Introducing: Neurodivergence at Work


Neurodivergence at Work is a column that chronicles the day-to-day realities of how being neurodivergent affects our work life and beyond, including expert insights and lived experiences from those who self-identify.

American office culture and the broadly accepted norms of professionalism, in any work context, have historically insisted that we all fit into the same box.

Being a good employee means being punctual, organized, and linearly productive…but what happens when your brain just doesn’t function according to those parameters?

This is the big question being asked by workers across the U.S. as awareness and acceptance of neurodivergence grows. 

So, What Is Neurodivergence Anyway?

Neurodivergence describes people whose brains develop or operate differently from what’s deemed “typical” (otherwise known as neurotypical).

It’s important to acknowledge that such brain differences not only come with their own unique set of challenges but also carry strengths that those who are neurotypical may not possess.

No two brains are exactly alike, and for that reason, there’s no clear definition of what a “normal” brain should be capable of. It’s why terms like neurodivergent and neurotypical are used to describe people vs. what’s considered “abnormal” and “normal.”

ADHD, autism, OCD, and dyslexia (among other neurotypes associated with neurodivergence) are dominating mental health conversations on social media, and people are finally starting to address the challenges that come with these diagnoses rather than suffering in silence.

So then, fellow neurodivergents, how do we learn to thrive rather than merely survive in environments that often stifle the natural inclinations of our quirky brains? 

That’s where this series comes in. We are two Verywell Mind editors who self-identify and understand what it’s like to be neurodivergent in the modern workplace. We’ll focus each article on a different aspect of work life that is impacted, get the scoop on insights and strategies from experts in the space, and even include some of our readers’ experiences and their tried-and-true hacks. 

But before we get into specifics, we wanted to get a pulse on how neurodivergents are feeling about work life in general. What are some of the biggest day-to-day challenges? Are company policies sympathetic? And how successful have we been in making the jump from online awareness to real-life acceptance? 

Why Is Work Life Tricky for Neurodivergent People?

Here’s what some of our readers had to share:

Feeling Incompetent When You Don’t Fit the Mold…

One big challenge with ADHD is that people with the disorder are often highly intelligent, but because their strengths manifest differently from neurotypicals they can be labeled incompetent before they have a chance to prove themselves. So many work environments operate around a specific organizational infrastructure with set strategy and protocol that ADHD brains don’t always want to adhere to.

Rose Lauren Hughes, a neurodiversity and disability specialist at Bened Life sheds some light on the issue:

“I think what came hardest for me was knowing that with the right handling or understanding, environment or methods, I excel at pretty much anything I set my mind to. Most people in our neurodiverse environment have indeed, ended up feeling like they ARE a burden and have grown to feel immensely patronized at times.”

“A lot of this stems from society or lack of education but also, I believe because we live in a society/world where the workplace needs to be efficient, fit the box, and have workers slaving away in a formation. If you divert from that or need a diverse way of working, you are made to feel difficult, or not good at your job. At the very worst I’ve often been laughed at or mocked or made to feel incompetent when if they simply explained in a different way or asked what I needed, I would have shown the depth of my intelligence and ability to learn new things.” 

Rose Lauren Hughes

At the very worst I’ve often been laughed at or mocked or made to feel incompetent when if they simply explained in a different way or asked what I needed, I would have shown the depth of my intelligence and ability to learn new things.

— Rose Lauren Hughes

When a person with ADHD is unable to wrap their head around doing something in the way “it’s supposed to be done” it might look like they can’t do the job. In reality, they probably have plenty of creative ways to complete the task that just might not be what the manager had in mind. Many companies are finally starting to recognize the importance of hiring employees who can really think “outside the box,” but they also need to accept that people with the potential to be truly innovative thinkers tend to work a little differently. 

Masking and Adapting to a Neurotypical World Causes Burnout…

One of the main ways neurodivergent people cope in a neurotypical world is through masking. Masking is a phenomenon where neurodivergent individuals make the effort to appear “normal” by suppressing their neurodivergent traits and doing their best to perform as a neurotypical person. 

Alyssa Jean Salter, an autistic neurodiversity and disability specialist alludes to this challenge, “I wasn’t diagnosed with my many neurodiversities until I was over the age of 24. It is something I have learned about myself later in life, it has explained so many experiences, but it also means I am learning recently how to appropriately take care of myself and advocate for what I need.”

Salter continues, “I grew up going all the way through graduate school without accommodations. I worked and hustled without accommodations. I ran my battery into the ground to the point where I was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day, waking up for work, working, and sleeping. I was a shell of a person because I was constantly adapting myself like a chameleon to survive in my environment.”

Alyssa Jean Salter

I was a shell of a person because I was constantly adapting myself like a chameleon to survive in my environment.

— Alyssa Jean Salter

While this behavior is beneficial in certain circumstances, when a neurodivergent person is working in an environment that forces them to mask 24/7 it can lead to serious burnout. It’s a survival tactic but it’s not sustainable, and another reason why employers should foster acceptance of people whose needs might differ from their colleagues.  

Feeling Discouraged When Your Creativity Challenges the Status Quo…

Knowing there are key differences in the ADHD brain compared to the non-ADHD brain can be validating for those with ADHD. But these nuances aren’t always acknowledged in a neurotypical workforce. A key challenge for those with ADHD is dopamine dysregulation.

Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter involved in helping us feel satisfaction and pleasure when something is accomplished. For ADHDers, there is either too little dopamine, not enough receptors for it, or the dopamine is not being used efficiently. It’s what triggers novelty-seeking behaviors and curbs our motivation when tasks seem dry or mundane. 

Sunny Cash, a community director with ADHD, shares how this can show up at work:

Sunny Cash

I am sure it was thought that I wasn’t leadership material because I wasn’t following the expected route, so how could I be expected to lead in a way that was expected?

— Sunny Cash

Rather than seeing their ways as unconventional or as ‘disturbances’ to the norm, managers can instead open the floor to alternate ways of thinking from their neurodivergent employees. They can also make accommodations for those with ADHD to take the lead on other areas of the job or business that may offer more stimulation and allow them to exercise their full potential.

A harmonious workplace can be achieved if those at the top are able to lean into the strengths of each individual versus writing off their differences.  

A Word From Verywell

If we’re honest, we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to the multi-layered experiences the neurodivergent community may face.

In the coming months, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of topics like how ADHD affects your relationship with colleagues, how to tell your manager when you’re at your peak or off your game, and dealing with rejection-sensitive dysphoria. We hope this series can help you feel supported, seen, and understood—because we all deserve to thrive, not just survive.

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