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Neurodiversity at Work: Your Questions Answered

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

On Thursday 19th October, Women in Digital Switzerland held our first event on the topic of Neurodiversity, named "Neurodiversity at Work". The event was by far one of our most popular, with almost 90 people in attendance and many more registering for the recording.


We were asked a number of questions in the webinar, and we decided to answer them in a blog post and provide helpful resources so that people can continue to access these, whether they registered for the Webinar or not.


If you don't have time to watch our recording, here are some of our key takeaways: - Being Neurodivergent comes with both strengths and challenges and Neurodivergent people feel most supported when these are both understood. Additionally, self-advocacy is really important for Neurodivergent people.


- That said, Elizabeth Frei, Psychologist/Psychotherapist FSP said that Neurodivergent people can benefit from a self-compassionate approach and looking to build on their strengths, rather than focusing solely on their weaknesses


- Some of the most common challenges experienced by Neurodivergent people are; low self-esteem, shame, perfectionism, Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD): which is described as an intense emotional reaction to perceived or real rejection, lack of understanding and empathy from others microaggressions: which is a form of Ableism and burnout due to the effort of having to mask neurodivergent traits.


The Experience of Neurodivergent Individuals in the Workplace


- It is not always possible or safe for Neurodivergent people to disclose the fact that they are Neurodivergent due to stigma, especially in the workplace, even if it would benefit them hugely with support from the right manager and colleagues.


- Trust is an important factor in disclosure, and our panellists also highlighted that once you disclose, you cannot take it back, so really assessing the situation and seeing if there is a supportive environment before you do so is important.


It's still difficult to ask for accommodation because there is (often) no clear way to ask for any type of accommodation, no policy. So it's your own battle "

Victoria Grineva


- Neurodivergent people can often have what is known as a spiky profile, so they are exceptional in some areas but struggle in others. This can show up as things like creativity, pattern recognition, meticulous planning or very in-depth knowledge of a specific topic. Valentina recommended complementing these strengths in teams at work so that each person could support each other.


- When giving feedback, avoid giving general feedback that cannot be acted upon and avoid making personal comments and judgements (e.g. you are too sensitive). Instead, give specific and actionable feedback which is not personal. Also, consider if the feedback is really worth saying, how important is it really?


- Ableism, mobbing and bullying can be presented in overt ways e.g. "You are too much, stop being like that" and "You are far too sensitive", to more subtle ways such as exclusion, which can be just as painful.



"In a workplace, it's important to recognize that everybody usually has something to say, and if somebody is consistently not saying something, there might be a need to check in on that person and make sure that they feel safe in that environment. Because there might be dynamics going on that you're not able to recognize or observe."

Dr Elizabeth Frei



Consider Feeding Forward, Rather than Back


- Valentina Coco asked us to consider using the feedforward approach instead of feedback. Identify the thing that you want a person to develop and make a plan of how to get to where you collectively want to go in the future. It also always starts with the employee.


- Consider the environment where feedback is given and choose one that makes the person feel most comfortable. This could be online, or outside in a location other than the office.


"If your company requires you to go through the process of peer feedback. Filter it, is it relevant? Is it important? Is it a deal breaker for what this person wants to do? Is it something that is not going to have an impact and is a minor thing? Then ask yourself, do I actually have to share it? And if you have to share it, make sure that you qualify it."

Valentina Coco


- Learn more about mental health and how to support your colleagues in the workplace. There are some excellent trainings available on Mental Health First Aid that can be really helpful for any colleague, no matter how their brain functions and this is offered by many workplaces.


In a previous workplace, we could all undertake a course to be a mental health first aider similar to a typical first-aid course (but for mental health). This was something everyone could do, the whole entire workplace. Go for two days and learn to be a mentor and become a qualified mental health first aider.

Sarah Kathleen Kaufmann



- With the right accommodations and environment Neurodivergent people can have a good experience and thrive in the workplace, as demonstrated by Severin Siffert, who worked with Auticon in the past and now works as a Software Engineer.


