What is neurodiversity, how does it shape our abilities and affect
the way we perform and fit in at work? Emily Clarke shares her experiences in
this ten-minute read
Throughout my childhood, I became aware that I was different to others. Yes, “everyone is different and unique”, but that phrase stopped me asking questions. It prevented me seeking help.
I started to learn about dyslexia at secondary school, after meeting my best friend who has it. We struggled with different things and for many years, people reassured me that my differences were “normal”. I kept trying my best, despite my teachers asking me to take on extra English lessons.
When they predicted I would get a D at GCSE English, I told my parents I was struggling and didn’t agree with my teacher that I “just needed to apply myself more and listen more carefully”.
I was listening. I was trying my best to keep up. But his style of teaching – more akin to lecturing – was not working for my learning needs.
By then, seven teachers had flagged that I could have dyslexia. After years trying to advocate for myself, aged 16 I was finally tested and diagnosed. I felt relieved – to have the label and permission to explore what it meant for me – to have authority, finally, to ask for help. Having been diagnosed, I’m lucky to have had support through A Levels and university. I wish I had not had to fight so hard to be believed.
Being diagnosed with dyslexia helped me to seek support. But I’m also investigating whether I am neurodivergent in other ways. My differences go beyond dyslexia. These include sensory hypersensitivities to tastes, smells, lights, noise.
I can misunderstand social norms and communications – notably sarcasm – and find myself faking eye contact and battling brain-fog, persistent tiredness and the need to fidget. Despite my research into dyslexia and broader neurodivergence, I still feel very different to my peers.
Channel your strengths
But could neurodivergence have benefits? Diverse perspectives – in every sense – bring better balance to tasks, projects, teams, organisations and community. Neurodivergent skills can bring out-of-the-box thinking.
Neurodiverse thinking spots patterns and details that others miss, offering new opportunities and fresh perspectives. Neurodivergent minds can be questioning; some have extraordinary problem-solving skills, others incredible recall for facts, details and distant memories.
LinkedIn celebrated dyslexia as a critical skill for the workplace through the Made By Dyslexia campaign. This increased positive attitudes towards dyslexia on social media by 1,562 per cent. Global companies including Virgin, HSBC, Facebook, and Microsoft are hiring candidates for their dyslexic thinking skills.
My colleagues recognise me as a lateral thinker. I hyperfocus. I solve problems with absolute determination and often challenge the status quo. For me, these are neurodivergent abilities. They drive my passion for equity, belonging and balance. I use my platform wherever possible to raise awareness.
Whoever and wherever you are, however old, you have come a long way. To get there, you have developed – consciously and subconsciously – coping mechanisms to manage day-to-day life. Some are useful – critical, even. But you may need help to tweak other mechanisms to maximise – rather than suppress or mask – your neurodivergent abilities in the neurotypical world.
What helps me is research, asking trusted acquaintances for support, finding people with similar traits. No two people have identical experiences. Ask people whether they’d be comfortable to tell you their story; they may offer you new perspectives on neurodivergence.
Instagram accounts are useful – I like @Iampayingattention and @neurodivergent_lou. But I’ve also connected with people with diverse neurodivergent abilities, shared my own and learned from the experiences of others.
It’s useful to work out what environments serve you best; working in the office versus from home or a hybrid approach. Consider and record what you find unhelpful – noise, bright lights, dress codes. Make notes – about what you experience and what happens around you, when.
It's all too easy to invalidate your own experiences when you stand outside them. The issues you face are real and valid. Your good-day self can sabotage your bad-day self – minimising or dismissing your concerns. Record what you need and what is unhelpful and use this to work with your colleagues to agree reasonable adjustments at work.
In England, Scotland and Wales, the government-funded Access to Work initiative helps people with mental health and physical disabilities or challenges to find and stay in work. It offers funding and practical support to people at all career stages.
If someone asks you to support their neurodivergent abilities, they have probably worried about them or battled uncertainties for years. These conversations can be emotive. Find an environment that makes that person comfortable and give them your full attention.
Understand that they may be speaking to you in confidence and may not want you to share this with anyone else. If in doubt, ask.
Under the 2010 Equality Act, people do not need a formal diagnosis to ask for reasonable adjustments within the workplace. Reasonable adjustments can include, but are not limited to:
- Working from home or hybrid working; travel outside rush hour
- Flexible working hours/patterns
- A sensory safe space at work, such as a quiet room with adjustable lighting and comfortable chairs
- A specific workstation, assistive technology/software and noise-cancelling headphones
- Scheduling routine or rest breaks
- Accepting the use of stimming toys that relieve or reduce stress.
