struggled with anxiety ever-since. I have suspected I have ADHD for a number of years now but haven’t pursued a formal diagnosis as yet (probably because I procrastinate on this type of stuff and never get around to doing it!!). In recent years I am more familiar with my own ways of working and what I need, and I am more open about my potential neurodivergence. However, I often find myself caveating my openness with ‘it’s self-diagnosed’ or ‘suspected’, which in reality, shouldn’t take any weight away from what I’m stating about myself.
It got me thinking, I wonder how many other people feel this way, maybe struggling with day-to-day tasks that others seem to do with ease, or maybe suspecting neurodivergence in themselves or their children, but feeling hindered by the lack of easy access to a formal diagnosis? Self-diagnosis of course can’t replace being diagnosed by a certified professional (consultant psychiatrist trained in ADHD assessment), and the avenues of medication and support this may open. But speaking from experience, there is a risk that as a society we tend to dismiss statements of ‘I suspect I have ADHD’, and this can be incredibly destructive for the individual, invalidating their thoughts, feelings and emotions.
This does appear to be shifting with many social media influencers or professionals in the neurodivergent space placing greater emphasis on self-diagnosis having a valid place in a person’s journey.
As an individual who works in the Learning and Development industry, I have a core belief in life-long learning, in particular building self-awareness and developing ourselves within our lives, careers and society. For me personally, this could not be truer than with my own suspected (there it is again!) ADHD. This first came to light about 5 years ago, with our business in it’s infancy, when Tony and I were invited along to The Focus Academy. We both completed computerised assessments of our attentional control (the ability to remain focused on goal-relevant stimuli and information in the presence of potentially interfering distractions). The results were profound – in essence, Tony had great attentional control, I did not, and I remember saying to the professional at the time, ‘I’m sure I’ll be back here with my eldest daughter in years to come’. Another life-defining moment.
From here, many hours of personal research, both academic and from other’s lived experiences, has grown my knowledge and self-awareness. I have built up some tools and coping mechanisms to get the best out of me, and I am fortunate enough to be in a workplace where we look to understand each other and give people the autonomy they need to work in a way that suits them.
My team are very aware of my strengths, and they provide an environment where I am not afraid to ask for help with the things I find challenging. We divide and conquer on work tasks, leaning on each other’s strengths and skills. For example, I find it very hard to start something from scratch, a blank canvas evokes procrastination, and it will never get done. Other members of the team are great at ‘dumping’ an outline down in a document and fleshing bits out to get it to 70%, in half the time it would take me. My strength lies in taking that 70% to completion, tweaking and perfecting. In fact, writing this blog is a perfect example of where I’ve had to set myself false deadlines to get it done, because I’m starting from a blank canvas, and despite that I’m still up against it. True to form as well, once I’ve started something I enjoy, I’ll hyperfocus for hours – this blog is way over the word count I originally intended!
None of this is new for me, my entire university degree was based on assignments being written under pressure over night and handed in with minutes to spare! What is new, is I’m not on my own. I have a workplace and work team that understands.
In the workplace
But what does this mean for other workplaces? How can we support people, whether they have a formal diagnosis or whether they are on their own self-awareness learning journey?
Neurodiversity is, ultimately, a biological fact of the infinite variety of human neurocognition. Today, the same term ‘neurodiversity’ is also being used to represent a fast-growing sub-category of organisational diversity and inclusion that seeks to embrace and maximise the talents of people who think differently.
American journalist Harvey Blume wrote in 1998 “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general. Who can say what form of wiring will be best at any given moment?”. Autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and more, are conditions which have, in the past, been pathologised as medical conditions to be mitigated or even cured. Now, the world is catching up with Blume’s thinking and they are being seen as natural forms of human neurocognitive variation, all with their own strengths.
An estimated 15-20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published data in March 2023 to show that just 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment. They also reported that 64% of employers still admit to having ‘little’ or ‘no’ understanding of neurodiverse conditions.
