Neurodiversity in the Workplace: How It Affects Mental Health and 10 Reasons Why We Should Share
February 7, 2019
I spent the first 35 years of my life not knowing about my neurodiversity and thus, not understanding what made me so different from others. My differences were always present, but they became especially apparent in the workplace where I never felt safe in my environment or understood the expectations. So I was never fully present. Dealing with this every day took a massive tole on my mental health. And, subsequently, on my physical and emotional health as well.
When I worked in an office setting, I always stood out and not necessarily in a good way. Not knowing about my sensory processing difficulties, I was exposed and unable to self-soothe. Triggered constantly by my environment. By those pesky fluorescent lights that seem to be in every office I’ve ever worked in. By sudden noises and strong smells. By people or objects being too close to me or invading my personal space. By having to shift tasks quickly or to do something outside of my routine. By dealing with distractions that forced me to transition before I was ready. By having to talk constantly.
I was reprimanded at jobs for the things I did to help myself process. For my facial expressions. For not smiling. For not fitting in. I was even fired once for not fitting in with the team.
Preferring to only work when at work, I didn’t socialize with my coworkers as much as others did. And if I did socialize, I sometimes feared I overshared or got too personal, which would make me shy away from socializing again. I also needed to sleep or to exercise during my breaks, rarely able to interact. Which meant I wasn’t joining coworkers for lunch or chatting about my weekends in the hallways. Already struggling with small talk, I didn’t have the energy to both make conversation and get my job done. And I always got my job done, and well, but that was often overlooked.
When I began teaching, interacting with my students took everything I had, which meant I often had little left to give to my colleagues. And being in the classroom, there was so much sensory stimuli that, on days I taught, I couldn’t do much else. I was left depleted of all energy for the rest of the week and unable to interact at all.
By the time I was teaching full-time, I was more observant of myself and had slowly begun to understand what it means to be neurodivergent. To process information differently than others. To be more affected by the sensory stimuli in my environment. To have difficulties interacting, especially in person. And I was starting to notice the toll being in a work environment was taking on me every day. On my physical, mental and emotional health. (Watch me speak at The Moth to hear the whole story.)
I knew that sharing my neurodiversity with my boss could mean a cut in my course load, a loss of my full-time position, or worse, a loss of my job altogether. But my mental health was suffering so much that it was a risk I was willing to take. So when I decided to tell my boss—after spending months going back and forth about what I would say—one day, it just sort of happened.
How I Shared My Neurodiversity with My Boss
I asked to speak with my boss in her office and told her about my sensory processing disorder (SPD) diagnosis. A spontaneous move; one I rarely make.
I told her how difficult it is for me to be in the classroom and to interact in person with my students. I explained to her how much my quality of life was suffering. How I was afraid my work and my interactions with students and colleagues would begin to suffer too. I explained that, because of this, I was hoping to teach online.
Luckily, after hearing me, she still saw my strengths and did not perceive my neurodiversity as a weakness. She told me I was an excellent teacher and she would do whatever she could to keep me, and she offered me a full-time online teaching schedule. And in doing so, she changed my life.
What It’s Been Like Since
I’ve been teaching online for almost two years now, and I would argue I’m actually a better teacher. A better worker. Without the sensory distractions getting in my way, I can deliver lessons without getting disoriented and confused. I can be more present with my students.
Instead of struggling to verbally answer their questions—often asking them to email me once I began to feel my ability to speak escaping me—I can now compose a written response where I can really think about what they’re asking me. Where I can fully meet their needs.
Because I have less interaction in person during the week for my job, I can interact more with colleagues and loved ones when I see them. I can be fully present and not just the shell of myself they got before.
I’m learning to slow down and to set my own pace.
And because I can control the sensory stimuli while working from home, I feel safe in my work environment every day. And my mental health is finally improving for the first time in my life.
How I Shared My Neurodiversity with My Coworkers
I still go to campus a few times a month for meetings, and I’ve even begun sharing my neurodiversity with my coworkers—and it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it might be.
My sharing started organically because I keep my sunglasses on during meetings (because of those darn fluorescent lights looming overhead), and when a coworker would comment on me wearing my sunglasses, I started to just say, I have sensory processing disorder.
And sharing has been liberating.
Not one person has ended our conversation after me sharing my neurodiversity and many of my coworkers have even been supportive. They’ve asked questions or shared a relatable story. One coworker even said she thinks her daughter has similar issues, and we were able to discuss ways to help her daughter.
I’ve noticed sharing works that way: if you are willing to let yourself be vulnerable with others, they are often willing to be vulnerable with you. And you may even be able to help someone accept herself by simply being honest about yourself. Sharing is a pretty powerful thing.
Sure, I don’t like having to call my neurodiversity a disorder, but I do so because I know it’s the terminology people can relate to. And sure, I have to be okay with the fact that some might shy away from asking questions or from talking to me.
But damn it feels good to be who I am and to know my boss has my back.
10 Reasons Why Sharing Is Important for The Neurodiversity Movement
The outcome of sharing my neurodiversity makes me wish I had known about my neurodiversity sooner. So I could have shared with more bosses and coworkers. So I could have spread the word about neurodiversity and helped people to see that being neurodivergent doesn’t mean the person is going to be a bad worker. It’s actually quite the opposite.
Neurodivergent people notice things others don’t. We have unique perspectives on the world and thus, can share unique insights on projects and in situations. We see trends and patterns quickly. We work hard. And when we like something, we usually learn everything there is to know about it. Sounds like the kind of employee and coworker I’d like to have.
And sharing our neurodiversity is part of what The Neurodiversity Movement is all about. Here are 10 reasons we should share:
To help others understand who we are.
To help them accept us.
To help them see our gifts instead of our perceived weaknesses.
To allow us to work in environments that are safe for us.
To help others understand that we still care even if we don’t make small talk or eye contact or socialize every day.
To help others see that if they get to know us, they will see we are amazing observers, and we have a lot to offer if we are allowed to offer it at a time and in an environment that suits us.
To prove our natural, genetic variations deserve to be celebrated, not condemned.
Because if we begin to share our neurodiversity in the workplace now, we will make it safe for the generations after us to be able to be who they are and to get what they need from employers.
So generations after us can enter into the workforce confident that they won’t have to hide or to suffer.
Because it’s not just about us, individually. It’s about all of us, collectively. And if we don’t start now, then the problem and the pattern repeat itself in every generation that follows.
Like all the social movements before us, the time to act is in the present. And look at how much those who acted in the past changed the world to the way it is now. I don’t even want to think about what it would be like if they hadn’t.
So if you are neurodivergent, really consider the benefits of sharing your neurodiversity with your bosses and your coworkers. You don’t necessarily have to share your diagnoses either (I only shared one). Share what you’re comfortable with, but fight to get your needs met.
And of that means changing jobs, so be it. You deserve to feel good in your work environment every day.
As always, the best of luck to you! May we all find safe environments to work in where we can truly be ourselves.
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This story originally ran on Psych Central on February 8, 2019. Since Psych Central has been sold, the link to the original is no longer available.
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay