Find out what neurodiversity is and how to overcome the barriers...
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As someone who is both Dyslexic and has ADHD, I've experienced the stigma and the barriers Neurodiverse professionals face at work.
Neurodiversity celebration week is about tackling the stigma and barriers we face, by taking away the judgmental language that is used to describe Neurodiversity traditionally and instead shining a light on the positives and strengths.
In this article, we explore (through our experience with ADHD and Dyslexia) what Neurodiversity is, the struggles, the strengths and what can be done to support you if you are neurodiverse.
"Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one "right" way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits." - Harvard Medical School.
Traditionally Neurodiversity has been thought of as a barrier, a disability and a deviance from the norm. However, now it's recognised that in many cases, Neurodiversity can have positives associated with it.
It is estimated that somewhere between 15-30% of the world's population - over one billion people are neurodivergent.
Over 11% of the world's population, or 841 million people have either Dyslexia or ADHD.
Here's a brilliant map - the 'neurodivergent umbrella', made by @livedexperienceeducator that shows you some of the cognitive variances, Neurodiversity encompasses;
To enable, we must first understand the barriers neurodiverse people (or we, if you are neurodivergent) face so that we can enable them.
For example, there is still the common misconception that Dyslexic individuals can't spell because they are stupid.
The notion that people with Dyslexia are stupid is misinformed because when we say dyslexics struggle with spelling, we mean someone who is Dyslexic struggles with spelling relative to someone with an equivalent IQ. Struggling with spelling has no absolute bearing on IQ or intelligence. Consequently, Dyslexics can sometimes be better spellers than non-dyslexic individuals!
Additionally, evidence suggests that people who are Dyslexic may be likely to have an above-average IQ!
"Some of the world's greatest minds have been diagnosed with dyslexia: Einstein, Walt Disney, Stephen Fry, Jackie Stewart and Richard Branson to name a few" - British Dyslexia Association.
Often a colleague might experience someone with Dyslexia or ADHD as someone who is disorganised (due to difficulties with short-term memory and directing focus) or unresponsive over written communication (because reading is often more difficult for people with Dyslexia or ADHD).
Unfortunately, the experiences that neurotypical staff members have with their neurodiverse colleagues sometimes lead to them branding their neurodiverse colleagues as lazy or reckless.
Something which couldn't be further from the truth for many neurodiverse professionals as to compensate for their struggles, people with ADHD or Dyslexia generally have to try much harder and pay much closer attention to detail than their neurotypical colleagues. Quite the opposite of being lazy!
As someone recently diagnosed with ADHD, I found that many of the workarounds and hacks I had been using to cope with my ADHD were also things that have, at some point in my career, been perceived as self-indulgent by previous employers.
For example, some of the workarounds I've found very useful include; standing desks (which manage my constant need to move), big screens (which help me visualise everything on a page), isolated environments / or headphones (that help me tune out the world to minimise distraction).
These needs/requests have been viewed negatively by employers at some point in my career. I've been met with responses like "everyone can manage with their screen - why can't you?" and resistance to getting an office or wearing headphones because I was perceived as having a superiority complex or being unsociable.
I've heard of stories where managers have denied ADHD staff the use of headphones to listen to music because it violated company policy (desk working environment). The manager wasn't aware that music could help someone with ADHD focus.
When I got diagnosed with ADHD and got a list from my psychologist of reasonable adjustments that I could ask my employer to make - I found many of the workarounds / requests that might have been strange for my previous employers were actually things on the list of advised adjustments to support ADHD!
To be clear, in my own experience, the judgement I have felt has been less through malice and more due to my lack of awareness of my own needs and the lack of awareness on the employer's part to support those needs (more on this later).
The bottom line is that neurodiverse people are widely disadvantaged by the still prevalent stigma and dialogue around Neurodiversity.
Stigma has a real impact on people's lives and careers.
Through my work at Sumrise, I've spoken with first-class students who've aced job interviews, only to find available positions mysteriously disappear when they requested reasonable accommodations or talked about their Neurodiversity with their new potential manager.
I've had potential investors in the past who knew I was dyslexic ask me "whether I'd really employ someone with dyslexia" 🤦🏽♂️.
I've spoken to senior leaders who had to modify or change their career aspirations to avoid the areas they struggled with and needed support.
In fact, "Unemployment for neurodivergent adults runs at least as high as 30-40%" - Centre for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation.
Many employers simply aren't aware that there are many strengths to Neurodiversity and that a lot can be done to support neurodiverse professionals at work.
Neurodivergent people can be incredible employees. They can be very creative, great communicators, problem solvers and more. If these abilities are harnessed and supported in the right way, there can be a tremendous benefit to staff and team productivity.
For example; Made by Dyslexia says some of the superpowers someone with Dyslexia can bring to the team include "imagining, communicating, reasoning, visualising, connecting and exploring".
The BBC reported that GCHQ, one of the UK's top-secret intelligence, cyber and security organisations, said, "people with dyslexia have valuable skills such as spotting patterns that other people might miss, seeing the bigger picture, and finding solutions to complicated problems" and Dyslexia made them four times more likely to get the job at GCHQ.
I've heard an HR professional say that when a neurodiverse staff member with ADHD struggled and had their Neurodiversity recognised and supported, they went from a poor employee on the verge of a performance evaluation to the best person in the team.
For much of my career, I assumed an accessibility-friendly workplace was one where co-workers and managers merely tolerated my shortcomings.
