It’s 2023, it’s not enough – or beneficial – for businesses to add “neurodiverse” to their equality and diversity checklist. There needs to be an understanding of how neurodiverse colleagues work and practices that enable them to work to their strengths, for the benefit of the whole business. Providing the right environment to neurodiverse candidates and staff to harness their skills leads to a proactive team with a plethora of viewpoints and boundless ideas and creativity.
About 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent, with many more being undiagnosed. Neurodiversity includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and many more, and whilst employers often overlook the benefits of neurodiversity, here at Energy Local we welcome, support and celebrate the different ways that those with neurodiversity think and work. Whilst it undoubtedly brings challenges due to the effort required to understand different brains, those challenges are welcomed and are far outweighed by the brilliance that can be found therein!
Enjoy this insight into some of our experiences of life and work.
Mary – Founder and Technical Director – Dyslexic
I was a high flyer at school but I struggled socially and found it a strain. However, I loved learning and had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to teach myself in my own way.
I was never formally diagnosed at school although everyone knew I was dyslexic. I am thankful for this as I found my own coping mechanisms that worked for me. Diagnosis would have only emphasised the gnawing feelings of self doubt and inadequacy. Only later in life did I understand how I see the world and think differently from other people, so I could start to relax and harness these skills rather than constantly feeling on edge and fearful of being caught out.
I have always loved thinking about things in new and innovative ways. In fact my way of viewing the world is not 'normal' for most people so different is normal for me anyway! I have strong derivative thinking skills i.e. I find it easy to think how things will evolve and change. I didn't used to know why I kept thinking 'I told you so'. I didn't realise how unnatural and scary innovation is for many people. Understanding my differences has tempered my frustration, and I now see it is a skill and a service I can offer. And it's kind of useful if you are running an innovative social enterprise.
I think intuitively, I can get from a to e very easily without going to b, c, d in the process, probably because everything is a picture in my mind. As a child, as I didn't know this wasn't how others think, I got frustrated. It often felt like people wanted me to describe the Mona Lisa to them, I would be thinking 'it's obvious, just look at it'. Now I know I need to back track and go through the steps for other people. It's a good safeguard as although I can think quickly this means I can also miss things. I have learnt to use people as a good check.
Thinking in pictures means I can hold a big picture with lots of moving parts and see the connections easily. I have learnt to use people who love detail and repetition to fill in the detail. Autistic people I’ve managed are often very good at this but I need to find a piece of work they can tackle alone and let them get on with it. They don't tend to want a lot of uncertain discussion as that just makes things unclear to them. I have learnt to try not to muddle up the innovative chat with a clear brief for them. At the same time, this can't impede the development process or, God forbid dealing with messy uncertainty from customers! In many ways dyslexics and autistics are poles apart and liable to drive each other nuts. I find it works best when we can be honest and open, but that requires us to understand ourselves first.
I work with a great team. I can think fast, process information quickly and filter through it efficiently, but I am a messy thinker. I can drop stuff and leave loose ends. Having Tor to keep an eye on me, tidy things up and check things don't get lost means I feel a lot happier.
Dyslexics have a 'smaller workbench', it’s a bit like needing to computer programme efficiently. Personally I think this is why I filter out unnecessary information and think in pictures. I find people often give me a load of unnecessary information. I want to tell them to get on with it and ‘cut the crap’ but now I understand better and try to be patient and just filter it out. When I am tired I can often plunge straight into something with little introduction that seems abrupt. Both I and my colleague Amy have a habit of starting to articulate something half way through our thought process. Our colleagues get used to just asking what the heck we are talking about. People try to be helpful by giving lots of information in lots of steps but it doesn’t work; if I am tired I just go into brain overload.
We have another dyslexic on the team, and it’s nice to have someone else who thinks in a way that I think is normal; it takes less effort to understand. Like me he sees connections others don't and thinks intuitively. But in other ways we are very different in how we harness our skills and our weaknesses. Luke struggles to manage time but is much better diplomatically dealing with neurotypical people than me.
A small social enterprise can be relentlessly energy zapping. This is where my colleague Amy's energy from ADHD is invaluable. I once read ADHD described as a Ferrari with bicycle brakes. Well Amy has rigged up some back up brakes so we get the Ferrari energy under control. She probably covers up too well the anxiety of time keeping and speaking on the phone. It's not just the energy to drive things forward, I enjoy a certain fizz that I need whether it's to commiserate, complain or celebrate.
