It's no secret that self-awareness is key to finding a career that allows you to thrive. Want to find your passions, talents and skills? The general advice is to take a gap year, embark on further study, training or to think about embracing a hobby. But in discovering who we are, it's also important to discover
how we are - or more specifically - how we are wired to think. This is even more crucial if you are - or suspect you are - neurodivergent.
I was diagnosed autistic aged 29, and often wonder how different things might have been had I known sooner. In the short time since being diagnosed I've made changes to the way that I work and live - from experimenting with an assistant, to requesting academic adjustments, to the way I organise my home. All of which have shifted things for the better.
With first hand experience of just how valuable this awareness can be, I'm sharing the following insights to give you the head start that I wish I'd have had.
But first up, what does it mean to be neurodivergent?
The sociologist Judy Singer coined the term 'neurodiversity' as an umbrella term to describe differences in the way our brains function - such as ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia and Epilepsy. So, to be 'neurodivergent' means that your brain is wired in a way that differs to the majority - which in itself brings a diverse bundle of gifts and challenges. Knowing your neurotype enables you to discover and apply the tools needed to overcome the challenges and capitalise on the gifts.
When considering your career path, awareness of your neurotype is crucial.
I dropped out of school aged 15, followed by college three times - and then university twice - before finally applying for and completing my Master's. But by that time, I'd developed a deep sense of shame as I watched my peers graduate while I seemingly lagged behind. To make matters worse, I actually excelled academically. But being autistic with ADHD, I struggled to stay motivated on the mandatory subjects that in my mind, weren't quite interesting enough. So I rarely made it past the second term. Eventually, I applied directly for a Master's - despite not having an undergraduate degree - which was a great move for me in hindsight. Master's level research provided me with much more ownership of the subjects I studied and wrote about - which finally kept my attention long enough for me to see it through.
When you know better, you can do better.
Diagnosis lifts a veil. Things begin to make so much more sense, offering a map to navigate the messy terrain. Once you accept yourself and some of the challenges that come with it, you can then more easily identify and implement the tools to overcome them.
For instance, you might love the creative side of hosting events but find that you're not keen on the organisational side due to executive functioning issues. This is a common challenge of being neurodivergent. In this case, you'd have two main options:
You could commit the majority of your efforts to attempting to become a brilliantly-organised person. Or you could focus on what you're good at and find a collaborator to take care of the rest.
"If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it'll spend it's whole life thinking it's
stupid". - Albert Einstein
Quite often, due to a lack of self-esteem, we try to overcompensate and prove our worth by
attempting to develop a skill set that's at odds with our neurotype. This is often a one-way ticket to burnout and only strengthens the voice in your head that says you aren't as good as your peers.
That's not to say that there aren't any benefits to improving in areas that we struggle with or learning skills that we haven't yet acquired. But understanding our neurotype helps you to identify when this is or isn't helpful and how you can do so without distracting from the areas we thrive in.
For example, Nimrita was late-diagnosed dyslexic and now runs a marketing agency. The tools and tech she began to use after receiving a diagnosis now helps her to spot typos - often more frequently than her peers. She says, "When I was diagnosed, the advisor introduced me to a tool on computers called Read Aloud and that has transformed the way I read and write. By listening to what I have written it is much easier for me to spot errors and correct them".
Simple, yet effective.
Alix started The Birth Uprising as a way to provide inclusive birth support, while running a business that supported her neurotype. On the topic of self-awareness, she says "We have increasingly come to accept that our neurodivergence has an impact on our productivity and motivation. We can become waylaid during tasks and leave many things half-finished, so a daily to-do list is essential".
As well as running a business, awareness of your neurotype also helps you to learn self-advocacy as an employee.
One of the things I wish I'd have been able to articulate during early internships and training
programmes are personal adjustment needs. To some, these may be misread as a person
simply being 'difficult' or 'anti-social'. But adjustments like needing a quiet space in the office to work or the ability to opt-out of regular team socials are quite common needs among
neurodivergent folk - both of which I've experienced. Voicing needs like these can really help to lighten the load and allow you to better thrive within your role.
I have also learnt though, that sometimes the most important adjustments aren't those you
receive from others, but those you give to yourself. There will be times that people won't understand the way that you are, even when you explain, so first and foremost, it's important that you do.
The world needs your contribution.
The innovation and wider contribution neurodiversity brings to society is becoming increasingly acknowledged. But even so, as a neurodivergent individual there may be times that it feels particularly difficult bringing your gifts and ideas into the world without substantial support. This is thought to be due to challenges with executive functioning (the part of our brain responsible for planning and organisation) being a common characteristic among neurodivergent folk.
Other common traits such as flitting from interest to interest, can feel like a burden when pursuing a conventional path. But again, instead of fighting against these traits, awareness of them helps us to identify paths where they are less of a problem - or better yet, a strength.
For example, for me, freelance writing has been a big part of my path for this reason. Being able to focus in short bursts on subjects that I'm interested in means that my work constantly feels fresh and new, but without the added overwhelm. Small pockets of 'self-recognition' like these can deliver huge benefits over time.
With more and more awareness of the challenges and gifts that come with being
neurodivergent, there's a steady emergence of 'neurodiversity coaches', mentors and support systems designed to help neurodivergent people stay on track, get their ideas into the world and thrive within their careers.
But if a training programme, course, internship or job you've taken doesn't appear to provide the support you need, don't worry. Lots of organisations are still learning. So don't let this put you off asking for help.
While it's normal to feel hesitant about making these requests, it helps to remember that not
only does this help you, but it can also help the company to learn, grow and better support
others in the future too.
So whatever career path you're considering (or even if you don't yet have an idea),
understanding your neurotype can help point you in the right direction. And it can help you to thrive within it once you've found - or created - exactly what it is that you're looking for.
Want to know more?
Here are some of our favourite resources to help you find out more about your neurotype...
Support groups and organisations.
Neurodivergent Entrepreneurs and Business Owners
ADHD Female Entrepreneurs
Collective for creatives based in Scotland.
A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD | Sari Solden MS & Michelle Frank Neurotribes | Steve Silberman