In March last year, my husband and I (like many parents), were suddenly faced with the task of home-schooling our children – in our case twin boys, Ben and Tom, aged 9.
Despite being identical twins, we had always noticed differences in the way in which each of our boys learned and we were already trying to address concerns that one of our boys (Tom) was extremely anxious at school and definitely not thriving. Acknowledging that perhaps the large class size of the traditional classroom setting was contributing to these concerns, we arranged for an assessment at a local prep school, where the class size would be smaller. The school’s psychologist assessed both boys as unusually high for their verbal reasoning ability, but much further behind than where we thought they were in terms of basic numeracy and literacy. Something was clearly impeding their learning.
As we started the home-schooling process, we saw how easily Tom could be distracted from some tasks, yet hyper-focused on others in which he had a particular interest, to the point where getting his attention away from it was a challenge. As a family we had always joked that Tom couldn’t sit still for long enough to a meal, but as we spent more time with them both in an educational capacity, the issues became more obvious. These observations led us to seek a specialist evaluation, which resulted in a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for Tom. This turned out to be revelatory in more ways than one.
During the evaluation process, my husband and I realised that much of the criteria resonated with my own day-to-day life. After further investigation and completing my own evaluation process, at the age of 40 I was also diagnosed with ADHD. In some respects, I was in a state of disbelief with the diagnosis. I had done well at school and university and I had a great career in law. In other respects, I think I had always known there was something different about my brain and it explained a lot of the ‘chaos’ that was often in the background of my life, particularly when I was young. Since then, other family members have either been diagnosed or acknowledged that they likely have ADHD (it is hereditary).
Typically, neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and dyslexia are diagnosed during childhood, but I soon discovered that ADHD often goes under-diagnosed and under-treated, especially in girls. One reason I’d not been diagnosed as a child is that the condition hadn’t manifested itself in the way stereotypically imagined for the condition – hyperactivity. Girls with ADHD are often ‘dreamers’ and lose themselves in books for hours and hours.
The term ADHD is a bit of a misnomer in a lot of ways, – there is no ‘deficit’ of attention. Rather it is an inability to always be able to correctly direct the attention. It can cause ‘hyper-focus’ on certain things (really useful if it is a school or work project, less useful if it is a TV box set or computer game!) and other times a complete inability to concentrate. People with ADHD want to be able to concentrate in these times, but simply can’t. The effort of forcing your brain into doing something it doesn’t want to can be exhausting.
Another myth about ADHD is that it is caused by poor diet, lack of discipline or a lack of intelligence. It is caused by a neurochemical imbalance, a lack of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Unlike a lot of other neurodivergent conditions, ADHD is highly treatable by rebalancing the neurochemicals with a dopamine supplement. Anyone can suffer from it, no matter how high or low their IQ might be, and some famous names include the likes of Richard Branson, Walt Disney, John F Kennedy, Emma Watson, and Albert Einstein. So while some people consider ADHD to be a disability, there is clear evidence that this isn’t always the case.
Looking back, my diagnosis made sense of some of the challenges I had faced. I achieved good grades at school, but I had to work very hard to do it – sometimes excessive hours studying. I had to impose a huge amount of self-discipline, with revision and homework timetables governing all my time. I did sometimes wonder why my peers at university spent so much less time at the library than me but still managed to do as well, if not better. I often felt as if someone had the remote control for my brain, and flicked through channels in a way I had no control over.
Ideas would flood my brain, which was great for creative tasks, but I often struggled to capture and then focus on an idea sufficiently to complete it. It was no secret that I didn’t have great attention to detail and would often miss typos when reviewing documents, but I had learned ways to work around that. I also would miss ‘small’ details, like which London airport I was meant to be flying from, and end up at the wrong place at the wrong time (it turns out people with ADHD have a different concept of time to neurotypical people!). I used to give myself such a hard time for these things, exasperated that I couldn’t be as organised or as focused as others. And when I tried, I ended up exhausted.
I had almost quit the legal profession entirely after a year’s post qualified experience, when my self-confidence was at my lowest. I had made the poor decision to change firms and the move meant I was doing less court advocacy (something I took in my stride and loved) and more desk-top drafting (something I struggled with due to my lack of attention to detail). I had not yet learned to how to focus my strengths and overcome weaknesses.
