December 3rd was named the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 1992 by the United Nations as a day dedicated to promoting understanding of disabilities and to drive support for the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It is a day that aspires to increase the awareness of how valuable the assimilation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of life – politically, socially, economically and culturally – is.
In honor of International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, we asked Dr. Anne Cockayne, founder of Dandelion Careers and a practitioner and researcher, to share with us what it’s like for a neurodivergent person to operate in the workplace and how team leaders can make working life more comfortable for neurodivergent people. Dr. Cockayne earned her PhD through exploring the experiences of managers who manage employees with Asperger syndrome, has her MSc in occupational psychology and organizational behavior, and has her Level 7 diploma in coaching and mentoring. She founded Dandelion Careers to provide support for employers who are putting forth an effort to create neuro-inclusive working practices. Continue reading below to learn from Dr. Cockayne about ‘masking’ and how leaders can support inclusion of neurodiversity within their team:
“Some of you may have heard Christine McGuinness talking recently on TV about her diagnosis of autism and bringing up three autistic children. Like many autistic people, Christine felt relief after her diagnosis, because she now has an explanation for why she finds some situations uncomfortable. She’s also realised that for much of her adult life she’s been ‘masking’.
‘Masking’ is what happens when someone adapts their natural behaviours, words or actions and so hides [masks] those that come naturally. Someone who masks will change what they say and do, either consciously or subconsciously, aiming all the time to fit in with those around them.
Neurodivergent people frequently mask at work, an act they can often pull off because most neurodivergent conditions are invisible and they’ve had lots of practice throughout school and college, trying to get accepted by the in-crowd. In the workplace, for an autistic person, masking would likely mean pretending not to be bothered about or uncomfortable with loud noise, bright lights, some textures or scents. For a dyslexic person, masking could mean taking reports home to check the spelling; they wouldn’t want to risk a colleague thinking they can’t spell and so wouldn’t check work publicly. An ADHD person might pretend that it’s easy to sit still in a long meeting, not readily admit they need a quick break to restore calm thought.
In your teams, masking has infinite variations.
Knowing now what masking is, imagine what working life is like for an ND person in your team. As a supportive and inclusive team leader or colleague, what can you do?
- Find out about neurodivergent conditions, so you know what differences are and where they come from.
- Then keep your eyes open and be alert to what is making everyone in your team comfortable or uncomfortable at work. This isn’t always obvious, often compounded by the fact that you might not know someone is dyslexic, adhd, or autistic.
- Don’t be frightened to ask each person what changes will help minimise or resolve tricky situations and optimise contributions. It’s usually really small changes that make the difference
- Take a strengths perspective when talking about neurodivergent people so that the link between strengths and neurology is explicit.
The phrase ‘bring your authentic self to work’ is relayed forcefully by progressive companies pursuing inclusion. Rightly so. The freedom to be yourself at work is a prize worth having. My hope is that as knowledge expands, neurodivergent people do not feel excluded because they are different, and don’t feel they have to keep on pretending, masking or hiding how they experience work and workplaces.”