Suppose you had a brick on your foot.
And you told someone: “I am in pain. Can you help me get this brick off my foot?”
And they said: “You seem very upset. I think you might be anxious.”
So, you move to another person: “I am in pain. Can you help me get this brick off my foot?”
Their reply: “You seem very upset; do you think you are depressed?”
You try again: “I am in pain. Can you help me get this brick off my foot?”
In time, you begin to give up. You begin to get depressed by the presence of the brick on your foot.
The people you’ve asked for help talk to each other, remarking on your distress, agreeing with one another’s prognosis of it. Gently they approach you: “We’ve noticed you’re upset a lot. We think it would be a good idea if you got help with your mental health.”
You begin to wonder if they are right, after all you do feel depressed.
Kindly between themselves they decide not to ask you to do too much. After all, you are mentally unwell, and it would be wrong to ask too much of you.
Overtime resentment builds in them as they carry loads that they feel should be yours.
There is a disconnect.
But from time to time, in moments of clarity, you think: “I’m not mentally ill, I just need the brick off my foot!”
Now let’s play with this thought experiment some more. What if you did not know the brick was there?
“I am in pain”
“Perhaps you are anxious”
“I am in pain”
“Perhaps you are depressed”
Would you end up thinking, “I thought I was in pain, but perhaps I am mentally ill.”
What if you knew it was the brick that was hurting you, but when you looked down you realised that everyone else had bricks on their feet too, and they did not seem to be in pain. Would that make you wonder whether your pain was real?
The experience I am describing is one common to many autistic people who work in environments that are not suited to them. A picture of sensory differences is building, but many nuances remain in need of understanding. It is not simply that noises are too loud, lights too bright for some people. The way neurodivergent brains process sensory information is different, for example the focal points our eyes dart to as we enter a room are different to those a neurotypical person’s eyes would dart to. The way our brain processes the information available in the room is different. Different is the key word. But all too often, deficit is the assumption.
The brick in my thought experiments is the environmental challenges someone labours under. Some people – as in the first example, can name the challenges. But often, even when they are named, they are not understood, and people may inadvertently gaslight them instead of helping them. Many people however feel the pressure of these challenges but cannot name what is causing them. We all (neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike) imagine that others perceive the world as we do. It can be very hard to articulate what it is that you find challenging, and it can be hard to feel confident in your own reporting of your experience when you have routinely had that questioned or been met with the suggestion that it is a manifestation of mental illness.
What can workplaces do?
Have open conversations about the workplace environment, these will benefit neurotypical colleagues as well as neurodivergent colleagues. I have a friend who does a reasonably stressful office job that involves being phoned by lots of angry people. The hardest part of their job for them is not the distressed people, not the workload pressure, it is the relentlessness of local radio booming out over the office speakers. A conversation in their office led to a rotation of choice of radio station, and now they only suffer local radio twice a fortnight; they also suffer a radio station of death metal once a fortnight, but the remaining days are easier, and one day they get to listen to their own choice of music played out over the airways.
Explore different office setups, different styles of internal décor, different ways of running things. This will help people discover and name what works for them.
Research neurodivergent experiences of home and workplace environments. Do not stop at the most simple explanations: the lights are too bright, the noise is too loud—learn more. For example, some autistic people report finding a visually cluttered environment difficult to work in but can cope with the same amount of visual stimulus if it is clearly ordered…imagine a load of pots and pans heaped on a work surface, different colours, shiny metal, shapes. Now imagine those same pots and pans hung in order from a series of hooks. They present the same visual stimulus, but one is easier (for some people) to deal with than the other.
Most importantly of all: believe people’s self-reporting. Do not fill in the gaps where you do not understand with presumptions based on what it would be if it were you, instead question them, ask them about how they feel, when they feel it, and where they feel it. Become a co-detective with them.
Joanna Grace is a Sensory Engagement & Inclusion Specialist and the Founder of The Sensory Projects.
Her book The Subtle Spectrum charts the post diagnosis landscape of adult identified autism.
Her son’s book My Mummy is Autistic, written when he was just 5 years old, explores the language processing differences some autistic people experience and throws a challenge out to the adult world, that if a child can understand neurodiversity what is stopping us grown-ups?