Why Traditional Careers Advice Doesn't Work For Neurodivergent People

Rachel Worsley  |  20/03/2022

Samantha Nuttall is the neurodivergent founder of "The Neurodivergent Coach", a careers advisory service that empowers neurodivergent people to design careers built upon their unique strengths, abilities and interests. Here, she shares why traditional careers advice doesn't work for neurodivergent people and how she aims to solve this problem.

1. What inspired you to start the Neurodivergent Coach?

It was bubbling away in my brain for a long time. A few years ago after my two boys were diagnosed as autistic and ADHD. And then I received a diagnosis of ADHD at 41, so quite old, when I started reading around, and finding out more about what the future held. I realised there is a poor employment rate for those who are neurodivergent. I really felt frustration and a little bit of fury that this could be the future for my kids.   

I have a strong background in career coaching, HR and recruitment and disability advocacy. I was feeling frustrated, but when I looked at the skills that I have developed over my career, I realised that I am in a really good position to put all of that thinking together and deliver a service that would assist neurodivergent people to design careers that are meaningful for them and that they can thrive in.  

2. Why has traditional career coaching not worked for neurodivergent people?

Neurodiversity is not something that has been discussed much in terms of career development. Having been a career coach at a big university in Australia and looked into this while I was there, there just isn’t the deep understanding about the unique elements of career planning that neurodivergent people need to talk about.  

There isn't necessarily that understanding of the importance of interest led careers for neurodivergent people. The messaging that you find in traditional careers coaching, “be yourself but not like that.” The lack of congruence is damaging to neurodivergent people. We thrive by being our authentic selves and masking is so detrimental to our mental health and performance. 

What are my best ways of working? What kind of environments are going to be right for me? How will I navigate those things? How can I talk about my neurodivergence in a positive way that needs to be spoken about to get the job? So there isn’t this elephant in the room, thinking “Will I get the job if I do share about my neurodivergence?” 

3. How can a neurodivergent person plan a career around what best suits their interests?

There needs to be a change in mindset about careers for neurodivergent people, both in terms of how others perceive our career planning and in terms of hoe many neurodivergent people think about it for themselves. It is such a big topic, but a couple of initial points come to mind for me.  

Firstly, we have to move away from where a neurodivergent person needs to fit in or squash themselves to be employed becasue of the deterimental impact of this on both work perfomrance and mental health. As such, neurodivergent people need to pay particular attention to ensuring they understand their own strengths, needs, best ways of working etc before working on determining the career they want to pursue. This ‘self reflection’ stage is often skipped over and we are encouraged to jump straight to ‘choosing’ a career, but this is actually a fundamental issue with most people’s career planning in my experience.  

Particularly as neurodivergent people, a move away from choosing a career from a perdetermined list and towards a model of deeply thinking about what would work need to entail for me in order to thrive in it, is essential in my experience. There are neurodivergent people in all different kinds of roles and industries – we are not constrained by our neurology in that sense.  

The second mindset is around demonstrating value to the workplace in Recruitment Selection processes or when you are simply talking to people about the work you do. The research tells us that the unique ways of thinking that neurodivergent people bring to the workplace is extremely beneficial to organisations on a commercial level. Essentially, we have have the power to make a real difference in the workplace. There’s a lot of evidence that we are the best problem solvers, we have the most creative thinking, we are the people who do amazing innovation and we see things other people don’t see. We need to not be afraid to talk about that to organisations – they need us! 

4. How can employers support neurodivergent people?

I’ll try and summarise as the list is long!  Attitude is the biggest barrier so focusing on attitudinal change is huge. Neurodivergent people are extremely beneficial to the workplace. Teams with diversity of thought are proven to be more profitable and more innovative and everyone is happier in them. Hiring Neurodivergent people is not about being generous or charitable. It is a key component of creating a diverse workforce.  

Second thing - having worked in disability advocacy, it is my impression that many people still think that people who are neurodiverse are an exotic species that needs a separate system to survive in. We just need to be allowed to be ourselves in the existing workplace. We generally don’t need a special work program. We just need empathetic, open minded individuals who want to create a sense of belonging for people and understand that not everyone thinks or works in the same way. We want to do a great job and work well with others in ways that also work for us and have those things count for more than whether we go to Friday night drinks (if that’s not our thing) or whether we are good at talking about how good we are (if we find that difficult). 

So from an employer perspective reviewing the ways in which you determine what makes a ‘great employee’ are important – if you have designed the workplace to only value the behaviours of neurotypical employees, then you need to reevaluate what good might look like in a more diverse workforce. This is going to impact the criteria with which you recruit or promote people but the benefit to the organisation, and to neurodivergent people,  is clear.  

The final thing employers can do to better support neurodivergent people in the workplace is to prioritise the voices of neurodivergent people. Ask for feedback from employees (anonymously to support those who have not yet shared information about thier neurodivergence at work of course), ask for feedback from people in recruitment processes, work with neurodivergent run consultacies who can support you in creating a culture of belonging for all neurotypes, rather than just making placements into roles.   

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