Managing neurodiversity isn’t easy when you don’t have a diagnosis so didn’t know you were neurodiverse when you started developing strategies to manage it. But by the age of twenty I noticed that despite being an adult, there were things I did differently, or needed to do differently. Things most people seemed to find easy that I couldn’t do well, no matter how many times I had to do them or how much I knew.
Alongside the self discovery I blogged about in I think I’m Neurodiverse, I developed strategies to manage communication and organisation strategies, especially at work. In conversation with other’s who self diagnosed or were diagnosed as adults, I noticed habits that set my wellbeing and mental health in good stead. I share them here in the hopes it may help other neurodiverse (especially fellow ADHD) people and make us more understandable for neurotypical people.
Often I’ve been hyper-focusing on whatever I’m doing when a person walks up to me and asks a question. There’s a huge distance between the thing I’m super focused on and whatever they’re talking about. It takes time, and usually more contextual clues as to what they’re talking about to cross that distance. So when a boss or parent approaches at the end of my teaching day with a specific question… I cannot answer immediately.
Processing time isn’t my only difficulty. If I haven’t had time to draft my answer to your question in my head, I cannot look you in the eye, think what to say and say it. Usually the pressure of you standing there, expecting an immediate answer to what you assume is a simple question prevents me from thinking, even when I look away. So I need strategies to manage professional conversations in particular, because those are the ones I don’t want to present as vague, ignorant or otherwise unprofessional in.
Strategy Number 1: Clarify (and play for time)
I don’t just need additional context because I’m neurodiverse. I rarely speak to parents, so I have little knowledge of them and their concerns. Even as a neurotypical person I may not anticipate what they’re asking about. So when they finish talking, I try to summarise their main concern and confirm it by asking, “Is that your concern? Are you also wondering about x?” Or, “So you’d like to know about Y? Is there anything else you’d like to know about that?”
Summarising and asking clarifying questions helps me ensure I have perceived the person’s main message (I tend to clutch at side points when I’m put on the spot), and gives me time to process. Only then do I stand a chance of recalling my usual answer to that sort of question (as an experienced teacher I’m lucky to have a bank of these from past experience). It also gives me time and mental space to connect what they are saying with what I know about the topic, to form my answer.
Strategy 2: Play for Time
If I’m having a casual one on one conversation, especially start of the day ones with students where there’s no contextual clues of what they’re talking about, again, I need time to process. I usually seize on a single piece of what they said, and comment on it, encouraging them to elaborate. While they elaborate, I’m processing, connecting the trip to Sydney to visiting their grandparents and that being why the child is excited. This isn’t a one off for me. It happens in MANY conversations where I’m not given multiple contextual clues.
Note for neurotypical people: If you’re ever chatting to someone and you think the point the other person chose to comment on is random, or not your main point, don’t go feeling misunderstood: elaborate. Adults are so time poor these days that I feel like we often start our conversations in the middle. Even a busy neurotypical person may benefit from, “You know how I was visiting my grandmother because she was sick last week? Well it turns out…”
Strategy 3: Ask ‘Stupid’ Questions
Sometimes in the staff room a colleague asks another, “Did you get those times sorted?” In most contexts that means nothing to me. “Times for what?” No, it doesn’t matter that the last conversation I had with that person was about times. That conversation was two hours ago and my head is full of the teaching I did in between. I need to be asked, “Did you get the times for little Jimmy’s parent-teacher interview sorted?”
I’ve always thought it was magic how most of my colleagues can answer questions like that with zero context, when I mostly can’t. When people ask me questions at a time and about a thing or in a location I don’t expect it, I need at least three contextual clues to know what they’re on about. And because teachers spend most of our time working with students, and many of our conversations are rushed between preparing lessons, meetings, yard duty, paperwork etc; my colleagues rarely give me context. So I’m learning to respond to questions with: “Are you talking about x?”
Note for Neurotypicals: Hyper focus makes context a necessity for me. Hyper focus means my focus is on my world building my novel set in a roughly Bronze Age era, fantasy world. So if you’re asking me about real world, modern day politics in America, I’ll first assume you’re asking about Umarinaris politics during Ruarnon’s reign. Then I might realise you mean modern politics, but modern politics has dickheads in every country (and I’m in Australia, so I may or may not assume Australia first), so which modern country’s political dickheads are you referring to? Give me context!
Strategy 1: Go With the Flow
Many writers joke about how much they procrastinate. But when I wake up on a Saturday morning, spend two to three hours bouncing around on social media, then go for a walk (possibly a drive first): I’m not procrastinating. I’m letting my restless, highly distractible brain do its ping pong thing. That involves letting it bounce towards whatever interests it, in any order, forget things, bounce to the next, then circle back.
I let my brain go with its flow. Then I walk and do housework to exercise off the physical restlessness and calm my mind. On Saturday night I watch tv or read, or ease into writing with a blog (like I’m doing right now) or a newsletter. Then on Sunday: I’m ready to write or edit some chapters.
