I have always known that I was different, but it wasn't until my late 20s that I understood why. I found out that I was on the neurodiversity spectrum, alongside other individuals whose brains work differently, such as those with ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.
I’d like to share a little bit of what I've learned as an autistic woman in the legal space in the hopes of ensuring a better experience for other neurodivergent legal professionals.
My experience as an autistic legal professional
When I started my career in litigation 16 years ago, I found an environment that helped me to thrive in many ways. The clearly written rules, deadlines, and expectations gave me a sense of control that I hadn't experienced professionally up until that point.
However, it also allowed me to hide behind an office door while I prepared responses to interrogatories, poured through discovery, and drafted pleadings. It wasn't until I moved in-house ten years ago that I realized just how different I was.
Working in-house is much more ambiguous than working in litigation. Vague instructions, unclear priorities, and legal risk left me feeling like I didn't belong. Underneath the carefully developed façade I showed at work, I was oftentimes struggling to hold it together.
Looking back, there are so many things I wish I could have told my younger self. But I also think about the things I wish my legal teammates understood about my autism and neurodiversity.
What is neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity encompasses a broad spectrum of conditions, including ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, Tourette’s syndrome, and other mental health conditions. Studies estimate that roughly 15-20% of the population is neurodivergent, and this kind of variation is normal.
Being neurodivergent isn’t necessarily a bad thing—or a good thing—it just means that our brains process information differently than the majority of humans. By accepting and accommodating neurodiversity, we can create a more inclusive and accepting society for all individuals.
Here are three ways that legal teams and coworkers can support neurodivergent folks.
1. We don’t want special treatment, but we do need accommodations
Asking for accommodations is hard when you don't know what you need. It's even harder when you don't want people to think you're getting some kind of special treatment.
For neurodivergent team members, accommodation requests may come in staggered as needs change over time. The best managers and team members will be flexible and supportive as these needs arise.
According to the Job Accommodation Network, 56% of employers said the accommodations needed by their employees cost absolutely nothing—and reap substantial reward. Providing accommodations leads to increased employee retention and productivity, improved company morale, and increased profitability.
Furthermore, many of the commonly requested accommodations that benefit Autistics, including flexible work arrangements, clearly written communication, headphones in the workplace, and extra time to process changes, ultimately benefit all employees.
We all deserve access to tools and resources that make us successful in the workplace, regardless of the type or severity of our disability.
2. I am not a monolith and neither is neurodiversity
You’ve seen the tropes in the media. From Spock to Wednesday to Sherlock, we all think we know what neurodiversity looks like. But even though my experience with autism is not unique, it’s also not the same as everyone else.
Everyone has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, including those who are autistic. It's unfair and inaccurate to assume that all autistic individuals fit into a specific stereotype, like being a social outcast or a genius.
Avoid phrases like:
• “You don’t look [Autistic]…”
• “Everyone is a little [Autistic].”
• “Wow, you’re so high functioning.”
• “Have you tried [some random treatment]?”
• “You’re an inspiration.”
Instead of making assumptions, get to know the person and appreciate their individuality. (Again, great advice for managing and supporting all people, not just neurodivergents).
3. Masking can lead to burnout
Finally, as autistic individuals, we often use masking as a coping mechanism. From a young age, we learn to suppress our natural behaviors in order to fit in with neurotypical expectations. This can be exhausting and ultimately not a true representation of who we are.
Unfortunately, masking is more common among autistic women than men, and it can lead to mental health issues. For neurodivergent folks, burnout can lead to an inability to process information and complete seemingly simple daily tasks.
With the unique challenges we face, like masking and autistic burnout, it's important for employers to support our mental health in the workplace. After all, a healthy workforce is essential for productivity and profitability.
Supporting neurodiverse team members helps everyone
We spend a third of our lives at work, and it's important for everyone to feel comfortable and supported—even if they think differently.
Employers have a responsibility to create a psychologically safe and equitable workplace that supports all employees, regardless of their abilities. By doing so, they can help create a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce.
Check out our recent webinar to hear more tips for Understanding and supporting neurodiversity on in-house legal teams.