Rewired, Rethink, Reword, Rephrase
We are neurodivergent.
Not ‘special’, not ‘disadvantaged’, not ‘stupid’. We are dyslexic, autistic, have ADHD, ADD, dyscalculia or dyspraxia.
A letter from a neurodivergent colleague to the ‘workplace’
In the early 2000s, neurodivergent conditions were only starting to become prevalently discussed and diagnosed. Today, in contrast, the term is increasingly thrown around, though not everyone understands what it really means or whom it includes.
Neurodiversity refers to the many ways the brain can work and interpret information, and highlights that people naturally think differently; it is estimated that one in seven people are neurodivergent in the UK(1).
The first thing you’re told when you find out you have a neurodiverse condition is how special you are because you see the world differently. You’re “really creative”, a “big-picture, out-of-the-box thinker”. All these things are true, we are lucky to see, think, and feel from a different perspective. Yet, with these words comes an immeasurable amount of pressure to live up to them, to be them.
Getting diagnosed is a personal journey. At the age of four, the teacher assigned a timed task: to write a short story about our family. I panicked, so instead of words I drew squiggly lines, and was shortly thereafter diagnosed with dyslexia.
One of the first things they taught me, as a writing tool, was KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. This is taught to many dyslexic children, as our brains can over complicate tasks. In my mock English GCSE, my opening sentence was 121 words long.
This ‘tool’ that was repeatedly used to ‘help’ just made me feel – take a guess?
Stupid. Words like ‘lazy’, ‘not interested’, ‘distracted’ and ‘slow’, were constantly used to describe me at school. The reality is, I worked harder than most spending my lunches and after school time in extra tuition just to achieve the same or similar grades.
The part school doesn’t prepare you for
The workplace culture. The internal monologue as you have your interview.
“Should I tell them that I’m dyslexic?”
“No, they’ll retract the job offer”
“They’ll think I’m not good enough”.
Most of the time we don’t disclose our condition, potentially out of shame, or not finding the right opportunity to share. Then comes your first round of feedback and without fail, there it is: “pay more attention to grammar and spelling”. Despite reviewing every piece of content over five times, you are still making spelling mistakes. (Side note: there is so much more to being dyslexic than spelling such as short-term memory issues, a shorter attention span, sensory and cognitive overload, difficulties with verbal and written communication – but that’s a whole other article.)
Now, you’ve been presented with this opportunity to tell your superior that “I have dyslexia”, your cheeks are burning, and the shame starts creeping in. Usually, the responses are supportive and suddenly you feel silly for feeling embarrassed.
But where does that shame come from?
The workplace, higher education and school. Subconsciously or not, people make small comments:
“You need to pay more attention to detail.”
“We look stupid in front of the client.”
“You need to step it up.”
“You have to do better.”
These are all comments I’ve experienced. There are constant microaggressions telling me “YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH”. Words matter, especially when someone has spent their life feeling inferior due to intelligence being measured by test results.
This isn’t a letter to shame you as all of us are guilty of being insensitive at times. It’s a letter to help you understand and to rethink your approach, reword the language you use and rephrase your conversations.
When a colleague or employee tells you that they are neurodivergent, take the time to learn about their condition. Talk to them about how they like to work, what extra support they may need, if any.
If they ask 1,000 questions or need to go through the brief one extra time, just do it. If they misspell, if they fumble over the words, feel overwhelmed because of sensory overload, struggling to concentrate or focus, just know it's not because they aren’t trying or because they are lazy. It’s because they are neurodiverse.
Not ‘special’, not ‘disadvantaged’, not ‘stupid’. They are dyslexic, autistic, have ADHD, ADD, dyscalculia or dyspraxia.
To help bear neurodivergence in mind, here’s three things to remember:
- Rethink your approach.
- Reword the language you use.
- Rephrase the conversation.
- Henley R, Jordan J. Neurodiversity. 2020. Available at: https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Neurodiversity%20Slides%20200920.pdf (Accessed May 2022).