Series Fourteen, Episode Two – Focus on neurodiversity: The skillset of superheroes

Share:

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

In this first conversation, which forms part of a two-part special episode, host Julia Streets is joined by Lou Anderson, Senior Sales Development Representative at Connectr to discuss neurodiversity.  Lou shares her personal journey, of living and working with Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), talking about the language of neurodiversity, and the effects of late diagnoses in women. The discussion dispels many of the myths and misconceptions around neurodiverse people and expounds on the compelling reasons for hiring neurodiverse talent; these superheroes can have a hugely positive impact on workforce teams by bringing unique skill sets and offering fresh ways of thinking.

Lou Anderson

She quit everything and went travelling for 6 months - 6 years later, (that isn't an error) she was still travelling with the seasons working in summer camps and outdoor education centres all over the world (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Fiji). But after 6 weeks of being terrified at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a raft without a guide, the realisation that she was getting too old to chuck kids off mountains, sleep in a tent 5 nights a week and carry her own bags set in fast, and so she came home. It was always a running joke that she should work in sales, and she couldn't go backwards, so she set about convincing a number of companies to try her. Luckily for her, they did, and she had a fabulous mentor. She landed at Connectr - an organization whose roots were aligned with hers, and whose future was SaaS tech, Lou’s new speciality. The tech is used to boost diversity and give people like Lou a sense of belonging and a chance, which is exactly what she got from her first company and that mentor - talk about full circle!

Series Fourteen, Episode Two Transcript

Julia: Hello. My name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast. Talking about equity, inclusion, and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. I’m particularly excited to welcome you all to the first in a two-part special. This is all about understanding and celebrating neurodiversity. We welcome two guests and in each of the episodes, take a bit more time than usual because we are keen to understand and explore the lived experiences of each guest, to hear their advice about how best to welcome, motivate, and retain neurodivergent talent.

We start with this episode with a guest called Lou Anderson. She is a Senior Sales Development representative at the firm Connectr. In the next episode, I’ll be speaking to Dan Harris, CEO of Neurodiversity in Business. But before we get started today, I just wanted to take a moment to thank our friends at CityA.M. for their continued support of DiverCity Podcast. They have a dedicated page on their website. They publish and promote both our episodes and our supporting blog series, so their readers can stay at the very top of what’s latest in the diversity and inclusion debate. Now, you may want to check out their own podcast called The City View for all the latest news and opinion from the city, because we at DiverCity Podcast are huge fans.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted today to be joined by Lou Anderson from the firm Connectr, which is an organisation focused on building belonging through mentoring. What’s interesting and particularly appeal to Lou was that it said that its future was firmly in the world of SaaS or software as a service, which as a technology is Lou’s specialty. Lou was diagnosed with dyslexia at 16, ADHD at 36. And right now at the tender age of 37, she’s currently waiting for her autism assessment to come back. Lou, it’s great to have you on the show today.

Lou: Hi. It’s great to be here. I’m really excited to speak to you guys and talk about all things in neurodiversity, which is the theme in my life and something I’m really passionate about.

Julia: It’s incredibly important and I’m really grateful for your time. I’d love to get us straight into, tell us what you’re focused on right now.

Lou: Really figuring out what I need to do in my life, what I need to change in my life to be better and to improve. Knowing that I now potentially have autism, there’s things that I can change in my life to make me a little bit better, a bit more productive. But also all the struggles I’ve been through in my life, I’ve wanted to get the voice out there and help other people. That’s part of what I do in my work, what I do in my life. One of the reasons I was talking to you guys, initially, when I first spoke to you guys through Connectr, I was talking endlessly about neurodiversity and how important it was for us guys to be heard. So pretty set on it, pretty passionate about it.

Julia: Everybody’s talking about neurodiversity and I think that’s an incredibly positive thing. We recognise that in the industry, not only in the world of technology but right the way across industry we need to have diversity of experiences, opinion, backgrounds, in order to navigate these extraordinary times that we live in, where all the rules have changed and everything’s changing constantly.

Lou: Yes.

Julia: I’m really keen to hear about your thoughts about where you see the contribution of individuals with neurodiversity, really adding positive contributions to the organisation.

