This article was originally published on LinkedIn.
It’s now a year since I received the results of my initial neurodiversity assessment. Despite the fact I know I am ‘a bit different’ in how I think about and approach things; despite learning a fair bit about neurodiverse conditions in the preceding months and thinking “hang on a minute, this all sounds a bit familiar”; and despite a few people I know with various diagnoses telling me “you really ought to get tested” it was still a bit of a shock.
“ADHD? Really?? I suppose I’ve always associated that with the disruptive kids at the back of the class who were always getting into trouble at school”. Halfway through that last sentence I trailed off … I was one of the disruptive kids at the back of the class who were always getting into trouble at school.
“Autism? Really??”. A family member has an autistic child who won’t speak, can’t be touched, and wears headphones constantly. Could I really be on the same ‘spectrum’ as them? And yet … I am okay talking when I need to but much happier staying silent; I really don’t like to be touched, even handshakes make me uncomfortable; and I’ve always found a need to take refuge from the overwhelming busyness of the world, music and physical remoteness are a lifeline for me.
I’ve learned a lot in the 12 months since then.
Masking and unmasking
A close friend’s reaction to the assessment results was: “No shit Sherlock! Did you negotiate a couple’s discount for [my wife]?”. Most other people I know well, but haven’t worked with, have had variations on the theme of “I always knew you must have something like that … makes sense”.
And yet a lot of the people I’m less close to or have worked with were much more surprised and/or dismissive. “No, really? You don’t seem ‘like that’”; “But you seem quite normal to me, maybe a bit hyper but Autism? No”; “Well, we’re all on ‘the spectrum’ aren’t we”.
I first heard the term ‘masking’ from the wonderful coach who has been helping me figure things out post diagnosis.
Simply put, masking is when a neurodivergent person acts against their instinct but in a way that fits in with everybody else. Most meetings I’ve been to start with a bit of chat about how people are, and did they enjoy their recent holiday, and how is the weather where they are/live? As that’s what everyone else does, I do it too … but I don’t actually want the answers to those questions, and I’d much rather we just got down to the business of the meeting, and I worry about when the right point is to stop talking about the irrelevant stuff and get on to the agenda without the transition being premature, and will I seem brusque and rude when I finally can’t stand delaying the start of the actual meeting any longer?
The thing about constantly wearing a mask: it is so … fucking … tiring. I mean completely exhausting.
And when the mask slips, as it inevitably will, it is often brutal and always unpredictable. I think of myself as a generally positive and content person and yet I have a reputation for grumpiness and anger because my frustration at not being able to sustain the mask boils over. I demand that the person talking around a subject “get to the point”, I tell the person with the somewhat ill-considered plan to “come back when you have thought it through properly”, I go through the solution “yet again” for the person who hasn’t quite grasped it. The frustration is with myself but, inevitably, the person I’m interacting with thinks it’s directed at them.
The only solution to the exhaustion and frustration of constantly wearing a mask is to wear it less. I’m slowly learning to do this but fifty years of learned behaviour takes some time to unpick, and unmasked Paul can be a lot less tolerable than masked Paul; ‘grumpiness’ notwithstanding.
Strengths as well as weaknesses
The terminology of neurodiversity is overwhelmingly negative. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And those are just the major conditions; add in a few minor manias and the odd blindness and you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m a total wreck of a human being.
And yet, whilst there are undoubtedly some negative aspects to these conditions, there are also some incredible positives. I may find it near-impossible to focus on any task that doesn’t capture my interest, but give me something that does and I can hyperfocus on it, completing work in a few hours that most people will require days to do. With appropriate management of the transitions I can move from one type of task to another with ease: from dealing with highly complex technical challenges, to questions of business strategy, to problems of organisational structure and change, to diagnosing a bug in some code. In my mind, these are all kind of the same even though I know that, to others, they are very different.
But ask me to fill in an expenses sheet or read a supplier contract and I’ll flap and prevaricate and ultimately fail, or else exhaust myself bludgeoning my way through to completion. And interrupt me whilst I’m in my hyper-focussed state with a question about something I don’t really care about and the mask comes off quite suddenly!
