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Understanding ADHD and Autistic Burnout Within the Workplace

Promoting neurological diversity within the workplace.

Key points

  • Burnout is the consequence of chronic stress, causing disturbance to our physical (autonomic nervous system) and mental functioning.
  • Autistic burnout occurs when an employee feels out of sync with the work environment.
  • Flexibility allows people to minimize the negative and leverage the positive.

Burnout is the consequence of chronic stress, causing disturbance to our physical (autonomic nervous system) and mental functioning. People respond by ensuring the person prioritizes healing when someone has a broken leg.

In writing this post, I hope we can support the Autistic and ADHD community by promoting neurological diversity in the workplace through an understanding of the impact of autistic and ADHD burnout.

Autistic Burnout

“Autistic Burnout is a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs” (Raymaker, M.D.).”

To learn more, please refer to the visual guide below produced by the Autistic Women’s Network that highlights signs, causes, and strategies in relation to Autistic Burnout.

 Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network; Used with permission
Signs, Causes, and Strategies–Autistic Burnout
Source: Autistic Women and Non-Binary Network; Used with permission

Autistic burnout can eventuate when an employee feels out of sync with the work environment. This may result from a lack of accommodations, sensory overload, and/or suppressing autistic traits. In addition to autistic individuals developing new skills to promote their wellbeing, acceptance and understanding from others are needed. A curious approach that entails a desire to understand and see autistic people as having equal rights, value, and worth is important.

Neurodiversity is a term coined by an Australian sociologist named Judy Singer. The term neurodiversity highlights those differences like those seen in autism-related brain variations and not malfunctions. Simon Baron-Cohen, a leader in the autism field, explains that “There is no single way for a brain to be normal,” Temple Grandin has famously stated she is “different, not less.”

Characteristics of autism that are of great value to a workplace include determination and drive (a self-motivated, independent learner with a strong work ethic and commitment to quality and accuracy of work), being loyal, honest, witty, caring, and articulate, with an active and curious mind. Autistic individuals are fascinated with facts, and their acute sensitivity to sensory experiences and stimuli allows for a remarkable worldview.

Further strengths include hyper-focus (an ability to concentrate for long periods), attention to detail, and ability to process information systematically, and a propensity to think outside the box and generate novel solutions to problems. These skills are found across a wide range of occupations, so care must be taken not to stereotype the interest and capabilities of autistic employees. We need to break down stereotypes. Autistic individuals are your doctors, scientists, comedians, artists, teachers, family, friends, etc.

Autistic accommodations may include:

  • Reasonable accommodations do not require lowering performance standards or removing essential functions of the individual’s job.

  • Positive acceptance and understanding of autism contribute to continued growth, self-awareness, and finding a balance between continuing to work to overcome challenges while also allowing space for a sense of acceptance and willingness to accept accommodations where appropriate.

  • Sensory sensitivities characterize autism. Limiting sensory input (such as limiting the amount of time spent working in open-plan workspaces that are noisy and busy) may be helpful. One way to achieve this goal may be to allow an employee to utilize an office space (e.g., a meeting room) that is not being used at certain times throughout the day.

  • Allowing for flexible working arrangements (e.g., sensory breaks to be taken as needed and days to work from home) may also be helpful.

  • It is important that accommodations are developed in collaboration with an employee to meet the individual’s needs.

  • Ultimately, we want to empower autistic individuals to feel comfortable asking for the accommodations and support they need.

ADHD Burnout

One of the great strengths of being neurodiverse is the skilled ability of divergent thinking. The two terms convergent thinking (i.e., one defined solution to a problem) and divergent thinking were coined by psychologist Joy Paul Guilford in 1956. The exceptional divergent thinking skills of ADHD entrepreneurs is a process of generating creative ideas to explore possible solutions and create efficient systems, alongside people management skills.

Conversely, Tamara Rosier (the founder of the ADHD Center of West Michigan) explained how such thinking may lead to difficulties such as time-blindness and falling into rabbit holes (i.e., a process in which one concept transforms into another, that may lead to moving away from the initial idea or task and/or spending too much time researching a given possibility).

While employers are often impressed by divergent thinking abilities, they are equally as perplexed as to why the employee has not completed convergent tasks in a timely manner (i.e., admin duties, responding to emails, prioritizing, etc.). The term “twice exceptional” is used to describe gifted learners with potential for high achievement (engaging the gifted mind at an intellectual level) while also acknowledging disabilities (without accommodation, an employee with ADHD may spend hours completing a task that can take five minutes to complete).

Positive traits of ADHD include warm-hearted, hyper-focus, passionate, honest, compassionate, curious, out-of-the-box thinking, good in a crisis, intuitive, and creative. Employees with ADHD often thrive in situations of rapid change that reward out-of-the-box thinking.

ADHD accommodations may include:

  • Provide a quiet workspace that minimizes distractions.

  • Allow use of noise cancellation or white noise.

  • Work from home if there are no effective accommodations in the office environment/ need for respite.

  • Scheduling uninterrupted work time.

  • Take brain breaks as needed.

  • Minimizing marginal functions to allow focus on essential job duties.

  • Assistance with prioritization.

  • Assistive technology (timers, apps, calendars, etc.).

  • Turn off distractions–including cell phones.

  • Asking a supervisor to set deadlines for tasks.

  • Teaming with another person who can be your accountability partner.

  • Recording meetings.

  • Visual schedules.

  • Avoid over-scheduling the day by estimating how long each task or meeting will take (time blocking).

  • Offering sufficient progression opportunities for employees.

Flexibility allows people to minimize the negative and leverage the positive. A strength-based approach seeks to acknowledge the talents, interests, and skills upon which the person can build a life of success and joy. If a person is genuinely proud of who they are, it helps them navigate the world better. This way, expectations become more realistic and do not require the person to meet unreasonable standards.

The Functional Legacy Mindset approach educates people on how different minds function (to embrace their strengths) and the legacy of such minds in terms of the benefits to society. This approach is grounded in the therapeutic benefits of embracing the authentic self to promote a sense of purpose in which clients feel empowered to embrace their unique strengths and abilities to contribute to society in ways that feel authentic and meaningful to them.

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