‘I was terrified of a round of tea’: Small changes that can help neurodivergent people thrive at work | Autism

TIn the outside world, Kat Brown was a professional success. But what her colleagues didn’t know was how much effort it cost her. «I had a hidden voice in my head saying ‘you’re not good enough, you’re not normal, you have to try five times harder than everyone else,'» says Brown, author of the ADHD memoir It’s Not Blood Trend. «The only way to calm it down was alcohol, and coffee along with the drink. It was a way of lassoing my brain into doing what I wanted to do.”

That meant downing up to nine Americanos a day, relaxing with a drink after work – and sometimes bursting into tears when she got home. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 37, not long after she left her job in the media and went freelance, that it all started to make sense. Some people with ADHD, she explains, find that caffeine helps stabilize rather than stimulate an already agitated mind. Meanwhile, her anxiety, she thinks, reflected a sense of being different and a fear of being exposed in some way.

Still, four years later, Brown learned to see the benefits of her neurodivergent brain. “A friend I was working with said, ‘you’ve got so many strings on your bow you’re practically a harp,’ and I think a lot of people with ADHD have a Swiss army knife mindset of, ‘OK, this is the situation, what do I do here? ‘»

Her busy mind likes to juggle multiple projects, which makes her very productive, and she thrives on deadlines. “As long as I have a constant amount of work and tasks to tick off, that’s great. I really struggle when I lose my job.” She learned to make a detailed weekly schedule, filling the empty time with tasks to stay motivated.

Rising rates of both ADHD and autism diagnoses in adults—a 2021 study found that autism diagnoses rose 787% between 1998 and 2018—are prompting a new understanding of the hidden role that neurodiversity plays in business life, for both good and bad. . Comedian Fern Brady, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 34, described how “everything about my personality that gave me trouble at university or most jobs” seemed like a magical power in standup. Chef Heston Blumenthal, who has ADHD, credits his «very busy head» with helping him make creative connections.

However, not everyone is so lucky. One American study found that workers with ADHD were 60% more likely to be fired than neurotypical staff and three times more likely to quit impulsively, while a UK study found that only 30% of working-age Britons with autism had job despite most saying I want one. Unhelpful stereotypes like the idea that autistic people are best suited for solitary data processing jobs still exist, says Richmal Maybank, an employment officer at the National Autism Society (NAS), who has supported people in fields from the creative arts to cognitive behavioral therapy. Meanwhile, fear of discrimination deters some from disclosing their diagnosis or exercising their legal right to request «reasonable accommodations» at work — often small changes that make a surprisingly big difference.

Office etiquette can present pitfalls for neurodivergent workers. Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA

One autistic healthcare worker supported by Maybank was so afraid of breaking the social norms of office tea that she dared not drink the hot drink at work. «She had to travel to clinics and there were a lot of different rules – one was using the kitty system, the other was to be careful which cup you use,» says Maybank, who explains that deciphering the unspoken rules can be more difficult for some autistic people. «She said, ‘should I make a cup of tea for the person sitting next to me or for the whole room?’ Trying to figure it out was so stressful that she said it was easier to just not have a cup of tea, ever.» NAS will help companies put together an «initial checklist» for new hires explaining this type of informal behavior alongside official work.

Because both autistic people and those with ADHD can be hypersensitive to bright lights and sounds, Maybank also often recommends warmer office lighting, allowing people to start work earlier when it’s quiet, or turning off the office radio and allowing staff to listen to music on headphones.

But for many neurodivergent workers, the biggest obstacle is getting hired at all. A recent government-commissioned review of autism and employment, led by former government minister Robert Buckland, found that autistic graduates are twice as likely to be out of a job after 15 months than their non-autistic peers, with many feeling they «have to hide his autistic traits for success».

Buckland, whose own daughter is autistic, insists his report is not about forcing anyone into work, but about helping people who «crave the chance to have a job and enjoy the same quality of life that other people take for granted. » Sometimes, he says, that means a job with support (about a third of autistic people also have a learning disability). But for others, it simply means making inclusivity «a normal part of employment» for everyone. His report recommends allowing candidates to see questions in advance for the interview so that they can prepare and to set more practical interview tasks that focus less on «fitting in» with society and more on what candidates can actually do.However, his finding that people with autism are disproportionately overqualified for jobs they perform suggests that, even after being employed, some still face subtle barriers to advancement.

Jo Desborough is a neurodiversity coach, working with employers and employees to help bridge the gaps. Desborough is autistic herself and still remembers being punished as a child for chatting in class. «The teacher said ‘who’s saying that?’ so I raised my hand and I was detained. I was terrified – she remembers. Confused, she asked why she was punished because she answered honestly. “And suddenly now I’m labeled ‘challenged,’ and all I’ve done is try to figure out what I did wrong. If that teacher had said ‘stop talking’, I would have understood.» In the workplace, this tendency to tell the literal truth—instead of telling managers what they want to hear—can sometimes hurt prospects for advancement even though honesty is potentially very valuable to an employer, she points out.

Clare McNamara, a neurodiversity coach with whom Desborough often works and who was diagnosed with ADHD and some autistic traits in her 50s, emphasizes that teaching is not about «fixing» people, but about building their strengths. «To be able to say to someone ‘tell me how you experience things, what are your strengths, what do you do in this situation, what can we borrow from that to apply to this?’ – it’s almost like they’re given permission to be authentically themselves.”

McNamara specializes in coaching senior executives who have been successful in some ways because of their neurodiversity and in other ways despite their colleagues’ reaction to it. She says: “They may be very good at seeing the bigger picture, good strategic thinkers. They are often good at bringing people along and are incredibly loyal. He will work very hard, very innovative.» Yet even for high achievers, feeling forced to work at work in ways that don’t come naturally can be exhausting. Both she and Desborough say they set firm boundaries and pace their work to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

For employees who don’t have as much control over their hours and worry about revealing themselves as neurodivergent, Desborough suggests asking for accommodations without specifying exactly why you want to (for example) wear noise-cancelling headphones or work partially from home.

For Brown, working from home allows time for exercise—which helps her focus—and also crucially allows her to deal with the odd drop in energy. If she had been diagnosed before she went freelancing, she’s not sure she would have felt confident telling her employer. Yet in many ways, she still wishes she had known sooner. «The main thing that would have changed, apart from the disappearance of that desperate need to prove myself, is that I might have been a little happier.» Isn’t that what we all ultimately want from work?

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    1. People from different socioeconomic levels may have different perspectives. Those in more disadvantaged communities may be more exposed to pollution and therefore more concerned about its effects. In contrast, those who benefit economically from polluting industries may be more inclined to support fewer regulations.

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