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Neurodiversity and Mental Health

Selected ArticleNeurodiversity and Mental Health

 

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence are increasingly central to discussions about workplace inclusion and employee support, particularly in the legal industry where autism, ADHD and other neurodivergencies are extremely common. However, amid the rush to understand neurodivergence, important details are being missed that will impact individuals, their mental health and their ability to engage in the workplace.

In my work as a legal industry mental health professional and neurodiversity specialist, I see the intersectionality of neurodivergence and mental health issues on a daily basis. And it is a topic that is frequently underestimated and misunderstood. Whilst neurodiversites such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia and others are not mental health issues, they are significant risk factor for mental health issues, particularly burnout, anxiety disorders, depressive disorder and insomnia.

Mental health issues in neurodivergent employees often begin in the workplace itself, as offices are really set up for neurotypical employees and have certain assumptions about working environments that often do not support employees with autism, ADHD or other neurodivergencies. Everything from the lighting, the sounds, office layout, management style, communication styles and even the interview process can detrimentally impact people with neurodivergence. In a nutshell, simply having to constantly adapt to the norms of a neurotypical workplace puts a massive mental load on neurodivergent staff that so frequently leads to health and wellbeing issues.

The higher instances of mental health issues faced by people with neurodivergence is stark reading – 50% of adults with ADHD and 47% of adults with autism will experience a co-occurring anxiety disorder whilst 70% of adults with ADHD and 40% of adults with autism will also have a co-diagnosis of depression.

To support neurodivergence in the workplace, there needs to be a two-pronged approach. Firstly, organisations must remove the obstacles in the workplace that adversely impact comfort, engagement and performance.  Secondly, there needs to be support and advice to help individuals learn strategies to regulate and manage their own symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Workplace Adjustment

Sensory Support

To support employees with autism it can be helpful to help reduce sensory overload. Having designated quiet spaces for deep work, providing rooms with natural or lowered lighting and offering noise-cancelling headphones are all steps that can make the working environment more inclusive. Encouraging periods of the day that are teams or zoom-meeting free can also help reduce overload and boost output.

For employees with ADHD, helping with structure and restlessness reduces the stress that can worsen mental health issues. To aid focus it can be useful to break tasks down into smaller chunks and encourage the “pomodoro” working structure that combines concentrated bursts of work with regular small breaks to reduce lapses in concentration. Similarly, encouraging the use of fidget toys and listening to music can aid concentration and limit distraction.

Communication

Organisations also need to think about how they manage and communicate with neurodivergent colleagues. Autistic colleagues can miss implied messages or metaphors, so it is essential that written or verbal communication uses clear and concise language that avoids abstract concepts, euphemism or sarcasm. In managing neurodivergent staff, the needs of the individual should be heard and accommodated as  much as possible.

Similar adjustments in communication can support ADHD employees. Again, the requirement is clear and concise language that emphasises what the task is, what they should prioritise and what is the timeframe is for completion.  Projects need to be broken down into small chunks with tight deadlines, rather than large projects with long deadlines, for the ADHD employee to thrive. Again, understanding the individual needs and hearing what accommodations would help them to do their best work is a good approach.

 

Neurodivergent employees supporting their own mental health

There are many helpful strategies that neurodivergent employees can use to regulate their anxiety, depression, improve sleep and enhance overall mental wellbeing. Being able to access specialist neurodivergent counselling support is hugely helpful, particularly when the counsellors have legal industry knowledge. I’ve provided below some good overall tips to get started:

Managing Unhelpful Thinking Patterns

As already discussed, neurodivergent individuals are highly likely to suffer from anxiety. Fuelling that anxiety are “unhelpful thinking patterns” that veer towards negative and highly self-critical interpretations of experience.

A simple but effective practice is reminding yourself “thoughts are not facts” when you feel anxious. This phrase interrupts the spiral of thoughts and puts them in a wider perspective. This technique shifts our relationship with the difficult thoughts, and reminds us they are just an interpretation, not fact.

Also grounding techniques can really help reduce the anxiety associated with unhelpful thinking patterns. If feeling overwhelmed, focusing your attention on something sensory, such as a sound, a textured object or something you can see can help reduce feelings of anxiety and draw attention away from the challenging thoughts.

Movement and Exercise

Recent research suggests that between one third and one-half of adults in the UK are not active enough for good mental health. For neurodivergent individuals who are more susceptible to mental health issues, it is essential that they incorporate movement and exercise into their routine.

Everyday changes such as taking the stairs instead of the lift or getting off a stop earlier on your commute increase your movement. Also, ensure that you take regular screen breaks combined with stretching to reduce overwhelm and burnout.

Stepping up exercise makes good sense too. Taking 30 minutes a day to get outside and have a brisk walk will boost your mood, whilst resistance training has been shown to help reduce symptoms of anxiety, and these are changes that can easily be woven into the day.

Sleep

Underpinning all health, mental and physical, is good sleep. To enhance the chances of getting good quality sleep begin by reducing screen time. Turning off your screens an hour before bed increases your chances of getting to sleep as does engaging in soothing activities like gentle stretching or having a warm bath in the lead up to bed. Having a fixed bedtime can also help create a routine that improves sleep quality.  But the most important part of being a “good sleeper” is having a strong psychological connection between bed and sleep. This is something that poor sleepers can achieve with the support of a neurodivergent counsellor.

Lifestyle Changes

For anyone, the lifestyle we lead can help or hinder our mental health. For people with autism and ADHD, there are a few changes that can be made that can really help support their mental health. Ensuring that you drink plenty of water and ensure a varied diet with lots of fibre and fruits and vegetables. It is also advisable to avoid caffeine and especially alcohol as there is evidence of higher instances of addiction amongst people with neurodivergence.

Community and Belonging

Finally, we return to an earlier theme – that of the difficulties faced by neurodivergent individuals trying to fit into a neurotypical world.  Something that can be amazingly supportive is to connect with other neurodivergent individuals. Charities, specialist organisations and forums are all great places to connect, share, learn and to get a sense of belonging that is fundamental to human wellbeing. The combination of an adapted workplace and the connection with these groups can help foster a sense of support and belonging that can aid engagement, productivity and mental wellbeing.

Lou Campbell, workplace counsellor and psychologist

Lou Campbell is a fully qualified counselling psychotherapist who specialises in supporting both neurodivergent and neurotypical people who work in the legal industry. She is co-founder and director of Wellbeing Partners www.wellbeing.partners

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