Neurodiversity at Work
By now, we know that the state of our minds – if we’re struggling, or if we are just wired differently – doesn’t have to be a hindrance to our career. In fact, it can actually be our strength. That’s incredibly true when it comes to neurodiversity.
Host Morra Aarons-Mele speaks with Danny Lakes, a Procter & Gamble employee who is on the autism spectrum, as well as Todd Ballish, a neurotypical manager at P&G, about why having a program for neurodiverse workers is a strength for the company. Then, we’ll hear from Emily Kircher-Morris, host of The Neurodiversity Podcast.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: The stereotype is that autistic people are these tech-y, math-y, introverted, quiet people, but I think that what we are really learning is that that’s not necessarily true.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who have dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future. The goal of this show is to increase awareness and cut back on the shame of all things having to do with brain health and one thing I’m always interested in in particular is neurodiversity. You might remember a previous guest, Dan Bastian, who is co-founder of Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, who said he felt stupid growing up with undiagnosed ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder]. But the shame, the feeling like you need to hide your difference, that’s changing. There’s real progress. I’m super grateful. I listen to my own children and their peers talk openly about their diagnoses and their IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] and their ADHD. Of course, this isn’t true everywhere, but in the work world, bold companies are leading by example and the education field is too. On today’s show, we’re going to hear three different perspectives on neurodiversity at work. A little later in the show, we’ll speak to Emily Kircher-Morris, who’s hosted the neurodiversity podcast and a mental health counselor for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent people. But first, a window into a company that’s truly embracing neurodiversity, Proctor & Gamble, P&G. We’ll start by hearing a little bit of my conversation with Danny Lakes, a P&G manager and software developer, and a man who is on the autism spectrum. I asked Danny about his experience growing up, what he likes about his job, and how the working world is different for him.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Tell me what you love to do in your spare time outside of work.
DANNY LAKES: I play a lot of video games, as most people of my generation do. I actually mess around with … programming is my day job but I also do it for fun. I also draw in my free time, do a lot of cartoonish style art.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Were you into art in high school? Was that something you were always into?
DANNY: Yeah. Art is something that I’ve done for years now. I started all the way back in middle school. It was just a really good outlet growing up. I always felt like kind of the weird kid in class and art sort of gave me another way to express myself.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you say you felt like the weird kid in class, how did that … How? How did that manifest itself for you?
DANNY LAKES: Well, I was often singled out. I didn’t have too many friends growing up. It was just really difficult to make friends. Because of some issues early on in middle school, I actually had to switch to online schooling around the sixth grade. From there, I did online schooling all the way up into college. There weren’t too many opportunities for me to socialize, except for online, and art is really the thing that started getting me involved in communities that really helped me figure out who I was as a person.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: When did you get your diagnosis, your … Did you get an Asperger’s [syndrome] diagnosis? What was the diagnosis and when did you get it?
DANNY LAKES: Yes. Exactly. When I got it … As I said, I started online schooling [inaudible 00:04:29] go for physical classes until college. Well, in my senior year of high school, that summer before then, I realized, well, I’m going to be going to college soon and I actually opted into Ohio’s post-secondary education opportunity program, which was basically a program for high schoolers to take college classes on top of their high school classes and earn college credits for free. I’m like, free college classes? Okay. Yeah. I’m going to do that. I decided let’s start college a year early. I also was realizing, man, I really don’t know how to socialize anymore, not in-person anyway. I knew how to socialize online but that’s different than face to face, so I asked my parents if I could get setup with a counselor. They found someone. She was absolutely phenomenal. After a couple sessions, she diagnosed me with Asperger’s.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Did it feel like that made sense to you?
DANNY LAKES: It felt absolutely liberating. When she started listing off the common symptoms and common behaviors, I was just like, finally, I have an answer as to why I’m so weird. It felt good to finally have that sort of answer.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Then what? Then you’re like, okay, well, now I have this diagnosis. Did it change your plans? How you approached college? What happened next after you got the diagnosis?
