Book review: How not to fit in

A new book by two women on ADHD and autism challenges how working environments are organised.

 

Last week was Neurodiversity Celebration Week and a new book not only acts as a guide for anyone interested in understanding neurodiversity, but is written in a way that is designed for brains that think differently.

How not to fit in by Jess Joy and Charlotte Mia can be dipped into at any point. It starts from Jess and Charlotte’s own stories. They run the I am Paying Attention community of over 100,000 neurodiverse individuals.

The two women met at university before they were diagnosed. Both experienced difficulties with their studies and the social life of universities. Both talk about feeling they were not good enough because of the difficulties they faced. Jess says she had a series of jobs after university and is angry at how unfriendly the workplace is to neurodivergent brains. She has found relief in now being self employed.

Charlotte talks about a cycle of working hard to keep up, performance slips, struggling to keep up, getting fired with a negative impact on her confidence and repeating the whole cycle endlessly. It was only after a breakdown that she was diagnosed with ADHD and autism, but it was not a medical diagnosis that helped her or Jess, but the deep introspection that came from Covid and the gradual realisation that they were different. Having each other to talk to made all the difference so they started their community and thought hard about how to make the information and support they were offering accessible. That meant using examples, not filling pages with text, not using jargon and not being too visually busy.

Not a disorder

The book talks about what neurodiversity is. Jess and Charlotte reject the medical model which, they say, sees it is a disorder. ‘There’s nothing disordered about us,” they write, adding that they don’t need to be cured. They describe the kind of everyday things people with autism and ADHD might struggle with, such as distraction, changes of plans, decision-making and getting bored easily. But they question the way the world is ordered, including the world of work, that makes them feel these are disabling. “If we hadn’t grown up in that world then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t feel like our traits disabled us. Basically, we wouldn’t feel like we were broken,” they write.

Sections of the book cover other case studies – they are keen to make the book as diverse as possible – and the latest research. There is also a section on diagnosis – and neurodiverse women have traditionally been severely undiagnosed. The book asks whether diagnosis is always necessary because the process is so difficult for neurodivergent brains to manage and waiting lists are so long. “Even if you begin this process, even if your GP sends you the forms, you might not reach the end of the road. You might decide that, hell, your mental health [if it starts costing you that] is worth more than an ‘official’ diagnosis,” they say.

Mental health figures prominently with a section on burnout and “grief”. It seems grief is used to denote many things these days that are just not the same as losing someone for ever. Maybe a different word is needed for the process of coming to terms with neurodiversity in a world that isn’t very accepting of it. 

Neurodiversity at work

The book also has a series of workbook-style exercises and a section each on university and on work. Jess and Charlotte argue that working environments are often set up “in direct opposition to what neurodivergent brains need”. They cite figures showing 30-40 per cent of neurodivergent people in the UK are unemployed. Some of the things they struggled with at work include sending emails – what to put in them, when to send them. Struggling to focus and fixating on detail makes writing emails very anxiety-inducing, they say. Other stressors are frequent task transitions, an overstimulating physical environment, interacting with colleagues and sensory overload. 

Jess and Charlotte also discuss what can help, but recognise there is no one-size-fits-all solution. They advise neurodiverse employees to ask for accommodations that work for them, seek a check-in buddy who understands what they are going through and understand their own working style. For employers, they suggest respecting different ways of working, being proactive in checking about accommodations that might work and about communicating in an appropriate style, focusing on praise rather than criticism, providing headphones to help with focus, providing software or apps to help with planning, and praising persistence not just consistency. The good news is, they say, that conversations about how to support neurodiverse people at work are happening now. 

Other sections cover everything from health and nutrition to parenting and relationships. The book ends with a manifesto which starts with not being apologetic for asking for things that you need. It finishes with: “We will keep helping each other and our community; we will not shame ourselves for where we’re at; we will continue to be human and [messy] and beautiful, we know that there’s nothing disordered about us.”

*How not to fit in: An unapologetic guide to navigating autism and ADHD by Jess Joy and Charlotte Mia is published by HarperCollins.



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