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How HE forces neurodivergent people to adapt

Beth Sennett explains the ways in which higher education forces neurodivergent colleagues to mask their true selves
This article is more than 1 year old

Beth Sennett is a Learning Designer and Specialist Study Skills Tutor at Falmouth University

We all wear masks to some extent.

However, for people who are neurodivergent (e.g. autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic or have ADHD), our masks become a necessity if we wish to gain access to academia.

Like many other workplaces, academia has a culture that values efficiency, accuracy, and speed, while ideas such as networking and team collaboration also make forced socialisation a required skill.

When we work in a system that privileges neurotypical ways of working, anyone who cannot work in this way must adapt themselves to be considered “good” at their jobs – or be perceived as a failure.

Learning is easy – right?

For example, imagine learning to ride a bike and being told that the best way to do this is to read a book about riding a bike. You know that this is not the best way for you to learn this skill. You know it will take you much longer and be much harder to learn in this way.

But everyone around you has learnt like this and has succeeded. So, you ask yourself, why can’t you? Is there something wrong with you? Maybe you just need to try harder – or concentrate more carefully on what you are doing?

The consequences of not masking

Neurodivergent adults have the highest level of unemployment of any disability group. A report by The Institute of Leadership and Management found that 50 per cent of managers admitted concerns about employing someone who is neurodivergent. Consequently, many neurodivergent colleagues endure job insecurity and a fractured career path.

Is it any wonder we work so hard to maintain our masks?

However, constantly adapting while performing the illusion that everything is OK is exhausting, with burnout being a common issue for neurodivergent employees. For myself, working and communicating through text-based messages can often be overwhelming.

When I respond to an email, my dyslexia means I often have to make notes as my brain struggles to perform the dual process of decoding text while holding onto the meaning. When I respond, recalling, sequencing and writing words is a gruelling process. At the same time, my ADHD insists on distracting me with more interesting things to think about while locking me in a daydream that eats away time.

Now consider the quantity of emails, chat messages, reports and documents employees are expected to manage in academia, and the necessity for neurodivergent colleagues to work additional hours becomes clear.

Losing time

Neuroscientist Sally Shaywitz once said, “dyslexia robs a person of time.” When you are neurodivergent, losing time can be one of the most challenging and disabling factors.

For example, when workloads increase, neurodivergent colleagues will have less time to manage the additional work. They are then often faced with either refusing the additional work – and appearing ‘lazy’ compared to their neurotypical colleagues – or working to the point of exhaustion.

When you already work additional hours to maintain the mask, any further increase in workload means completely giving up your evenings and weekends, which has a pronounced knock-on effect on our personal lives and wellbeing.

The danger of misconceptions

Factors such as these often mean we must adopt different ways of working to cope. To others, these different approaches can appear lazy, rude or careless. In previous institutions, I have found my need to isolate myself when I needed to focus has angered colleagues, as they have perceived this as rudeness.

This has led to ongoing criticism and harassment, which can be especially challenging for those of us with ADHD, as our neurodivergence results in us experiencing emotions more intensely. The impact of experiencing harassment can be disabling, preventing us from functioning effectively.

Removing the mask?

Ironically, our efforts to maintain our masks disguise the disabling system. In the report by ILM, 71 per cent of neurotypical employees interviewed felt that workplaces were inclusive for neurodivergent people, whereas only 55 per cent of neurodivergent employees felt the same.

It is evident that when the system is designed to benefit the neurotypical majority, it disguises the problems this creates for neurodivergent individuals. Perhaps, the answer lies in us removing our masks and speaking up about the difficulties we face and for academia to create an environment where it is safe for us to do so.


Many universities have started recognising the need for change. For example, Falmouth has an established policy of endorsing flexible and hybrid working, giving neurodivergent employees more control over their working environments. They are also working on a listening project to understand more about students’ and staff’s experiences of inclusivity at the university.

Elsewhere, companies such as JPMorgan Chase have spearheaded Autism at Work programmes which have changed the culture in the workplace, recognising neurodiversity as a necessity for enhancing innovation and creativity.