I didn't realise until much later that;
1. As mentioned above, being neurodiverse has many strengths associated with it and
2. A lot could be done to support my barriers and help me succeed.
Language shapes lives - as a former Philosophy student, one of the most enlightening books I read on the subject of language was called 'White' by Richard Dyer. Whilst it is focussed on race, culture and language, many of the concepts transpose well to the challenges faced by neurodivergent people (and covered in EDI in general).
For many years the language around people who think differently has been one of disempowerment. It has been a narrative that emphasises the struggles in a non-constructive and loaded way.
Learned helplessness - After years of being subject to the language of disempowerment, neurodivergent people can succumb to a psychological condition called learned helplessness - where victims are made to believe nothing can be done, so they should just give up. You can read about the horrific experiments performed by psychologist Martin Seligman to discover more about learned helplessness here.
Discrimination - as we explored earlier, due to the preconceptions formed from negative language, neurodivergent people can face discrimination at work. That means managers aren't sure how to manage (and empower) staff, and neurodivergent people are held back in their careers.
Highlighting strengths - can help neurodivergent people know how best to contribute and help managers/colleagues figure out how best to harness those strengths. It can boost morale. It can help people see possibilities instead of dead ends.
As a leader in my company and trustee at The HEY Smile Foundation, I think a lot about culture and how to create one conducive to success.
As leaders, we need to build a culture where Neurodiversity can thrive - we need to build a culture founded on openness, compassion, sustainability and support.
'Try harder' has long been the militaristic mantra of [bad & outdated] management. It has been the default response to colleagues who seem unfocussed / who struggle or might not have met expectations.
As someone who has run a very hilly, muddy off-road marathon with 2 hours of sleep and a knee injury, overcome depression, skied with a dislocated shoulder strapped in, survived physical and mental racism in my youth, delivered TEDx talks when I am a natural introvert, failed, failed, failed and kept going when told to quit, struggled with undiagnosed Dyslexia and ADHD for many years and more... I'd like to think I know a little bit about what trying hard means.
And I'm here to tell you;
If you are a manager, 'trying harder' is lazy management. It is a slogan for self-aggrandising. Trying harder is a recipe for burnout. Not success. If you do this, sorry. Please stop. You're killing your team.
If you are saying this to yourself, be kind to yourself like a friend would be - self-compassion will help you succeed, not hold you back 🙂
Anyone who has succeeded in endurance sports knows the importance of energy management. Most people fail endurance events when they go too hard, too soon.
The agile manifesto, which guides some of the world's best software teams, underscores the need for "sustainable development" by making it a core principle in the agile methodology.
As someone who has struggled with mental health in the past, I recognise and advocate the importance of talking openly about when we struggle, so we can get the support we need. It's crucial NOT to sweep the struggles under the rug.
As leaders or colleagues, we can facilitate an open culture by talking openly about when we have (or are struggling) because when we do that, it helps give others the confidence to speak about their struggles too.
It is vital we talk about the challenges we face, so we can address and support the barriers and unlock our / our team's potential.
If we do not have compassion for our struggling colleagues, they will not feel comfortable disclosing their challenges. Consequently, they will go unsupported, and they will not be equipped for success.
If you are a manager or leader, someone in your team failing because they are not being supported or empowered is on you.
If we do not have compassion for people who do not understand neurodivergence or have managed neurodivergent poorly in the past, it is tough to have the constructive conversations necessary to educate them and drive positive change.
To support our colleagues, we need to take the time to listen to the struggles our colleagues have (neurodiverse or not), recognise the struggles and give them the support they need without passing judgement.
Trying harder should not be our mantra.
Compassion & support, should be.
The complete list of adjustments from my own ADHD Diagnosis is available here.
View the complete list from the British Dyslexia Association here.
Technology can play a vital role in supporting Neurodiversity.
When I was diagnosed with ADHD, some of the reasonable adjustments recommended for me were;
I have found using a hybrid agile / kanban task management system on software like Asana and Trello, and we use Jira, combined with the help of a colleague to help me prioritise and evaluate, really helps my ADHD.
My awesome co-founder Niket is my person, so find a buddy who can support you 🙂
The complete list of my own ADHD Diagnosis is available here.
View the complete list from the British Dyslexia Association here.
I co-founded Sumrise to help people like me with ADHD and Dyslexia with email.
Several studies suggest that professionals can spend over 20% of a working day on email. Email overload is incredibly disruptive for people with ADHD or Dyslexia and can cause a lot of unnecessary stress.
The British Dyslexia Association suggests that you can alleviate some of these issues by highlighting essential points in documents, changing background colours, or even using other forms of communication.
As someone with ADHD and Dyslexia, I found that it was rare that colleagues or clients would take the time to highlight important points or let me know when I needed to pay attention to a message in a long thread. Instead of receiving information in alternative ways, I would be excluded from conversations.
We made Sumrise as a technology to customise email for Dyslexia and ADHD.
Sumrise automates some accommodations organisations like the British Dyslexia Association suggest to support ADHD and Dyslexia.
For example, one of our features automatically highlights key information in emails without requiring senders to do it for you, and the ability to change background colours to make reading easier.
We're constantly improving Sumrise with new features.
For individuals: If you'd like to try Sumrise on Gmail for free - visit our website here.
For organisations: If you are a leader and interested in how you could use Sumrise to support professionals in your team with ADHD or Dyslexia, feel free to drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org