When I first entered the workforce, things were very different. There weren’t support programs in place like outplacement, workplace policies were very loose and often went ignored, and understanding of neurodiversity was lacking, to say the least. People have always been the same, with a diverse range of different experiences, illnesses and stresses in their lives – now, the world of work is catching up a little to offer better support and fairness across every industry.
Neurodiversity in Australia
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, neurodiversity “is a term used to acknowledge the diversity in brain functioning associated with a range of development conditions and experiences”. These can include conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and many more.
It’s likely you’ve come across the term before, but even if you haven’t, it’s certain that you have some experience with a range of neurodivergent people – you may even be neurodivergent yourself. Much like gender, sexual identity, cultural background and religion, neurodiversity is being recognised by more and more organisations as a key component to the wider diversity of teams.
When workplaces are set up by and for neurotypical individuals, it’s easy to see how neurodivergent people can struggle with certain systems and requirements, especially when these differences aren’t taken into account at all.
In Australia, it is estimated that 15% to 20% of the population are neurodivergent in some way. However, amongst those with an autism spectrum disorder, unemployment is greater than 30%. For the general population, unemployment sits at 4%, so these statistics tell us that there’s something out of alignment for many organisations.
Neurodiversity at work
Recently, I worked in my capacity as a career coach with a young woman who had been let go by her employer. Loretta’s employer had done everything right as far as I could see. When she didn’t meet productivity targets, they had placed her into a Performance Improvement Programme. When results didn’t improve at this stage – still during her probation period – they decided to let her go, explaining why and providing her with outplacement support.
Naturally, Loretta was upset with the outcome but she understood and was ready to tackle the challenge of finding a new job. In speaking with her over the course of a Zoom session, she trusted me enough to share with me that she actually had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Her OCD manifested in many ways but one of those was that she would become stuck on certain tasks and unable to move forward. This slowed her productivity, which meant she ended up in the Performance Improvement Programme and consequently, let go.
When Loretta trusted me with this story, I understood that there was one main issue at play that led to several problems: her employer was unaware that she had OCD.
Understand that neurodiversity is a strength
Loretta had been instructed by her mum to not tell anyone that she had this condition. Loretta’s mother is of a similar age to me and the workplace that we knew as young adults was unkind to anyone who was different. I understood immediately why her mother would give her this advice but regardless of how good her intentions were, this advice ended up putting Loretta at a disadvantage.
The decision to conceal her OCD meant that Loretta didn’t have the chance to explain why she was stuck on certain tasks and it didn’t give her employer a chance to adjust expectations with this knowledge in mind.
The more we speak about neurodiversity and our own experiences, the more others can understand what neurodivergence is and how to cater for those who, for whatever reason, use their brains a little bit differently.
Start the conversation
If you are neurodivergent, I know it can sometimes feel tricky to know when to bring it up. Do you mention it in the interview? Do you mention it when you hit a difficult task? How much information should you give?
There’s no right or wrong answer for this and it’s important that you feel comfortable sharing your experience with your employer, regardless of when you decide to share. Once you’re ready, my advice is to:
- Be honest – sharing about your experience can help you to be supported in the best way for you. If your employer doesn’t know about your condition(s) it can be difficult for them to understand why you work in a particular way and this lack of understanding can cause friction. It’s important to remember that this friction is not your fault, but it can be eased when all parties understand a little more about each other.
- Show how you contribute to the diversity of the team – for many people, it can be difficult to fully understand the way someone else’s brain works. Saying ‘I have dyslexia’ opens the door for conversation, but it doesn’t explain what this means to someone who has no experience with this condition. Explain that while you have a little trouble processing words that are written down, you’re great at understanding verbal instruction.
Naturally, this will be different for every person, but showing your manager why certain tasks are difficult and what makes them easier can be really helpful in setting the wheels in motion for the support you will need to thrive in this workplace setting.
Finding your place in a new organisation can be difficult – there’s lots of new things to learn and people to meet, and these things can be compounded when you are neurodivergent. Give yourself the best chance of success by showing your organisation the strengths you bring to the team and helping them to understand the ways in which you work.
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