Adjustments will vary by workplace, work type and the neurodivergent abilities and requirements of the person in question.
If you’re unsure how to support the person who approaches you, listen carefully, then discuss together how you can support them. Do your own research. Be there for that person by following up the conversation; help them to devise a plan to seek the support they need, or to connect with someone who knows more about the topic. Access to Work provides advice and training to applicants, to their teams and the wider workplace.
I am just one person with neurodivergent abilities. I write from my own experience. But I hope this article empowers you to seek or provide support. Together we can create an environment to allow everyone to flourish because of their abilities, not in spite of them.
I’ll end with an appeal. Please help to raise the profile of neurodivergent abilities in our sector. If you identify as neurodivergent, please get in touch. We want more people to write about their experiences, to plan webinars and to raise awareness within water and environment.
Emily Clarke FCIWEM C.WEM is an early-career professional member of CIWEM’s board of trustees and principal flood and coastal consultant at Binnies
NEURODIVERSE VERSUS NEURODIVERGENT
The term neurodiversity was coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer who rejected the idea that neurodivergence is a disability. Neurodiversity is not a medical diagnosis. The term describes the range of neurological differences in human brains.
The term neurodiverse refers to a group of people; the term neurodivergence refers to a person’s neurological state, and development, which is atypical. Simply put, a group of people are neurodiverse; an individual is not. As individuals, we are neurodivergent or neurotypical.
Neurodivergence is a spectrum, not a scale. It takes different forms and covers a range of conditions. These forms include:
- Applied neurodiversity, including dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and dysnomia
- Clinical neurodiversity, including autism, ADHD and Tourette’s
- Acquired neurodiversity, including traumatic brain injury, mental-health conditions, post-stroke cognitive and communication difficulties, dementia and long Covid.
Statistics vary, but research suggests that between 15-20 per cent of us have neurodivergent abilities – and that many of us don’t realise we are neurodivergent.
There is great debate over the language we use to describe neurodivergent abilities. Different people have different preferences, and our language evolves. The language I use here reflects my current views and experiences; it aims to help, inform and raise awareness.
Social attitudes are shifting. We now know that some of the world's most successful and creative people are neurodivergent – Greta Thunberg, Mohammed Ali, Steve Jobs, Simone Biles, Richard Branson, Satoshi Tajiri, even Albert Einstein.
BUILDING MORE INCLUSIVE TEAMS – THE DOS AND DON’TS
Scientists suggest between 15-20 per cent of us show some form of neurodivergence. Here are some practical ways to make sure the work environment supports neurodiversity:
Undermine people’s experiences or play down their personal challenges. Don’t say, “everyone is on the spectrum”, “everyone has neurodivergent traits”, or “you don't look neurodivergent”. A sensitive approach uses person-first language; we are people with neurodivergent abilities, not “neurodivergent people”. Language matters.
Reassure people that they are “normal”, downplaying their experiences. Instead, respect and value colleagues with neurodivergent abilities for what they contribute
Break a confidence: someone who reveals their neurodivergence to you may not have revealed it to others
Respect your colleagues’ needs, whether or not they disclose their neurodivergent abilities
Get to know the sunflower lanyard; it’s a discreet signal that people with neurodivergent abilities – and others – wear to indicate they may need additional support, help, space or time
Challenge negative conversations; don’t leave it to your friend or colleague with neurodivergent abilities to call out unhelpful comments and behaviours
Provide or get trained to understand neurodiversity, wider diversity and unconscious bias
Be willing and ready to accommodate your colleagues:
- Provide an accessible list of reasonable adjustments that your organisation offers, especially when recruiting, and offer to discuss additional adjustments
- Communicate flexibly; perhaps discuss tasks verbally and follow up with a clear email
- Share an agenda before you meet to give people time to prepare and familiarise themselves
- Be inclusive; set meetings up with audio captions or record them for people to watch again to absorb what you’ve discussed
Spread the word about Access to Work. The more people know about it, the easier for people who may need support to apply for it
And finally, neurodivergent or neurotypical, learn what your colleagues need and offer them kindness and help
Find out more
Access To Work: https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work
British Dyslexia Association: www.bdadyslexia.org.uk
Made by Dyslexia: www.madebydyslexia.org
National Autistic Society: www.autism.org.uk
This article is free from The Environment's Women's Takeover issue in March. Read more free articles from the magazine here: https://www.ciwem.org/the-environment/