In honour of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, we interviewed Dr Jane Freeman Hunt, a coaching psychologist who specialises in neurodiversity. Dr. Jane Freeman Hunt started her diverse career working in IT, gaining senior positions with companies such as KPMG and Nokia. Whilst managing a team of 200 at Nokia, she became interested in the interactions and personalities of her team and this led to her moving away from IT to gain a psychology degree, and then a doctorate relating to: coaching IT professionals, and how this links to the autistic spectrum.

Dr. Freeman Hunt has been a Coaching Psychologist for the last 15-20 years, running her own business Coaching Visions Ltd. In the last 5 years she has focused on neurodiversity and mental health issues, including the impact of long Covid.

She talked to The Senator Group about her work, her inspiration and her own experience living with autism.

"What inspired you to become involved with Neurodiversity?"

Research traditionally highlights STEM professions as having a high incidence of autism, so IT typically has a higher than average level of neurodivergent individuals. Throughout my IT career I was working with individuals that have autism and autistic traits.

As Head of Operations at Nokia, I was managing a large team and I noticed an intense dislike of team building and social activities – no matter how hard I tried the team just didn’t want to engage in them. Alongside this was a focus on developing things in isolation – they very much wanted to plough their own furrow and only wanted to come together at the end, when what they had developed was complete and perfect. The idea of creating an ‘approximate’ solution didn’t go down well at all!

And I wanted to know if those behaviours could be modified. You can’t change the behaviour of someone with Neurodiversity, as it’s hard wired, but you can give techniques that make their lives easier in a Neurotypical setting.

"So you can’t change behaviours, but you can give them tips and make life easier?"

Yes – if you liken it to a physical disability – if some has their leg amputated you can’t regrow their leg but you can give them a prosthesis. It’s about having the right tools and support.

"And you only had your own diagnosis of autism relatively recently - can you tell us more about that?"

With hindsight I think I’ve always known I was a bit different. I didn’t play very well with other children as a child, I would not go to parties as they were loud. I liked the company of adults as they were calmer and they didn’t annoy me quite as much as my peer group. This makes me sound like a really isolated child and I wasn’t at all! I am quite creative and I engaged in a lot of imitative play.

I loathed school with a passion because I was always in trouble for saying ‘but why?’ and ‘what makes you think that’s the answer?’ and so I would be told off for being rude and insolent and all of those things.

I really loved maths and I could just see patterns in numbers and diagrams and the answers were very clear to me. Of course my teachers would say well you have to show your working out – and I would find that really boring. In hindsight it was pretty much obvious that I was autistic, but of course it wasn’t much known at the time.  

After I did my psychology degree I realised I was really comfortable with autistic people or people with autistic traits. I find that today with my autistic clients – we connect straight away and it’s exciting .

The more I worked in the field and learned about the strengths of all neurodivergences, the more passionate I became about coaching in the Neurodiversity field and this is where I moved my focus to.

So even though I was quite certain that I was autistic, I had various clients asking why I hadn’t been diagnosed. I went to a private provider and got the diagnosis of autism. This didn’t make a difference to me as I already knew and I was already positive about autism!

If you go back century people with autism would be locked away in institutions and yet now they are some of the most creative people in the workplace.

"Do you think it is useful to have the formal diagnosis, so that people around you can understand and adapt?"

Yes, I think so. It depends on person and confidence level and knowledge around different neurodivergences. For example some of my clients have never heard of autism or have very little knowledge and so being diagnosed can be scary. Some organisations dismiss neurodiversity completely still, so if someone has a diagnosis it’s much easier to explain. You do not need a diagnosis to qualify under the various employment acts – you just need symptoms – but this can be difficult for employees and employers to get their head round.

However diagnosis in itself is difficult as there can be a three to four year waiting list if you go via your GP. If you wanted a clinical definitive you have to go through a doctor. Some private health providers will do a neurodiversity assessment but they are not always recognised by NHS and DWP and so you have to be careful and you have to know why you want the diagnosis.

"What do you think are the barriers are in the workplace for individuals with Neurodiverse traits? And what do you think the benefits and opportunities are?"

Lack of understanding is a barrier; some people expect there to be a ‘cure’, or for neurodiverse traits to be irradicated through coaching, but it’s different wiring so it can’t be changed. But it can be helped.

The first step is awareness and having a safe environment where an individual can talk about howneurodiversity affects them if they want to and a lot of people who are neurodiverse don’t want to talk about it.

