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Five simple steps for supporting ADHD colleagues

Luise Ruddick, Policy Officer at Federation of Awarding Bodies

Luise Ruddick was diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s after a life of feeling ‘different’.  Here, she shares her top tips for supporting colleagues and employees with ADHD.

In the Spring of 2023, I wrote a piece for FE News on my ADHD diagnosis at the age of 42. I’ve spent the time since learning to navigate daily life in a different way. Knowing why I think or behave in certain ways has really helped me to stop being so tough on myself! One of the key things I’ve realised is that I don’t need to hide it when I’m struggling (this is called ‘masking’ and is something many neurodiverse people are excellent at!) and then have a breakdown afterwards in private. I’m trying to be kind to myself and using aids like fidget toys and ear plugs means that I can cope much better.

I’m lucky to have a really supportive employer and team that I can be open with if I need a bit of quiet time, and in navigating my own needs I’ve discovered some easy steps that you can take in your own organisation to support neurodiverse staff.

  1. Normalise fidgeting! As a school child, fidgeting or doodling was always associated with not paying attention, so it has been difficult to allow myself to try different fidget toys to keep my hands busy and not feel like others are judging me for it! However, using them has a given me an outlet for pent up energy and actually allows me to concentrate more on what is being said than on trying to keep still.
  2. Read up. ADHD has so many strands to it, I’m still learning about them myself. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is something I struggle with a lot, but only found out about in the last year, and I also struggle with reading between the lines and people trying to make subtle ‘hints’. Having that awareness and sharing it with my line manager and team mean that they can communicate with me in a way that I find clearer and means I don’t have to worry about misinterpreting what I’m supposed to be doing!

You could look at hiring a neurodiversity trainer for staff, having your first aiders and managers become ‘neurodiversity champions’, or run awareness workshops. And of course, if you know you have a neurodiverse team member, you can just ask them what you can do to make their lives a little easier!

  • Be flexible and open. An ADHD brain doesn’t wake up in the morning, focus for 8 hours, and then wind down. I often experience problems with ‘executive functioning’. That means that sometimes, no matter how much I might want to, I might be physically unable to work on a certain task! Often urgency is a motivator, but this can look to others like being disorganised. Try to give neurodiverse staff plenty of notice for tasks, and don’t move the goalposts if you can help it. Have important meetings, or meetings they have to feed into, in the morning, otherwise they may find it difficult to focus on anything else beforehand. Wherever possible, let them prepare and don’t put them on the spot. Quite often my mind will go blank if someone asks me a question I’m not expecting! And most importantly, put everything in writing so we have a record to refer back to instead of having to rely on memory!
  • See the positives. Having ADHD comes with challenges that may seem odd to others, like putting off little tasks that seem like nothing to others, but it also means that we have unique strengths! We can be exceptionally creative and inventive, which means we can come up with great ideas that are outside of the box (we’ll just need a bit of help following them through to the end!).   We are often great in a crisis – research[1] has shown that while a neurotypical brain moves to panic in a crisis, ours goes to ‘normal’ mode, meaning we can be the cool, calm one to keep everyone on track.
  • Walk the walk! Make it clear to your staff and colleagues that your organisation is a supportive environment, and actually follow through with this. Sometimes the message is communicated but doesn’t actually happen in practice – you might have a ‘quiet zone’ for your neurodiverse staff, but do people use it to take calls? Do your staff/colleagues feel like they can use the room and not be judged by others for having a time out? Make sure the message and the actions are communicated, understood and supported.

By Luise Ruddick, Policy Officer at Federation of Awarding Bodies

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