Workplaces are hard to navigate. This is especially true if you’re neurodivergent. A recent report from autism charity AsIAm and careers portal IrishJobs sheds light on the challenges neurodiverse people continue to face at work.
Anna Daugherty is pacing up and down as we talk. She prefers to take meetings this way. Her work as a director of product marketing keeps her at her desk for a lot of the day so she makes a point of getting up and walking around during meetings.
Her boss will say that one of her “quirks” is that she doesn’t like to be in one place for too long.
But as Daugherty sees it: “It’s not that I get bored, it’s that I get over or under stimulated”.
At 30, Daugherty received a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She felt the diagnosis “made a lot of sense”. At 35, she started talking to her doctor about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms and “that’s when the world really shifted”.
Autism or ASD falls under the umbrella of neurodiversity along with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and many other conditions.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist and disability activist Prof Judy Singer to define differences in brain function regarding learning, sociability, mood, attention, among other mental functions.
According to research, an estimated 15pc to 20pc of people are neurodivergent. This is a striking figure, considering how conversations about neurodiversity have only recently become mainstream.
Neurodiversity at work
Daugherty works in the US at Armory, a software development company. She describes the product marketing department as “a place in the centre of the organisation that brings everything together”.
She has had a fast trajectory at Armory, having started there about six months ago and rising from an individual contributor to a senior marketer to now director of the function.
In such a collaborative, fast-paced role, Daugherty has found that masking can be helpful.
“I have to separate my work persona from my personal life … That’s something I didn’t realise I was doing until my thirties.”
Masking is where a person hides aspects of their personality or behaviour to be more socially acceptable. It’s most often thought of negatively because it’s a symptom of the pressure on neurodiverse people to hide themselves to fit in. Performing an inauthentic role can take a huge toll on a person, especially if having to do it on a daily basis at work.
However, Daugherty finds that “putting on these different masks is helpful for interfacing with different types of people”, though she admits to finding it “exhausting”.
Since her diagnosis, she feels she can cope with the masking better. “I’m able to understand when I’m doing specific behaviours and either pull back on them a little bit or treat myself a little bit differently in the evening. You know I’ll say, ‘I’m tired right now, it’s okay to be tired, don’t beat yourself up’”.
“It’s recognising those things and being able to compensate for them better.”
Daugherty feels supported at work but has previously worked at places that she believes would not have been supportive.
“I’ve chosen places where I know that I will be supported. I’m very privileged to be able to say that. I know a lot of people can’t.”
Daugherty has worked in the tech industry for over 10 years and thinks there’s more work to be done to promote diversity. “In the tech industry specifically … I’ve just seen some real nightmares of places that wouldn’t support me for being a woman let alone being neurodivergent.”
A recent report by autism charity AsIAm and careers portal IrishJobs revealed that an overwhelming majority of autistic people (84pc) do not feel supported at work.
The Autism in the Workplace Report 2023, which included 461 people, asked autistic people about the challenges they face in neurotypical workplaces, and asked employers about their organisation’s attitudes to hiring and retaining autistic talent.
Less than a fifth of autistic respondents said they had received support or reasonable accommodations during the recruitment process for their current role. Almost 60pc felt that requesting reasonable accommodations would worsen their chances of getting a job.
Nearly two thirds of employers were unaware of the supports and schemes available to them in recruiting and retaining autistic talent. Yet, 58pc believe their recruitment processes to be accessible to autistic people.
Síobhra Rush, partner and Dublin lead of Lewis Silkin law firm, has seen an increase in employers’ queries about issues related to neurodiversity in the workplace.
“What I’ve seen is an increase in issues where for instance an employer wants to manage performance or conduct issues and an employee discloses that they have ADHD or one of the conditions that come under the neurodivergent umbrella,” Rush explains.
Rush, who has more than 15 years’ experience working on employment equality and disability cases, believes that employers are aware and open to supporting neurodiverse staff but that they don’t have experience of dealing with these issues.
“I think most employers, and particularly big employers who have the resources, know that they are potentially missing out on a heap of talent by not making it easier for neurodivergent people to work for them.”
However, Rush acknowledges that it can be difficult to be honest about a diagnosis at work.
“I can understand there’s a reticence in making a disclosure but if the condition is significant enough that it could impact somebody’s performance at an interview, they should disclose it to allow the employer to take steps to help them.”
Daugherty didn’t know how to tell people when she was diagnosed. “I didn’t know if it was appropriate to talk about this at work.”
She has found that she’s not overly open at work. “I err on the side of not being a hundred percent transparent at work but also I won’t hide myself.”
“I definitely need help to be my best self at work so I’m not going to show up to a place that won’t have me as I am,” she explains.
How to help
According to the AsIAm report, an overwhelming majority of autistic respondents (84pc) feel that employers, managers and colleagues do not know enough about autism to support them at work.
Over four fifths of respondents (82pc) do not believe or are unsure about whether their current employer has a disability, autism and neurodiversity employee resource group, while over half do not believe or are unsure about whether their employer has an employee assistance programme.
Daugherty does not believe that more training is necessarily the answer, instead it’s about a culture of kindness and empathy.
She feels that her workplace is really good at “levelling the playing field” by supporting staff across the world with different needs and ways of working, and the company makes an effort to be “neutral and helpful”.
Armory has a “remote first” policy but also gives its employees access to regional hubs if they prefer to work in an office.
According to the workplace survey, 82pc of autistic people feel that remote working and flexible working arrangements have created new opportunities for autistic talent.
Rush thinks it’s a no-brainer for employers to invest the time and training in recruiting and retaining neurodiverse talent.
“Particularly I think where employers are seen to invest and take these steps, they get paid back in spades with the talent they take on.”
Rush advises employers to review their diversity and inclusion policies and to understand that they are legally obliged to make reasonable accommodations when an employee discloses a diagnosis.
When asked if the current policies protect neurodiverse people at work, Rush said it’s too early to tell.
“I think that they are as sufficient as they could be for now, but I would imagine that they may need further development as this area develops a bit further.”
In the report, CEO and founder of AsIAm Adam Harris said, “Securing and maintaining a job is a rite of passage for most. But for autistic people significant barriers are presented which deprive them of the same chance in finding a job and developing a career.”
“There is an urgent need for proactive leadership to address the stigma and fear experienced by autistic people in choosing to share their experiences in the workplace or ask for reasonable accommodations.”
There are hopeful signs, however, as the report shows that businesses are performing better in some areas than they were two years ago.
For anybody unsure about getting a diagnosis as an adult, Daugherty gives this advice: “If you think there’s something there, there might be, so go talk to somebody about it. It’s helpful”.
Daugherty recently gave a talk at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center where she described herself as an expert in her field. Having suffered from imposter syndrome her whole life, this was a proud moment that she reached no doubt largely because of her diagnosis and the understanding and acceptance that came after.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been able to say ‘I’m an expert’ and really feel it and mean it … I’ve made it, I’ve earned this, I know my stuff and I’m able to confidently speak on it. That was a turning point for me.”
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