Another thing that's really convenient is that they're only focused on output. Like, if you work best in the bathtub, no one cares. You just do whatever works best for you

Severin Siffert


 

Questions and Answers from the Webinar

As we felt that the Q&A contained some excellent points, WDS decided to include a write-up of these, so that we can help our community.


In the Webinar, you mentioned that there were mental health resources available in English for Switzerland, thanks in part to the work that Sarah Collins-Kaufmann did. Where can we find these?


Pro Mente Santa (https://promentesana.ch/english) has an array of resources, including:


- Talking about mental health

- Brochure for mental health in the workplace

- Access to E-counselling

- Resources to find a psychotherapist

- Learn how to provide mental health first aid


You can also access the brochure, Useful Resources for mental health If you have questions about mental health first aid, please reach out to Sarah. She is a trained mental health first aider and can answer your questions.


How can we best support Neurodivergent applicants during a job application/hiring process?


As the topic of disclosure is something our panellists found hard to give a concrete answer to, we may not know that someone is Neurodivergent during the hiring process. Therefore, it may be better to look at how to overheal the recruitment process for all, in order to make it neurodivergent friendly, so that they don't need to disclose if they don't feel comfortable in order to be accommodated. There is certainly no "one size fits all" approach for hiring and recruiting, however, we recommend considering the following:

- Understand that the hiring process is also exhausting for the candidate, especially if they are neurodivergent, so consider how to make it simpler for the candidate.

- Avoid repetition as much as possible, for example, allow them to upload their CV instead of filling it into a lengthy form.

- Make job ads, clear, easy to read and concise. Also, consider if skills are actually required or if you are just using the term because it is normally used. Labels like "excellent communication skills" can lead to some Neurodivergent candidates automatically excluding themselves.

- Don't rely on ATS, and if you use it, make sure to screen the CVs that were rejected, as sometimes Neurodivergent people don't follow a linear career path and get excluded by ATS and other automated systems as a result. - On this note, it is important to consider transferable skills and experience, rather than a rigid "5 years of experience" in a specific role


- If the job is not for a position such as copy editing or proofreading where it is important to get a perfect copy, then don't exclude CVs that contain a single minor typo.


This article from Deloitte Insights gives additional insights across the whole hiring process.


What have you found has helped you most over the years?


Self-acceptance and self-compassion were two of the things that our panellists mentioned to be helpful. In the past, a lot of focus has been put on encouraging Neurodivergent people to change who they are, rather than embracing who they are.


Rachael talked about how learning about and understanding her strengths, the fact that she had them and what they could do hugely helped her to see Dyslexia from a more balanced point of view. She also found that learning a lot about her challenges and understanding that other people experience them, not just her, enabled her to strategise on how to play to her strengths and work around her challenges.


Can you share some examples of impactful allyship tips?


Valentina highlighted a particularly important point here about not invalidating a person sharing their experience. So if someone comes to you and says "I experience this" or discloses that they are Neurodivergent, it is important not to respond with "No, you don't", "No, you are not" or "That's not a big deal". Sometimes we can do this when we are trying to reassure a person, but it can be upsetting for them to hear.


Sarah talked about how just listening and learning can already do so much. That knowledge can allow the ally to step in and mitigate at times when a Neurodivergent person is being criticised unfairly or experiencing discrimination.


She also talked about the importance of learning about how to do mental health first aid and how to best support someone when they are dealing with a difficult time. Often listening (and not offering advice, just listening) can be a great first step.


When an employee does disclose or expresses a need for support, a manager can make that person feel supported by asking how they can help. Asking how they can help can be a great first step to opening up a conversation and creating trust. If they talk about a particular thing that they struggle with, you can look things up that might help and suggest things, or ask them if that would be helpful. But it is also important not to demand people do certain things or try to force them, because different things work for everyone, and it is important that they have the space to work out what works for them.


Finally, Valentina also added that if you have a Neurodivergent colleague who is too scared to ask for accommodations like a screen reader, dimmed lights, etc. You can ask for it on behalf of everyone and save that person the anxiety of having to ask for themselves.


Would you agree that the diagnosis (OCD, bipolar, ADHD) are rather a consequence/manifestation of different wiring i.e. neurodiversity?