Lou: There’s actually of recent times, really recent there’s a lot of forward-thinking from some huge companies. I do a lot of reading myself, a lot of articles, I’ve thrown a few your way as well, companies like Microsoft, SAP, they’ve introduced neurodiverse programmes. But also changing their application process, which is the big thing. So for me, if someone asked me if I’m disabled, which is the question and all, you fill that first application form, are you disabled? No, I’m fine. You tick, no. Or I might go, “Well, I’ve got ADHD and dyslexia. But I don’t really want them to know because they might not give me the job, so I’m not going to tick disabled.” Then if you think some people on the autism spectrum, it’s not a direct question, are you disabled? No. Do you have autism? Well, yes, if you asked me if I got autism, I might have ticked it.

So that first step is all wrong. A lot of companies are losing this talent before they even get there. The thing is, we call it the superhero brain because people on the spectrum, they think out the box. This is why companies like Microsoft are interested because when developing new technology, everyone’s trying to think of new ideas. Then someone who maybe has ADHD or autism will think of an idea that no one ever thought of because it’s to do with the part of your brain that has these, we call them superhero skills or the magic brain, and then you’ve got that commitment as well, like the loyalties that come with it as well, we’re just naturally loyal. It comes from a sense of, I don’t know if you know this, but people with ADHD particularly have got a lack of dopamine. So they’re lacking dopamine in their brain.

They’re always looking for something to give them that dopamine. Quite often we’re people pleasers. We’ll go out of our way to help people and be kind to people and do all sorts of things because when someone feels really grateful for it gives you that hit of dopamine. And that’s why in boys, you often get the bad. You know, don’t you think, “Oh, he’s bad, he’s got ADHD.” He’s got this horrible reputation because these lads quite often are lacking in dopamine, so they’re looking for it somewhere else. That can be taking drugs or doing some of the stuff that is going to give you a hit. Some people jump out of planes and things like that, that sort of hit. But for the majority of us, it’s just working really hard and doing the best that we can. What company doesn’t want that? What company wouldn’t want an employee who’s loyal, who doesn’t really like change, so we’ll want to stay with a business and progress through the business, but also we’ll give them all of these different things as well.

The more research we do, the more things that we find out, and with the help and support as well, because that’s the thing, once a company knows that person who is applying is neurodivergent, they can give them the support they need and they’re more likely to succeed. Someone with ADHD, giving them that clarity and that dopamine hit, you are doing well in your application. Someone with autism, maybe here’s some people in your team, let’s introduce you, let’s give you a sense of belonging. Let’s make you feel like you already fit in before you start, let’s get you a mentor that you can talk to. If you don’t even know when you start that that person has a neuro-disorder or, I hate disorder, a condition, I don’t like any of it to be honest. I always say neurodiverse, but I don’t know if that’s the right word. But I think we should think of a new word, I just call them superheroes.

Julia: I love that.

It’s interesting because I think the language around neurodiversity is giving organisations cause for concern. We talk about neurodiversity conditions, some people think about it in terms of a disability. And it’s wonderful to hear you go, “That’s absolutely not.” From the very off of your comments. But also it’s about attributes, so it’s about positive attributes that people own as well. I’m really curious, you talked there about the research that SAP and Microsoft and others are putting out about the contribution, the very valuable contribution that your superpower talent could bring. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what else organisations are wakening up to in terms of the contribution and the value of these employees as well.

Lou: The first step is knowing they’re there. The very initial step is, it starts day one, like the minute, whether that’s in your job adverts and you mention that neurodivergent people are very welcome to apply, that can be a little bit weird though. It works certain spaces, tech spaces it often do anyway. They just say, “Oh, we have neurodivergent groups” and they’ll match it up with other diverse groups they’ve got and they’ll just make sure they mention it. But I think that first initial step is being a bit direct. Do you have a neuro condition? Again, are you a superhero? Being really clear on that application and being really clear that actually, this is a good thing. We are looking for people like you because quite often you don’t want anyone not to tick the box.

Recently at a candidate experience event and EY, we’re talking about the technology that companies are using now to ensure that neurodiverse people find the application process really easy to use. And I’ve seen some of it, there’s the dyslexia part of it so they can click a button, and then it changes the application to a multicoloured background and the text is easy to read. There’s also things like sound. They’ve done a lot of research into what would benefit each part of the neurodiverse spectrum and what would be helpful. And interestingly, you can choose what works for you. For me, it’s day one, is day one is finding out where your neurodiverse talent is and then supporting them. That’s the big word is support. For me, it’s interestingly that I work with a company that works to help companies mentor, because I had a mentor and for me as well, I think anyone if you have a mentor, it just propels you.

