If you would have told me 18 months ago that I would be here today writing a blog post about neurodiversity, I would never have believed you! Yet here we are.
In April 2023 we had our first Neurodiversity Celebration Month. Together with another three other members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) council, I introduced employees to various elements within the world of neurodiversity. It is safe to say we have sparked a lot of interest on the subject.
I enjoyed every minute of preparing content. It’s an experience in my career that I will always remember. Here is what we focused on:
Week 1 - What is Neurodiversity?
Week 2 - The Power of Autism
Week 3 - Understanding ADHD: Strengths and Superpowers
Week 4 - Supporting Parents of Neurodivergent Children and Parents' Lived Experiences
For me Neurodiversity Celebration Month was an opportunity to merge both my personal and professional life in a constructive way. Preparing and delivering Week 4 was the most enjoyable. I found the prospect of being able to help others parents in m position exciting. I still can’t believe I feel comfortable enough to share my story with others and offer support where I can. Being comfortable to do so has a lot to do with being part of a supportive team who have been genuinely empathetic to my personal circumstances.
Here’s a snapshot of my personal journey so far, to help you understand where my interest in understanding neurodiversity began.
When my son Oscar started primary school in September 2020, I was oblivious to the journey that my family was about to embark on. The good news is that with the right support in place there was a light at the end of the tunnel. This was an important message I wanted to convey to other parents: ‘you’re not alone!’
In the beginning I questioned myself over and over again “where was I going so wrong?” We were at a loss as to why our fun-loving, energetic child had been labelled as “disobedient” and “purposely disruptive” at school. He was frequently losing control of his emotions. We couldn’t understand why he was becoming so withdrawn at home, and always so hard on himself. I felt like I was failing Oscar as a parent, and that I wasn’t being the parent that Oscar needed me to be. I couldn’t help but feel that it must be something I was doing wrong. My partner felt the same way, but it is fair to say I spent a lot more time analysing the situation. Looking back I think that is a lot to do with the HR professional in me! I needed to investigate further.
During this time I experienced so many emotions. I experienced a couple of parents that have been extremely judgmental, which of course added to our self-blame. I actually had one parent send me a message directly outside of the class WhatsApp group to tell me that the way Oscar behaves “just isn’t normal.” I experienced anxiety during school drop-off and pick-up and would often take Oscar into school five minutes late in the morning to avoid any small talk at the school gates with other parents. (Rest assured judgmental parents are in the minority.)
The real low for us was watching Oscar’s self-esteem slowly deteriorate. He struggled with friendship groups, he would often be left out of play and would ask why he was different. When Oscar reached year 1 our concerns for his emotional well-being grew and we knew we needed help. We had reached a stage where we knew we had to take control of the situation. This is where the real education on neurodiversity began.
Our first step was to make contact with the NHS 0-19 service. We simply called them and said “we need help, who do we speak to?” The school nurse team listened to our concerns and introduced us to the term “fight, flight or freeze.”
From our first conversation with them everything started to click into place. We felt such a sense of relief. There was now a possible explanation as to why Oscar was displaying these behaviours. They put us in touch with two local charities, the ADHD Foundation and Autism Together.
Educating myself on ADHD and ASD enabled me to become Oscar’s best advocate. I invested time in understanding how Oscar thinks about things and interprets things differently. We quickly established that Oscar was not receiving the support that he needed in school. We arranged and attended regular meetings with the head teacher over a period of three months, had Oscar’s behaviour assessed by the school’s Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) and agreed on strategies to adopt to help teach Oscar how to regulate his emotions and support him when he finds himself in a state of heightened anxiety.
With the right support in place. Oscar enjoys school, is meeting all age-related expectations and most importantly has a strong circle of friends. These changes have had a significant impact on his self-esteem. We have especially enjoyed watching Oscar’s confidence grow over the last six months. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing that Oscar is now helping other children in school manage their big emotions!
Throughout this process I was very open with my line manager. We have a great professional relationship which I am very grateful for. I was honest with how I was feeling particularly on days were my emotions were running high. My manager reminded me of the Employee Assistance Programme available to all employees. It is reassuring knowing I have options available to me to help look after my own mental health. Looking back at the hard times, for me work was a solace, a place where my mind could concentrate on something different to parenting. I love my children dearly, but being ‘Mum’ is not the only role I play in the crazy thing we call life.
To be able to promote the strengths of neurodiversity in the workplace is amazing! Neurodiversity Month is only one way our company are embracing how people’s minds work differently. I have been involved in arranging training for line managers. To date over 30 line managers across the business have attended ‘Accepting Autism in the Workplace’ workshops carried out by Autism Together. We are also exploring what dyslexia workshops are available.
It makes me incredibly proud to be a representative of an organisation that is pro-actively making steps to ensure they are an inclusive employer.