I can’t remember how old I was when I remembered what being different felt like. Maybe six or seven? I had a wonderful home life and a fantastic family, but I remember falling over a lot.
I also remember sitting in a Portakabin in school with an Occupational Therapist, trying to cut shapes out of paper with small, blunt scissors, not being allowed to use a pen, having to have a rubber grip on my pencil, and wearing boots and an eye patch. I remember spending Saturdays with my parents at the Child Development Centre, trying to crawl through rings and hop with a skipping rope.
Like I said, I also remember falling over a lot.
By the time I was 7, I'd been diagnosed with dyspraxia – although I'm not sure I knew it yet. I was reassessed at 16 (still dyspraxia, odd that), and 19 (still dyspraxia, odd that) - and in the days before and since, I've lived through things that I think would have caused anyone mental health problems.
At the time, dyspraxia came with a diagnosis of "gross and fine motor co-ordination difficulties". Now, of course, we have a real language to describe neurodivergent conditions. We have a better understanding of overlapping conditions ("comorbidity" isn't the nicest term to use, is it?), and mental health conditions more generally. A lot of people I know had a conversation as a child that included a “probable ASD [autism spectrum disorder] diagnosis, but we won’t give you another label because you don't need it.”
Some people find diagnoses useful; some people find medications useful; some don't. Whole conversations have and are taking place about the correct words and approaches to use when addressing neurodiversity, of whether making reference to conditions is helpful or we should use the whole profile of a person when looking to help them. It can seem a bit of a minefield.
I received my ADHD diagnosis this year. When it was first suggested to me, in the middle of last year, I said - word for word - "isn't that a thing that is just for naughty kids who couldn't sit still in class?" I wasn't a naughty kid. The primary ADHD diagnostic criteria for hyperactive ADHD, however... for anyone who knows me, fits me like a glove. I am the definition of being “driven by a motor”. I'm still learning. That's okay.
Over my lifetime, I've been diagnosed with countless mental health conditions – if you ask anyone that's neurodivergent, you’ll likely hear a familiar and similar – yet I couldn't tell you which are valid or which are symptoms of the literature and diagnostic tools just not catching up with us yet. ADHD comes with "rejection sensitive disorder" and "emotional instability", for example. Just something else to navigate. Very real if you feel them, but only now things we're starting to talk about.
I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to change things. I started my first business at 19, working to try and rebuild child protection records in schools. Justice sensitivity is a core part of living with neurodiversity, it seems. To try and fix the world.
However, for all the whitepapers and every line of code I've written or diagram I've drawn on a whiteboard since, I don't yet feel like I've made enough of a positive contribution to net offset being "too much", "a bit like hard work", "high maintenance", or any of the other phrases that have stuck with me for as long as I can remember (and everyone else I know who's had to live with them).
Yet, I’ve managed teams and built products for big companies. I've run 100+ person teams on £10m+ budgets. I've earned good salaries. By any measure, I’ve been successful in my career. But something in me just isn’t a long term fit for certain workplaces. Maybe it’s about being different? Or maybe the workplace just isn't set up for people like me – yet.
I was trying to think about what changes I’d need from the "standard" (as opposed to want) if I took a full time job a few months ago, whilst I was recovering from some health issues. Some are probably quite “normal” for someone with ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions: support with managing my diary before it overwhelms me; if a “Catch up” goes in the diary from a manager it needs to be “Catch up - nothing to worry about”, or I'll probably be so anxious I can't breathe for the next hour.
I’ll talk over people because if the thought doesn’t get out of my head right then it’ll disappear. (I hate this.) Sometimes, I can’t get started on a task if I’m on my own even though I’m entirely capable of doing it. (I hate this too. We call it buddying, and realising I needed it was life-changing.)
Some, however, I’m not sure people would even consider as a problem: if I interview for a role I need names, roles with relative seniority and photographs of who I’m meeting – all because I can’t remember faces I’m introduced to. If I’m attending an in-person meeting or interview somewhere new I need clear, obvious directions from the nearest landmark or train station. Even then, I’m likely to get lost. I’ll get stressed or cry or stop focusing. Not the best way to try and make a good first impression.
Yet I absolutely recognise I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m a white man, in technology, and I can earn a good salary for doing something I enjoy. I had the benefit of an education that afforded me, by a slightly long-winded path, the ability to learn and grow, and many opportunities that other people just don't get.
Many people have experienced environments which see the outing of the only gay or trans member of a team, where there's no need to focus on hiring women or creating diverse teams because "we hire the best people for the job” – yet they all just all happen to be neurotypical, male, and from the same background! Environments where it's okay for the men to do the school pick up, but if the women in the team do it the talk turns to words about “commitment”; where stumbling over your words in a meeting or having a stutter is seen as "weakness".
This isn’t okay. We should do better.
I won't subscribe to the idea that this is the only way it can be. We need more help for employers (rather than baseless government announcements about forcing people to work), a community for people who struggle like me but can add so much if they're supported, and enough understanding to try and bridge the gaps.
This is me saying I’m done with the old ways. I want to change the conversation.
15-20% of the population are neurodivergent. 2.4m people in the UK are out of work. Unemployment rates for neurodivergent individuals are high, reaching 30-40%, which is three times the rate for people with other disabilities and eight times the rate for people without disabilities.
In a blink of an eye, I could have become part of that statistic, and this is before you start looking at the link between mental health conditions in neurodivergent people, or the number of people living with chronic health conditions.
That seven year old me is now in the workplace. And like I said, I'm one of the lucky ones. We don't know what challenges the next generations will face in ten or twenty years time, but we can support our friends and colleagues in the workplace today. We can try and change things now.
I've created Inclusive Jobs because I believe it’s worth doing.
For employers and recruiters, please join me in stating your commitment to inclusivity, in learning more about how it can make your teams more efficient and effective.
For neurodivergent friends, I promise you, there are other people out there who will recognise the incredible skills you can bring and who will make the right space for you.
This journey is about bringing you all together.
I couldn't be more excited to try and do something big and scary again: the feedback over the last couple of weeks has been that this is a "big challenge", "much needed" and will make a huge difference. Don't I know it.
I’ve also heard it’ll be hard, but things that are worth it always are.
If this post resonated with you, let's say hello.
💙 Thanks to everyone who has heard me talk about this over the last few weeks and months, provided feedback, and helped put the pieces together again.
💜 Special thanks to Amy Weidner, Steve Kuncewicz, Katie Orman, Giverney Edwards, Charlotte Hirst, Davina Sirisena, Charlotte Nash, Jordan Earle, Annette Steele, Caius Durling and Ella Brown for reading drafts of this.