As someone who is on that spectrum, we talked about that dopamine hit. If you’ve got someone that’s giving you that feedback and giving you some goals and making you feel like you belong, you’re getting that dopamine hit and it’s really helping you propel. And the sense of belonging. I remember walking into big corporate offices going for job interviews and just being terrified. I think that happens for everyone. I think everyone feels that as a young person as well, but when you have ADHD or autism, it’s propelled because you already feel like you don’t fit in a way. So you’ve got all of these emotions and they say, I don’t know the stats on it, but they say that the amount of neurodivergent people that just don’t even get through the building. They walk into the building and they walk straight out again, is quite high because it’s just a fear. The advice I would give to the companies is support, support, support, whatever that means. You need to support these guys through the process and you need to know they’re there.

Julia: I’d love to pick on one thing you mentioned there sort of quite early in your remarks about explaining that you’ve got neurodiversity diversity groups or you’ve got communities within your organisation to role model the fact that talent like this is very welcome. I worry a little bit when we talk about diversities that we are at risk of putting people into siloed categories when actually we’re completely human beings, whether you are a woman, a mother, a man, a caregiver with neurodiversity or neurodiverse attributes. I’d love to get your thoughts on to what extent should we maintain the intersectionality of some of these diversity groups or actually is it right to have a separate neurodiversity network?

Lou: Yes, you’ve got a good point. It’s all about balance. I’m gay and I’ve been part of a lot of LGBTQ+groups. And in those groups it’s really common to have allies. I feel like in some of the other groups that are formed by companies, it’s not as common. I think if you are going to have these groups, it’s important that they’re open to everyone. Because otherwise, you’re going to get that, exactly what you said, I mean, my past life I worked on a camp. I used to run kids’ camps in America. We were really careful about ensuring that our kids were sharing rooms with people that were nothing like them because they would form cliques everywhere. They would go into their own little clique and it would be people that were from poorer backgrounds would stick together. People from richer backgrounds stick together, did nothing for helping everyone to feel involved and connected.

So as much as these groups help, because if you are applying for a role and you see, they have a group there for people like me, so therefore, they must accept people like me. And there must be people like me working there. It’s also important to know that it isn’t just a group for one type of person. This should be something that is open to the whole company because we learn from each other. Particularly in some aspects of autism, communication is not great and social skills are not great. You have one or the other, if you’ve got ADHD and autism, you talk too much, but you feel really nervous around people. You’re like, I call it awkward cucumber, sort of green with nerves but full of water and conversation.

The other side of it there, so having people in that group as well to learn how are we going to be a better team if we don’t know how best to give you what you need and ensure that you and your special skills that you bring to the company are going to excel. We can learn from each other as well, I think.

There’s a thing I read recently, just a post, I think on LinkedIn, where it was, what can a neurodiverse person bring to your team? As in these people work like crazy, we’re real people pleasers. What that means is when you get a lot of people that are working really hard to do better, it means that your team will step up. One person on the team can then create a rolling ball effect of productivity. There’s just so much of positive things. So yes, the groups are great in the beginning, but I think it’s really important that someone is looking after the members of these groups and ensuring that they are not just stuck segregated, we’re an open field.

Julia: I wonder if we could bust a few myths. We talked a bit about the organisation’s discomfort with language, particularly around neurodiversity, the risk of putting people into particular networks. I hate to use the word buckets essentially, but that’s quite often, we are put into tick boxes, aren’t we as human beings in corporate structures, which is what we’re saying. What are the other myths that you think that organisations are trying to demystify? Where are the misperceptions?

Lou: My favourite one and this is dyslexia. All dyslexic people are a bit stupid. And they can’t read or write,I got that a lot. The first job I ever went to, I think someone said I was dyslexic. I think I was working at a petrol station, can’t remember what job it was, “Oh, can you read and write?” Yes! And there’s a smartness behind there. Women tend to mask all of these things, dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. I always surprise people when I say I got an A in English. In English Lit, I got an A. That is because even though I was assessed for dyslexia too late, I couldn’t get extra time in my GCSEs. They couldn’t give it to me. My English teacher told me it’s only three marks, spelling, and grammar in your GCSE English Lit.

So instead of focusing on getting everything right, I focused on what I was good at, and that was analysing. We’re really good at analysing. We see things that no one sees.  I was amazing at English Lit because I could pick out, I think it was Of Mice and Men. I made the connection that it was somehow linked to The Green Mile, the film that I’d watched a million times straight away I found all the secret bits and pieces. I was amazing, I got an A. And I remember my English teacher just being gobsmacked because I was predicted like a D or an E or something because I just excelled. I think a major misconception in today’s society, dyslexic people have got Grammarly and spell checks to get around that.

