Working as a Neurodivergent Intermediary

Poster for Neurodiversity Celebration Week (March 18-24, 2024) - featuring Communicourt's logo.

March 18th – 24th is Neurodiversity Celebration Week. While awareness days in general may not be without their faults (see: recent International Women’s Day criticism), these annual markers do provide an important opportunity for visibility – and to inspire action from both individuals and organisations.

The Neurodiversity Celebration Week organisers are hosting a week’s worth of free drop-in sessions and learning opportunities, covering everything from late-discovered autism and the menopause, to good practice for neurodiversity professionals. With many sessions exploring neurodivergence in the workplace, and in keeping with this year’s #ThisISND theme, we wanted to share some insight into the working lives of our intermediaries who identify as neurodivergent.

The following blog post was written by a neurodivergent intermediary, who has been part of a team working to establish a Neurodiversity Network for Communicourt – and the wider group of businesses that we belong to, The RCI Group. The Neurodiversity Network provides a supportive space for colleagues and advocates for neuroinclusive practices.

In this post, our author reflects on their experience of working with neurodivergent court users as a neurodivergent intermediary, the question of disclosure at work, and the benefits of connecting with neurodivergent colleagues. 

Neuroinclusivity and the intermediary role

I work as an intermediary, a role held primarily by those with speech and language therapy and psychology training, in a service built to support people with communications needs and differences. Intermediaries are no strangers to talking about neurodivergence. Never mind a week, we talk about this stuff every day! At least, when it comes to our service users.

If a service user tells us that they have a condition such as ADHD, Autism or Dyslexia, we jump into action considering the areas to explore with them in assessment, the aspects of proceedings that might present an additional challenge, and the adjustments to advocate for. But it’s not always easy to treat our own neurodivergence with the same attitude.

Recently, work has resumed in establishing a Neurodiversity Network for staff members across the RCI Group (of which Communicourt is a member). As part of the initiative, I have started hosting lunchtime drop-in sessions for employees across the group.

Logo for the RCI Group's Neurodiversity Network

Talking with other neurodivergent people who are navigating the world of work was such a positive experience. I practically bounced out of the last session, buoyed by the acknowledgement of how hard we secretly work below the surface, the empathy between attendees, the sharing of useful strategies, and the appetite for connection and change (part of ADHD can be having big feelings, can you tell?).

Why don’t people disclose neurodivergence in the workplace?

One explanation could be the feeling of ‘otherness’. While we meet neurodivergent service users every day, we much less frequently meet colleagues and other professionals who are outspokenly neurodivergent. It can feel isolating and precarious to think you are an outlier. However, there are many more of us in the workplace than one may realise. 1 in 10 working age adults are neurodivergent. In our own Communicourt diversity survey, 17.4% of staff who responded identified themselves as neurodivergent. We are, undeniably, here, and make up a very significant minority of staff.

The way we, as intermediaries, approach our own neurodivergence may also relate to the work we do. As intermediaries, we are often supporting neurodivergent service users in acutely demanding scenarios with very high stakes. Legal proceedings could change the future of their family or result in imprisonment. Although not universally true, our service users may also not have had the same advantages as us – a secure upbringing, consistent access to education, financial stability, diagnoses, medication, support…

In comparison, the barriers we face at work and in everyday life can feel less important and consequential. We can de-prioritise and minimise our own struggles as a result. It can also make it feel uncomfortable to raise difficulties we may be having against the backdrop of the experiences of our service users.

Simosons gif showing Homer setting a ticking timer to represent the Pomodoro method

There is also the fear of stigma and negative perceptions. I myself am guilty of this. Those who have seen me deliver a presentation or lead a meeting, will probably have heard me acknowledge that my ADHD may colour the experience. I tell everyone about my shocking memory, the pomodoro method, serotonin-boosting to-do lists, and my special clock for focusing when I need to create a little motivational urgency. But I don’t acknowledge my ADHD at all with other professionals outside of my Communicourt colleagues. The frank truth is that I don’t want them to think I can’t do my job, that I am a liability, or that they would be better off with an intermediary whose attention span is not powered by (prescribed) low-dose amphetamines.

These feelings can also extend to worries about how colleagues or employers may view you. Raising things you find difficult or requesting support to address your needs can daunting, particularly if you’re new to a company, or looking to progress into a new role. This often leads to what might be described as the quintessential neurodivergent experience – spending an enormous of amount of time, energy, effort and stress behind the scenes to deliver what everyone else seems to be doing with consummate ease, to the detriment of your health, wellbeing and happiness.

