This week marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week which encourages a shift in thinking from the perceived weaknesses and deficits of being neurodivergent, toward the many strengths and positivity that neurodiversity brings. In this guest blog Anne-Marie Douglas, Founder of Peer Power UK, and member of our Spokesperson Network, blogs on her ADHD diagnosis and what being a neurodivergent charity leader is like.
Since I started talking publically about being diagnosed with ADHD at 43, several women I know have been diagnosed, so I realise it is important to speak up about it, and to raise awareness in the hope that other women will struggle less than I have.
In this piece I hope to share what being neurodivergent in a leadership role is like and share some of the tools that have been helping me in the workplace.
“Being diagnosed last year at 43 years old during a time of crisis came as quite a shock, and yet at the same time it didn’t.”
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; it presents very differently in girls and women, and is hugely under-diagnosed. Last year, the numbers of women testing for ADHD went up dramatically, with symptoms increasing due to the pandemic. Recently ‘The Independent’ reported this to have increased from 7,700 women in 2019, to 254,400 women last year.
Most people have an idea of ADHD presenting as little boys being physically hyperactive and disruptive. The thing is, that as a grown woman, I am like that too, except for me the hyperactivity is in my mind, and I have learnt to hide it well, as many girls and women do.
For me, having ADHD is like having a washing machine on in your head. It’s hearing every channel of the radio turned on at the same time, every conversation in a space at the same volume, tuned into them all, at the same time. It is not a lack of attention, but an excess of attention that is focussed upon too many things. It is executive dysfunction when you cannot rely on your brain to work, and the shiny exciting things get attention over the things you really should be doing. It is mental paralysis, absolute exhaustion and overwhelm, masking to the outside world so they don’t see the inner chaos and disorganization. It is not understanding time, planning or small steps to big tasks. It is being ultra-sensitive around rejection, which is not surprising since we have absorbed being different and being shamed all our lives, others being frustrated with us, struggling with relationships, yet not knowing why.
ADHD for me is also having a creative and visionary brain. I also know exactly what to do in a crisis, and I think in different ways to problem-solve. I’m a big ideas person, a problem solver, joining dots others can’t see. I can complete a lot of work in a very short time, on multiple tasks and work well under pressure. I can hyper-focus on new things to research and get into a deep flow. I have a deep intuition, get excited about new challenges, and am entrepreneurial.
“I’m learning to be open about how ADHD shows up at work, just owning it, and saying sorry!”
Being diagnosed last year at 43 years old during a time of crisis came as quite a shock, and yet at the same time it didn’t, because I always kind of knew there was something different about the way I worked and related to people. People called me a workaholic for years but I was masking, I often couldn’t focus when I needed to, so I would make up for it by working all day and night. I work fast, I am a high achiever, I can cover it well. Because my brain has less dopamine and norepinephrine, it knows and copes very well with operating in crisis mode, which over time is stressful and exhausting. I have had breakdowns about every three years, but I knew during the times I struggled that it wasn’t depression or anxiety. I had put a lot of my difficulties down to Complex PTSD, but I know now that they are ADHD traits, and were present before the trauma, and they have been there since I was born.
It has been a long journey to come to terms with what might have been had I known earlier. Below is a list of things that happen to me in the workplace, and things that help, in the hope that it might help others.
Being open and honest
Being open, honest, and vulnerable about my challenges. In workplace meetings, I’d interrupt people and appear rude because my brain was racing and I knew I’d lose the thought, this is because my working memory does not exist! Then comes the shame. I’m learning to be open about how ADHD shows up at work, just owning it, telling people that I have ADHD. And actively fighting the feelings of shame that I might not be good or professional enough. Supporting my workplace to celebrate neurodiverity is important, through recruitment to the working environment and culture.
Accommodations to the work environment can be helpful from employers. I have shorter meetings, and less time at online meetings, a quiet area to work, fidget tools. I can move around regularly, use headphones, and record meetings.
Coaching gets me out of the immediate and taps into my creative brain that wants to be stretched and the space to think strategically. ADHD specific coaching can support with tools and strategies to help in daily work life and can be funded by Access to Work (see below).
Calendars, Clocks and Reminders
I use calendars, clocks and reminders, everywhere for everything! My working memory does not exist, so it must be written down and scheduled immediately or in a millisecond, it is gone.
Click Up is a free project management tool, that my brain loves because you can have all the lists and planners and view them in lots of different formats. It also helps with prioritising and longer-term project planning which can be a challenge for a person with ADHD.
Creating a good flow by keeping meetings at certain times of the day; I can have uninterrupted flow time for concentrated work and creativity. Ensuring that the working week has scheduled time for creative, ideas-based work that my brain loves, and then scheduling for the routine, less exciting administrative routine work that it does not love.
Good diet, exercise and reducing stress
Like most things, good diet, exercise and reducing stress, are all crucial to well-being and preventing overwhelm for the ADHDer.
Noise-cancelling headphones are helpful for lots of people and can be essential for ADHD. They help me in stopping complete overwhelm when I have many thoughts racing, and thankfully reduce noise in busy spaces. There is also ADHD specific music on Youtube that can help some people to listen too while they are working and focussing.
Affirmations and Self Empathy
I am trying to get better at stopping at the end of the working day, but transitions are hard with ADHD and there is also the feeling that you have never done enough, and making up time for when you couldn’t focus. Telling myself I am enough and I have done enough and being kind to myself when I face challenges has helped fight the shame.
Medication has been trial and error; lately, I have found something that works and so far, so good. It is like putting on a pair of glasses from blurry to crystal clear. My mind is quiet and does not have 100 thoughts at the same time, this helps me to communicate better and generally feel more rested.
Access to work
It is during this special week that I received a letter from the Access to Work scheme to let me know that I had been awarded specialist funding for equipment and work aids to make my work easier. I also learnt I had been funded to receive ADHD coaching and for a personal assistant to help me in work. It is hard to find the words to explain how it feels to not know your whole life and then be finally given some support.
I am so grateful for this support, and that I am able to celebrate my different, but special ADHD brain.
About the Author
Anne-Marie’s belief in the power of empathy and personal experience of peer-led services led her to found the charity Peer Power in 2015, which launched formally in 2016 at the House of Lords. She is a champion for lived and learned experience, and the role of participation, love and empathy in the transformation of support services for those most excluded.
Anne-Marie has worked in participation and youth engagement for over twenty years across support services in both voluntary and statutory sector roles and is a Churchill Fellow, having traveled to the USA and Canada to research the role of empathy and lived experience in support services for children and young people. Outside work, she loves traveling in her beloved campervan, going to festivals and enjoys live music and the arts. Anne-Marie is also part of our Spokesperson Network.