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Neurodivergent traits – Retaining and empowering them in your organisation

Nathan Whitbread, Founder of The Neurodivergent Coach
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Based on statistics from the British Dyslexia Association (@BDAdyslexia) it is estimated that at least 15% of the working population have some neurodivergent traits.

Neurodivergent traits are those associated with conditions like dyslexia, ADHD, ASC along with medically diagnosed and acquired conditions like PTSD and migraines.

These traits are likely to appear in different combinations in each individual.

This is supported by research carried out by Professor Amanda Kirby that shows it is more common for individuals to have co-occurring traits from several different neurodivergent conditions, rather than traits just associated with one.

As we consider these traits, I believe it is essential we take a strengths-based approach looking to understand what the individual is great at.

While at the same time helping them to understand the things, they find difficult and how to mitigate the impact of these on their effectiveness.

These neurodivergent traits include (this is not an exhaustive list):

Neurodivergent traits – strengths

  • Creative,
  • imaginative,
  • energised,
  • solution finders,
  • emotionally intelligent,
  • persistent,
  • inquisitive, and
  • have fresh eyes.

Neurodivergent traits – difficulties

  • Short-term memory,
  • anxiety,
  • fear,
  • disguise, and
  • sensory overload. 

Screening, diagnosis and understanding of these various traits and conditions are improving rapidly though there is still much more to do.

How these traits impact an individual’s working environment and their effectiveness at work is unique to them. I work with a wide range of individuals across several different sectors. Though their stories are all different the recurring theme is that they have hit difficulties at some point in their working life that has caused them to reach out for support.

Some of these individuals have been recently diagnosed while others have known about their traits since primary school. The challenge is not just to know that you have these traits but how these traits affect an individual’s effectiveness in the workplace.

Some of the ways that common neurodivergent traits impact individuals’ effectiveness in the workplace include:

Memory and concentration

Working in environments where a lot of information is shared orally can be extremely challenging for individuals who have poor short-term memory.

A way to think about this is like a bookshelf. The average person (if they exist) can typically hold around 7 to 9 books on a bookshelf. However, someone who has difficulties with their short-term memory is likely to be only able to hold one to 3 books on the bookshelf.

The implications of this are when a new book is added the first book is pushed off and the individual is forced into a situation of grabbing the book that has fallen often disrupting the rest of the shelf.

If the culture of the organisation means that this is just the way things are done it can be incredibly challenging for these individuals to keep and recall information.

There are ways to help individuals through coaching and technology that allow them to support their short-term memory. This can enable them to work effectively within their organisation.

Organisational skills

In workplaces being organised and understanding what is going on is an essential skill especially when collaborating with others. If however your sense of time and your ability to follow processes are challenges for you then this can make life very difficult.

We often assume that having a calendar allows us to be organised, but what we take for granted is that there are a whole bunch of skills around making that calendar work for us. These include building in time to do post and pre-meeting work, accounting for travel and building in buffers to deal with unexpected situations.

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Not being able to organise effectively can be very debilitating but through co-building processes, the individual’s situation can be improved dramatically.

Time management

Having a sense of time and being able to estimate time effectively are again essential skills within our current workplaces. If you are unable to do this effectively it can detract from your credibility in the workplace. For some individuals, this could just be that they have no sense of time while for others they may be overwhelmed by the sensory inputs from their environment.

There are various solutions to this difficulty including the use of alarms and wearable technology. It is important to work with the individual to understand their unique working environment and how time management affects them.

Wellbeing

Some individuals feel that they are unable to share or not aware of their neurodivergent traits and as a result, try and mask them. This can often mean that they spend far more time working on tasks than their colleagues. This type of behaviour can generate a considerable amount of anxiety, especially when coupled with change. This is because the individual may well be barely hanging in there when they need to reconsider changing all their strategies.

Spending time assessing an individual to help them understand their traits and how these impact their work is invaluable. It can help them flourish and become their true self at work. This should focus on amplifying their strengths and building strategies to help mitigate their difficulties.

We should not underestimate the power that these changes can have

Christopher Reeve the actor who played Superman, paralysed in a horse-riding accident in 1995 – put it like this:

“When the first Superman movie came out, I was frequently asked, ‘what is a hero?’ I remember the glib response I repeated so many times. The answer was that a hero is someone who commits the courageous action without considering the consequences – the soldier who crawls out of the foxhole to drag an injured buddy to safety.

“Now my definition is completely different. I think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Unfortunately, overwhelming obstacles are present for many individuals with neurodivergent traits and if we do not change this then our organisations will be poorer for it.

With implications including:

  • non-compliance under the equality act 2010.
  • Attrition of staff who can add value to our organisations.
  • loss of competitive advantage and innovation.

To this point, we have discussed supporting the individual. It is important that changes to support the individual are not sticking plasters but instead part of an organisational wide environmental support.

This journey starts with raising awareness of Neurodiversity and specifically the neurodivergent traits. This mustn’t be a sheep dip approach, yes Neurodiversity training is good, but it needs to be supported by mentoring and coaching for managers and leaders of Neurodivergent staff.

This then needs to be supported with high-quality processes that are easy to understand and are embedded across the organisation (Not buried at the bottom of some old filing cabinet).

For example:

  • It should be obvious where to seek support
  • It should be clear how you will be treated
  • It should be clear what you can expect to happen and when.

There should be an opportunity to be assessed by a professional who can look at your strengths and difficulties and then be given tailored help and support to amplify your strengths and manage your difficulties.

If you have met one person with neurodivergent traits you have met one person.

Nathan Whitbread, Founder of The Neurodivergent Coach

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