Choosing to disclose

Although “there is no legal or professional obligation on workers to disclose a neurodivergent condition” (Thinking Differently at Work, GMB Union), disclosing neurodivergence to an employer can help ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to remove barriers to your work.

Disclosure is not for everybody and may depend on your personal preferences and how supportive you perceive your employer to be. However, in a supportive work environment, disclosing neurodivergence can have a number of benefits, including arranging adaptations and alleviating some of the stress and energy involved in masking (more on that later). Here are a few of the reasons I have found disclosing my neurodivergence at work helpful:

Giving yourself a break
An increasing number of people are being diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions in adulthood. There are also lots of undiagnosed people who identify as neurodivergent. Regardless of whether an official diagnostic process is involved, many people find that having label to explain some of their differences or difficulties provides a huge relief, and can help reduce self-criticism.

In an interview about her later life ADHD diagnosis, Communicourt founder Naomi Mason says, “Instead of blaming myself I blame the ADHD now. I don’t use ADHD as an excuse to other people, but I use it as an excuse to myself – I get cross with the ADHD rather than blaming myself and then my confidence going down”.

Acknowledging the impacts of neurodivergent conditions in the workplace can further that benefit. For people with dyslexia and dyscalculia, constantly apologising for spelling or numerical errors as personal failures can really wear on your self-esteem, as does feedback about making ‘careless mistakes’ on a piece of work you spent extra time going over so carefully. Being able to acknowledge the cause of your difficulties can avoid these errors feeling like a personal failure. Some of my neurodivergent colleagues, for example, add a quick explanatory comment to the top of a piece of work before it is proofread.

Accessing support and adjustments in the workplace
People with neurodivergent conditions have the same protections as people with disabilities under the law. Making employers aware of your neurodivergence brings you under that protection, and means that they are obliged to make adjustments and provide support where necessary. That support can come in a variety of forms, depending on the needs of the individual.

Naomi Mason (Communicourt founder) explains, “I do tell people I have ADHD now […] because I think people need to know that people that appear to be ordinary people might have all sorts of things going on behind the scenes. I can concentrate in meetings, but I come out of a meeting much more tired than other people do, because it’s very difficult to stay focused”

Reasonable adjustments may include practical measures such as screen filters to reduce sensory overwhelm during computer work or improve reading accessibility, the use of quieter parts of the workplace, or the provision of assistive apps or software. 

Neurodiverse employees can also be supported by adjustments to how aspects of their roles and workload are communicated. Again, this will different for each person. For me, executive functioning difficulties can be eased, and lots of time saved, by team leaders and managers clearly outlining which pieces of work should take priority. For other neurodivergent people, adjustments to communication at work might involve being sent a follow up email to confirm information that is given over the phone, the use of instant messaging and text-to-speech apps in place of phone/video calls, or the use of audio recording and dictation tools to support note-taking and retention of information 

Sharing your expertise
The saying goes, that when you’ve met one person with ADHD… they’ve probably got an in-depth knowledge of time management tips they can share (did I mention my special clock?). Neurodivergent people, who often have different strengths and difficulties to the majority, often develop useful methods and strategies which can be a source of valuable source of knowledge for other staff. 

The principles of working in a more neuro-affirming way can often benefit all employees – for instance, implementing accessible meeting guidelines can ensure all voices are heard and discussions are run in a productive, organised manner.

At Communicourt, neurodivergent intermediaries can offer extra, personal insight into the strengths and needs of some of the neurodivergent people we work with, being experts by experience as well as trained communication specialists. The value of this was apparent recently when intermediary Aoife was nominated for a LOVE Award for sharing their experiences of neurodivergence with colleagues during a training session. Their insight highlighted helped to educate colleagues, who then voted Aoife as the winner of their awards category. 

Benefitting your organisation
Not to get all corporate about it, but an increasing number of businesses and organisations are recognising the value of investing in neurodiversity. Companies across a wide range of industries (from Universal Music to JPMorgan Chase) have taken steps such as appointing neurodiversity leads to head up hiring, inclusion and development programs. Over the past two years, 600 organisations have signed up as members of the Neurodiversity In Business Initiative.  