DANNY LAKES: Well, after I got that diagnosis, my counselor started giving me materials to help me with that. By that, I mean, she gave me a lot of reading on how to socialize. I always joke and say a lot of people tend to have socializing be just a natural thing for them, it just sort of happens but they have to study things like math or science or typical school subjects like that. For me, it was kind of the opposite because things like math and logic always made just absolute perfect sense to me. I could pick up almost anything in my math classes. Within seconds, I would understand the concepts. But socializing is the thing that I had to study. From there, once I started learning some of those skills, she said, “Okay, let’s put them into practice” and she pushed me into some events that were uncomfortable for me at the time, like found some meetups for teenagers and young adults for me to go to that were just opportunities for me to practice socializing.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: When you graduated college, did you … Were you interviewing for jobs? How did you end up at Proctor & Gamble?
DANNY LAKES: Oh boy. That’s a story. It was a bit weird. Out of college, I was trying to find IT jobs. Really, the only work that I could find was contract work, level one IT support, basic entry level positions. I really wasn’t being given too many opportunities to push ahead. I didn’t have too many local opportunities. Since I wasn’t making too much money in the level-one field, I was like, okay, let’s just find an even more basic job, I’ll use my degree later on in life. I ended up finding a job at Starbucks, worked as a barista for what I planned to be only a few months, but ended up being three years.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
DANNY LAKES: You need any advice on coffee, I’m your guy. But then after that, I actually managed to find a position with another IT company, like the stars aligned, found a wonderful job, level one support, was paying more than I was making at Starbucks and so I left, went there, and I was working there for about I think six months when my cousin heard through the grapevine about a job opportunity for Proctor & Gamble for a neurodiversity program. I remember the night that my parents told me about it because my cousin actually texted my parents first, and I remember I was on my computer working on some art and my parents texted me, “Hey, can you come out here? We got some exciting news for you.” I was like, “Okay, what is this about?” I went out there to talk to them and they were like, “P&G is doing a neurodiversity program and they’re looking for people.” I just looked at them, I’m like, “P&G? Proctor & Gamble? Why are you telling me this? I don’t have the skillset to work there.” P&G has a reputation and I didn’t know if I was going to fit in with what they expect. Long story short, my parents managed to convince me like just go for it, what’s the worst that can happen, they say no? What’s the best that can happen? I was like, okay, fine, fine, I’ll go in, try it out, and ended up going through the internship that they had and that’s how I ended up here.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s amazing. What do you think they knew in the neurodiversity program that maybe other people, other recruiters, other managers didn’t know about how to get the best out of you? Is there a way that you feel like it’s different having gone through the internship in a program that is designed differently?
DANNY LAKES: Oh, it’s night and day I would say. What was really nice is that they took a lot of the concepts that we would need to learn and put it through a method that didn’t require heavy technical skills, because often times people with autism aren’t given the same opportunities, not through the fault of anyone in particular but just aren’t given the opportunities to develop those skills, because … You have to develop them in a slightly different way. Through that internship, it was actually kind of funny. In addition to the programming that we’d be doing on the job, we actually did some Lego projects, and went through the workflow of how things would go if we were on a job but it was just little Lego projects. It was building up to where we actually put everything that we learned during that work to actually doing something in the software that we’d be using on the job. It was sort of like combining all of that together but it was, again, done in a way that was a somewhat familiar sort of thing and then we just were taught the concepts from there. That’s what really helped is having that time to really learn and absorb the concepts, because there’s some things about the business world that … I worked level one IT support, I had a glimpse into what corporate life is like, but the reality is there was so much that I didn’t know when I first started the internship program. Going through that internship really opened my eyes and taught me a lot of invaluable skills in how to interact in the corporate world. Unfortunately, if you don’t know that stuff right away because … It’s all related to social skills. Again, like I said earlier, I had to be actually taught how to socialize and if you don’t have those sort of basic social skills, people pick up on that and it really lowers your chance of being hired, from my experiences anyway. It was really nice to have an internship program that sat us down and in addition to teaching us technical skills, taught us those social skills we needed as well.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s interesting. It sounds like learning how boundaries are different in a corporate sort of relationship-driven environment was something that you felt you really had to learn.
