Neurodiversity in the workplace is no fringe issue. Go to any company, and there will likely be numerous people flying under the radar with neurodiverse conditions.
While many have developed strategies to cope and even thrive at work, employers must do more to make life easier. Nina Eadie, Head of Lifestyle PR at advertising agency Keko London is part of this cohort. Diagnosed with dyspraxia, a Developmental co-ordination disorder (DCD), during her teens, she gives DiversityQ an insider’s perspective of the condition and how it manifests in her daily working life.
What led you to your dyspraxia diagnosis, and when did you get it?
I find it strange to think that I was 17 years old when I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, and so for almost my entire early education, it was not picked up. I think partly, the awareness around the disorder was just not there in the 90s and early 00s, and the traits I displayed were very misunderstood.
Having been a relatively intelligent child, the pace of work picked up at secondary school, and I couldn’t keep on top of it. At times, tormented by stress, I was sent out of lessons for being ‘naughty’ when in fact, I was just fidgety, struggling to concentrate, not able to keep up with the work, and embarrassed.
I’d hold my pencil so hard that I’d break it and have to stop writing, I’d have lost my notes from the previous class, I’d have forgotten to do the homework assignment, I’d be late to the class, whisper too loudly to my peers, and stare aimlessly out the window.
By my mid-teens, very few teachers had faith in me, school peers would tease me for being ‘stupid’, and I was convinced they were right. So, I decided it was far cooler not to try and just own being the class clown. I became purposefully disruptive in certain classes, caring more about looking like I didn’t care than anything else.
Then one day, my school friend, who was diligent and hardworking and sporty and all the things I wasn’t, told me she’d been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia.
As she described what it meant to me, I realised it was me, completely and utterly. I was very lucky to be then able to access a test with a child psychologist who was blown away that my school hadn’t picked up on it. The traits were blatant. Through her analysis report of me, she also squashed my biggest fear: she confirmed that I was not ‘stupid’. I so vehemently believed I was. After that, I began getting excellent support, and my journey has been positive from then onwards.
How would you describe the experience of living with dyspraxia to an outsider?
Dyspraxia, in my opinion, manifests in a way that may seem on the more neurotypical end of the neurodiversity spectrum, compared with other disorders. In many ways, the traits are just extreme versions of traits that every single human displays on occasion – clumsiness, forgetfulness, aversion to noise etc. Sometimes my description of dyspraxia is met and dismissed with ‘oh, but we all spill glasses of water sometimes!’.
Personally, I have outgrown elements of my dyspraxia or perhaps developed excellent coping mechanisms. Many people who have only met me in the past five years would perhaps be very surprised to know I have the condition. I still get very embarrassed by it sometimes. Aged 30, I cannot tell the time on an analogue clock and panic whenever I am the one who can see a clock in case someone asks me, and I don’t wear a watch day to this day. I smash glasses at people’s houses by mistake and drop things a lot. I struggle with conversations in busy restaurants, finding it difficult to block out the noise around me and listen to the person next to me.
But I would say mostly, now as an adult, I just have some ‘quirks’ that in my mind I put down to dyspraxia, but to my friends, it’s just me!
What would you say are your daily struggles with dyspraxia in the workplace?
Numbers!!!! I am terrible at anything to do with numbers and rely heavily on spreadsheet formulas and calculators for basic tasks.
I also sometimes struggle with my working memory. I do everything I possibly can to hide this for fear of seeming incompetent and create a lot of extra work for myself as a result. People often associate memory with intelligence, which is not always the case. I had a colleague in the past, who constantly used to say ‘REMEMBER, we talked about XX’ in an irritated tone at the start of conversations which was very cruel, as I was working so hard and delivering great work – the fact I’d forgotten certain details of conversations was not something I should be sorry for. We should all be supporting each other.
How open have you been about your dyspraxia in your career so far?
Very, very rarely. I usually will only mention it among colleagues I know already respect me and see my value. I’m terrified of being written off. I am incredibly proud of my dyspraxia and love talking about it when it eventually comes up. The times I have shared it with colleagues have always made for interesting conversations because neurodiversity and human difference are interesting!
What are the biggest misconceptions people tend to have about dyspraxia?
People either have no idea what it is, or they think it relates solely to clumsiness which I find infuriating. When I tell people I have dyspraxia, they often look confused or check if I really meant ‘dyslexia’.
What are the positive sides to your dyspraxia? How does it give you an advantage as a professional?
I am absolutely sure that dyspraxia has had a huge positive impact on my career and successes. I am known to be an outside-the-box, creative thinker and very detail-oriented; I believe that being an over-thinker can be a bonus as much as it can also be a hindrance.
To make up for the things I struggled with in the past, I end up completely over-delivering. I’ve become someone who outwardly seems very organised, does things quickly and efficiently and is determined and ambitious, although I would say it takes a huge amount of effort to get there and I’m often stressed and exhausted.
I also hope that I am very empathetic to my colleagues and try to spot other people’s strengths and celebrate them. My biggest skill is to be able to talk to absolutely anyone, and I’ve made a career in building friendships and close working relationships.
If you could give employers some advice to better support dyspraxic talent – what would you say?
If and when you discuss neurodiversity-related needs with dyspraxic staff or staff with any neurodiverse condition, remind them why you chose to hire them – remind them what their skills are and their value to the company. Also, be mindful that some employees will struggle to concentrate throughout long calls and meetings. Always offer flexibility, breaks, and keep meetings within short windows.
Schools and universities often have learning support available for neurodiverse students, should there be something similar in the workplace?
Totally! When I went to university, I was given various support tools to help me, but these all disappeared as I entered the working world.
What style of working suits people with dyspraxia best?
As the world transitions to new working styles, I really see this as the ideal opportunity for businesses to understand the positive and negative implications on dyspraxic staff.
Firstly, noise can be an issue. The hubbub of noise in an office can have a terrible impact on dyspraxic people. The opportunity for us to work from home if the home offers peace and quiet can be so incredibly beneficial. We all like quiet space sometimes, but for a dyspraxic person, just hearing someone else on the phone near you in the office can be completely debilitating.
Routine is the next big consideration. One of the things I struggle with the most is changing routines or lack of routine. It’s like the forgetful, clumsy, chaotic traits rear their heads the moment I am in a new environment or routine. Now that my work life is hybrid, I am really struggling to keep a lid on my inner chaos. I need to find an element of routine despite the more diverse working schedule.
Support is also key. Having struggled so much with self-doubt in my younger years, I have only really built up my confidence through receiving praise from colleagues and bosses, and I need constant reassurance. Companies must be attuned to the different types of support and interaction we all received in the office but could be missing out on when working from home.