ADHD, massive misconception, we’re just naughty boys or naughty girls. Yes, there’s a lot of naughty girls and naughty boys that have ADHD, but that’s because they haven’t had the support. We go back to support. The thing about ADHD is you need to find the thing that makes that person shine. It can be anything. School’s hard, but there’ll be something in school that they excel at, or we excel at. It’s a misconception, we can’t sit still, we can’t do anything. We’re always on the go. We can’t do a task. I could sit and do Lego for three days because actually following a task gives you that dopamine of completing a task.

In schools, what you do is ensure that the kids in schools, young people are supported in the right way and given tasks in a way that they are easy to manage. I’ll give you an example, my stepdaughter, if I say, “Go and tidy your room, it’s awful. Get it done. You’re not watching TV until you get it done. Don’t come downstairs.” She will go upstairs and then she will find a piece of paper or book, and I’ll go upstairs an hour later and she will be reading a book or drawing another piece of paper. Because it’s too overwhelming. If I go upstairs and I write down all of the jobs she needs to do and literally cut them into little pieces. And say she can pick which job she wants to do first, and every time she completes her job, she gets a sweet, or a hug, or she something like that, and it’s something little. She will do that task in 10 minutes, she will run downstairs to get a reward, and then she will run back up and do it.

That’s the difference between a young person excelling in school, or ending up in an awful situation. It’s all about good teachers. Same in work, if you’re working with someone that, and I know more about ADHD because I’ve been talking about so much lately and finding ways, I’ve been finding ways to make me better. If I say to my manager, “Right, you want 20 things doing, you need to give me one job at a time.” It’s also about ensuring that these companies are educated. That’s the thing we’re not educated. There isn’t a lot out there. What you do, how do you find it out? Well, you’ve just employed a load of people, you’ve just got your superheroes have started in the business.

They’re probably in a group for neurodivergent people. Why didn’t you go to that group and let’s find out what makes them tick, what makes them happy? That’s the best way to ensure these groups do not become cliques, is to say, “Right you guys, once every two months, the whole company’s going to come to one of your groups and you’re going to tell us how we can do better. What do you not like? Say things that make you feel uncomfortable. Is your manager not doing a great job? Everyone,don’t get upset, this is feedback. This is how we make us better.” And that would be my suggestion. People with ADHD are full of suggestions and bright ideas. That’s what we do.

Julia: We talk a lot about enlightened leaders and actually enlightened leaders at the moment are trying to figure out while all the world is shifting around us. I mean, it’s changing all the time. And the answer is found in your organisations, just talk to your teams. The answers will be within the talent groups who will tell you exactly what they need, which is fascinating. I’m just interested though because I mentioned in the introduction about you’re waiting for your diagnosis about autism.

Lou: Yes.

Julia: Just before we started recording actually, you were mentioning it isn’t uncommon that women of a certain age, get late with a diagnosis. Just talk to us a bit more about that.

Lou: When I was in school, 20/25 years ago, around that time, it was a misconception that ADHD and particularly autism was really a boy’s thing. Girls didn’t really have it. Yeah, naughty boys, it was nothing to do with girls. Actually, the research has shown that loads of women have it. And loads of women have been diagnosed in their thirties now, recently seen a woman, who now speaks about this, who has been diagnosed in her sixties. It’s because we mask, we’re smart, women are left-brained thinkers anyway, generally, we are. A lot of us are left-brain thinkers. We find a way around everything. The reason for me, I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 16 is because I found a way around it. I found a way to mask it. I just did it my way.

I avoided the words I couldn’t spell. It took me 10 hours to do something that take everyone an hour, but I was too embarrassed to say anything. I found a way around it because the brain is really smart. I always say we’re really smart, we just can’t show you how smart we are sometimes. With ADHD, you’re learning to again, mask it. Same thing as dyslexia, I would be up till two in the morning because I couldn’t get started. ADHD people can’t start on a task when they start on it, they can’t stop. So getting that initial start, I did all of that without any medication, any help. I was just determined to succeed, but I covered it up.

Autism is a huge one because, for me, I didn’t realise I had it because I’d worked so hard to control these emotions that I’d had. But looking back, I realised the overwhelming need to be right, sitting in a group of friends and just feeling like, “That doesn’t make sense, that’s not right.” But you do this thing, don’t you where you think, “Well, I’m in a situation where I have to mask that feeling.” I think sometimes I don’t know whether it’s a testosterone thing or we’re different, men and women are different in the chemicals in their body. I think often they might find it harder to control certain things. I don’t know, but women definitely have more control. So it’s masked, it’s always masked. The thing that really shone for me and the sort of a light bulb moment for me was, people with autism, we have meltdowns. When things don’t go the way that they’re supposed to go or something goes wrong, we do, we have meltdowns.

