Neurodiversity is an umbrella term used to describe alternative thinking styles such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and autism. – But regardless of labels, neurodiversity is a natural state where we just think differently. When we use the term neurodiversity, it isn’t a label of disability or disorder, but a term to better understand individuals and their unique strengths or challenges.
No two people are the same and it’s important we take a person-centred approach to harness the strengths of individuals rather than focus on the challenges.
We invited members of our team to share a little about their own experience living with neurodiverse abilities. Five individuals came forward and here are their stories.
CIWEM company secretary & executive assistant Francesca Brahmbhatt
As a child, I was always told I hadn’t done my homework or called lazy.
It wasn’t until I was 14 years old, I was referred to an orthophonistem speech therapist in the UK and was diagnosed as dyslexic. For me it was a light bulb moment, within a few sessions I was able to read and finally retain information. Can you imagine, until the age of 14, I was reading pointlessly as the words I was reading weren’t building sentences or stories – just words one after the other?
Since moving to the UK, I have met people with dyslexia who have negative views about their ability. I’ve heard sentences such as “I can’t read, I’m dyslexic.” and “I can’t get an office job”, which I find really harmful because it means they didn’t get the help they needed and have no confidence in their ability. Dyslexia doesn’t make anyone unqualified or any less of a person. When I first started working, I didn’t tell anyone, worried they wouldn’t hire me or would pay me less as I wasn’t as good as a non-dyslexic person. As I have progressed professionally from strength to strength, CIWEM was the first interview where I felt comfortable enough to announce it in the interview.
Neurodiverse or not, all people should set out how they like to work. I personally need time to reflect before starting any task. I have recently been to workshops where we’ve had five minutes to brainstorm and my brain was fried in a matter of minutes. Give us time to think, ask questions, talk, reflect and process.
I’m neurodiverse and an extrovert so working from home and virtual meetings has been a struggle. It burns me out and causes anxiety. However, this is something I will need to find ways to work around, as I seem to be the only colleague that needs to be in an office full time.
Be an ally. My manager and I have a great working relationship and this has helped me open up about some of my insecurities around communication. In my role, I need to communicate with senior stakeholders, experts and at board meetings, so working together on ways of “getting your point across” and understanding the purpose of what I’m trying to communicate has been great.
CIWEM learning and partnerships development officer Teresa Cabras
I see my dyslexia as a part of me. For me, neurodiversity means approaching life and looking at everything from a slightly different angle. I need a different key of understanding to approach what surrounds me.
I found out I was dyslexic during my very first semester of elementary school at the age of five. I was extremely fortunate that my teachers and close family have never made me feel like my dyslexia was something to be ashamed of.
It was much later in life that I found out that dyslexia could be perceived as embarrassing.
This realisation came after speaking to others who suffer and who found out about their dyslexia when they were much older and had to go through years of learning without the right tools. I believe that my positive view of dyslexia was created in the support I was given throughout my life as a student.
I grew up knowing that if I had a hard time approaching a task, it was because I had to find my own way to do it and not because I cannot do it. During the first few years of school, I had been told by doctors and teachers that I was never going to be able to learn another language and I was always going to have a hard time reading and writing.
I am now fluent in two languages and have two essay-based degrees. With the right tools and support I was able to pass these barriers and have a very healthy and successful student life.
Neurodiversity has shaped me in many ways. I think the most important is feeling confident in asking for support. Both in terms of feeling no shame, using technological support and asking other people for help. At the risk of sounding obvious, something like being able to work using a laptop has made my working life much easier. I am aware that I am extremely lucky to be surrounded by tools that I can use for my benefit.
It has also taught me that I can speak out when I am asked to do something that makes me uncomfortable. For example, I do not like to read out loud and if I am asked to do so, I would kindly decline and explain that it makes me uncomfortable. There is no shame in having a harder time doing a task compared to someone else.
Everyone in the workspace should keep in mind that we all operate in very different ways. This should be valid independently of neurodiversity. My suggestion to non-neurodiverse people who might have not experience the feeling of finding a task very hard when everyone else around them sees it as easy, be considerate. Do not take anything as a given. Make sure to ask questions and that everyone feels comfortable with what they are doing.