This is what I mean when I say ‘go with the flow’. My brain isn’t linear. It may not finish one thought before it rushes to the next, and the next. It may have two lines of thought simultaneously. At work I HAVE to slow down. Through sheer will and discipline developed over years, I try to explicitly teach a single line of thought, to make learning accessible to my students.
Throughout the Day
During the day I force myself to, as much as possible, get all my lesson structure timings right and work to the school timetable and bells. Once the kids go home, I let myself pack up and organise five different things at once. I forget the first, get distracted by the sixth, re-discover the first and so on. I’ve learned to keep looking around, and circling back each time I finish or get distracted from something, to see what else I’m still working on. Letting my brain go with its natural, chaotic flow when I’m tired takes a lot less effort than forcing myself to linearly do one thing at a time.
So with teaching and writing, I don’t fight or jam my brain into a neurotrypical mold. Wherever possible whilst actually getting things done, I let it march to the beat of its chaotic, erratic drum. Then I circle round to catch the things I got distracted from and forgot about before/ during completing them.
Strategy 2: To Do Lists
I laughed when people first mentioned these to me. What’s the point of a to do list? I lose the list LONG before I finish half the things on it. And I don’t remember to tick anything off, so I don’t experience the satisfaction of completing things, I just rush headlong into the next five. But editing the chaos of my novels and recalling the many jobs of different types juggled after hours in teaching was too much.
My new system is paper sticky notes. I don’t keep re-reading or ticking things off because that can get overwhelming and stressful. If I think I haven’t written something down, I just write it again and throw the notes in a pile so I don’t lose them. Once a week (there is a particular day where I have more time), I go over less urgent notes to do and cross their items off. Then I re-write the outstanding jobs in order of when they need to be done. That works for me.
For editing novels, instead of losing my edit notes, I type edit notes above each chapter in the draft. And I write notes that apply to the whole book before the first page, and re-read them periodically.
What Works For You?
For keeping track of things authoring and teaching, its been about listening to others, trialling things, identifying why things won’t work, figuring out what does, and being disciplined, stubborn, determined etc to plug the gaps. And this is a good time to shout that its about figuring out what works for you and why, or what makes things harder, or stresses you out and why. And from there: what could make life easier for you?
Ideally we all got diagnosed as kids and had loads of strategies by adulthood, but the 90’s, naughties and earlier let us down big time on that front, so here many women and nonbinary people are playing catch up. Good news though: its not too late to learn or to make your life easier!
Strategy 3: Ask For Help
I’m an impatient, adventurous but also a lone wolf type of person. I just want to dive in and get everything done fast (the best time for me to do anything was often yesterday, and sometimes last week. Failing that, its today 😉). Sometimes I move too quick and overlook things multiple times. A classic example is supermarkets, where I can walk up and down the same aisle four times and not notice the item I want. Not only do I ask a staff member to tell me which aisle, but even how far down, or between what or even to point directly to it. I tell them, “I’m sorry, I have visual processing issues and I can’t seem to spot that one thing amongst all the other stuff. Could you point to the shelf for me?” ‘Stupid question’ but it really helps.
My Mental Health Strategies
In conversation with others, I noticed how good luck and the benefits of other struggles in my life have positioned me well to manage my ADHD from a mental health perspective. People with ADHD are statistically more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, but for most of my life I’ve dodged both. So it seems a good focus for the third section of this blog. (Apologies fellow neurodiverse people, likely nothing in this section is easy and a good chunk works well for me because my experiences and personality predispositions aligned well).
Strategy 1: Accept What I Cannot Do
I’m realising in conversations with people who are self diagnosing as late in life as I am that I’ve been very fortunate. Some people I know have been carefully masking, measuring themselves up against neurotypicals and berating themselves for not being able to function like neurotypicals their whole lives. I haven’t had that struggle.
When I was around twenty I remember thinking, I’m an adult now. I should be able to do things like navigate to some place I’ve never been and get there on time. I couldn’t. Remembering to leave time for traffic, find a car park, get from car to venue etc is boring. I’m restless, impatient and easily distracted. All I knew back then was I struggled (and still do sometimes) in the moment to recall and allow for ALL the factors that allow you to get somewhere unfamiliar on time.
And I thought: most people with at least half a brain find this easy. I have more than half a brain but find it virtually impossible. I don’t know why or if I will ever know. So rather than be upset about something I can’t change, I’m just going to accept that I randomly suck at some things for no apparent reason. I’ll accept it as one of my quirks, enjoy getting lost, not sweat about being late and laugh it off.