DANNY LAKES: Definitely. That wasn’t something that I just picked up. If you spoke to my manager, you would hear a lot of stories about the things that I have asked him over the years I’ve been with the company, because it didn’t stop at the internship. There’s been a lot of times I’ve had to ask many, many, many questions about how to do that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s funny because, of course, I’m reflecting as someone who is neurotypical, but I live with someone on the spectrum, but I can’t help but think every employee, especially young people, would benefit from what you went through because I think that interpersonal stuff is hard for everyone. We all mess it up. It’s rough.
DANNY LAKES: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I wonder if you have thoughts on that.
DANNY LAKES: No. See, I definitely do. I recognize that because one of the best examples is when I was in college, I had to take a public speaking course and, my gosh, public speaking is not easy for anyone but it’s an interpersonal skill, it’s something that you really have to learn no matter who you are. I mean, some people are natural born sort of public speakers but they have to still learn how to refine that skill. It’s definitely something that I think skills like this do need to be taught to anyone really, because that’s one thing I’ve heard is in companies that have established neurodiversity programs, they’ve heard success stories not just with neurodiverse individuals but the managers of neurodiverse individuals end up being better managers in general, because they’re taught very specific things on how to organize because people on the spectrum require a lot of structure. You know? You apply that structure to neurotypical people, suddenly everyone is working better.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I loved speaking to Danny and I wanted to learn more, so I also talked with Todd Ballish, who is one of the supervisors in the program that Danny works in. Todd does not identify as neurodiverse but he wanted to get involved.
TODD BALLISH: The program is really all about bringing people in, filling roles within the company with neurodiverse talent. Day to day, I really tend to think about recruiting, onboarding, and then retention and what I’ll call the care and feeding of a typical career inside of a corporation as an organization indicates that, “Hey, we’ve got a role that’s a great fit for on the strengths of someone who is maybe on the spectrum”, we begin to work with them to understand how do we screen people in versus screen people out in the recruiting process? Then as they’re beginning to onboard, we’re really helping the teams understand, okay, what are the activities that they need to do to make sure that they’re communicating clearly? It’s really about training the neurotypicals on how to be more precise with their language and how to really get the best out of their employees based on their employees’ strengths. Ongoing, right? It’s about building that community, the connections between the neurodiverse individuals with the rest of the organization, giving them the coaching and the language that is going to make them the most successful version of themselves that they need, so whether that’s a buddy for a peer to peer type coaching or whether it’s a mentor, that’s really the day to day.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What have you learned about what works best? Talk to me about how you start people off for success in the company.
TODD BALLISH: I think it’s getting clear on what the work is and being precise in terms of what success really looks like. Boy, as a neurotypical I appreciate that too, right? I think we tend to fill in the gaps as neurotypicals whereas I think folks on the spectrum or neurodiverse individuals really are very successful when they have that precision. I think it really starts there.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Does that mean helping managers schedule differently? Does it mean helping them setup success metrics? What does it look like in the day to day?
TODD BALLISH: Both of those, right? Having a very routine schedule in terms of maybe twice a day check-ins where the expectation is at some time in the morning and some time in the afternoon on a very routine schedule this is we’re going to come together as a team and review the work and review the progress, ask for help, et cetera. It also means very … In agile terminology, this is your daily stand up. We might do that a couple of times a day with the team. In addition, it’s getting really, really clear in training the managers to communicate clearly and then probe whether or not their communication is at the level of precision that’s necessary for the team.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s flip the script a little bit. As someone who has been a hiring and training manager of people, especially on the spectrum, for a while now, what advice would you give to someone who is on the spectrum and who is interviewing?