The masks we wear as neurodivergent employees are necessary to allow us entry into this space. Maybe one day, academia will promote an environment where our masks will not be necessary because our true selves will be valued as more than enough.

When academia chooses to embrace inclusion for neurodivergent colleagues, we will gain thinkers who are passionate, innovative, creative, hard-working (as we know no other way of being), empathetic and hyper-focused. All we require is patience, flexibility and understanding.

11 responses to “How HE forces neurodivergent people to adapt

  1. I work for a UK HEI and have an NHS diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Condition, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. One of the difficult things about HE is that many of the skills required for success in academia, in many teaching and non-teaching roles, are things that Aspies are typically very good at, particularly the highly-focused interests and attention to detail which are very common in AS. Thus, HE is a place where Aspies should really thrive, and I suspect, may have done for a long time. (And yes, I know that we’re not really supposed to talk about Asperger’s anymore (or Aspies or AS), but it’s literally written on my diagnosis, and is how I think about myself; but, all the same, apologies if you’re against the term.) For example, at a neurodiversity seminar I attended many years ago I recall being told by the presenter that if I wanted to find the highest concentration of neurodiverse people in the UK, I should visit Oxford or Cambridge University. The problem is that work in HE is being done in increasingly neurodiverse-unfriendly ways, especially in those HEIs where a highly pernicious form of cost cutting is the great horror of the neurodiverse world; the open office. A horror magnified as the open office frequently appears with its equally unpleasant sidekick; hot desking.
    But it’s not just open offices and hot desking that are problematic. The distractions and intensity of multiple communication channels are hard work too – phone calls, plus email, plus, probably these days, Teams messages, plus often there is an expectation that you’ll be on official or semi-official work-related social media channels, and maybe the odd WhatsApp group as well for those backchannel conversations that nobody wants brought up during an FOI search. It’s all very overwhelming with all the communication, let alone when this is heightened when being in an open office with loads of other people about, especially if you’re sitting next to someone chatty, or who likes to attend online meetings without wearing headphones, or who bellows rather than talks on the phone, or who has ad hoc team meetings right there in the middle of the office, or who feels that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat prawn curry for lunch al desko. And, of course, when it comes to comms, it’s just comms – unless you’re the comms officer, it’s not the actual job; it’s not the work, it’s just talk about work. More talk about work = less actual work. As much as possible I try to think, ‘Well you employ me for n hours a week. If you insist on me being an Outlook jockey for 50% of my time then that’s your problem – it just means that I have n x 0.5 hours to do my actual work’. But it’s never that simple, is it. Employers never seem to want to take into account the hours needed to be an Outlook jockey when workload planning.
    Then there’s the increasing pressure to do more, take on more, be more efficient (an unpleasant term that I understand to mean ‘sacrifice quality for speed, don’t ask questions, overlook anything that might slow things down, and leave problems for the future instead of taking the time to solve them now’) and the dreaded multitasking – something that nobody does well, but that many people have accepted as the norm, even though multitasking is basically doing two things badly concurrently, which makes no sense when you could do them perfectly well consecutively.
    I am lucky enough to work with many, many excellent people, and although I have no love for my workplace environment, the post-COVID increase in flexible and hybrid working has probably been the one thing which has meant that I have been able to remain in a job that I would otherwise have had to leave; not because I am not good at my job, but simply because I am not able (or enabled) to be good at my job while nine-to-fiving it while hot-desking in an open office. But while it’s great that some of us can enjoy the benefits of flexible and hybrid working, not everybody can, and even for those who can, we should be honest about what it actually means and what it allows. What it allows is employers to continue to build neurodiverse-unfriendly workplaces, because the flexible and hybrid working policy means that there can be a reasonable adjustment of sorts. But is it reasonable? Isn’t it just hiding us NDs away in a quiet corner somewhere (and yes, many of us do love a quiet corner, but that’s not the point), leaving the workplace an increasingly NT only space, free from all those troublesome NDs? And what about the NDs who don’t have a job where they can work from home, or who do but who don’t have homes that are suitable for working from home? While I have certainly benefitted from flexible and hybrid working, it really isn’t the whole answer.
    One big consideration for me when I got my diagnosis was whether to tell anyone at work about it. In the end, I decided not to. I keep it in my back pocket, so to speak, just in case I need it one day. I think that my main motivation not to disclose my diagnosis (and no, I’m not naive enough to believe that no one has suspicions about how many standard deviations I am from the mean) was simply that any employer who thinks that it’s okay to make people hot desk in an open office is, basically, putting up a big neon sign which says, ‘We Don’t Give a Frack About Neurodiverse People’.
    I suppose that the question is why, when universities are supposed to be centres of knowledge and research, are they so very, very uninterested in making knowledge-based, research-informed decisions about how people work best, and the benefits of creating safe and friendly working environment for their many neurodiverse staff?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I don’t have to hot desk but agree fully with how academia, fundamentally a wonderful profession for many of us, is changing in ways that pushes us out.

