An invisible diversity

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Disclaimer: this piece was initially written for our internal monthly staff blog – the BroadReachers – and Wisdom agreed to share his learning externally too.

I was in a meeting recently and as the discussion rapidly evolved, I wanted to contribute my perspective too. However, I could not find an entry point into the conversation as the participants kept flooding the room with ideas. I was still holding all the ideas in my working memory while trying to connect them to my own thoughts. Then the facilitator looked at me and asked: “What do you think?”. My mind suddenly went into overdrive as I tried to distill all the ideas and perspectives, trying to identify the larger more strategic issue(s) that would inform my recommendation. Suddenly, the room was filled with deafening silence, the lights seemed brighter than a surgical theater and all I could say was: “Aaaah!” … I froze. You see, I process information sequentially and I had not yet fully grasped the entirety of what had been discussed, so I was not yet ready to provide my own perspective. 

 Therefore, when I saw that this month’s BWell topic was focused on neurodiversity, it really struck a chord with me. It is a subject I’m passionate about and I was heartened that our organization is taking it on – it shows me that we are staying true to our strategic imperative of ‘putting diversity, equity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do’. Neurodiversity and how we handle it within the workplace is a core component of inclusivity. For a business to thrive we need a diversity of ideas, perspectives and experiences, and we need to set the stage for us all to flourish. 

 I have become an advocate for neurodiversity as I spent several years immersing myself in the research, data and its day-to-day realities. You see, a close family member of mine, is autistic – or more correctly put, is on the autism spectrum of disorders.  

 When the pandemic hit, the world – I once knew so well – shifted. My level of anxiety increased significantly, and I started to introspect and examine my own working habits and preferences to find causes. As I peeled back the layers – with the support of an experienced psychologist – it became apparent that I too am on the autism spectrum. In many ways the diagnosis was a relief as it helped me understand myself better, but it was also scary as it plunged me headlong into the world of stigma I have always tried to protect my loved ones from. 

 I want to share my personal learning with you, my fellow BroadReachers, because I want to help break down some of the stereotypes and stigmas around neurodiversity (specifically autism) so maybe we can start to understand each other better. 

 Firstly, there is no such thing as normal when it comes to mental or neurological function – the term ‘normal’ should be treated like a four-letter word! It is important to treat each person with dignity and respect. Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and any other forms of neurodiversity are on a spectrum – some people with more profound presentations may very obviously struggle in day-to-day situations, while others, like me, with milder presentations have learnt to cope. We internalize our anxiety, we ‘mask’ it to present as neurotypical, aka normal. Honestly, masking can be exhausting – yes, this is why you may find me a little worn out at times at the office! 

 Would it not be wonderful if we did not have to mask? If we could show up to work each day as our fullest, truest selves? If our workplaces, colleagues, and supervisors had both the compassion and the tools to enable us to thrive? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the responsibility to accommodate and adapt was not always on us the – the neurodiverse? There is no silver bullet- embracing diversity, equity and inclusion is a journey for all of us. But where do you start? Well, here are just a few tips based on what I have learned along my own personal journey: 

Firstly, know and understand yourself. This is your first step to molding your work environment. For instance, when a lot of new information is coming at me all at once and I am asked for an opinion on the spot, I know I do not thrive. I need a moment to think things through and to balance all the information before I have a clear response. Knowing this helps me shape my engagement in situations. 

Have an honest conversation with your manager. If you know that you have specific needs, whether it is equipment, lighting, sound blocking or just a bit more time, can you be bold and share your needs rather than put yourself through more stress by masking? 

 If you are a colleague chairing a meeting, give everyone their time to shine. While some people thrive in a rapid-fire brainstorm or debate and are happy to shoot by the hip and verbally process information on the spot – others are not.   

Leaders of working sessions should therefore be mindful of everyone’s diverse contribution styles. They should ensure that all the airtime is not ceded to the loudest, most boisterous colleagues, rather they should also ask the quieter folks in the room what they think. You may be surprised and enlightened!  

If you are a manager your job is to bring out the best in your team. Be aware that we are all different, and that is a strength. That might mean taking the time to find out what makes your colleagues tick and subtly adapting the environment to be more conducive to their best work. Have compassion and be enterprising!  

Never forget, if we were all the same then nothing would ever change, we’d all agree and go on with the status quo. Neurodiversity isn’t a problem to fix, it’s a perspective to unlock.  

None of us are ‘normal’. We each have something unique about us, be it a perspective, experience or opinion. All these are things we can learn from each other. Now is that not beautiful? 

 

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