TODD BALLISH: I think it starts with your … The advice I’d give them is that your strengths are your strengths and they’re valuable. Companies need sources of talent that have the skills that you bring to the table. Find an environment who is going to bring the best out in you, right? Your success is uniquely defined to you and look for an opportunity where your strengths are leveraged in a way that makes you successful and recognize also that that’s bringing value to the company and the community where you’re going to work.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, how do you … I guess you could research the company and if it has a program or if it has these words on its website, that’s a sign but I would imagine most companies, in fact, I know most companies don’t. The whole concept of integrating neurodiversity into our workplace is kind of new. If you’re interviewing at a small business or not P&G, are there certain words that a hiring manager might use or certain practices that you could look for? You mentioned agile. Do you find that’s a good fit for people who are neurodiverse?
TODD BALLISH: Yeah. I think agile is definitely a good fit. I mean, data and analytics is another area. Those are keywords where I find folks … For individuals that I have met on the spectrum, they’re really, really good at data, they’re really good at detail oriented work. They generally find satisfaction in repetitive work. Now here’s the danger, though, and this is why I’m choosing my words carefully, if you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum. We’re all individuals.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I knew you were going to say that.
TODD BALLISH: I know. It’s such a pithy thing to say.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It’s so true, though.
TODD BALLISH: But it’s so true. Right? You can’t create these stereotypes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to close by talking a little bit about empathy. Empathy is a big buzzword in leadership culture. I think it’s something that managers have to learn to manage. Does that make sense? What have you learned about empathy in a corporate culture from your work with these neurodiverse teams?
TODD BALLISH: I think what I’ve learned most from … I’ve come to a greater appreciation that people don’t think like me. That’s really, really … You look at the world and you think that the world sees the same things that you do and it actually takes a lot of work to understand the perspective that people like Danny … They come from just such a different place. It’s easy to go through the world and we’re all busy and we all have lots of drains on our energy. I find that I’ve had to elevate the dedication of energy, the mental energy that I have to make it a focused and intentional activity to empathize, not just with the neurodiverse people but with the people in the company who are interacting with them, whether it’s their direct manager or maybe it’s an internal customer that they’re working with to empathize, “Okay, what are they seeing? Why are they reacting the way that they’re reacting? What do they maybe see or not see? How are they feeling with this interaction?” It kind of expands my thinking as I engage. But it takes commitment and energy and that … It’s an incredibly useful skill not just to empathize with folks on the neurodiverse spectrum but on all spectrums of diversity.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, it’s funny. My takeaway is that I wish … All of these practices sound like they’re something that every team should do, that every team needs.
TODD BALLISH: That’s just it. I mean, this … I’ve used the term, it really raises the bar. The guys and ladies who are managers of these neurodiverse teams, they become rock star managers. They’re the kind of people I want to work for as a neurotypical. It really does elevate the … It really does raise the bar for those folks who take on these roles.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: A lot of the acceptance around neurodiversity has to start not just at the corporate level but across all other parts of society. A lot of diagnoses happen when we’re young. I reached out to Emily Kircher-Morris, host of the Neurodiversity Podcast, and a mental health counselor. She has her own story as well. Emily is a long time educator and former school counselor and she works at the cutting edge of advocating for the neurodivergent and their families. Here’s my conversation with Emily.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What does neurodiversity mean?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Neurodiversity is the concept that there are many variations in neurology, in humanity. Many of the types of neurodiversity that are innate and present when a person is born have for a long time been pathologized. The concept of neurodiversity says that these are at times beneficial and useful for our survival as a species but also have some benefits in recognizing that different types of neurology, different neurotypes are just some variation in how we develop and how we grow, so things like, for example, autism and ADHD and dyslexia, yes, there are impairments that can come with those but there are also strengths. Neurodiversity just works to normalize that concept.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Where does mental illness fit into neurodiversity? Is it part of neurodiversity?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: You know, it’s an ongoing conversation about where mental health fits because, for example, depending on who you’re asking and there’s no hard and fast list of diagnoses or identifications that fall under neurodiversity, but generally, I mentioned ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dysgraphia, those types typically fall pretty strictly under the concept of neurodiversity. Then we have under mental health, things like depression or generalized anxiety, some of those things that are maybe perhaps more episodic. However, I would also say that there’s definitely some overlap. If you had a Venn diagram there, there are some things that kind of straddle both worlds.