Courageous Conversations: Understanding Disability and Neurodiversity #1

Three members of the University’s Neurodiversity Network have collaborated with us on this series of Q&As about stigma, stereotyping, and how you can be a great ally and colleague. Liz Franklin-Kitchen is the first to tackle these challenging questions.

Is it ok to ask someone if they are neurodivergent, or is that sensitive information? 

Liz: I would say this, and many of the questions below, are contextual. If, as a neurodivergent (ND) person myself, I spot similar traits/behaviours in a colleague and I were curious to know, I don’t think I would ever outright ask them. I have, however, chosen to bring up the subject and “out” myself to them, and see if they respond in kind. If they do, great; if not, I don’t probe much further, beyond a couple of casual, discreet invitations to talk more.  

Do all neurodiverse people identify as disabled? 

Liz: In one word, no. Most people in western culture experience some form of enablement, or disablement, depending on their current environment and culture. A tall person might feel temporarily dis-abled when they struggle for legroom on a long-haul flight; a stage performer with ADHD might be completely in their element during a performance. Every single person on the planet has a slightly different way of perceiving the world around them, there is no one-size-fits-all environment.  

Are neurodiverse people discriminated against in Higher Education? If so, how? 

Liz: It depends on the individual ways in which ND folks work best. Every neurological profile presents in a different way: some folks need a very tightly-boundaried set of rules in order to function well, while others need a lot more flexibility. Where we have difficulty with various processing issues, too much or too little flexibility can be completely overwhelming.  

Do we need to do anything differently when working with a neurodivergent colleague? 

Liz: Some ND colleagues might prefer to be very private about their circumstances, where others might be more comfortable being open. So, we may or may not be aware of who our ND colleagues are. All we can really do is work at creating trusting, safe spaces for each other, so that we can all feel safe enough to open up and be honest about factors that help or hinder us. One suggestion could be to wear a badge or lanyard that demonstrates an allyship with neurodiversity. At a managerial level, consideration towards a more flexible approach to work could dramatically improve conditions, resulting in greater overall efficiency, which benefits the whole team, not just the ND colleague. 

What are the main things we need to consider when delivering information to neurodiverse people? 

Liz: For me personally, I have a whole set of neural differences which can make absorbing new knowledge very difficult: my dyslexia means I struggle to process and transcribe at the same time, and the opposing forces of my ADHD and ASD mean I can find it hard to maintain focus on the topic.   I have very limited ability to visualise due to Aphantasia. Providing detailed, key information in advance can be a huge benefit for me. Speaking more slowly, pausing, and checking in to make sure everything is understood, is also extremely helpful. To be honest, this may well be of benefit to any neurotypical people in the training session, but hey, I’ll take one for the team if it’ll help! 

What are the common stigma or stereotypes around neurodiverse people that we should steer clear of? 

Liz: Many autistic people are described as “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”, depending on the severity of the external presentation of our traits. The truth is that the “Autistic Spectrum profile” is extremely complex:  

Person A has a full-time job and engages with colleagues, and is able to maintain eye contact with their colleagues. They also have auditory, sensory, and visual processing disorders, meaning they are severely affected by sounds, smells, and light. In an effort to get through the day, they to extreme lengths to cover up, or “mask” their traits, often leading to emotional meltdowns/shutdowns that can take hours or days to recover from.  

Person B cannot communicate verbally at all, they might rock back and forth, and occasionally hit themselves. They also have full intellectual and emotional function, can understand and interpret others’ intentions through observing body language, and can form deep and lasting relationships.  

Person A is labelled as “high-functioning”, and Person B as “low-functioning”, because of how they are perceived by other people. This terminology can be hurtful for many autistic people, who may feel their own, lived experiences are being minimised. 

On the other hand, other autistic people may find these terms helpful – so we all need to be aware of this, and respect one another’s feelings about these terms. If in doubt, there’s no harm in asking how a person prefers to regard themselves. 

What is the best thing about being neurodivergent? 

Liz: For me, discovering I’m ND only in the last couple of years has helped me enormously to understand the world around me which, until then, had been such a confusing place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still confusing, but at least now I understand WHY!  

I do struggle with working in large offices, as my sensory/auditory processing profiles mean that I find it extremely hard to “tune out” the sounds around me if I’m having a conversation. However, just having the knowledge that this is hard for me, means that I’m able to be more self-compassionate, and therefore much less likely to have a meltdown/shutdown.  

In turn, I’m able to be a lot more compassionate and patient with other people. If the name Brene Brown means anything to you, this next bit might sound familiar: when I choose to believe that people are doing the best they can, my life instantly gets easier! 

Does neurodiversity help or hinder you to be a good researcher/employee? 

Liz: I’m proudly open about my diagnoses. In my job, I get several calls a day from students and their families. Very often, they tell me they have some form of disability, and being able to be open with them about my own experiences makes them feel heard and understood. Normalising language around neurodiversity creates worlds of difference for us.  

A massive thank you to Liz for taking part in this and helping to educate our community. The next Q&A in the series will be out next week!