I can’t speak for everyone with autism. But for me, imagine a two-year-old just losing it in a supermarket. But we do it privately. We’ll go into a room and I will cry, I’ll get really, really upset. When you live alone, nobody sees that. You definitely, you can control that in a workspace, you control that in your friendship space, but on your own, you can’t control it. I thought everyone felt like this. I think a lot of women just go, “Oh well when plans change, it’s very disappointing, isn’t it?” And you feel this tightness in your chest. You want to scream and people go, “Well, not really. I just reschedule.”

It’s affected my relationships throughout my life. I think having that now clear, yes we think you have this, helps me to manage it. These poor women that have just struggled their whole life. Once I became medicated on ADHD, it’s so weird, it’s like life-changing. But the thing is that people who have autism, women, I would say who have autism and ADHD are kind of methodical. They actually do better, the autism side helps you do better.

But the thing is, and this is the sad thing. Quite often, we’re just labelled as either lazy, late for everything. Useless is a big one. A lot of people with ADHD particularly women who are managing their own lives and from the outside seem to be doing really well could be in a lot of debt and it isn’t that they don’t have amazing jobs, but they just haven’t paid their bills. So there’s a struggle behind everything. I would say bringing it back to what we said before, when you have struggled so hard to achieve everything in your life and you are fired up on dopamine, you do excel because life, in general, is difficult. You just give it 110% every time and that becomes your sort of mantra. You just do it.

That’s why I would say that a lot of really successful women high up, these really successful women that I aspire to be. I reckon a lot of them have a little bit, everyone’s on the spectrum. It’s a spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is. I think ADHD drives a lot of people. It does. As much as it’s been hard and as much as it’s been difficult, I don’t see it as a bad thing. I see it as a good thing. There’s a knack though. But with women, with me and a lot of women I spoke to with ADHD, you think of a dream, it might be starting your own business. And you will do everything you can possibly do to get to that dream.

Then before you’ve quite got there, you’ll find a better one because your brain will think of something better. I went travelling, I quit everything at 26 and went travelling. The reason I did it is because I told everyone at work, I was going to do it. Because we talk and we get a fixed idea in our head. I told everyone I was going to leave and if I didn’t leave, it’d be embarrassing. I had to, so then it became my focus.

 I thought that was a really long way of answering your question. But there’s just so much, there’s a lot of pain there, but there’s also a lot of achievement and just fighting for that dopamine. There’s an incredible amount of bad things.

Julia: That is  why I was really happy to just sit back and listen to you talk about the lived experience, because you’ve been incredibly generous and open just in terms of your personal journey, your family journey, also your corporate journey. Then also looking at from both positive and also less positive points of view as well. Lou Anderson, it’s been great to have you on the show. I can’t begin to tell you. I just need to ask you one very fast question. I’m going to set you the task, actually, which to answer it in about 30-60 seconds if you would.

This is the question we ask everybody.

Lou: Okay.

Julia: And it is incredibly important because I worry that as we navigate these interesting times, like again to, well we are going to tough economic times.

Lou: Yes.

Julia: I worry that diversity inclusion could fall down the corporate agenda.

In terms of its importance, give us as we close out this interview today, give us your compelling reason why it should remain high on the corporate agenda?

Lou: It should remain high on the corporate agenda because you need superheroes in your business. If you want your business to grow, if you want your team to be successful and propel, and you want a team that thinks of new ideas and is amazing, then you need some of us on your team. You need some out-of-the-box thinkers, that’s what you need.

Julia: Perfect. Lou Anderson, thank you very much for joining us. It’s been just such a joy to have you on the show. Thanks for being with us.

Lou: It’s been lovely and so good to meet you. Really, really good to meet you. We love to talk, us lot. It’s been a pleasure.

Julia: Well, the wonderful thing about podcast is people love to listen, so everybody who’s tuned into DiverCity Podcast, thank you for joining us. I’ve been Julia Streets. Join us again for our next episode soon.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. You can find out more about the guests on our website www.divercitypodast.com.  That’s DiverCity with a C and not an S.  Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.  All our episodes are available in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy DiverCity Podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating, it really helps to promote the show to a wider audience.  Finally, our Twitter handle is @DiverCityPod.  Thanks for listening.