What is clear from this is that there are likely to be people within your organisation who are neurodiverse, whether they’ve been diagnosed or not, so considering how to proactively approach this in your workplace to ensure neurodivergent employees can thrive is incredibly important.
Psychological safety as a fundamental
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that people with protected characteristics are not put at a substantial disadvantage. These protected characteristics include disability, which may include neurodiversity if the condition has a long-term, significant adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
Great if our people have a diagnosis, and they’re willing to share this with us. The downside of this is that it singles out individuals and plays to the thinking of neurodiversity as a medical condition to be mitigated with reasonable adjustments, as opposed to seeking to embrace and maximise the talents of all human neurocognitive variation. For me, our responsibility extends beyond the legal requirements, and our focus on proactively ensuring all employees can thrive, regardless of who they are, is fundamental.
It starts with creating a psychologically safe environment. That is, an inclusive culture of trust and belonging, where people feel comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to work, with the shared belief that they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes. When psychological safety is present in the workplace, people can be their true selves, they can advocate for their own needs and the needs of others, and they have autonomy over their own working lives. It sparks creativity and innovation, and it focuses on strengths – we all have our own superpowers!
“Our differences are our strengths as a species and as a world community.”
– Nelson Mandela
Research by Google’s Project Aristotle showed that psychological safety is the number one determinant of team performance. So, it’s great for business as well as being fundamental to an inclusive and comfortable environment for our employees to operate in a way that suits them, whoever they are.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make reasonable adjustments, of course we should for individual workers, based on their individual needs. But, we can also make more generalised and more widely impactful positive workplace changes that instil psychological safety as well as removing some aspects of the working environment that present barriers to neurodivergent people in general.
Examples could include, flexible dress codes, flexible working hours, flexible break times, provision for individuals to determine their own working methods, provision to allocate tasks according to strengths, flexible working environments for example the ability to work from home, or accessible quiet space in the workplace. Many of these simple changes will make work better for everyone, and rather than singling one person out, it empowers every individual to take ownership of what works for them.
The ’neurodiversity paradigm’
No two brains function alike. Thomas Armstrong wrote in his pivotal work ‘The Power of Neurodiversity’, “We need to admit that there is no standard brain”, and he points out in his work that, as a society, we tend to use more positive language when it comes to cultural diversity, or biodiversity for example. Yet when discussing neurodiversity, which by definition refers to the infinite range of differences in individual human brain function and behavioural traits, we are prone to negative or medicalised language. For example, ‘autism spectrum disorder’ or the double negative in ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’.
The ‘neurodiversity paradigm’ is helping to reframe how neurodivergence is understood, by highlighting common strengths as well as challenges, recognising the infinite variations and positioning neurodiversity as a natural form of human diversity.
Previous thinking that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way for our brains to function is being quashed. Take the IQ test for example, which for hundreds of years has reflected a conception that human intelligence is fixed on a linear scale. Instead, Gardner’s MI theory from the 1980s suggested that we have ‘multiple intelligences’ (including visual-spatial, interpersonal, logical, musical and kinaesthetic) and this has since been backed up with newer studies showing that these functions relate to different parts of the brain. So, we can think of human neurocognition as operating across multiple continuums, as opposed to linear scales of ‘able’ to ‘disabled’ or ‘less intelligent’ to ‘more intelligent’.
In turn this should challenge our previous societal behaviours around terming these different thinking styles as disorders. Diagnosis by a deficit model, and a focus on what challenges an individual faces, has led to our solutions focus being to ‘fix’ the challenges and help the neurodivergent person better ‘fit in’ to a society that has been predominantly shaped on an outdated concept of ‘a standard brain’.
Instead, a more forward-thinking approach should be to create environments where people can thrive regardless of where they sit on any of the continuums, to fit the environments to the individual, not to ‘fix’ the individual to fit the environment. That is to create psychological safety where people can be their authentic selves and where we celebrate the strengths of every individual!
