My son was diagnosed with autism about 5 years ago now and I often speak of how it was a key ‘inflection point’ when I could easily have decided to leave the workplace. In fact, the opposite has happened. I am very much still in the workplace and have incorporated Neurodiversity in my role. I am now a vocal champion for the neurodivergent and have adapted the diversity work that I deliver to ensure that neurodiversity is a core part of the conversation.
Firstly, let me bring you up to speed with my story. When my eldest son was five years old, I was called in to his reception class by his teacher. I sat on one of those tiny chairs, with my knees not fitting under the table, as she told me that she needed to get special needs involved in his education. I was blindsided as I had not seen this coming. Where she saw disorder, I saw personality.
A lot has happened since then. On a personal level, I have moved from denial to acceptance. To reach acceptance, I had to rumble with some very difficult emotions. I felt shame that I hadn’t spotted this, and also shame that it was somehow my fault. I lost trust momentarily in my ability to make decisions for my family. Slowly I came to realise that, despite the insistence of the NHS in using language such as ‘disorder’ and ‘impairment’, my son was not broken. He was just different. A-typical. And was being forced to attend a school that had been designed for people that were not like him.
On a professional level, I also had a crisis of sorts. I spend my professional life supporting people to be themselves in the workplace. So imagine my confusion at navigating a support system for my son which seemed to be encouraging him to ‘act more neurotypical’ at every stage of the way. Was everything I was doing wrong in the workplace? Obviously not! The language around Neurodiversity is changing and we are beginning to realise the strengths that the neurodivergent bring to the workplace BY showing up as themselves.
In addition to this very philosophical crisis, I was also struggling with my emotions and my time. It was hard to be fully present in the workplace whilst I was dealing with these life changing events at home. The only thing I can liken it to is grief – in that you feel completely lost and need to spend time processing the new information. Obviously, I hadn’t ‘lost’ my son, but I think I had lost an idealised fantasy of the kind of chilled out Mother I was going to be. The emotional processing took a lot of time and energy.
The other pull on my time was the appointments. We were incredibly lucky in getting a diagnosis very quickly but this isn’t always the case. Parents are currently fighting for appointments in an overloaded system – even if they are prepared to pay. Once you get a diagnosis, it isn’t the end of the story. There are support groups and information evenings to attend, books to read and research to be done. In the early days, I was in school at least every two weeks meeting SEN teachers or having catch ups with his teachers. It was like having another job!
Now, of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have learnt so much about such a fascinating subject and really have a heightened awareness of the fantastic contribution these neuro-minorities can bring to our lives and to the workplace. As I said, I’m passionate about creating a more neuro-inclusive workplace and dedicate as much of my professional time as possible to this. To that end, let me finish with some tips – both for line managers and for working parents.
For line managers
- Empathy is your best first response. Not “I know exactly how you feel!” because you probably don’t. But an empathic response might well be, “that sounds like a lot to get your head around’. Avoid sympathy (“that’s awful!) as having a neurodivergent child is not a tragedy!
- What reasonable adjustments can you make? It is likely the parent is going to need to take some time to process the news and to ensure their child gets the support that they need. What flexibility can you offer?
- When they are ready, the parent is really well-suited to contributing to the DEI agenda in your organisation. For sure, they’ll be super passionate about the topic! I would say that they need to have ‘processed’ the information first, so that the can lead with heart rather than hurt.
In an ongoing effort to support individuals and businesses in creating a culture in which people feel able to show up as themselves, where diversity of thought is valued and where people are cherished, we at The Hobbs Consultancy, have designed and developed a series of e-learning courses to help raise awareness of Diversity and Inclusion within the workplace.
For working parents
- Read my book! I wrote Diverted to capture the journey that I went on and parents tell me it mirrors their experiences and has made them feel less alone.
- Grief and shame are normal emotions to feel – work through them and know that you won’t always feel this way about the diagnosis if you are struggling in the early days.
- Practice self-care religiously! It will be thing that falls to the bottom of your list, but you will need time to process emotions and to care for yourself as you deal with challenging circumstances at home.
- If you have an understanding employer, I would recommend telling them about what you are going through and not suffering in silence. They may be able to give you some more flexibility or even have a company scheme that gives access to free counselling sessions.
- When you’re ready, and do make sure you have the space in your head and heart to do this, get involved! We need to change the workplace so that they can benefit from the wonderful gifts or our neurodivergent children. Be part of the change!