Courageous Conversations: Understanding Disability and Neurodiversity #3

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. Daisy Shearer is the third person to tackle these challenging questions.

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

D: I think it’s okay to ask if it seems like something that’s important for you to know. For example, if you’re working with a colleague and notice that they struggle in an open office you can ask something along the lines of ‘are you okay working in this environment?’ to facilitate adjusting things so that they can work better. Rather than outright asking about a specific condition, I think it’s better to approach it from a support perspective.

I’m very open about being autistic but some people prefer to keep the fact that they’re neurodivergent private. So, it varies from person to person. On the whole, I think it’s more important to focus on how people can be supported rather than specific labels or diagnoses, although they can be helpful for accessing support and self-acceptance.

Do all neurodivergent people identify as disabled?

D: No! I know plenty of neurodivergent who don’t consider themselves to be disabled. I identify as disabled because being autistic and having several mental illnesses severely impacts my ability to function in our current society. I need things like reasonable adjustments to function, and that’s okay!

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

D: To an extent, yes. Obviously, there is a huge diversity of neurodivergent people out there and many do well in higher education. However, the current education system is not particularly inclusive or accessible. There are a variety of challenges that neurodivergent students and staff may experience ranging from challenges with the sensory environment in lectures to differences in cognitive style that don’t necessarily suit conventional pedagogical techniques.

As an undergraduate, who was not diagnosed until my final year, I frequently got poor exam grades. In retrospect this was because I was experiencing sensory overload and shutdown in exams as they were in huge halls full of people making all sorts of different noises. Once I was diagnosed and applied for reasonable adjustments, I had a set of exams in a smaller room which made a huge difference to my ability to function during the exams.

Neurodivergent people are also quite susceptible to minority stress and have a very high incidence of mental health challenges so this can have a knock-on effect on their higher education outcomes. This can be exacerbated when reasonable adjustments aren’t carried out effectively which is one of the more common ways disabled people experience ‘indirect’ discrimination.

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

D: As with everyone, you just need to be considerate and ask them if they need any support. Depending on their specific needs, you may need to adapt some of your working practices to meet them halfway but it’s very much something that needs to be done on an individual basis. So don’t be afraid to ask someone what their specific needs are!

For me, I will often use text-based messaging as a communication method that helps overcome audio processing issues. But I still do video and in-person meetings too, my colleagues are just a bit more patient with me as they understand it takes me a bit longer to process things in that kind of situation.

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

D: On the whole, I think some patience goes a long way. We tend to respond well to very specific instructions and expectations and can’t always ‘read between the lines’. For me, I prefer written information that I can refer back to, either by itself or in addition to verbal information and instructions. Bullet points and lists are ideal so that each point is clear. This allows me to process the information much more easily.

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

D: To be honest, I think all stereotypes aren’t very helpful. The neurodivergent population is incredibly diverse in of itself. A saying we have in the autistic community is ‘if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.’ So don’t expect us to all be the same and don’t compare us to each other. 

One particular thing that’s quite harmful is functioning labels. They allow people to either be given no agency or for the challenges to be dismissed. In reality, our needs and functioning levels vary so much and even fluctuate from hour-to-hour and depend on environment. It’s very dehumanising to say that somebody is ‘low functioning’. The general preference in our community is to refer to support needs rather than functioning. Some good articles on this are here and here.

I think there’s also a tendency to either focus on just the strengths or just the challenges of being neurodivergent. When you paint it as a ‘superpower’, it minimizes very real challenges that neurodivergent people have to deal with daily. And if you paint it as a hopeless case, you dismiss the skills that many neurodivergent have, they just haven’t been able to express them properly due to a lack of support. This article explores this issue much more eloquently than I could if you want to lean more.

There are plenty of stereotypes that are just untrue. If you’re interested in learning more, there are lots of articles tacking these issues on the neurodiversity network’s resource padlet!

What is the best thing about being neurodivergent?

D: That’s a tough question as I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t autistic. I don’t think I can choose a ‘best thing’. Something that I like about myself that probably stems from having an autistic brain is my ability to experience things with a lot of intensity. Whether it’s delving into a subject I’m interested in or the way that I sometimes experience sensory inputs, it often brings me a lot of joy. Before I was diagnosed, I just assumed that everyone experienced the world in the same way as me, so these days I try to embrace and appreciate the fact that I am the way I am.

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

D: It definitely depends on whether I have support and if I’m in a good environment or not. For example, working in the open office frequently led to meltdowns but I now have a small space to retreat to when I need to which means that I can avoid this. I think that being autistic has a lot of positives that help me be a good researcher too. For example, my attention to detail, logical thinking, and outside-the-box thinking can often lead to me doing good research. I can also hyperfocus for long periods of time which can be great if I can channel my attention into a task that’s research-related.