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
– Albert Einstein
Neurodiversity in the spotlight
It is well documented that Dyslexia and ADHD for example are overrepresented amongst entrepreneurs, and, in part it is the willingness of some well-known and successful individuals to talk up about their ‘superpowers’ that has helped to change the narrative.
Neurodiversity is far more openly spoken about, and whilst our brains will have worked in their own individual way since childhood, many more adults are being diagnosed as awareness increases. You only have to type ADHD into TikTok and you’ll find thousands of videos of people discussing openly their individual traits and life hacks.
Organisations are playing their part to raise awareness too, with the term ‘neurodiversity’ being used to represent a sub-category of organisational diversity and inclusion, specifically where organisations are looking to embrace and maximise the talents of people who think differently. The CIPD states that ‘To be neurodiversity smart, firms should strive to develop a language and acceptance of neuro-difference, and to celebrate and leverage neurodiverse strengths while taking steps to accommodate – and not belittle – any specific challenges that an individual may face. In many cases, taking steps to be inclusive of neurodivergent people will often result in ‘universal accommodations’ – adjustments that benefit all employees, job-seekers, or customers.’
There are too many specifics to focus on tips that support neurodivergent employees, of course there is no ‘one hat fits all’ solution when considering such continuums of neurocognitive variation. Instead as the CIPD suggests we should look to developing a language and acceptance of neuro-difference, and to celebrate and leverage neurodiverse strengths.
Coupling this approach with my own lived experiences of what a supportive workplace looks like, and my experiences of the workplaces I have supported through PeopleUnboxed, here’s my 3 top tips:
- Offer vulnerability – it starts with us. Offering up our own vulnerability is the basis of creating psychological safety. If, as leaders, managers and teammates we can be our own authentic, perfectly imperfect selves then we will encourage others to do the same. This could be speaking up when we are struggling with something and need help, admitting our own mistakes, advocating for a strengths based approach by openly saying what we’re good at and what we’re not, advocating for ourselves and our teams to work flexibly in a way that suits them, for example by being open about how much emotional energy a task may take, or advocating for yourself and your team when you or they need some downtime to recuperate.
- Be curious – get to know people personally, understand them as humans inside and outside of work. Know what makes them tick, what’s going on outside of work, what they love, what they hate, what are their strengths, what support do they need, how they like to work, how they like to be communicated with and how they like to receive feedback. By starting with your own vulnerability, you’re laying the foundations for people around you to offer the same in return and be comfortable openly advocating for their own needs. Understanding means we can support and help people to work in the way that best suits them. This doesn’t just apply to managers, all of us as teammates can get curious and understand and support each other.
- Lead with empathy – always. And by this again, I don’t mean from a leadership position, I mean from a human perspective. Never judge people by your own standards; how you work, how you approach a task or how long something takes you is only applicable to you. Remain open-minded and listen to them, what they’re saying as well as what they’re not saying. Put yourself wholeheartedly into their shoes and see things from their perspective. Celebrate successes, embrace strengths and diversity of skills and thought. Ask people for their opinions, include people in decisions. Kindness and compassion make the world a better place!
Continuing the positive change
Developing a language and acceptance of neuro-difference often also means undoing any preconceived ideas or misperceptions, for example ADHD can be incorrectly viewed as something that is just associated with ‘hyperactive children’, or that people with ADHD can’t ever focus. As we’ve said gaining a formal diagnosis can be challenging and many people won’t have this, so accepting that we all think differently regardless is critical.
Providing training on neurodiversity and making it available to all employees can reduce the stigma and build a more inclusive understanding. Training can also lead to new ideas being generated about how the workplace can be best set up to support those with neurodivergent conditions.
Watch this space for our own series of eLearning modules, coming soon to support you!
ADHD Awareness month serves as a time to celebrate the difference found in neurodiversity whilst advocating for new perspectives and better support systems. We are all wonderfully unique. We all have our own superpowers! Why not take a moment to recognise your own and to show your appreciation of someone else in your life and their unique superpowers.
Now, what was I meant to be doing again…?