As part of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, we at Creative Access want to highlight the lived experiences of neurodivergent people within the workplace and the strengths and skills they bring to their roles.
We sat down with CA’s employer training trainee Simba, to chat about what adjustments work for her as someone with ADHD, and her top tips for neurodivergent people in the workplace.
There are unfortunately some negative misconceptions about neurodiversity and the workplace, what kind of skills and strengths can neurodivergent people bring to their roles?
As someone with ADHD, one thing that often gets brought up is time management. You can be perceived as lazy, or not prioritising correctly, or in general, your work ethic can be questioned if you’re not coming in on time, or they wonder how serious you are as an employee because you can’t meet certain time expectations. However, I think a strength that neurodiverse people can bring to roles off the back of that misconception is that we have the ability to hyper-focus. That’s a noticeable strength. It’s expected that you’re not necessarily hardworking, or that you can’t apply focus to a task, but you can.
As a person with ADHD, another strength we bring to the table is socialising. We have really good oral abilities; we enjoy socialising, we enjoy networking. Sometimes I feel like we’re like bridges to other people.
And another strength is our visual abilities – neurodiverse people in general share that strength. We tend to be able to see things in big pictures, or mind-map, or visually see things.
On top of that, enthusiasm and optimism. In the general workplace, if you’re used to not being the ‘best’, you have to offer optimism to keep you going. You have to keep that optimism and that drive which is really valuable in the workplace.
You also think outside the box. An opportunity might come where your skills might work well for a task in another department and you can then use that to get closer to your desired career goals.
Finally, I have so many interests and passions. I can put my hand in many different bags! You can take us out of our comfort zone and I think we can seize the challenge and have a level of enthusiasm and problem-solving skills. It might not be approached in the way that’s expected, but we’ll find a way.
From your own experience, what kind of adjustments work well for staying focused and happy in the workplace?
More than average regular check-ins with my line manager.
Sometimes I can get lost in a task or the opposite, [and] lose focus on a task. I have a really good relationship with my line manager and it is super helpful. It means that no matter what, I can go to her about a series of things. She also sends me emails after a verbal discussion. I know dyslexic people also have difficulties with taking on verbal conversations and making sure you have all the details relevant to the task.
Avoid glaring lights and find a quiet place to work
It will help you stay focused. I’ve not personally had to do this, but it is ok to ask for a quiet space so that you can focus. In the workplace, you might be prone to anxiety or agitation if there’s a lot of lights and a lot of noise. Lots of neurodivergent people have an issue with sensory overload like glaring lights and overhearing other conversations, so a good adjustment is a quiet room with dim lights.
Fidget spinners and spinny rings!
Alongside this, I have other things, like a lavender bag because I stim off smells. People stim off different things, such as music. I just sniff the lavender bag and it calms me down. Same with my spinny rings, if I’m in a meeting and I need to move, I have my spinny ring. At work, if I’ve been stuck on a task too long, I’ll feel in my body that I need to move.
Make sure that you go on regular walks
Even going on walks around the office, exploring different floors.
Have snacks with you! People with ADHD also crave things that are high in dopamine: foods high in sugar and saturated fats, basically things that give you energy really fast. This is helpful but can ultimately lead to a crash, so you should try to go for nutritious but high complex carbohydrate foods to keep your sugar levels at a decent level.
Nutritious foods like oily fish, nuts, seeds, berries, leafy greens… I also take fish oil tablets which is meant to be really good for focusing. The ways I’ve tried to manage my ADHD is through supplements and snacks, Vitamin D as well.
I set alarms to remind me to eat – sometimes with ADHD and autism, you can forget when you’re hungry. The alarms also remind me when it’s time to focus on something else. They help keep you involved in your day, so you don’t get lost in a task and also can help how long it takes you to do a task.
And on that point, what kind of adjustments can employers make?
Considering our strengths in visual mind-mapping skills, an adjustment an employer can make is giving someone 2 computer screens or a large computer screen so that everything is visible and it reduces the burden on your memory. For me in life, it’s out of sight out of mind so I like to have a visual idea of where everything is. Your own personal desk-space is also another reasonable adjustment so you can see your own belongings and what’s available for you.
An employer can also understand that someone with ADHD might need regular movement, and that not being viewed as weird. An adjustment could be giving someone ideas and spaces where they can have those times to release the burden of sensory overload.
I understand that in a business you can’t be late to everything, but having an employer who understands when you might be late reduces the anxiety and that that they might struggle with time management, and are probably very aware of that struggle can be really helpful.
