We need to be talking more about neurodiversity in the workplace

A few weeks ago I met up with someone I have met through the Microsoft community for a coffee. During our discussion the conversation somehow shifted to me when she asked about my challenges as an autistic person, also known as someone with Asperger’s.

I was completely comfortable and happy to dive into the discussion. However afterwards, the discussion stayed on my mind and I realised I cannot think of when anyone outside of my immediate family has ever asked me about my autism.

It isn’t deeply hurtful or concerning. I know there are many reasons someone might feel uncomfortable, unprepared or just cautious of this area. However, it is definitely a shame we are still here.

Many people who know me have no doubt seen enough of my activity on social media, blogs and conference sessions, to know I am open about my Neurodiversity and see myself as a passionate advocate keen to help drive awareness. But not many have the guts to get personal and ask what may seem like tough questions.

Thinking through this I couldn’t help comparing my experience to that of my Autistic child, particularly in the educational setting. Whenever she joins a new club, sport, school etc there is very specific paperwork I need to complete.
We must fill out details of her disorder along with questions such as:

  • What activities do they enjoy?
  • What things can cause challenges or upset them?
  • What can we do to support them if they get upset?

Any caregiver for my child wants to ensure she is not only comfortable and secure, but actually has fun and can feel supported.

While there has been some amazing progress for the awareness, diagnosis and support for younger generation, there are many middle-aged people who go undiagnosed or are hiding their neurodiversity. There certainly isn’t the dialogue to help people embrace their difference and have support for their challenges in the workplace. I do also have to note here, this is my small siloed perspective here on neurodiversity and I am well aware there are challenges across so many other areas of disability and diversity in the workplace which are equally as important, however I won’t dive in to here and feel cannot do justice. With neurodiversity, no many organisations would know how to discuss with staff, support with challenges and even know how to incorporate into performance management and development plans.

When I thought about a few examples from my own friends or network, I began drafting some thoughts on experiences shared with me. Writing about how people with certain hidden disabilities come across, how we judge them and what things we don’t see while important felt wrong. It didn’t feel my place to describe other people’s experiences. What I will say is some brief examples of workplace experiences of people with neurodiversity.

What are examples of the challenges and treatment of neurodiverse people in the workplace?

It’s the colleague with crippling OCD who produces amazing high-quality output but masks the obsessive traits which enable this work while at the same time cause extreme anxiety or depression.

Or a person who is judged negatively in a job interview because they didn’t use eye-contact or smile enough in a Zoom call when they were incredibly nervous.

It is the person who looks bored in a meeting or irritates others when they talk too much or cut people off due to their ADHD. We don’t see the effort it requires to participate in that conversion flow struggling to balance their own speed of thinking, focus challenges and communication skills.

Or the manager who is great at their job, rising the ranks and has deep knowledge of the organisation and products, unaware at times they retreat to the office bathroom for some mid-afternoon deep breathing to work through extreme anxiety.

And the consultant who is pulled from a project because the customer comments they were “too chirpy” perhaps meaning quirky or just not fitting mainstream stereotypes and not what they were looking for in the person running their project. To be honest this friend is not necessarily neurodiverse, just someone who didn’t fit a norm, and their personality was deemed not right for that situation rather than embraced.

All of these are true stories friends and colleagues have shared with me in the last few months.

And then there’s me.

I am serious and determined, always focused on the work and often forgetting to come up for air and ask “how was our weekend?”.
I am passionate and professional, with an off-beat sense of humour that doesn’t always land well so I try to focus on being genuine.
At times I get side-tracked and need a structure and method in place to put my energy in the right direction.
My sense of justice and strong principles and get me stuck, and at times masking the anger I have towards the person who has a blatant disregard for rules or process. This can lead to a private meltdown or deflation.
Executive function challenges can exhaust me and leave me frustrated with my hopeless memory or need for systems.
And while I have spent years leading, building product, processes and teams I recently decided to step down and away from the stereotypical career trajectory to explore what I enjoy, where I am my best self, and the sort of work that allows me to unmask and feel more authentic, without the pressure of being a role model, manager and the balanced perfect person I was mistakably aiming to be.

To be honest, I hate to think of what colleagues think of me or how they judge my behaviour. Much faith is required in the wins, the positive feedback and pattern of successful projects or promotion to have a general certainty that things are ok.
Majority of the time I assume I come across as capable, intelligent, and hopefully kind. What you may not see is the personal struggle to continually play that role, be the colleague or manager, in what can be a complex and emotional inner-world.

Because we don’t talk about it.

We focus on results and deliverables, rather than experience and challenges.
We see the person who produces amazing creative ideas but avoid them coming for drinks because we think they are weird. Or we interact when required but don’t get too casual because we don’t understand their sense of humour, or in many cases for autistic people, we don’t want to hear about their hobbies or interests that don’t fit the norm.
Even if a neurodiverse is asked about any need for support, it is behind closed doors. Out in the day-to-day open plan or remote working it’s about chin up, fit in and you try to exist and play the role.
Many organisations have a workplace culture subtly driving us to be a certain way. It is the mainstream expectations of behaviour.

Did you know that inclusive companies are 4 times more likely to outperform their competitors?

We need to talk more about diversity in the workplace to build awareness and understanding to really drive greater inclusion and belonging.

Whether its introversion/ extroversion, mental health, race, sexual orientation, physical disability, or hidden disability such as neurodiversity, we need to acknowledge and seek to understand the experience of our colleagues and in the community.
There needs to be a more open dialogue and for people to feel if they are open about needs this is met with openness and acceptance rather than judgement.
If people are open with their diversity, in return become an ally and support that courage. Be curious and open.
Ask people about things they find hard, or how they could be supported.
Ask them what they enjoy about work and help them feel they add value, contribute and have strengths. When someone spends a lot of time masking what they might feel are traits that will be judged, it is exhausting and can be really depressing.

If you want to understand, ask about:

  • “what are the harder parts of your day or role?”
  • “are there things in the workplace that make you less comfortable than working at home?”
  • “do you want to talk about your challenges or anything that could be different?”
  • “what can I do to support you?”
  • “what needs to change?”

Have you ever asked someone about their world, their life and what it is like to be in their shoes and truly listened?

To ask is like saying “I see you” and to be seen is to be valued. Every human deserves to be valued.

I value diversity, do you?

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