Strategy 2: Don’t Compare Myself to Others
This was probably easy because I’ve rarely ever measured myself against my peers. I don’t date, or have my own kids so there’s no point of comparison as a partner or parent. As a nonbinary person I never cared much about the type of ‘man’, or ‘woman’ I am. I’ve met few nonbinary people, all recently, and as an umbrella term for multiple genders its hard to compare yourself to another nonbinary person anyway, so I didn’t care how my gender and that part of my identity compared to anyone.
When it came to my brain working differently and me behaving or struggling to do certain things in certain situations, I figured that’s just my quirks. I’m unlike many people in many ways, and in these particular ways I suck at things others can do. I didn’t suck enough to not be capable of what I want to do in life, it just made many things I wanted to do (like being a teacher and writing novels) A LOT harder and made me look clumsy. So the only times I compared myself to others and masked my ADHD was when I worried it might raise questions about my competence at work (after I’d had years to settle in as a graduate teacher).
Strategy 3: Be Open About My Limitations At Work
I had no choice with this recently at work. The more boxes, colours and types of information a form collects, the more impossible I find it to perceive the whole form. Red hurts my eyes. White print on colour is hard to read correctly. And the more information jammed into more boxes, the more my brain shuts everything out to prevent being overloaded and doesn’t even realise it isn’t perceiving everything. I suspect this is a strategy my brain sub-consciously developed to minimise stress levels and help me avoid meltdowns.
The above became clear when I fell on my face doing a ridiculous amount of paperwork my colleagues found challenging but achievable that I found impossible earlier this year.
Whether or not your boss and colleagues believe you, understand you or appreciate the challenges you face at work makes a huge difference. I’ve been very lucky. And with understanding of my needs, I could develop strategies and work could put supports in place so that what was inaccessible to my neurodiverse brain became workable. (Though it was still exhausting -needlessly, because the organisation who produced the paperwork doesn’t understand how inaccessible they made it to people like me and don’t seem interested in learning.)
Strategy 4: Be Open About My Limitations At Home
Again, I’ve been lucky here. For my first three years in my own place I lived alone, as chaotically as I wanted while I figured everything out. By the time I moved into a sharehouse, I had a fair idea of how to organise cleaning and other things that could annoy my housemates.
I’ve been clear about systems that help me succeed with housemates. For eg. bills are printed and stuck to my fridge (the one my food is in) and we sign when we’ve paid our share. Because if our bills are shared digitally, the infinite distractions on the internet mean I’ll forget the bill exists each time I close the tab I saw it in. On the fridge there are no distractions and I see it each time I enter the kitchen, creating the eight or so opportunities I need to remember to actually pay. I move a device into the kitchen, so when I bounce between tabs and forget what I’m doing, my physical location reminds me to pay a bill.
One housemate circles the cost and writes what each of us owe on bills, so I don’t get lost sifting through too many words and miss important things, like how much to pay (the first five or so times I look, out of impatience and restlessness).
I’ve also mentioned that I’m a light sleeper with sensitive hearing, and headphones or background noise exacerbate the ringing in my ears. I ask my housemates not to shower after 11pm (my room is next to the bathroom) or be cooking and banging pots and pans at 1am (I’m also near the kitchen). My housemates are good with this.
Key Points for Neurotypicals
- Give the person you’ve speaking to, especially if you’re asking them a question, context, each time you change the conversation topic.
- Give people time to process what you’re saying or asking. If after a pause they still don’t respond, give them more information in case they’re still unclear (and possibly feeling stupid for being so).
- Please be patient and remember that its not that we don’t care. ADHD brains are distractible, impatient and can be impulsive. We will forget things temporarily, often because there’s too many things going on in our heads at once. Which one are you referring to and what day is it and what were those things we forgot to even write on our to do list?
- Thanks for taking an interest in and being willing to learn about what life can be like for neurodiverse people, in particular ADHDers. You being informed and trying to understand can make a big difference in your interactions with us, how we are perceived and ultimately on our wellbeing.
Key Points for Neurodiverse People
- It’s ok to ask ‘stupid questions,’ restate and clarify what others are saying and to ask for time to process information. Its also ok to ask if you can get back to someone at a later time. You are allowed to take the time you need to process the situation, even and most especially when that timing doesn’t match neurotypical expectations.
- Figure out how your brain works best. Develop strategies that work with and support your brain where possible, and that scaffold your brain where it struggles. Talking to other ND people may help, but we, our brains and circumstances vary and you’ll need to figure out what works best for you.
- It may seem I’m asking you for the sun AND the moon, but we need to accept what we can and can’t do and make our peace with it to be content in life. This includes not comparing ourselves to neurotypicals and not beating ourselves up for not measuring up, or for not meeting neurotypical expectations. This world was not designed for us and that is NOT our fault.
- If it is safe to do so and people at your work and home are willing to listen and are receptive to your words, tell them honestly what you struggle with. Tell them (when you’ve figured it out) how your brain makes some things difficult, and what they and you can do to make things easier.
- Best of luck finding strategies that work for you!