My name is Karen Bowlby, and I’ve been employed at the University since 2017 – first as a member of the Governance team in the Vice Chancellor and Registrar’s Office and now as an Inclusion Manager in People and Culture.

I didn’t consider that I might be neurodiverse until 2020 at the age of 39, though in hindsight all the signs were there. But in 2020, the world was in turmoil due to COVID, my working environment changed from on campus to at home, I was homeschooling two 5-year-olds for six months with my wife while everyone locked down, and then my father died. All of the change, combined with the grief from my father’s passing meant every coping mechanism I’d had in place fell apart – almost all at once. As our world became smaller, my symptoms became more apparent. During this time, my wife read about a friend’s diagnosis and symptoms and asked me if I’d ever considered I might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I immediately identified with what she’d read, did some of my own research, and called my GP for a consultation. Unfortunately, there was no treatment available publicly here in Essex within three years of referral, so I ended up having to pay for a private consultation with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me. It was very costly, but both my partner and I thought it was a priority. I do, however, acknowledge the privilege I have in having been able to afford going private when so many can’t.

When I first found out, there was a sense of relief – that it wasn’t just that I wasn’t working hard enough – which was how I’d started to feel. But that relief was quickly followed by a different kind of grief – all of the “what if I’d known earlier” thoughts paired with the frustration of not knowing how to address the symptoms I’d lived my whole life with. I remember feeling like this new insight into the way my brain worked should have provided the solution to some of the behaviors I had been wanting to address for years, but instead I found I had more questions.

I felt broken for a while, and with that feeling of brokenness, there was a period of shame and embarrassment. But then I went through some ADHD coaching, which helped me identify tools to use instead of the coping mechanisms I’d long relied on – and I began to feel much more proactive and in control of my own future. Eventually, I began to see my personal strengths, some of which are directly related to my ADHD. Things like creativity, emotional resilience, an ability to speak up about things I believe in and the occasional bit of oversharing which, on the flip side, translates to being willing to be open about my personal experience in a way many people aren’t. I began to understand I wasn’t broken, but that the world around me was not set up for brains like mine. I didn’t need to work harder, I needed to work differently.

Prior to working at Essex, I used to seek out more hands-on, physical jobs like waiting tables or working with young people. The University was the first place where I felt able to thrive in an office-based environment due to a combination of training, accommodations and the knowledge and self-awareness my diagnosis provided. I have also been lucky to have really supportive line managers who have encouraged me to identify and play to my strengths when pursuing career development.

There’s this really simple example that I like to use to illustrate the before and after of being diagnosed - opening the refrigerator door to look for a bottle of mayonnaise. Before my diagnosis, I’d open the refrigerator door, not see the mayo, buy more mayo and end up with more mayo than my family knew what to do with. Following my diagnosis, I now understand that my brain processes stimuli all at the same priority level, which makes it very difficult for me to find one thing in a refrigerator full of many things because the mayo doesn’t get prioritized as the thing I’m looking for. Knowing this doesn’t change the fact that I’m still me, or that I still like a bit of mayo on my chips – I still go to the refrigerator to look for it and I still have trouble seeing it. The difference, though, is that I now know I don’t have to go out and buy more mayo. Instead, I close the refrigerator door and give my brain a chance to reset. Then I open the door and I look again. I may have to do this two or three times before I see the mayo - but I always find it.

There are challenges to working at the University, but there are now tools I use to manage them. Open offices are a bit like that crowded refrigerator and can be difficult to manage without self-awareness and the right tools. Through Occupational Health, I was able to request conversation earplugs that filter out a lot of noise but still allow me to speak with someone who walks up to my desk to have a conversation. This is helpful, but not perfect. When I really need to focus, I use noise cancelling headphones and put on a white noise play list on Spotify. I also take breaks when I can to avoid slipping into hyperfocus (a unique ADHD ability which allows you to focus deeply for many hours at a time). Hyperfocus is useful when there’s a deadline or special project, but I’ve come to understand that it never comes without a cost, usually impacting my productivity and energy levels the next day.

I think the best thing you can do when working with someone who is neurodiverse is to trust them to tell you how they work best and do your best to accommodate them where you can. If their diagnosis is new, encourage them to research tools and reasonable adjustments that may allow them to work in a way that will highlight their strengths and manage any challenges they may have. Don’t micromanage their work – neurodiversity does not mean ‘needs monitoring more closely’. Most people who are neurodiverse have had coping mechanisms in place throughout most of their life in order to function in a neurotypical world. We have had to work harder and more efficiently than our neurotypical colleagues to excel and get to where we are – so trust us to know what we need.