Supporting Neurodivergent Parents at Work

We tend to think in terms of supporting neurodivergent folks at work, and parents of neurodivergent folks too, but not – neurodivergent parents! If you want to be neuroinclusive, this is important. Here, Uptimize SME (and mom to a 2 year old!) Laura Wallis shares some of her experiences, as well as some quick tips:

As a neurodivergent person, I often get to the end, or part-way through the day and find my executive functioning skills (skills including organization, planning and working memory) and coping mechanisms totally depleted.  I was diagnosed with combined type ADHD in 2018, which means I have significant difficulties establishing and maintaining focus, initiating and completing tasks and that my ideas regularly run away with me and are so exciting that I sometimes interrupt people to share what’s on my mind, not because I want to be rude, but simply because I’m so excited to contribute to the conversation that I can’t help myself.  It also means that I’m creative, passionate and solve problems with a thinking style that many would call “out-of-the-box”.

The way my brain works, ironically means that if I am interrupted (either in thought or during a task), I can often find it very difficult to get back on track and to resume my thought or task.  I find every day environments, such as office spaces very exhausting because I have Sensory Processing Disorder, which, in my case means I struggle to filter noise.  If someone is talking to me in a noisy office space, I can’t hone in on what they’re saying and tune other “unnecessary” noise out, like others can, which means that I hear co-workers’ conversations, people typing, someone opening a snack, the microwave being put on etc. at the same time as the conversation I’m part of.

I also get overstimulated by fluorescent tube lights (present in most work environments) and can get visually overstimulated by the regular goings on of office life (people coming and going, standing up, sitting down, shuffling in their seat etc.).

This combination of factors means that my brain is constantly having to work overtime just to be and function in a work environment. For many people, their brains DO filter distractions (not perfectly, perhaps, we are all prone to distraction, but better than my brain does) and they can reliably get back to the task in hand if they do get distracted.  For me, because filtering doesn’t happen, I can often find the work environment very exhausting and I need regular breaks outside, where I can sit quietly for a few minutes and be in charge of the sensory input my brain receives.  This helps me to reset and perform at my best without feeling too overwhelmed or drained.

As a neurodivergent parent of a toddler the situation is somewhat more complicated.  As any parent will know, mornings with a child can be pretty hectic.  As well as attending to your own needs and getting yourself ready for the day, there’s also another person (or people) who need you to do this for, or at least with them too.  Breakfast for me is no longer a time to enjoy a coffee, fuel up and reflect on what’s to come.  It’s now a time of frequent interruptions, lots of chatter and a fair bit of mess.  Where I used to spend the mornings mentally preparing myself for my day ahead, I now spend them rushing about, making sure everyone has what they need for the day and having my thoughts or tasks interrupted by requests for “more peanut butter” or to “play” etc.

Completing all of these tasks requires high levels of executive function and, as I have detailed above, that can be difficult and exhausting for me.

Your employees who are also parents are likely to be arriving at work already tired from racing around, getting the household ready and out of the door on time and being asked a million questions before 8am.  Your employees who are also neurodivergent parents are likely to be arriving at work already tired and with their executive function and coping skills significantly reduced.

There are things you can do to help ease the transition to the work day, ensuring they are able to be at their best, work productively and be an active member of your team.  This will be different for everyone and, remember, you won’t always know if a colleague or employee is neurodivergent but you might try, for example, allowing staff space to have an uninterrupted, quiet 30 minutes after they arrive, in which they have no meetings and are not interrupted or surprised by requests.  This can help people to get into a work zone as the time can be used to look at the calendar, make to do lists and prioritise tasks for the day.  It may also be helpful to allow employees to wear headphones (during this period and at other times throughout the day when they particularly need to ‘zone out’ background noise), to sit in a quiet space in the office, or to sit by a source of natural light during this time.

These suggestions are likely to help all employees (and not just those who are neurodivergent, or have different thinking styles) to start the day in a better frame of mind and feel ready for what is to come, but the best thing you can do is ask.  Not just your neurodivergent, or parenting staff, but all staff.  Find out how each member of your team likes to start their day and share this amongst the team, so that everyone knows whether to give someone space, have an initial “good morning chat”, or something else.

Laura Wallis is an Uptimize Consultant, specializing in neuroinclusion and mental health in the workplace.  She has diagnosed ADHD and is possibly dyspraxic.  She is mom to a two year-old.

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To learn more about how Uptimize can help your organization with their neuroinclusion efforts, through our neurodiversity training and consulting solutions, please contact us to schedule an initial discovery call.

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