Neurodiversity is an umbrella term which covers a number of neurological differences, such as Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalculia. Neurodiversity Celebration Week (13 to 19 March) is a worldwide initiative that challenges stereotypes about neurological differences and aims to transform how neurodivergent individuals are perceived and supported.

To mark this year's celebration, Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) has launched its Neurodiversity Umbrella Project, which will see multi-coloured umbrellas set up across the firm's UK offices to provide an uplifting visual representation and celebration of what neurodiversity is.

In an open and honest blog, Emily Cox, Associate in WBD's employment practice, shares her own lived experience with neurodivergences.

Neurodiversity and me

Being able to put a name to what I have been struggling with (unbeknown to me) throughout my life, has given me a sense of relief, and has helped me feel validated. Being a neurodiverse lawyer feels like living in a world that isn't designed for me. It's taken me many years to understand that this doesn't mean there is anything wrong with me, it means there is something wrong with my environment. It can feel like you're living in a paradox, where society tries to invalidate our lived experiences and daily struggles, whether they are diagnosed by a doctor or self-diagnosed.

It's estimated that around one in five people in the UK are neurodiverse, and for example, around 1.5 million adults have ADHD. For context, that is approximately five times the number of currently practising lawyers. That's potentially at least one neurodivergent person in your team and several in your wider workplace.

The damning headlines on people 'having a must-have mental illness' is why I share my own lived experience with neurodivergences so freely. Representation matters, and people need to see successful people not being stigmatised, living fulfilled lives with successful careers.

I am not a label, and no, it's not helpful to say that everyone is a little bit neurodiverse or on the spectrum. The language you use matters. Using blanket statements regarding conditions you don't fully understand negates mine and others' experiences as neurodiverse.

The fact that neurodiversity is non-visible is a challenge in itself. Just because you cannot see a person’s diversity, does not mean it is not there. We need to look beyond the external shell of an individual into a deeper level of human functioning, the mind. 

My brain is a complex creature: Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, High Functioning Anxiety and ADHD. Some of these were diagnosed during childhood, others I have only discovered in adult life.

There are downsides to being neurodivergent. Social interaction, for example, is an expensive energy for me. I'm hyper sensitive to smell and noise and I don't always fully understand my feelings and emotions. I can struggle to focus and follow through on actions, as I get distracted quickly. I don't have the best impulse control and I get bored, very easily. I have paralysing anxiety and self-doubt. Life can sometimes feel like you are in a sim, and your actions constantly cancelled, so you end up in situations where you are standing in a bathroom with a spoon and you're not quite sure why.

But we need to flip the conversation to the many strengths that neurodiverse people bring to the table instead of weaknesses. After all, neurodiversity brings a competitive advantage and enhances my life. It means I am endlessly creative, it enables me to think about things in a way others can't, it helps me pick things up more quickly than others may do, and most importantly it makes me the person I am. I can absorb an extraordinary amount of information, am passionate about justice, and will challenge the status quo. Those who are neurodivergent, can often thrive in high pressure environments. Urgent deadlines, last minute changes of plan, being put on the spot in client calls. We can be well placed to execute many of the key aspects of legal practice that neurotypicals may struggle with. It's simply a question of listening to us and letting us play to our individual strengths, which can create great results for everyone.

Any neurodiverse person I have met is usually an incredible force of motivation and positivity. The benefits of that extend far beyond individual performance and contribute to overall team morale and productivity. A happy, thriving neurodiverse colleague is highly likely to significantly increase the performance of the entire team. However, due to fear of being viewed or treated differently, many neurodiverse employees do not disclose their situation, until they feel safe to do so. The most substantial challenge is that people do not view neurological differences as diversity.

The increase in openness and public support from institutions like the Law Society on the strengths of neurodiversity are, however, very much a significant step in the right direction. It can be easy to be manipulated by click-bait articles, but the reality is that these issues are being discussed in a place where real change is made. It might not happen overnight, but it is happening.

Talk to those with lived experiences. You may not understand the wiring of their brain, but the least you can do is listen to how their world works.

Diversity, externally and on the deeper level, is beautiful and must be embraced.

WBD's Disability Network provides the firm's employees with, in Emily's own words, "a safe haven, a place of peace where there is no judgement or negativity". The Network actively raises awareness of disability within the firm and externally, whilst providing support to its members with disabilities or long term conditions, as well as parents and carers of those with disabilities or long term conditions.

To learn more about Diversity and Inclusion at WBD, click here.