Research by Deloitte Australia found that teams that include and support neurodivergent people are often more effective and productive than those that do not. Industry research additionally has shown that consumers prefer doing business with companies with a workforce that is diverse. EARN (Employer Assistance and Resource Network) suggest, “a workforce that represents the customer base, including neurodivergent people, can help show a business’s commitment to its community.” 

Some neurodivergent people have heightened levels of focus, attention to detail and pattern-recognition. Others thrive in tasks that require dynamic, out-of-the-box, creative thinking. Some are in their element working independently and solving a problem in their own way, whilst others flourish in more collaborative activities, engaging with colleagues to spark new ideas and make connections.  

Embracing neurodiversity allows organisations to benefit from a diversity of perspectives, incorporating a range of views and experiences. Being informed about the diverse skills and needs of employees and providing adjustments and support, where needed, enables employers to make the most of everything their neurodivergent employees have to offer.

Alleviating some of the pressure to mask
Masking refers to hiding or concealing your differences, in order to appear neurotypical. It can be exhausting. For example, someone who is autistic may spend a huge amount of effort suppressing their natural behaviours (like stimming) and pretending that they are not overwhelmed. At the same time, they may also be observing what other people around them are doing and trying to appear the same – all while doing their everyday work.

Trisha Dunbar, writing for for/by, describes the effort that went into concealing her dyslexia at work. “I got good at hiding my learning differences. Determined to avoid spelling or grammar errors, I would double- or even triple-check everything I produced.”

Disclosing neurodiversity can reduce this additional, secret workload.

“I stopped wasting energy on suppressing my behaviors. I’m now making active decisions to live the life that best supports my ADHD. It’s raised my self-esteem and my self-respect. And it’s made life even better” – Kim To, writing for for/by.

Finding peer support
“The greatest help, though, has been finding a colleague to confide in about my struggles. I don’t disclose more than I’m ready to, but being even just a little bit open at work about my ADHD has helped me feel more confident in my abilities. Support is a huge help when you’re feeling alone in your challenges.” – Myra Flores writing for for/by.

As touched on previously, conversation about neurodiversity in the workplace is on the increase, both in individual organisations and in cross-sector initiatives such as Neurodiversity Celebration Week (which this year features several events centred on the workplace, which can be rewatched via their event pages).

I have felt, first-hand, the difference that inclusion policy, informed staff and leadership, and a culture where neurodivergence can be disclosed and supported makes to my working life. But it’s the connection with other neurodivergent colleagues which fired the bout of hyper-focus that resulted in this blog post.

The Neurodiversity Network drop-in sessions held over recent weeks revealed the appetite for peer connection. Attendees from across the RCI group braved the daunting prospect of joining a video call with a bunch of strangers to talk about the things that can make us feel ‘different’. Some of us had long-standing diagnoses, some had received recent adult diagnoses and others were at the very start of exploring possible neurodivergence. After a few awkward introductions were made, conversation shifted to all the things we have in common.

Difficulties, quirks, strengths, strategies and things we’d like to learn more about. I found myself vigorously nodding along, and having to regularly mute myself on Teams, such was my instinct to say ‘me too!’ so often. We seemed to swiftly shed any of the usual hesitation we might usually have about announcing, in a work-related setting, all the things about our job we most struggle with.

We’re only two sessions in, and I hope that we will reach many neurodivergent people across the network in the weeks and months ahead. The need for and value of establishing a Neurodiversity Network feels undeniable, to provide a regular space for this connection and a digital space to store the resources and advice shared.

A huge thank you to our author for sharing their experiences and insights – and for playing a crucial role in setting up our fledgling Neurodiversity Network. The Communicourt team and wider RCI Group are really excited to see this supportive space flourish and support our organisation to continually improve neuroinclusivity.

Neurodivergence is not only an important part of Communicourt’s internal practices, it is also a big part of the work we do in the courts. Legal proceedings can include a huge number of barriers to the effective participation of neurodivergent court users. Our job is to advocate for adaptations and implement strategies which remove those barriers, giving our service users fair access to proceedings which could shape the course of their lives.

The Access Brief LogoIf you are a legal professional working with a client who is neurodivergent, you may find our library of free resources helpful. The Access Brief includes quick ‘bite-sized’ guides to working with court users with a wide range of diagnoses and communication differences, including autism, ADHD, learning disability, numeracy difficulties and literacy difficulties. You can download guides for free from the Communicourt website.