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to get into your story but I did want to just spend one more minute on labels and diagnoses. It’s interesting because I think from a work perspective, neurodiversity is part of this wonderful moment where we’re in in which we’re sort of finally saying like, “Yeah. We’re all different. We have different brains and we look different and we sound different and we act different and let’s not pretend otherwise.” Right?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Right.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I know that labeling is always controversial, certainly, among children in the neurodiversity community. How do you feel about diagnoses and labels as it pertains to the patients you see and your own self?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child. When I was in my early … Well, really when I was in about high school, I’m like, “Meh, I don’t really know if that’s an accurate diagnosis.” Then I basically went the next 10 to 15 years kind of trying to manage a lot of anxiety and depression and a lot of other mental health type things. Then when I was in my thirties, I went back to my doctor and I’m like, “I had this diagnosis of ADHD as a child” and when we began treating the ADHD, a lot of my anxiety went away because it was anxiety about the struggle with executive functioning skills. Having that label and really understanding myself was really empowering. There are a lot of times that … For example, when parents are going through this process with kids, because I feel like that’s really where a lot of this organically is happening in the neurodiversity movement and adults maybe are coming to that diagnosis in other roundabout ways, parents are so worried about giving their child a label or a diagnosis, but what you have to realize is that these kids are already being labeled—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: …not nice things sometimes.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: No. They’re being labeled lazy or unmotivated or, I don’t know, fill in the blank.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. Not focused, not paying attention [crosstalk 00:29:04] not caring.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yes. Yeah. Bad student, bad kid. The adults internalize those things too about themselves, if they’re undiagnosed. To me, having an accurate label or diagnosis is empowering and it explains some things and it gives you a starting point, like a direction, “Here’s where we go from here.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. Let’s talk about you. I have to say … Well, first of all, I thought of you yesterday and I thought of our conversation because I saw a tweet from my friend Amy Pritchard and it just said, “I’ve never understood the assignment.”
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yes. I can relate to that. Yes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You have said that your sort of mantra when you were in school was, “Just let me do what I want to do.” Nobody understood why you said that.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: No. I think I first originally said that to my mother when I was about four. It has carried through for sure.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What is your story? Why do you do the work that you do?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, I received that ADHD diagnosis as a kid. I was also identified as cognitively gifted and was placed in a gifted program but that was at a time … Well, first of all, we now have a term for individuals who are both gifted and have another type of neurodiversity or another diagnosis, that’s twice exceptional, but that was not a term that was used when I was a kid. But school was tough. It was tough. My parents didn’t know what to do with me, my teachers didn’t know what to do with me, I didn’t know what to do with me. It was hard. I went into education because I really wanted to make a difference for kids who were like me and that has now broadened so much to my clinical work as a therapist and the podcast and not just focusing on education and kids but all individuals, supporting parents, supporting adults who are neurodivergent. It’s really … I don’t know. Our mission for the podcast that I have and my mission in general is to work to create a neurodiversity-affirming world and it encompasses all of the different aspects of my life.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why does work today need neurodiversity in its talent pool?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Well, first of all, there is already neurodiversity in the talent pool. It just might not be identified.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: True.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: But when we recognize neurodiversity, when we seek out neurodivergent people in the workplace, they can bring strengths to us that are often getting missed. For example, there are a lot of barriers to just getting hired because of the requirements for social communication and managing anxiety through the hiring process and all of these pieces but if you could get somebody in the door, they would be an excellent addition to a team. We are missing that, because of these other protocols or procedures that we’ve put into place that we just don’t even question sometimes. The thing about people who are neurodivergent is they look at problems in a new and different way and they’re going to bring different solutions to the table. We want to have that diversity of voice and opinion and experience in any workplace. It’s only an asset for whatever our goals might be.