Although we (the panel) do not speak for everyone, we do agree with the consensus that brains differ in functioning across the human race. Differences can be a consequence of a number of different factors, including genetic factors, experience (in the case of trauma) or acquired (for example in the case of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Valentina added that OCD can be trauma or 'genetic' driven, and she doesn't necessarily differentiate between them. She believes that in the end, our brains work differently and are 'wired' differently (sometimes this is visible in scans and tests). She is however respectful of how others choose to define themselves and the language they use to do so,


Who have you found to be most compassionate and understanding (in the workplace) of the challenges Neurodivergent people face, as well as the strengths and superpowers that they bring? How so?


Rachael highlighted that she personally doesn't use the term superpower, because she doesn't feel she can relate to it, and others in the community have told her they feel it minimises their challenges. However, when we talk about understanding colleagues, our panellists found, from their collective experiences, that great managers often don't have special qualifications or expert knowledge on different neurotypes, but tend to demonstrate the following traits and behaviours:


- Active Listening: They are not afraid to ask questions, listen and learn about neurodivergent experiences, and take feedback on board.


- Collaborative Approach: They are happy to work together with their employees to solve problems. Often Neurodivergent people are great problem solvers and will want to work with you to find solutions to challenges.


- Flexibility: They consider if there are alternative ways of doing something and allow the Neurodivergent person to work in the way that suits them best (for example, recording a meeting instead of taking notes).


- Kindness: They foster a kind and psychologically safe environment, a person will be more trusting and happier to come to them earlier with their challenges and also more comfortable in working together on them.


More information on how to manage Neurodivergent employees is available from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.


How do we manage the public expectations of performance socially and professionally (work, friends) without having to “come out” as neurodivergent due to the stigma and repercussions?


We discussed the stigma that often comes with the subject of Neurodiversity and our thoughts on disclosure. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to disclose without judgement and receive the support they deserve, in life and in the workplace. However, we know that this is not already the reality.


When it comes to private life, friends and family, Valentina suggested trying to put less emphasis on expectations. She said you can gradually bring in changes to accommodate yourself.


At work, you can also go gradually with bringing in small changes, and if they know you well enough for what you bring to the workplace, and you justify it by saying that it will help you to do your best work, then they should be able to accommodate this.


Rachael talked about initiatives such as flexi-time at work (being able to arrive between 8am and 10am and leave between 5pm and 7pm) and how she has seen that benefit many kinds of employees, not just those who struggle with time perception, but also people like cross border workers, or people who have long train journeys.


Software like screen reading tools such as Speechify and audiobooks can also be more convenient for many people, so you don't have to be Dyslexic or outwardly say you are in order to use it.


Which behavioural tips/tricks help you in the workplace to manage each of your own “sensitivities”?


Neurodivergent people can experience different types of sensitivities such as sensory sensitivities and emotional sensitivities, which can include things like Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria.


Valentina talked about emotional sensitivity in two elements, knowing what your triggers are (so what situations and experiences do you find more difficult) and what things help you recover (what things can you do to bring the intensity of certain feelings down after you get triggered).


Some of the things that can help include: removing yourself temporarily from a situation or doing breathwork with a longer out-breath to activate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system. It is also important to put a plan in place early, e.g. rather than trying not to cry and feeling like a failure later on because you cannot control it, instead just warn those around you that you may need to step away sometimes because you need time to process a situation.


Elizabeth highlighted the importance of self-acceptance in conjunction with sensitivities and recommends exploring this topic with a mental health professional or someone close to you that you trust. She said early on, that it can be hard to even identify that you are feeling triggered in the first place. Something that can help with this is to build "self-check-ins" into your routine. Perhaps asking "how am I feeling?" and try to connect to feelings in your body when you go to the coffee machine in the morning or turning off your computer at the end of the day for example.


