I've been aware of my neurodiversity for a long time - I always knew I experienced the world differently from others - but it's only recently that it has been confirmed as autism (for context, I'm a 44-year-old female teacher and writer).
This article shares some of my reflections about wellbeing-driven productivity through the lens of neurodiversity. Or rather, through the lens of 'my' autism. While I am, in some ways, an expert in 'my' autism, I cannot speak for others.
Judy Singer (sociologist and fellow autistic) came up with the term 'neurodiversity' in the late '90s to describe conditions including ADHD, autism and dyslexia. It seems her hope and objective was to shift the focus of discourse about ways of thinking and learning away from the usual litany of deficits, disorders, and impairments (Disabled World, 2014).
Whether you are neurodivergent or neurotypical, I hope this reflection provides some productivity and wellbeing strategies that you can try for yourself.
According to the National Autistic Society, there is a 'gender diagnosis gap' - in other words, more males are diagnosed with autism than females. Several theories surround this statement, but one which resonates with me is 'women and girls are often better at masking or camouflaging their difficulties' (National Autistic Society, n.d.).
When you meet me, online or in-person, you will experience someone efficient, organised and in control. And I am. But the energy I expend in presenting myself in this way is enormous. I will also appear confident and social - I have no problems delivering a speech at a conference, however; throw me into an intense, in-person social situation with just a few people, and I'm a wreck for days after.
Constant exhaustion is my greatest challenge, but it is also one of the reasons I have developed strategies to help me be productive - more on those in a moment.
As well as the exhaustion issue, I am noise sensitive - I struggle to concentrate in the presence of sounds I have not chosen or created. Some sounds are worse than others, for example, someone eating or talking to themselves.
I experience a constant inner monologue - my brain is never silent, so I am terrible at mindfulness and meditation. I also take things literally. These and many other 'differences' make me anxious... hello, generalised anxiety disorder.
Skills and Abilities
The original title of this article used the term 'productivity superpower' linked to neurodiversity. I decided to change the title because it unintentionally made light of the fact that for many, autism is utterly debilitating. While I believe there is power in neurodiversity, indicating autism is a superpower just doesn't feel right. I wanted to share my thinking here, to be transparent.
What I can say is my autism is very likely linked to some skills and abilities that work for me. For example, I am obsessed with learning. If this was not the case, I don't think I would be the teacher I am today. My tendency to become intensely interested in topics is, without a doubt, making me a better academic researcher.
Because I take things literally, clear boundaries are essential to me, and one sure-fire way to create conditions for me to thrive is through systems and routines. I believe boundaries, systems, and routines are at the heart of my ability to be productive, despite experiencing high levels of fatigue.
Boundaries, Systems, and Routines
A boundary is 'something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent' (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Being autistic gives me a greater awareness of where, for example, my energy boundaries are (although, if I am honest, I do not get this right all the time).
What I know for sure is that I must have a boundary between work and home. If I do not, and 'work' creeps into 'home', I experience burnout (very quickly).
Put another way; if I do not allow myself time and space to rest, I cannot do my job as well as I want to.
Hang on a second... that's not actually an 'autistic thing' - that's a 'person thing'.
Some of the ways I create boundaries between work and home include:
- Never having work emails on my personal mobile device.
- Adjusting my perfectionist tendencies so I can complete my job within regular working hours (or thereabouts). My mantra is 'B+ work is OK'.
- Saying 'no' to certain requests to prioritise rest when I need it (arguably the most difficult strategy to implement).
Another boundary I am working on relates to meetings. Because I tend to take things literally, I can often be unsure who is responsible for what at the end of a meeting. If I chair a meeting, I make a point of recapping actions at the end, so everyone knows what they are expected to do, by when. Others are less clear. At the end of every meeting I attend now - especially one-to-ones - I make a point of clarifying expectations and action points to be sure I have not missed anything 'implied'.
I have several systems and routines in place that enable me to function productively.
Examples of these include:
- A weekly review: this helps me achieve my goals and associated tasks, and focus my personal and professional development.
- My personal knowledge management system: this helps me manage my intense desire for learning without going off-topic.
- Email processing routine: this helps reduce overwhelm and anxiety. My task manager is my one-point-of-truth for 'to-do' items, so I always have a clear picture of my workload.
A new routine I am developing is taking a break in the middle of the day (a.k.a. 'a lunch hour'). Previously, I have tended to start work early, skip lunch and leave - if possible - a little early. It took a highly qualified clinical psychologist (who, to be fair, specialises in autism) to point out that perhaps I need some time in the middle of the day to recharge (ideally with my dog and away from people).
On reflection, it's pretty obvious - breaks matter. Again, not an autistic thing.
The strategies I have shared in this article are not purely for those on the autistic spectrum. They are the building blocks of a wellbeing-driven approach to productivity, and I encourage you to explore them.
Let me know your thoughts.
Disabled World (2014) What Is: Neurodiversity, Neurodivergent, Neurotypical [Online]. Available at https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/neurodiversity/ (Accessed 24 October 2021).
Merriam-Webster (n.d.) Definition of BOUNDARIES [Online]. Available at https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/boundaries (Accessed 24 October 2021).
National Autistic Society (n.d.) Autistic Women and Girls [Online]. Available at https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism/autistic-women-and-girls (Accessed 24 October 2021).