But I was lucky to be offered a new opportunity in EU law, under a wonderful and supportive manager (Alan Boyd, now retired) and later in my career have Guy Lougher (also now retired) support me through the later stages of my career into partnership. Both mentors encouraged me to pursue the things I was good at and supported me in the areas I was less strong in. The ever-changing legal landscape of EU law played to my strengths and I flourished.
Despite some of my struggles, I’m now certain that my condition (not that I knew I had one at that point) also led to some of my greatest career achievements. My hyper-focus allowed me to relentlessly pursue ideas I knew I could make work, even when others around me couldn’t see it. At TLT, I recognised the benefit of setting up a new international trade team, driving it from a small idea I’d had at the breakfast table to ultimately securing a place for the firm on both lots of the Department for International Trade’s new Trade Law Panel.
I’ve been lucky to have had opportunities in my career to exploit my strengths, but I understand this isn’t always the case for people with neurodiverse conditions. Were it not for the pandemic and the increased visibility of my children’s education, I believe both mine and my son’s conditions would have gone undetected for longer – or possibly avoided detection at all. The reason I got diagnosed was to help be a better parent and role model to both my sons, particularly Tom. So that he did not have to bumble his way through life with ADHD by simply hoping for the good fortune I had. If I hadn’t had the mentors and opportunities that I did, when I did, my career would likely have taken a very different trajectory.
These personal revelations have made me a passionate supporter of the less-talked about topic of neurodiversity, which is not only more commonplace than we might think, but also more hidden than it should be. I am really keen to break down the stigma surrounding conditions like ADHD and encourage people to learn more about neurodiversity so we can move beyond the stereotypes to ensure a range of employment opportunities remain accessible now and for my children’s generation. Data shows that between 5 and 8 per cent of the population has ADHD, and even more have other neurodiverse conditions, meaning there’s likely to be a number of people with these conditions in every workplace. While neurodiverse conditions are often only seen for their negative stereotypes, they can actually bring massive benefits.
If people feel comfortable being open about their strengths and weaknesses, we can help place people in tasks and roles that allows them to fulfil their true potential. This is the right thing to do morally (from an ED&I perspective), but it also makes perfect sense from a business perspective. The legal profession can be a bit preoccupied with the idea of an ‘all-rounder’, but do we really want a team or a firm full of people who are all the same?
Imagine combining the hyperfocus and multitasking ability of an ADHD employee with the creativity, the out-of-the-box thinking of a Dyslexic employee with another employee with ASD who excels at detail and analysis. That is when the real magic happens. As soon as we let go of the all-rounder idea, and start embracing neurological differences, we could make huge advances in the way we work and deliver client services.
Having a neurodiverse workplace doesn’t just mean celebrating the differences in the brains of people in ‘official categories’. Brains are like fingerprints – every brain differs. Even if you do not have all the traits of a specific neurodiverse condition, you may still have some or a mixture of traits from different conditions.
Many people with neurodiversity have already learned how to exploit or mitigate their differences, but others may require support. If people feel empowered to be open and honest about these types of conditions in the workplace, there is more scope for the right support to be provided. Major organisations like Microsoft and GCHQ now actively recruit neurodiverse people, having realised the advantages of a truly diverse workforce.
TLT has been hugely supportive for me and other neurodiverse colleagues. I’ve recently been given new voice-to-text dictation software on my phone which means when my brain fires up and starts flicking through different ideas and topics at inopportune times (typically late at night for some reason!), I can quickly dictate it to my phone and it goes straight into my notes or to-do folder so that I actually remember about it in the morning. I have obviously developed, albeit accidentally, various coping strategies over the course of my life, but things like that can still help me optimise my performance. It’s important that all employers understand that a little of the right support can make the difference between a struggling employee and a flourishing one.
Workplaces need to truly embrace diversity – not just in terms of social and ethnic backgrounds or different genders or sexual orientations – and instead realise the benefits a neurodiverse workforce can offer.
Caroline Ramsay is a partner at TLT