Rachael talked about sensory sensitivities, which Neurodivergent people can sometimes experience higher (hyper) and lower (hypo) sensitivities than the general population. In some cases, this can be termed as sensory processing disorder. This can affect the different sensory inputs we experience, such as sight (visual), hearing (auditory), taste (gustatory), smell (olfactory), touch (tactile), vestibular (balance and movement), proprioception (bodily awareness, where my body is in space, e.g. is your arm behind you or in front) and interoception (inner bodily awareness, sensations such as pain). Everyone can experience both hyper and hypo sensitivities across different sensory inputs to some degree, but it can be more pronounced in some individuals. In the workplace this can look like:


- Being unable to tolerate bright overhead lights

- Needing to wear noise-cancelling headphones

- Being unable to wear certain fabrics

- Chewing pens and other objects as a result of a need for proprioceptive stimulation

- Rocking or spinning in their chair

- Sitting in "unconventional positions" (such as cross-legged)


She recommended that if this is causing issues in daily life, to seek out the advice of an Occupational Therapist or learn more about how to accommodate these using adjustments tailored to your experience.


What is your experience in Switzerland having a stronger stigmatization than Anglo-Saxon countries?


In the Webinar, Sarah and Elizabeth touched on the positive changes they have seen over the past decade in regard to mental health awareness and discussion but also noted that stigma exists, in all countries. There is a higher level of awareness of neurodiversity in countries such as the USA and the UK, and more specific support in the form of programmes such as the UK's "Access to Work" programme, but this doesn't mean that stigma doesn't exist there either. Globally, there is still a lot of work to do.


How to avoid burnout?


Burnout is a tricky thing to navigate and in terms of Neurodivergent burnout, the following tips can be applied, but if you are experiencing burnout, we recommend working through it with a mental health professional:


- Regular self-check-ins: Elizabeth suggested several times a day, such as when you get coffee in the morning, doing a check-in where you evaluate how you feel, how connected you feel to your body and how present you are in the current moment. This can be a great practice for anyone, not just Neurodivergent individuals, and she highlighted scheduling it and practising it regularly rather than just waiting to remember.


- Prioritise "boring" self-care: Sometimes when we are very busy, or very focused on something, we forget to eat, take bathroom breaks, or get outside for a short walk. Making very boring basic things a priority and more important than work can help us to starve off burnout


- Take regular breaks and allow yourself to stop when you start to feel tired: Instead of continuing to push through. Understand that pushing past this point and ignoring breaks and rest time can have consequences and that you will need to catch up on rest later, and this may not be a choice as the body can force rest through exhaustion or burnout.


- Regularly engage in things that are important to you, such as your interests and hobbies


What parenting advice or words of advice do you have for parents with young neurodivergents? On the topic of learning acceptance, struggling in school work, being people-pleasing to hide the neurodivergence etc.


Severin suggested that parents can find a mode of communication that doesn't cause them too much stress. If face-to-face is difficult, they could communicate more via text/letters that allow for finding the right words.


Valentina talked about how routines help a lot when it comes to homework and other tasks. She said that knowing what happens when and keeping it as stable as possible removes a stress level for her daughter and it helps to know when she has her best energy levels and what type of 'break' she needs before being able to focus.


For learning acceptance and social, it helped when her therapist explained to her clearly how her brain works, and why some things are easy and some are hard, and it made it a 'neutral' topic and therefore removed a lot of shame.


She also said that she has changed my language a lot when talking to her daughter. She does not use "You ARE ..." even if she is behaving in a challenging way, she chooses to address the action, e.g. "This action is ...". The act of separating the action and the person is a good principle for any form of communication, not just for children and also be applied in the workplace.


Could you recommend some websites or other resources to read some studies/news/information or recent publications about neurodiversity?


Here are some of our favourites:


Books

What Power Do I Have? - Valentina Coco This is Dyslexia - Kate Griggs ADHD Works at Work - Leanne Maskell

Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You, Jenara Nerenberg Unmasking Autism, Dr Devon Price

Stumbling Through Space and Time Living Life With Dyspraxia, Rosemary Richings


YouTube Channels


Organisations


A thank you to our speakers


Women in Digital Switzerland would once again like to thank Dr Elizabeth Frei, Valentina Coco, Sarah Collins Kaufmann, and Victoria Grineva for speaking and sharing their incredible knowledge. experiences and insights, and our moderator Rachael Camp for organising this webinar.

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