Neurodivergence at the workplace

Navigating Neurodivergence at the workplace 

April is Autism Awareness Month. We observed World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd. The rise in awareness around autism came with self-advocacy groups. As the disability rights movement began using the slogan “Nothing about us, without us”, there was a paradigm shift. The slogan essentially implies that any research, decision-making, law or policy that does not include the marginalized people it is seeking to address is incomplete in its scope. Therefore, deviating from medical research and practices that excluded autistic voices, came the neurodiversity paradigm that was created by autistic folx.  

The neurodiversity paradigm does not endorse the ‘disorder/deficit’ language of the medical model of psychiatry which seeks to locate the ‘disorder’ within the ‘patient’. Instead, neurodiversity suggests that human brains are naturally diverse, and neurodivergent brains, with different cognitive processes, should be allowed to co-exist with neurotypical brains, which adhere to the typical expectations of a ‘normal’ brain. Neurodivergence then becomes a part of a person’s identity, just like the shape of their nose or their sexual orientation. With the neurodiversity paradigm, the focus shifts from the clinician’s neutral perspective to the authentic lived experience of a neurodivergent person. 

Speaking of which, I am a neurodivergent person; other parts of my identity include my queer non-binary self. To commemorate Autism month, I could present you with research and studies, or my own lived experience as a person with ADHD and autistic traits. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurological variance. It affects the regulation of attention span and emotions. Likewise, autism is a neurological condition too, leads to cognition, behaviourial differences in an individual.  

As a neurodivergent person, in their twenties, I was still unaware of my identity. As I now work with an organization that dedicates its time and resources to creating inclusive and equitable workplaces, I reflect on my prior experiences and can recognize the places where I struggled earlier.  

My neurodivergence was most evident in frequent depressive episodes and anxiety attacks. It most affected my work. Trying to adapt to my work pressure and ‘fit in’ with my colleagues, I denied the fact that I needed support. It led to a pattern of anxiety at the workplace, followed by burnout. It was hard for me to retain jobs. In an era before the affirming awareness of my neurodivergence, I was isolated in my bubble of shame believing I was incompetent or worse, somehow irrevocably broken. 

Ignoring my needs led to a burnout episode that lasted over two years where I was unable to work in a professional capacity. That is when I worked on educating myself on an array of issues, including my queerness and my neurodivergence. I went on a gradual journey where I reckoned with how ADHD and autism showed up in my life. With time, awareness, therapeutic and community support, I’m now able to identify my needs and ask for accommodations accordingly. 

A few of the predominant ways in which my neurological differences show up are as follows:

1) Shorter working memory – An ADHD trait, this means my working memory is shorter than what is the neurotypical standard. This means I take longer to process information, and often have trouble in retaining the same. 

In real life, it would show up as general forgetfulness, like forgetting deliverables or deadlines or trouble learning new information. Or struggling with new software and operating systems. 

2) Auditory processing differences – This implies that sometimes I’ve trouble processing what is being said to me. Especially when multiple people are speaking at the same time, I can get distracted and have trouble in distinguishing the different strains of information being shared. 

I remember my time in a newsroom, where it was hectic and noisy overall. Invariably, after editorial meetings I felt confused about the agenda and the deliverables expected of me. 

3) Executive Dysfunction – This trait is more popularly understood as ‘procrastination’. Essentially, executive dysfunction is a behaviourial trait that interferes with a person’s ability to control their thoughts and actions. In simple terms, executive dysfunction can look like going into ‘freeze’ state, where a person is unable to initiate tasks. It can also present as an inability to transition from one task to another. 

4) Organizational issues – This is another ADHD trait; being unable to focus on one task and see it to completion means ADHD-ers struggle to organize tasks. At the workplace, this can show up as an inability to streamline the workday and prioritize between multiple deliverables. 

5) Time Blindness – This ADHD trait decodes into a difference in perception of time. Which makes it hard for people with ADHD to make accurate estimates around time. I struggle to stick to schedules, and often have difficulty gauging how much time to allot to certain tasks. This can often translate into longer hours at work, and eventual fatigue. 

6) Communication/Social cues – One of the most commonly known autistic traits is the inability to recognize and communicate emotions. The other side of this coin, is an inability to understand social cues and how to behave in social situations. 

 For Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) persons like me, this is a little complicated, as I was socialized to be ‘likeable’ from a young age. So, for the longest time, I masked this trait, and mimicked my peers in social situations. In masking this trait, I was often deemed ‘naive’ by friends for not ‘getting the hint’. 

