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Creating inspired experiences
Neurodiversity isn’t a new concept, but the term is only recently making its way into every-day vernacular. By formal definition, it means: The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population.
But it’s actually so much more than that. It’s a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits.* It’s about acceptance and celebration, inclusion, and removing the stigma attached to learning and thinking differences.
That’s why many corporations—including SMG—are celebrating Neurodiversity Acceptance this month. To kick things off, we’ve asked a few employees from our neurodiversity employee resource group (ERG) to share what neurodiversity means to them and how they harness their ability to think differently.
Growing up, I knew I was different and I could tell my brain functioned differently than my peers. I had very atypical and narrow interests. Social relationships and emotions were all very intense for me. Having my son (who is autistic) and watching him grow was like looking in a mirror. I understood him in ways that I felt like nobody else did. He displayed behaviors and thought patterns that were puzzling to others, but I deeply understood. I saw him. I saw me. It wasn’t until 5 years ago, when I started studying neurodiversity in the workplace, that it all started coming together and I realized I was neurodivergent.
There is no part of my life or career that has not been impacted by my neurodivergence. I have learned a lot about the types of roles and environments I thrive in, the unique strengths and challenges I bring to the table as a neurodivergent employee, the importance of seeking out groups and companies that promote inclusion and belonging, and the importance of advocating for myself.
I didn’t get diagnosed with anything until my later years of college—and I only found out I’m on the spectrum and have aphantasia this year. I would say getting those diagnoses helped me better understand how I process differently than most of my peers. It really helped me not feel so singled out and that I’m not alone.
Also, since I am a huge research nerd, I have been able to do my own research into what makes me different, what works best for me, and how to communicate that to others.
I received a formal diagnosis later in my career. It wasn’t until I was struggling to adjust to working from home that I sought out treatment around ADHD, and my doctor also brought up that I was likely on the autism spectrum. After doing more research—and, this is crucial, spending more time talking about my experiences with other neurodivergent people—I realized how much better I understood myself and how I work best.
I wish I had been more aware of the negative consequences of masking, an impression management strategy used to suppress neurodivergent traits and conform to others’ expectations. I wasted so much energy on trying to fit in and appear “normal”—it was like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole and it was both exhausting and defeating.
I wish I had known I didn’t need to change myself to gain acceptance and approval. But, if I’m being honest, I’m still unlearning the habit of masking and working to consistently show up as my most authentic self.
I wish I would have known more about how autism shows up in girls specifically. I spent most of my teenage years feeling quite outcasted and really struggling with making and keeping friends. I think knowledge about any of my differences would have helped me realize I’m not just weird, but different and that’s okay. Knowing I’m not alone in my struggles could have driven me to actually reach out for help.
That we’re not alone. In the past couple decades, we have seen an explosion in advocacy by and for neurodivergent people. As more research is being done by autistic people into the experience of being autistic, instead of being curated as purely a medical condition, I’m gaining new language to better understand myself and more effectively communicate.
My high level of conscientiousness, attention to detail, and ability to hyper focus on tasks are all strengths that have been beneficial to me in my career.
I would say my ability to adapt. I have always been really good at problem solving in the workplace because I have been problem solving for myself for as long as I can remember. The ways we are taught to learn or to do things didn’t usually work for me, so I had to figure out my own way (which was often more efficient). This has given me the ability to think outside the box when it comes to solutions in my career. I am not overly stuck on doing things the way others do or the way it’s always been done.
What I think I have gained most in recontextualizing my experiences and feelings in a neurodiverse lens is being able to question my own assumptions about ability and worth. In the past, I battled with a lot of shame around what I perceived as inability to motivate or apply myself in certain ways. When I realized the way society had taught me to understand myself was rooted in a neurotypical understanding of mind and body, it was easier to ask questions about where my challenges were occurring.
I really wish more people knew how prevalent neurodiversity is. Think about 10 of your colleagues; recent statistics suggest that 2 of them likely have some sort of neurodivergence. Whether you realize it or not, you likely know (or perhaps even love) someone like me. This makes it so important to create open and inclusive organizational cultures where people feel safe asking for what they need to be successful.
Being different isn’t a bad thing or something we need to fix. For employers, they often look for people who think outside of the box, which neurodivergent people are great at doing. But people who truly think outside the box often require an out-of-the-box approach to management and structure from leadership. So, knowing that, I wish employers would be more willing to work on the individual level to find out what works best for that employee. This includes finding out what kind of communication they prefer, work environment, explanations of expectations, and more.
The Double Empathy Problem! There is a fascinating area of research right now exploring the framing of differences in communication and cognition. We are beginning to understand deficits of communication resulting from the way neurotypical people socialize. It appears from research that neurodivergent people generally communicate better within neurodivergent groups while neurotypical people communicate better within neurotypical groups—and perceived deficits are much more pronounced within groups of mixed neurodivergent and neurotypical people. This seems to suggest that these “deficits” may be the result of differing styles of communication and code-switching, rather than some styles being naturally more or less capable.
You’re not alone! Let your unique light shine and surround yourself with supportive people, groups, and environments that embrace, accommodate, and celebrate your differences.
Be patient with yourself. It may take a while, but a lot of things you couldn’t understand about yourself are all about to make sense. Just because we are different doesn’t mean we aren’t capable. Our strengths can align with others’ weaknesses and vice versa, making us valuable.
Reach out to your peers! Being able to navigate this learning process with a neurodiverse group of friends and co-workers has made it so much more rewarding. Realizing that my experiences are not unique and the challenges I am facing are sometimes because of my environment help me to focus on where the solutions and barriers are best addressed.
If you’re interested in being a part of a company that embraces its collective differences and celebrates diversity, we encourage you to visit our careers page to learn more about our culture, values, and the opportunities available at SMG.
*And to learn more about neurodiversity, check out this article.
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