There are a lot of cheap or free things companies can do but changing perceptions is critically important.

Other barriers tend to be processes that are designed for neurotypical people. In all neurodivergences and some other chronic anxiety cases, individuals process information differently. For example dyslexic people process slowly and sometimes have an obvious problem with reading and writing, so complicated forms with a huge written component is hard work.

The structure of meetings can be a barrier where you don’t get an agenda or a structure beforehand. This applies to interviews as well:

For example, if you’re dyslexic particularly you need the questions in advance as you don’t have the process speeds to assimilate what someone is saying and make sense of it and think of an answer.

On the other hand, if you’re autistic your mind is processing too quickly and it’s darting about trying to match up what you might be saying to what you might have heard before and then you blurt out an answer.

So two opposite extremes!

Sometimes a particularly effective interview technique for candidates with neurodivergences (and for neurotypical candidates too) is an interview walking around a building or outside, as you can learn a lot more and it removes some of the anxiety.

"What would you highlight as the benefits of autistic or other neurodiverse traits?"

I suppose the first thing to say is that if you’re dyslexic you are not the same as the next person who is dyslexic; if you’re autistic you are not all the same. You have similar traits but they manifest in different ways.

Nearly always across the neurodivergences people are very good at problem solving – they look at the world in a different way almost exclusively, particularly in autism and ADHD but across others as well. Therefore their solutions will also be different and nearly always better. The difficultly that comes with that is explaining how you get there and that’s something I work on with clients.

Neurodiverse people tend to think outside the box – they do really well in advertising or marketing. They have great analytical skills, great hyperfocus. Honesty and integrity is high on the autistic spectrum (although sometimes this makes autistic people say things truthfully that may not be kind, and we soon have to learn!)

If you measure those things - the creativity, thinking outside the box, seeing the bigger picture, great solutions - they are up in big spikes. Unfortunately you quite often get big spikes going downwards on things like time keeping, anxiety, organisation and planning. Whereas a Neurotypical person will hover around a norm, Neurodiverse people spike.

"How can managers and other colleagues support neurodiverse colleagues?"

First of all, make it easy for neurodiverse colleagues to ask for what they need. This links back to what we were saying earlier about making people feel comfortable and safe to ask for help.

Regular breaks are really important for everyone. We have got out of the habit of taking a lunch break and of course there are times where you cannot do this, but neurodiverse people in particular do need those regular breaks.

Appraisals or performance reviews can be very challenging. Try to make it more of a chat, so there’s less pressure. In particular, a useful technique is to undertake these kids of discussions in neutral, relaxing settings outside the office – I used to have appraisals with my team at the local pub!

Flexibility is incredibly helpful as there is a lot of exhaustion towards the end of the week.

Because what Neurodiverse people have to do (and will always have to do to an extent) is try and behave in a Neurotypical way. Particularly for ADHD and autism, we camouflage hugely. So it’s like an actor being on stage for 8 hours a day for 5 days – this would be exhausting.

From my perspective if I’ve been out three or four times in a week to a mixed group, it gets to the point where I just don’t want to see anybody. I want to go and shut myself away because there been too much interacting and too much sensory overload.

"Are there any tips you would give on workplace design?"

Think about the environment and how it effects the senses - so noise, smell, colours. Do not place neurodiverse individuals near a kitchen or coffee machine for example, and aim for neutral colours.

Ask the neurodiverse employee where is the best place for them to sit – sometimes in a corner as opposed a walkway, as people walking past will distract them.

Look at breakout spaces and designing them to suit particular moods. I’ve worked with a few organisations who did this; dimmed lighting and soft chairs and sofas in some rooms, others were very bright and vibrant with Lego to play with. Lego can be useful as when you’re playing you are not having thoughts swirling around in your head.

The mood rooms are somewhere for individuals to go if they’re feeling unhappy or anxious, and they can be really calming so I did love those.

I ran a training session for a county council, and I was talking about something as simple as noise cancelling headphones – and all of a sudden I was being asked can we have them even if we are not neurodiverse? And of course they could – so the council purchased them for everyone.

I think because we have come from a point as neurodiversity as a disability, we don’t think that everybody needs help here and there.

Neurodiversity just means we’re wired a bit differently, and understanding this will help companies to realise individuals’ strengths and the opportunities this brings.

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