Things like visual prompts and colourful stationary; a visual calendar; a notebook that you colour-code; checklists; notes; traffic light system in terms of things you prioritise in your day and your line manager breaking down tasks can all also be great adjustments. There’s also loads of softwares like Grammarly and text-to-speech softwares.
Another thing to bear in mind is, lots of people with ADHD thrive when they can do a couple of things at once. I’m able to take things more if I’m doing multiple things at once. It can feel a bit limiting to do that in the workplace, as it might look a bit unserious. But if I’m able to use my fidget spinner, for example, whilst in a conversation, I can offer up more ideas. So, a certain level of understanding that not everyone has to sit at a desk to be 100% focused.
Although not everyone may feel like their workplace is a safe space for discussing these topics, do you have any tips for anyone who wants to talk to their employer about their neurodivergence but is struggling? How has it benefitted you?
Disclosure isn’t necessary. It really depends on the working environment you’re at. It worked well for me but some businesses might not have the structure to support you and your disclosure ends up being redundant. But if you feel like the symptoms of your neurodivergence are pervasive in that they affect you on a day-to-day basis, then disclosure is a safe space. Ultimately, it is better not to mask these things. Don’t have fear that your difficulties are bad personality traits.
You have strengths and skills to bring forward and it’s ok to say, “this is where I’m strong and this is where I’m not”. We’re all motivated and inspired by different tasks and activities.
Go to someone you trust and raise creating a Wellness Action Plan with them. The way I could disclose my neurodivergence was through my Wellness Action Plan. You discuss what tell-tales sign you give off when you’re upset. I know that according to my ADHD how that would translate. This is relevant for everyone, not just neurodivergent people.
It has benefitted me in regards to delegating tasks, my line manager knows what tasks are well-fitting for me and which ones I may struggle with so she can assist me in those areas. It makes me feel more comfortable to be myself, to move around, my mannerisms… Everyone should be free to be themselves no matter if you have neurodivergence or whether you’re culturally different, or any of those things. But it gives me a sense of freedom to come as my authentic self – I’m never questioned, or mocked. I feel appreciated for those things.
These things oscillate, even with ADHD symptoms, there’s some weeks where I feel completely neurotypical. For anyone, in regards to mental health or their personal circumstance, these are all things that are constantly oscillating. Someone neurotypical, on a bad mental health month, can show symptoms that might overlap with someone with autism, or ADHD… That’s why I love the idea of Wellness Action Plan – someone who’s struggling with their mental health can disclose and ask for reasonable adjustments. Having those adjustments in the workplace help everyone.
If you are being discriminated against, remember this is illegal. Under the equality act 2010, it’s a legal requirement to have reasonable adjustments made in the workplace. No one can do everything, so have faith in the ability that you have. It’s within your rights to ask for support and support in how you can develop.
What advice would give to co-workers on how to support the neurodivergent people that work with them?
Advocate for your colleagues when they have difficulties. One thing I feel blessed with both my 2 past line managers is that I was shy and nervous to talk about difficulties and sometimes they would send an email on my behalf to explain I was struggling and feeling shy. But it goes both ways.
Making everyone aware
In your own department, it can be fine as you know the way of working and you have your own style of working, but sometimes someone from the wider team might come in and not know. A colleague explaining to them your style of working and your adjustments can be really helpful.
If you see someone looks agitated, you could say “Hey I’ve noticed this – tell me if I’m wrong – but I wanted to ask you if this is the case?”. That’s how I’ve approached it with colleagues who’ve had bad mental health days before.
Ask if there’s any way you can adjust
If there’s a group project and you can tell someone’s struggling, ask how you can assist or do it differently. Ask if you can adjust your working styles to work better together. Giving the option of being able to have a verbal or written conversation, maybe we could talk on the phone or do a visual mind-map. Give them the option to approach tasks in different ways.
How can neurodivergent people prepare for work and the workspace?
- Plan your journey the day before. Give yourself visual cues, what landmarks might you see on your way there?
- Pack your bag before
- Plan your outfit
- Sleep hygiene is really important: if you struggle with waking up, put your phone far away from your bed so you have to get up to get it in the morning might be helpful
- Body double: it’s not always possible, but if you find having someone present while you do a task helpful, you could find yourself a buddy or just ask someone if you can work together because you find it easier
- Soothing techniques: for me it’s the spinnies, but meditation can also help.
- Eat breakfast!