I think it is fundamental to keep in mind that every neurodiverse person has a different experience with their neurodiversity. This is why talking about our personal experience is essential. If you are a non-neurodiverse person, be open to listen to our stories.
CIWEM partnerships manager Jane Boland
It’s simple, but I feel it’s only being acknowledged quite recently that different brains think differently. I only found out that I had ADHD in my early 30s – and that was only because I made a close friend with ADHD and he talked to me about his experiences. I was asking lots of questions, (as I do) and he said, “I’m not a doctor but you know you have ADHD, right?”. I had never thought about it before that moment. Wasn’t that something kids have? I saw a doctor and it didn’t take her long to diagnose me.
Before that, of course I knew that the way I behaved and worked was “weird” to lots of other people. I used to spend a lot of energy trying to de-emphasise my differences. The side effect of that was high social anxiety and low self-esteem, traits common to many people with ADHD, unfortunately. I’m still working on those but it’s getting better. Most people who meet me describe me as high-energy, confident, and outgoing. That’s reassuring, even when I’m still struggling with those feelings.
Working in an environment like CIWEM’s where neurodiversity isn’t just accepted, but talked about, makes it easier for me to bring my full self to work without feeling judged. It also means that I can unleash what I think of as my ADHD “superpowers” like the ability to hyperfocus on things I find interesting and solve problems with creative ideas quickly. I can feel confident that the people that I work with value those things and can support me in things I’m less good at.
What I’d like people to think about is this: As challenging as it might be to understand the way my “ADHD brain” behaves, it’s equally as challenging for me to understand yours.That’s a good thing. Ask me questions. Ask me what accommodations might make it easier for me to participate fully. I’ll ask you, too. With that simple act we’ll be creating an environment that encourages others to feel comfortable expressing their unique, creative selves.
CIWEM publications manager Victoria Harris
I was always encouraged to see my dyslexia as a strength and not something that should hold me back in my life in any way, thanks to a history of neurodiversity in my family.
Dyslexia is experienced differently by each individual and I have learnt to see my adaptation strategies as strengths, I find it harder to retain new information, but this means I am particularly well organised and keep records of almost everything. My spelling can be erratic, but over time I’ve developed good methods for proof reading and living with technology at our fingertips is a huge help.
I can find it harder to maintain focus, particularly when there is lots going on around me, so having a role that suits flexible working (not being in a noisy office environment for the most part) is really beneficial for my productivity and wellbeing.
Neurodiverse stereotypes do not exist and the challenges people face are often well hidden alongside particular cognitive strengths. The list of hugely successful dyslexic people is long, especially in the world of science. Being open and getting to know the needs of the individual is always my advice to supporting neurodiverse colleagues, friends or family.
If, like me, you enjoy diving into the detail, this is a great read on the amazing benefits of a dyslexic brain – https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/developmental-dyslexia-essential-to-human-adaptive-success-study-argues
CIWEM digital communications officer Ky Trickett
Our society has often preferred to ignore and marginalise neurodiversity with the guise of disability and disorder. But divergent ways of thinking are an ever-present reality for many of us – much more when we’re forced to struggle with our minds rather than encourage the strengths they create.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a tool I’ve grown to appreciate as it affects me. That might sound different to the classic narrative about attention deficit and difficulty concentrating, but it manifests as deep modes of focus and determination for me, creative independence, and self-reliance. The power is understanding yourself and using this as a tool, it is not necessarily the case that ADHD is limiting.
Functionally, there are challenges which I continue to overcome. I struggle with impulsivity, managing workloads and organisation which I solve through managing clear expectations, which is a struggle as I can become too invested in a project and ignore others.
I am convinced that instead of leading with disability and the challenges of neurodivergence, we should embrace the difference as part of the human condition and celebrate it instead of marginalising and parading the topic like a travelling circus.
Like so much else about the world, we are all diverse and through kindness and value, we create a powerful and authentic culture.
To learn more about neurodiversity in the workplace, read CIWEM Fellow Emily Clarke’s recent article: https://www.ciwem.org/news/work-neurodivergence-and-me
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