Thankfully, we do have some 'normal people' in the team. Much as I love being dyslexic, an entirely dyslexic and ADHD world would be utter chaos. So we have some good minders in the team. They appreciate our gifts and quirks and accept we won't be quite like neurotypicals if we are to use them effectively. It certainly helps my self esteem. They are patient and don't point out how much I must drive them up the wall.
Being honest, harnessing the skills of a neurodiverse team can be incredibly frustrating even when you understand how people tick. It's much better to be honest and try to find ways to avoid driving each other spare. The rewards are high, personally I feel so much better mentally when we get this to work as well as being better for the business.
Amy – Community Engagement Executive – ADHD
Growing up I thought that everyone was the same as me, but they just somehow coped better. Finding out as an adult that I have ADHD has been such an eye opener as I realise that I have succeeded in a social and educational system that labelled me from age 4 as “not reaching her potential”. In my teacher’s statement for university, my form tutor actually used the term lazy, but almost in a positive way; “Amy is lazy but always gets the job done!” having no idea that my brain just wouldn’t function without the adrenaline of a hard deadline, and that my hyperfocus through the night to get the job done is not due to a last minute herculean effort… that’s just how it works for me.
I’ve sometimes struggled to fit into workplaces. Outwardly I am excellent at pleasantries and small talk, but I find social interaction incredibly exhausting after the fact, particularly in virtual meetings where it’s harder to read people and cues, I’ve only recently found out that this is all due to “masking” (or as I like to say, acting normal). Until recently I assumed everyone felt like that. Just like I thought that everyone got intense anxiety when needing to make a phone call (it took me 2 years to find out if I was eligible for any payout from my life insurance after I had cancer – it’s that bad). I thought everyone had 6 different streams of consciousness, 3 business plans, 2 songs (repeating the same line over and over) and a random little dancer in their brains at all times. No wonder you lot don’t misplace and forget things, your brains are so peaceful!
I get on well with people, but sometimes miss social cues, over talk, talk over people and talk so fast nobody has a clue what’s going on. I get distracted so easily, as my colleagues will attest; I need a coffee before facing the slightest challenge (interesting fact – a lot of people with ADHD have caffeine addictions because stimulants actually calm our nutty brains). This distraction along with forgetfulness, the ability to lose anything, anywhere, mistakes – I won’t call them careless, because we really, really care – anxiety, procrastination, disorganisation has on many occasions made me, and many others with ADHD, feel lazy and somehow inferior.
Having realised in my late 30s that how I think actually has a label has empowered me to learn more and start to recognise that what has always been labelled negatively, was only negative because I was being forced into a learning and working model that just didn’t work for me.
Working for a female led, neurodiverse business at Energy Local has been incredible. It’s very enabling to have a boss that understands that although there are indeed some “superpowers” involved in neurodiversity, there are also some basic tasks that feel seemingly impossible sometimes. It also helps that she doesn’t get mad if I zone out, particularly on days of endless zoom meetings.
As Mary described above, there are great benefits to neurodiversity, but Mary and I do sometimes chastise ourselves about being able to create incredible pieces of work with innovative ideas…. But then fail to save it somewhere and under a sensible name so that we can actually find it later. After spending days on a piece of work, the last task of actually saving it seems a step too far.
Energy Local is flexible to the core. None of the team works full time as work-life balance has always been a priority for Mary as a boss. This could be a problem for someone with ADHD due to lack of strict deadlines, but the flexibility along with the variety of the workload means I can make my own deadlines and mix up my work day so I don’t lose attention with any one task. At the same time, when a single large project comes up I can completely lose myself in hyperfocus and get it done, especially if we’re up against a deadline.
Tor - Administration and Marketing Assistant - yep thankfully we have some ‘normal’ people in the team.
Working with eclectic individuals like Mary, Luke and Amy can be challenging at times but it is also an invigorating experience filled with unexpected creativity and novel perspectives. In such environments, adaptability becomes a key asset as you learn to navigate the ever-shifting landscape of ideas and projects. These key members of our team often possess an uncanny ability to think outside the box, challenging conventional wisdom and pushing boundaries. By embracing their unique approach to problem-solving, you find yourself uncovering innovative solutions that you'd never have considered in a more structured setting.
Working alongside these individuals can foster patience and understanding, encouraging you to develop strong communication skills. It's the diversity of thought and the freedom to explore unconventional routes that makes working with them an enriching adventure in creativity and personal growth.