Neurodivergence in the Workplace

Writer and U Career Success Intern Zéta E. Bsharah shares her experiences navigating her career as a neurodivergent individual.   

There have been moments in my life where I have thought to myself, “I’m not qualified to be an adult.” Adults are supposed to be independent and have jobs and pay taxes and do other adult-sounding things—and sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in a cycling race without a bike. To put it lightly, it’s hard enough to navigate the world we live in—let alone do it when you’ve been nerfed at birth.

I didn’t start working “for real” until I was already twenty years old. I had dabbled in various areas of freelance during my high school years—doing art commissions, working as a scribe and editor, etc.—but I had yet to be employed with a salary that required me to pay taxes. Not having prior “real work” experience became a hindrance to my attempts to get my foot in the door, as no one wanted to hire a twenty-year-old who didn’t know how to use a cash register—especially because I was very clearly not neurotypical.

When I was first entering the workforce, the word “neurodivergent” had just barely started to become a mainstream term. While there is still plenty of debate on the usage of the term, I’ve personally appreciated having a word to describe what I otherwise refer to as my “brain soup.” I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) fairly early in my life—meaning that I’m pretty well-versed with my personal struggles and their consequences. Specific things that may seem very basic to others—such as changing the volume of your voice to match the space you are in—are things that do not come naturally to me. One of the reasons I couldn’t even think about trying to find a job during my high school years was due to my struggle to stay caught up with the high school workload.

Finally, a miracle occurred: an employee at a retail store overheard me talking to my mom about finding a job—and then mentioned to me that that particular chain of stores was hiring. I went with my friend to scope out the store near my house, which happened to be severely understaffed, and I decided to apply for a floor position. During my interview, the manager asked me why I wanted to work there.  Completely oblivious to the social norms, I told her, “Well, to be honest—mostly for the discounts.”

Looking back, it was probably a good thing that they were in dire need of new employees. The shortage of staff meant that the manager had to interview me between helping customers at the register, and I was given time to chat with the customers waiting in line. Without realizing it, I was demonstrating my knowledge of the products that the store was selling—which made up for the way-too-honest comments I made during the actual interview.  During my training, the manager slowly became aware of the way that my brain works. Every time I was set free to do something on my own, I had to turn around and ask if I was doing everything correctly. It got to the point where the manager sat me down and reassured me that I really did know what I was doing.

What she didn’t realize is that my constant need for reassurance is because of my OCD—and heavily reinforced by my ADD.  One of the not-so-fun parts of my OCD is that it constantly feels like everything I do has a grave consequence if I don’t do it right. You know how people with OCD are often stereotyped as “perfectionists?” For a lot of us, the reality is that our brains have convinced us that something really bad will happen if we do a task slightly incorrectly. Yes, I’m aware it’s usually absurd and unreasonable. No, that does not get rid of the anxiety. (It’s kind of like that feeling that you might have left the garage open—but your brain tells you that if you ever leave the garage open, the sun is going to explode.)

It doesn’t help matters that my ADD has bestowed object impermanence upon me—which means I’m constantly an example of the “out of sight, out of mind” proverb. (Basically, it just makes me really forgetful about things that aren’t right in front of my face.)

If you’re reading this thinking, “Well, that sounds really stressful,” you are 100% correct!  I’ve managed to use a few strategies to overcome this anxiety at work, such as creating a routine that I can stick to—which helps me remember to do all of my tasks, which then minimizes the possibility of me “messing up,” so that I don’t have to stress over it. I also prefer to work early shifts, since my mind is much clearer in the morning—and I have enough mental energy to deal with things that would otherwise be very distressing (like drop-in appointments or fire drills).

Something that has also been helpful in my experience is having my supervisor and/or manager know about my particular needs and sensitivities. I know that I can sometimes become so overwhelmed that there’s a risk that I’ll have a meltdown. I was tentative at first about explaining things to my supervisors, but having them know what to expect has given me a sense of safety in my workplace.

It’s almost amazing to me how well I can work when I’m given a chance—and the resources—to succeed.  But the unfortunate truth is that a lot of workplaces would rather not deal with neurodivergent “quirks.” That first job I had (which was in retail) proved to me that some managers would rather lose their staff instead of allowing a bit of leniency for the people that our current workforce was simply not built to include.

Nowadays, I don’t have nearly as many moments where I feel like I’m the only one in the cycling race that doesn’t have a bike. And while I might not be able to personally hand out bikes to all the other runners out there, I’m doing my best to make others aware that not everyone is automatically given a bike upon entering the race. So, the next time a coworker asks if you’ll walk them through a task again, don’t roll your eyes. For all you know, their brain might be telling them that they’re going to get you in trouble if they do something wrong.