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk about, though, a lot of your work talks about the frequency, comorbidity, whatever you want to call it of anxiety and sometimes depression and neurodiversity. Why? Is it your experience that it’s sort of baked into who we are? Is it a learned experience? Who do we feel more anxious and depressed sometimes?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Well, any time you have somebody who is that square peg that doesn’t fit in the round hole, there’s going to be some dissonance with how they fit in in that situation. Somebody who is, for example, autistic, the situations where somebody who is autistic can thrive involve clear expectations, knowing what to expect, having that consistency, and so when you’re in a situation that is very volatile or changes or those supports aren’t provided, there’s anxiety there. “If I don’t know what to expect …” If I’m somebody who is ADHD and I’m in a workplace that is expecting a lot of organization or focus or tools without providing me any accommodations or supports, I’m going to feel really anxious because, of course, I want to do well. Many neurodivergent people are doing a lot of work just to keep up, just to stay at the level that is commensurate with other perhaps non-neurodivergent colleagues and that is anxiety-provoking. Therefore, also, can roll into some depression because what does that mean for self-esteem? What does that mean for how we view ourselves and how we feel empowered to move forward in our lives? There are just a lot of implications that go along with that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. Sometimes the examples are so real world. A friend of mine who is ADHD … You know, email is a really hard thing for them, keeping on top of the email inbox, and they work in a culture where responding to email in a very timely fashion is a value in the organization. That’s really hard.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah or I have clients who I work with who … You know, especially adults who are diagnosed as neurodivergent when they’re older, there’s a lot of undoing of internalized ableism that they have to overcome. Meaning that the expectations that … If you’re undiagnosed and you struggle with a certain thing, it’s all those messages like I’m lazy, I’m unmotivated, I’m not good enough, I’m whatever [crosstalk 00:35:48].
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Everyone else can answer their email. Why can’t I?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Right. Why can’t you? Why can’t you do this? Absolutely. We have to undo that and realize, okay, well, this is what doesn’t work for me or this is how my brain works and here’s what I need in order to meet those expectations but … Just talking about the internalized ableism, I saw a thing on Twitter that people were ranting about, what else is Twitter for? But it was a picture of a slide that somebody had been using in a presentation and it basically said things that don’t require any talent or training or something like that, right? It said like being on time or being conscientious … I don’t know. All of these things that were, again, just baked into this ableist worldview, it’s like, well, yeah, that’s easy for some people but there are other people who those things don’t come as naturally to and that doesn’t mean that they are less of value or that they don’t have something to add. But going back to the story about the client that I had just real quickly, it’s like she’s struggling to advocate for herself and she is struggling … What happens is she’s finally getting to the point where she’s going to her managers and asking for some accommodations and doing some things but she’s very cautious about disclosing her diagnosis and her label and, rightfully so, but then what happens is she feels like they are condescending or they are treating her as less than if she asks for these accommodations. It’s like a really complicated, overwhelming situation for people when employers don’t understand what neurodiversity is and how to support neurodivergent people.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I do think companies want to do the right thing. They want to have the benefits, they want to talk about it, and yet the ideal worker model is still so prevalent, right?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That if you actually raise your hand and you’re like, “Yeah, I could use this benefit”, you’re seen as less than.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: There is a lot of really amazing work in the neurodiversity employment world in the tech fields, because I think that that’s just something where we see a lot of that. They’re really at the forefront. Somebody was talking about how if we’re in a place where we’re asking employees to request accommodations, that is a sign that the system is broken, because, ultimately, these are things that are beneficial for everybody. You need a quiet place to go work, having an open floor plan doesn’t work for you because it’s hard for you to focus, well, yeah, you should be able to have access to that. You know what? There are days if I don’t sleep well at night, I’m not going to be able to focus. You know?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Totally.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: There are just things that everybody might need and when we make those accommodations accessible for everybody, it reduces the stigma and it’s just better for all of the people who are involved in that environment.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s talk a little bit about this concept of twice exceptional, 2E. I think it’s really fascinating and something that probably a lot of people don’t even know what it means. Can you tell us?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Coming from … It’s really a term that originated in the educational world but it indicates somebody who is both cognitively gifted, so has an IQ that is in usually the top 2% to 5% based on the people of their same age [crosstalk 00:39:21].