However, this trait makes it hard for me to often understand subtexts in a social situation or gauge the appropriate response. It can also be hard for me to understand the tone of a text message or email. Masking can also lead to anxiety or freezing in social situations. 

7) Sensory sensitivities – I am very sensitive to sensory experiences like sound, light, touch, smell or even flavours. Having sensory sensitivities means that certain noises, smells, textures, light or colour tones can cause discomfort and even distress. In my case I am deeply averse to tactile contact with strangers or acquaintances, or sensitive to light and loud noises. 

8) Sensory overwhelm/burnout – Having sensitivities often implies I am prone to being overwhelmed in loud settings. I remember how a crowded commute used to wipe me out, after a day at school or work. 

However, burnout differs from just ‘tiredness’. Autistic burnout can refer to a total sensory shutdown where a person becomes dysfunctional. It is often misdiagnosed as a depressive episode because burnout can last anywhere between a few days to a few months, or even years. 

9) Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD) – A smaller part of the sensory sensitivities RSD is an acute sensitivity towards feeling certain emotions. More particularly RSD shows up as sensitivity towards perceived rejection.

In a lot of AFAB persons, RSD shows up as this constant fear of failure, of feeling low self-worth and adopting perfectionism (and its twin brother Impostor syndrome) as a coping mechanism.  

For me it feels like having unrealistic expectations and high standards of performance from myself at all times and craving external validation. And the slightest fumble or mistake can stir deep feelings of shame and self-doubt. It can also make me avoid discomfort and having real conversations around my needs and boundaries. 

Having a thorough awareness of my autistic and ADHD traits and how they affect my functioning helps me locate places where I need support. It allows me to adapt my life around my neurodivergent traits. These are some of the ways a neurodivergent person like me can feel supported and included at a workplace: 

1) To feel supported with differences in working memory neurodivergent people can often ask follow up questions. Normalize a work culture where everyone is encouraged to ask questions, let go of the assumption that everyone will function at the same capacity or level of awareness.  

2) Having an accountability partner often helps with forgetfulness. Having in place a process of reminders and check-ins is often helpful to get back on track. 

3) To help with auditory processing issues meetings can be held with captioning software. Or a written record of the meeting’s deliverables is another alternative. 

4) A body double partner at the workplace can aid in tiding over executive dysfunction. A body double partner is someone who works alongside, either physically or virtually, another person. 

5) Mapping out monthly, weekly and even daily goals goes a long way to offer support with organizational difficulties. Breaking down tasks into smaller goals often helps an ADHD-er visualize and thus prioritize their tasks. 

6) The Pomodoro technique can help ADHD-ers to manage their time blindness. The Pomodoro method is a working technique where two hours are divided into small sections with regular breaks at the end of each. After an entire Pomodoro a person takes a longer break. 

7) Timing certain tasks can also help in allocating appropriate time to tasks and scheduling a workday. In terms of accommodation, this would translate into giving an ADHD person more time to deliver their work. 

8) Having definite work schedules without any last minute changes also goes a long way in ensuring an ADHD-er does not fall off their focus wagon. 

9) Encouraging autistic people to bond on their own terms, instead of expecting them to socialize in a neurotypical manner helps them deal with their social anxiety. 

10) Trailing off texts or emails with emojis often help autistic people in understanding the tone of a conversation. 

11) Designing workplaces that acknowledge the low sensory needs of autistic people is important.  

12) Stimming, that is repetitive behaviours or vocalizations, can help an autistic person regulate emotionally. So, a workplace that encourages and understands stimming helps. 

13) Having flexible work hours can also address the sensory needs of people who find working in the daytime or nighttime more convenient. 

14) The work-from-home model can be helpful for autistic employees whose sensory sensitivities do not agree with loud and busy workplace environments. 

15) To deal with sensory overwhelm frequent breaks are important. Awareness about grounding techniques like breathwork or body scans can help ease overwhelm. 

16) Having a policy for mental health breaks can help neurodivergent employees unwind and avoid burning out. 

17) To work with Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria neurodivergent people, benefit from having safe emotional spaces. This can look like a buddy system at the workplace, or accessible therapy, or employee resource groups. 

A lot changed for me with awareness of my neurodivergence. From blaming myself for having needs, I could see that my needs deserved to be supported. Having awareness campaigns to equip organizations with inclusive and equitable processes helps in creating sustainable and accessible work cultures. For neurodivergent employees having an aware and neuro-affirming workplace environment can truly go a long way in not only including them but fostering a larger sense of belonging. 

– Written By Usri Basistha 

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