Alyssa-Caroline shares her experience with autism, ADHD, and inaccessibility in professional communication
“Can you just hop on a quick call?”
“Let’s discuss it over the phone— let me know when you’re free for a chat!”
These phrases bug me in a way that many people will never understand. I’m sure that’s because, for many neurotypical people, the worst thing about a quick phone or Zoom call is likely a minor annoyance.
But, for a neurodivergent person like me, there is nothing quick or casual about verbal, aural professional communication— especially when that communication rarely accompanies (or even offers) the support of notes or handouts.
Here’s why: as someone who lives with both autism and ADHD, conversation that is exclusively verbal and aural— whether it’s in person or over the phone— raises a lot of issues that I feel forced to contend with on the fly.
From the autistic side of things, I feel pressured to intuit, identify, and respond to social cues in a very short frame of time that decimates my ability to really process or think through anything that’s being said. As a female autistic person, I often feel such social pressure to be seen as nice, pleasant, and agreeable that it sometimes seems necessary to keep up this impression regardless of my feelings, the reality of the situation, or even the way I actually want to respond.
“It won’t take long – promise!”
And because living with ADHD impacts my impulse control, my relationship with anxiety, and my desire to quickly contribute to conversations, all of these things can create a perfect storm in verbal conversations.
In practice, this often leads me to agree more quickly than I should for the sake of people-pleasing. And although I should say I need time to process, to think through the information being presented, and consider the response I actually want and need to give, this rarely feels accessible – or possible – in-the-moment.
When I ask if I can have a minute to think or indicate that I need this conversation to be an email rather than a phone call, my requests are always met with a great deal of surprise and hesitation— especially in the professional sphere.
“But if you explained how you feel…”
Explaining that I am autistic and have ADHD rarely helps. In my own professional experience, most employers are keen to present a pretence of neurodivergent acceptance, but this is rarely reflected in their policies. And, for me, this has never been more apparent than when it comes to communication. In my experience, it seems that neurotypical brains are so thoroughly accepted as the default that no one considers that Zoom calls may be challenging.
No one seems to consider the fact that you may feel so anxious, you need to emotionally and psychologically brace yourself for a phone call. Nor do others consider that some forms of professional communication can feel neurologically inaccessible to the point of being isolating for their colleagues.
In my experience, these differences are so rarely considered that they are unlikely to be reflected in a company’s policies on communication or inclusion. And asking for support with this struggle is rarely accommodated or even taken seriously.
“It’s only a quick call though…”
As a result, I’ve often gritted my teeth and forced myself to put up with the traditional standard of professional communication without complaint. I’ve made myself struggle through it because, sometimes, it’s easier than asking for support and being met with derision and an uphill fight. But, the more I reflect on that experience, the more I feel like I shouldn’t have to. When I talk with other neurodivergent people, our conversations reveal that my struggle is actually quite a common experience for people whose brains work like mine. And yet this experience is rarely reflected in mainstream professional discourse about accessibility.
So, that’s why I think it’s important to write candidly about how I feel. To make it clear that this lack of accommodation is actively harmful for neurodivergent professionals. But I also want to move forward in a positive way by outlining some steps that would be helpful and make me feel seen and included. Because, the truth is, although my preferred communication may be different from the norm, it’s not actually difficult to implement in the workplace and it would go a long way toward making neurodivergent employees feel included.
So, here are some positive steps that employers, lecturers, and other professionals can take to accommodate neurodivergent people:
Make written communication an option
I understand that, for many neurotypical people, a verbal conversation may seem faster and more convenient. But recognising that this is not true for your neurodivergent colleagues is important in helping them to feel included and do their best work.
So, make written communication an option by asking something simple like, “Hey, can we chat about ___? Would you prefer to email or hop on a call?” This question is a subtle and inclusive signal to people like me that we can communicate in an accessible way without having to fight the battle of asking for that communication.
You can also be inclusive by automatically providing written handouts, meeting notes, or transcripts of important calls and meetings. If these resources are automatically provided, neurodivergent colleagues can benefit from them, retain important information, and be spared the anxiety of asking for accessibility.
Be mindful of different processing systems
One of my favourite ways to explain autism is to tell people that my brain essentially runs on a different processing system, similar to the difference between iPhones and Androids.
Both are still phones but operate differently, they are ‘wired up’ in a different way. Both work efficiently and have their own special quirks. We embrace both as helpful – even vital, in 2023, to how society operates. They’re just different.
Raising awareness about different processing systems is one great way to help people be more mindful of the accommodations needed by neurodivergent professionals. In my personal experience, people often have no idea that certain types of communication can feel difficult or stressful for me.
No one can help when they aren’t aware that something is a problem. And that’s why I think raising awareness is so important. So, start by looking for— and sharing— resources from mental health organisations like Student Minds! Really listening to autistic people who share their experiences and advocate for themselves is also really helpful.
These are both great ways to connect with the needs of real neurodivergent people who are. Trying to actively communicate their needs. And as those needs become more commonly acknowledged and accepted by neurotypical professionals, we can begin to see accessible accommodations reflected in policies that deal with communication and accessibility.