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What number would that be? Just for listeners. I know they’re curious.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah. Usually like a 125, a 130, something like that. A 130 is the 98th percentile. 124 is 95th percentile on an IQ test.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: My mother would get … I was 150. My mom would get so frustrated with me because I failed math. She’d be like, “I don’t understand. You have a 150 IQ.” I’d be like, “Mom, I just can’t.”
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: It’s not that. I know, I know. Same. Plus, my mother, she was a special educator and—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: …Mine too.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Part of the reason why she kind of knew … Oh, really? That’s funny.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh my God.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah. They get it, they get it a little bit more. My mom is like, “This is not all adding up” because I think she requested for me to be tested for the gifted ed program because she was like, “This is not normal what this child is doing.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: But then she also found a neurologist to diagnose me. I often wonder also if I were diagnosed today, I suspect that there would have been some serious red flags for some autistic traits too. I don’t think I would ever meet that criteria now as an adult.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You talk about that—
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: We just didn’t know much about it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. You actually have written about that, that sometimes children, especially really bright ones who get an ADHD diagnosis might instead present with autism, ASD, level one I guess it is now.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yeah. What ends up happening is … First of all, people just don’t know what autism really looks like, especially in somebody who is very bright. What you end up seeing is you see some of the sensory things that look like fidgeting or hyper-activity but ultimately they may be more like a stimming behavior, which is an emotional self-regulation strategy that a lot of autistic people rely on. You might see the lack of focus or poor executive functioning skills, which for an ADHD-er really has to do with they can’t regulate that attention. For an autistic individual, it’s a little bit different as far as just being more interested in the things that are really important to them and having a hard time switching that and transitioning between tasks. You have to really dig pretty deep but I find quite often what happens is I’ll have kids who come in with an ADHD diagnosis and as they get older and we start to see more of the difficulties with the social communication piece, then all of a sudden we realize like, “Oh, this is probably more on the autism spectrum as opposed to ADHD” or both.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or both. Yes. What do we get wrong about people with autism? I live with someone who has autism. They are the funnest, most social, most in touch, make eye contact, super chatty, super extroverted, not that great at math, frankly.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Yes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What do we get wrong?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Well, the stereotype is that autistic people are these tech-y, math-y, introverted, quiet people but I think that what we are really learning is that that’s not necessarily true. Because of the way that the diagnostic process has been developed and because of the fact that most of the research that has been done historically has been done on primarily boys and young boys who were more introverted or had fewer social language … Weren’t as driven to communicate socially perhaps is a good way to put that, those are the norms that we’ve come up with but really what I am finding is that there are just as many autistic individuals who are extroverted as introverted and what that often comes across as is maybe somebody who doesn’t always understand some of the rules of communication, maybe they come across as either pushy or they just don’t ever stop talking, that reciprocal conversation, they can’t balance that. Sometimes I think that, yes, we have the autistic individuals who lean towards the math side of things but I think we have just as many autistic people who lean towards the language side of things, which I think is kind of where I always felt like. I was actually going to go into the Air Force to be a cryptologic linguist out of high school. It’s about looking and understanding the language piece but the autistic people who understand the language piece probably, in my experience, just have that stronger communication skills, so it doesn’t present the same way. It looks different. But, again, when you dig down and you know what you’re looking for, you can see some of those signals. Here’s just a quick example. This is actually somebody who I’ve known for a very long time and she’s now an adult but I worked with her even when she was a student, and she’d had a diagnosis of ADHD when she was a child and it was maybe her junior or senior year of high school and she was telling me this story about an argument that she got in with her mom about buying a gift for a cousin. Her mom said something like, “Well, we got her a gift” and my client was like, “Well, I already got her a gift …” She didn’t understand the social language component of what her mother was saying as in, we, as in the group of us, and for me it was like a light bulb went off and I go, “Oh my gosh. She’s not understanding that pragmatic language, what the intent is of that and she’s had some of that black and white thinking like it’s either this or this, it can’t be perhaps both.” All of a sudden, I started reflecting back on the other years of work that we had done and I was like, “Oh my gosh. We missed this.” Now we understand it so much more. She understands herself so much more. It’s really just strange how all of a sudden those things will come up that have maybe been masked for a really long time.