Now is the time when a lot of students will be starting to think about higher education choices, which ties in nicely with a realisation I had this week.
A few years ago I was at a conference where a mother who was sat next to her visibly terrified teenage daughter asked what jobs might be suitable for the daughter, given that she is autistic. I had almost forgotten about this, until I happened to be Googling something this week and noticed a related search: “best jobs for neurodivergent”. Immediately the Mum and daughter sprang to mind and I realised this isn’t an uncommon question.
The responses the Mum received that day were particularly focussed on creativity, working alone and self-employment. So out of interest, I clicked on the related search and found an equally limited range of suggestions geared around structure and maths: accountancy, IT and engineering.
But I don’t think it’s that simple…
As someone neurodivergent who has been working continuously since the age of 19 in a broad range of jobs, I want to offer 5 tips for forging a successful career if you are neurodivergent.
1. Forget the neurodivergent stereotypes
Sure, our diagnoses are helpful for understanding ourselves and identifying like-minded people, but they are just a framework and we shouldn’t limit ourselves because of them.
Why couldn’t you be, say, an outgoing and personable TV presenter if you’re autistic? Melanie Sykes has a very successful presenting career and was previously a model. And Anne Hegarty is well known from The Chase and did a stint on I’m A Celeb. Accounting, coding and engineering are not the only career paths available.
Equally if you have ADHD, a lot of famous role models tend to be actors or athletes. But let’s face it, how many budding actors or athletes are going to be successful if we channel everyone with ADHD to those two careers? The same is true for other neurodivergences. Absolutely go for it if it’s your passion, but don’t feel pressured if the stereotype roles aren’t your bag.
This is also a great article on the bias against neurodivergent people in leadership positions, and well worth a read.
There are a number of corporate programs out there to attract and retain neurodivergent talent, but again these tend to be in the financial and technology sectors. By all means, check them out and apply for their programs if IT or finance are your thing, but you don’t have to limit yourself to companies with dedicated programs like these. The stereotypes are just that, and your options really are endless.
2. It’s ok to change your mind
I knew about one month into my law degree that that was not the career for me. I thought I’d be able to apply myself to interesting intellectual challenges. Then I realised you are limited to the cases your clients bring. Another petty theft, anyone? Not for me, thanks.
So, I started working in the entertainment industry, and after 10 years I switched industry again and took a very different job in the financial sector. In fact, I’ve never done the same job twice. And that’s ok. There is no such thing as a career ladder anymore – do whatever piques your interest and pays the bills.
I’ve also never done a “typical” job – you know, the ones you learn about in school like doctor, teacher, lawyer, historian… There are loads of jobs out there that you don’t know exist – in compliance, governance, fundraising, audit, HR, diversity & inclusion and many, many more. You only really start to find out about these jobs once you’re in the workplace, and then the world is your oyster.
3. Think about your personal preferences
I don’t mean medicine over history, or sports over music. Think more broadly:
Do you feel energised by being outside? Then maybe consider landscape gardening or nature conservation?
Do you need to do physical exercise every day else you go stir crazy? How about farming or personal training?
Does the idea of having to think on your feet fill you with excitement? Perhaps barrister or fire fighter is right for you?
Would you benefit from flexible hours (consultant?), shift work (healthcare?) or do you need routine (teaching?)?
Do you find strong smells offputting? Perhaps avoid farming, medicine or packing coffee (take that one from me!)
The answers to these sorts of questions will help to give a view of the type of job you might enjoy – and as a result, succeed at. This tends to be a cycle – we enjoy things we are good at, and we are good at things we enjoy.
Once you have an idea of the aspects that are important to you, you can start to build a picture of what you do and don’t want from a job.
4. Hone those customer service skills
For many of us, social anxiety or reading social cues from neurotypicals can be a challenge. I am a firm advocate of recent research showing that autistic people are not “deficient” in communication skills, and equally I’m aware that other Neurotypes can have social challenges too – ADHD, dyspraxia, etc. can come with their own social challenges. So my take on this is that social anxiety spans the neurodiverse categories and is something that neurotypicals should understand and accommodate.
There is an army of people fighting for recognition and change in this regard (see my early blog on the Double Empathy Problem) but the reality is that change does not happen overnight, and you will likely be working with neurotypicals – or even other neurodivergent people – where good communication will require give and take on both sides.
On top of that, any job requires you to do the tasks that your boss (or client if you are self-employed) is paying you to do. This means you just can’t escape the fact that you are going to have to engage and communicate with other people in your day-to-day job.
If this is really something that you struggle with, it should be a key factor for you to consider when thinking about your working preferences. And again, try to think outside the box – it is possible, for example, to work for a company with thousands of employees, but to be part of a small team where you only liaise with a handful of people on a regular basis. Or perhaps a role that is largely scripted might be appealing?
If you can, I recommend everyone taking a customer service role early in your career. This will help you to forge your work persona (everyone has one of these, neurodivergent or not) in an environment where you can practise defining social scripts for yourself and honing teamwork skills. Let’s face it, a raft of people you’ll only ever talk to once are the best people to practice scripting with, because you’ll never see them again so it doesn’t matter if some conversations go better than others. Best of all, these sorts of (often part-time and/or temporary) roles can provide scenarios to answer interview questions for future jobs like “tell me about a time you overcame a challenge” or “how do you perform under pressure?”
And customer service doesn’t have to mean working with lots of people… you might be able to take a job at a veterinary centre, stables or rehoming shelter if you like working with animals, or in a library or independent bookshop if you’re the literary sort. Anything that will build your confidence to communicate will help set you up for success.
5. It is easier to get a job if you already have a job
I know, this is inherently unfair, more so for us neurodivergent folks who can struggle with executive function and spoons. This article from Forbes gives a couple of reasons why this is the case, and what to do if you’re not in education or employment and are looking for a job.
The reason I call this out is that I know how hard it is to save the spoons for work when you’re in education. While I did my GCSEs and A Levels I was exhausted. Mentally and physically exhausted. I probably wasn’t getting enough sleep, but was undiagnosed at the time so didn’t realise I was neurodivergent and more tired than my friends.
When I finished my A Levels I was told by my parents that I wasn’t going to be allowed to sit at home all day for the three months between finishing my exams and starting university. I was expected to go out and work.
So that’s what I did. I signed up with a local temping agency, and after a call at 8am one morning asking if I could be up the road for a cleaning shift at 10am (which I accepted, even though the short notice was a massive challenge for me), I received a week at the coffee packing factory (and came home stinking of the stuff!) and then a much happier 6 weeks printing off invoices for an estate agent.
This experience helped me to land a part-time job while I was at university, where there is much greater flexibility in terms of when you get your study hours in and when you can work, eat and sleep. The experience I gained in that part-time job then helped me to get my first full-time job. Any work experience you can get is going to help you in forging your own successful career.
Advice for neurodivergent career planners
So, what’s the overall message from these 5 tips? In short, you don’t need a career plan at the age of 18 – give things a go, study subjects you enjoy, build up your work experience, and use those experiences to figure out what you do and don’t want to do as your next step. Unless you want to go into a specific career, any course you enjoy will stand you in good stead. This advice is just as relevant for neurotypicals as it is for us neurodivergents, and the added extra for us is: don’t let the stereotypes limit your choices; think about your personal preferences when looking for a good job match and don’t worry if your career path twists and turns.
Good luck, and most of all have fun! You can do this!!