The thing is, you can have all of these or none of them but neither you nor I get to pick and choose. The strengths are just the application of my condition to situations it has a positive impact on and the weaknesses the same application of the same condition to situations it detracts from.
You can’t fight nature (but you can manage it a bit)
Next to the detail of the diagnosis, the most useful thing about the assessment report was the clarity with which it stated “this will not change”. My intolerance for imprecision, my dissatisfaction with incomplete solutions, my aversion to politics and smalltalk - they’re all as much part of who I am as having green eyes and one foot half a shoe size bigger than the other.
All things being equal, I would love to be patient and tolerant when someone is struggling to grasp an idea; to add the acceptable amount of varnish when someone unwisely asks me for ‘unvarnished feedback’; to actually engage in the chit-chat at the start of meetings rather than just fake it. Believe me, this would be so much easier for me as well as all of you.
But I can’t and this will not change.
So instead, under guidance from my coach, I’m focussing on recognising my restrictions and intolerances and working around them or calling them out rather than masking them. So to ask whether that is really what someone really wants when they ask for ‘unvarnished feedback’ or could they state their objectives for that feedback; to ask everyone to take time to ponder an idea rather than going at it hammer and tongues until we all get it or are exhausted trying.
Of course, this approach has its limitations. I can only work around or call out something I actually recognise as being a problem. I only have so much energy for doing things I find difficult and stressful. I’m no different from anyone else in these regards.
One of the things my coach has been very clear about is that I can’t unilaterally deal with the problems I have interacting with others, those others need to do some work too. She calls this ‘appropriate selfishness’; that I need to recognise there will be topics or types of interaction where we are far apart from how we might each wish the other to be and I need to be comfortable with the fact that I can’t bridge the gap alone.
Ease of Dealing with Customers:
Precision of Solution:
The thing with neurodivergence is that where you are comfortable is likely to be ‘normal’ in the sense that it is the most commonly observed behaviour: that people are polite and patient with customers; or that solutions are reasonably well thought out without every last question being anticipated, analysed and resolved. And so it isn’t unreasonable for you to expect me to be ‘normal’ too but I’m not ‘normal’ and I’m a long way past feeling guilty about that and wishing it wasn’t so. So I will do my best to get as close to your ‘normal’ as I can, but I can only get so close and the rest is, I’m afraid, up to you.
Representation and understanding are important
Why am I writing this? I’m a successful entrepreneur who has spent more than half my life happily employed in companies I founded, tackling problems I find interesting, working with people I like to work with. I got a first-class degree and a PhD despite leaving school at 15 with less-than-decent O-level grades. I have a happy, if slightly unusual, home life. Okay, so some psychologist has stuck a load of labels on me that can have some negative connotations but so what? It doesn’t seem to have had any significant negative impact on my life.
And that’s the point really. Neurodivergence is becoming more mainstream and better understood, and yet is still niche and misunderstood. What is known and written is largely focussed on dis-ability rather than ability; it’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, not Adaptable Hyperfocus Ability Condition. The idea that many of the identifiable weaknesses are complemented by strengths is a radical argument at present. And I’m lucky enough to be in the group - middle-aged white men - that has inevitably had the most consideration in the research that has so far been undertaken; my wife - similar to me in so many ways - does not have that modicum of luxury.
Years ago someone asked me what spurred me to start my first business. My answer was that I “didn’t like having a boss” although I think a better way to put that now would be “I didn’t fit in well at the company I joined after university” (despite the fact that the company I joined was truly fantastic in terms of the way it looked after its employees and the latitude it gave to me personally). It was nothing to do with making money or having a life-long ambition to be an entrepreneur; I just needed somewhere I could fit in. I’ve since found out that there is a high correlation between ADHD and ASD diagnoses and entrepreneurs and business owners.
So that’s why I wrote this. If neurodivergence brings with it a set of abilities that can have extraordinary effect in the workplace and the wider world it’s about time we recognise that and start to harness it. Neurodivergent people don’t need to be marginalised or sidelined, we don’t need to be excused or pitied, we need to be accepted for what and who we are because everyone can benefit from that.