    2. And seemingly every job in Higher Education now expects you to be a “strong team player”, have “excellent networking skills” et cetera. They might as well put “neurodivergent people need not apply” in their job adverts.

    3. Thanks. Your post resonated with me, as someone with ADHD (fairly recently diagnosed) working as an academic. Like you, I feel that I have all the key skills to thrive, e.g. intellectual ability, creativity, a passion for my subject, and the ability to hyperfocus, e.g. on research or teaching prep. However, my career has hardly progressed after over a decade, and I feel that it is the organisational and “soft” skills that have held me back, e.g. dealing with emails, deadlines, paperwork, tedious bureaucratic meetings and difficult colleagues. I can’t help but feel cheated seeing people with equivalent talents successfully climb the greasy pole. I know it is not very productive to think this way, and possibly not very rational, but it’s a rabbit hole I seem to regularly fall into.

      I have also experienced substantial unpleasantness and ostracisation from colleagues (sometimes referred to as academic “mobbing”). Though this characterises a minority of colleagues it has taken its emotional toll, and I believe that being excluded from key research and interpersonal networks, as a result of these conflicts, has affected my career. It’s impossible to know just how much this is a result of my ADHD, but I think it has played an important role. For example, people with ADHD often have difficulty with turn-taking, and speak over people accidentally, therefore appearing rude. And we know that first impressions are vital when forming relationships.

    4. That is very true and written with a hint of humour that makes it quite readable. The problem with a business led model in education is that the education aspect suffers.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story. What you have said has resonated so much with me. You make a really good point at the end. Hopefully, if more of us feel safe to share our stories, then we can work towards gradual change.

  3. As someone with ADHD I find I tend towards generalist career – loving teaching, research and admin equally, but eventually bored and tired if spending too long on one only. The problem is that HE loves to silo and box things – so I noticed that enthusiastic generalists tend to be thanked and praised publicly, but never promoted. Some HE are staring to recognise that performing on many fronts can be an asset, but our metrics driven models (REF/TEF/KEF about says it all) strengthen the tendency to try to fit people into boxes

    1. That’s a really interesting point, John. Thank you. I often think our ability to see how things link and connect enables us to make things richer. As you say, we can often draw on and connect ideas from various disciplines or different departments. For those of us who have this skills (as I realise not everyone does), this is often an underappreciated skill.

  4. This is a really thoughtful piece, with interesting research presented. I am so pleased that you ended on hope, which presently seems hard to muster, but you make me think that it’s an important part of dealing with the trauma of being neurodivergent in a callous environment.

  5. Being ND and masking comes at a cost, often a very high personal cost, especially if one’s mask slips…

    Academic’s to a degree have once identified and declared some protection, admin and even more so technical and estates staff have little protection from their line managers vindictiveness if they declare their ND or other disability. This is often made worse by those in the (in)human resources directorate in ‘professional services’ who see the individual through the line managers eyes (reports) as a problem to be eliminated to avoid on-going costs rather than supported.
    Academia’s multi-tier (like a class and caste system) approach to it’s workers, and their rights, with their claims of being EDI champions setting an example for others to follow rather sticks in the craw.

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