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk a little bit about what you’re seeing now. One of the skillsets that you write about and people in your field talk about is executive function skills and thinking in terms of meta cognition. I’m really fascinated by this. I wanted if you could give us like a 30 second overview of what meta cognition is and how your clients basically can get to work helping their executive function skills do better and maybe zoom out and say what do we all need to understand about executive function because it’s important for all of us.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Well, executive function is all of those skills that occur up in the pre-frontal cortex like time management, prioritization, planning, impulse control, and meta cognition is simply the process of stepping back and reflecting, looking at our experiences and evaluating them, and then changing things. One thing that I think it’s important to realize is that people who struggle with executive functioning skills, yes, you can build executive functioning skills but it’s not as simple as learning to ride a bike or something. It’s a lot harder and often it takes putting accommodations around you. For example, for me, for organization, I struggle with keeping things organized, I’m an ADHD-er, I have a lot of things going on and so I’ve tried a lot of different organizational systems but through meta cognition I’ve been able to step back and evaluate what works, what doesn’t, and now what I’ve realized is I have one planner and it has some folders in it and all of the things go in that one place, all my meeting notes, all of my to-do lists, all of my … Everything. That way, I just know it’s all in there and it has to be paper, it can’t be digital. I have to be able to look at the … It’s an eight and a half by 11, I have to be able to open it up and look at it but that’s what works for me. I have to be able to realize what works and if I find that something isn’t working, using that meta cognitive process in order to step back and evaluate and tweak it, make it so it will work.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You’re obviously a pro. You have many degrees. If a person is listening to this show and they’re like, “Wait a minute, gosh, I feel like, A, I could really use something like that and, B, maybe this is me”, what’s the next step they should take if they’re a grown up?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Well, it kind of depends on what their intent is. First of all, there are a lot of barriers to finding a diagnosis as an adult, especially if you’re somebody who is very able overall and has been relatively successful, finding somebody who understands neurodiversity and can accurately assess and diagnose that can be difficult, which is frustrating. You know, if that’s something that you feel like would be validating, I would do some research for somebody in your area and see if you can find somebody who might be able to help you with that process.
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: If it’s something that you just want to learn more about for yourself, doing some research and figuring out what are those tools, what are those strategies, what are the things that can help you advocate for yourself and understand what your needs are and finding the things that work for you in your daily life can be really empowering in and of itself, with or without an official label.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question comes back to anxiety and being neurodivergent. It’s a really anxious time for anyone. It’s a tough time. It requires a lot of flexibility and a lot of sort of just putting faith in the process, which is hard. What can managers, leaders, colleagues do to support anxious colleagues who are neurodivergent?
EMILY KIRCHER-MORRIS: Open up the conversation, be authentic about wanting to help and understand. When an individual comes to you and discloses their diagnosis or a request for accommodations, recognize how much strength that took to be vulnerable in that way, and understand that giving people the benefit of the doubt because I think sometimes we have this … Some of us have this knee jerk reaction to believe that people are trying to game the system or not do their fair share or whatever, and recognize that that is not the case. People want to do well, people want to succeed, and so if they’re asking you for something, if it’s a reasonable accommodation or even if you feel like it isn’t, talk to them, brainstorm with them, what might work? It’s such a simple thing to do. It’s better for you, for your company, for them. It’s a win/win situation for everybody involved to just hear those people and listen to what they need and do what you can to help them.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths, for you our listeners who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming. Please do send me feedback. You can email me, you can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or Tweet me at Morra AM. If you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe and leave a review. From HRB presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.