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How Neurodivergent People Can Succeed in Customer Service and Technical Support

neurodivergent people

The term neurodivergence is used to describe groups of people who perceive and think about things differently from the general population. It includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and impulsivity, among other traits. For many organizations, neurodivergent people bring a variety of powerful gifts to the workplace. In this article, CIOs, IT managers, and MSP owners will learn how to work successfully with neurodivergent individuals and neurodivergent people will gain helpful tools for working successfully with neurotypical individuals.

In this week’s Compassionate Geek podcast I interview Dr. Jeanette Ashworth, a Seattle area, psychotherapist about how neurodivergent people can succeed in the workplace, and how owners, managers, and supervisors can help create an environment that fosters success for neurodivergent individuals.

Don Crawley:
Now before we get started, be sure to like this video and subscribe to this channel. My guest is Dr. Jeanette Ashworth. Dr. Ashworth is a psychotherapist practicing in the Seattle area. Her business is called Center for a Happier Life. She holds a master’s degree in community counseling from Georgia State University and a Ph.D. In management with a specialization in psychology from Walden University, Dr. Ashworth, welcome to the Compassionate Geek blog and podcast. Thank you for joining me. I’m really excited to hear what you have to say.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Thank you for having me.

What is Neurodivergence

Don Crawley:
I want to start by asking, what does it mean to be neurodivergent? And is this a change in terminology? Where did it come from? Give me a little background on the term, neurodivergent.

Jeanette Ashworth:
The term neurodivergent refers to a wide range of conditions that are essentially different from the majority population, and these include the autism spectrum, attention deficit, and a range of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. And there are many gifts that come with it, a lot of times people focus on it being, they feel like it could be something negative, but actually it comes with a lot of gifts and unique insights that I think are particularly meaningful. There has been credit given to Judy Singer who coined the term neurodivergence.

Don Crawley:
Is it a relatively recent term? It seems like I just started hearing the term neurodivergence within the last year or so.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Actually, I think it’s been around for over a decade, but it’s only in recent years that it’s come to the mainstream.

Don Crawley:
And it seems like the idea behind using the term neurodivergent is simply to say that people who you would describe as neurodivergent see things or think about things differently from someone who is described as neurotypical and it’s neither good nor bad, better, nor worse, just different. Am I correct in that?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Well, I think there can be a wide range of opinions and there’s a variety of authors. I do think that’s an excellent point that it … because people who are neurodivergent can describe it themselves in a range of ways, but interestingly, if you survey people who are neurodivergent, when asked if they would change it, a large percentage in have indicated that they would not, because it actually begins to become part of one’s identity and way of thinking and way of being.

Jeanette Ashworth:
So, I’ve personally seen a wide range of degrees that people may incorporate this sense of being into their lives, but there’s also a disability pride movement that also is trying to encourage people to share more openly. So actually I should go ahead and say, I’m actually neurodivergent myself.

Don Crawley:
And how did that manifest itself? What made you start to think, “I need to gain a better understanding of how I think and how I perceive the world?” Were there some clues that helped you make that determination?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Yes. There were some clues in terms of my own individual experience and I noticed it had to do with ways of thinking, ways of processing, and then also my interactions with other people. And then lastly, I would say also, for me, some time awareness, time awareness issues.

Don Crawley:
As time went on, you became more aware of certain characteristics.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. And so for myself, I have attention deficit and then I also have Asperger’s traits. So when I say time awareness that time for me, I can often have a sense of hyper-focus where I can really focus on something, and then other times it may be harder to focus, and then in addition with the sequence of time, I have to be very aware, I keep a variety of alarms because sometimes what appears to have been like 10 minutes have gone by, it may be 45 minutes.

Don Crawley:
Really.

Jeanette Ashworth:
That type of thing. So there are a lot of people also, if you’re the kind of person who’s always the last to arrive to a meeting, things like that, then you have to make a very mindful awareness of trying to take steps to counteract against that, trying to be there, setting the time to be there earlier than indicated whatever it may be to be aware of that.

Gifts of Neurodivergent People

Don Crawley:
Earlier, you mentioned that there are certain gifts that accompany being a neurodivergent individual, and you just mentioned the hyper focus that you experience sometimes, is that one of the gifts that you would describe?

Jeanette Ashworth:
It is, and it is for many people. And then there is a saying that says, “If you’ve met one neurodivergent person, you’ve met just one.” They also say that about autism. If you’ve met one autistic person … And then at the same time there are some things that people may have in common. And this is one for many people, is the ability to hyper-focus, which can create some excellent skills at maybe going really in-depth on a topic or a subject. It helps some people be very detail-oriented where someone else might miss something.

Jeanette Ashworth:
It also helps people to become more specialized, they’ve often called someone’s ability to really delve deep into a subject, may refer to it as little professor syndrome, and that type of thing. And there’s many really positive attributes that go along with that.

Don Crawley:
In our next section, when we talk about how managers and supervisors can help people who are neurodivergent in their careers, seems like one of the things that we’ll talk about is identifying those characteristics, those wonderful traits and finding ways to help the neurodivergent individual use those in the workplace to their benefit.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Yeah, definitely. There has been a lot more emphasis in recent years on neurodiversity at work, and there are a number of top companies that have specifically incorporated neurodivergent hiring, neurodivergent programs, policies, employee groups, that type of thing to really have neurodiversity become part of their inclusion efforts.

Don Crawley:
So, thinking about the efforts that are being made on the part of companies and organizations to be more inclusive of neurodivergent individuals, let’s talk about what neurodivergent individuals can do to gain better skills at working with neurotypical individuals, so that they’re able to cross those bridges or to form bridges between members of the neurotypical community and members of the neurodivergent community to get things done. And as a neurodivergent individual, what are some of the things that they can do to put in their tool chest, if you will, to help them in their career and in dealing with other people?

Disclosing Your Neurodivergence

Jeanette Ashworth:
Okay, sure. Now, I guess, first of all, you have that issue of disclosure. Now, I had just mentioned some companies that may have specific neurodivergent hiring, and as part of that, people may be identifying their status in that regard. And at the same time, it’s also possible that someone has been hired and they have not shared that. So, it is the right of the individual to disclose or not disclose. So I guess I just wanted to frame that either way.

Don Crawley:
Would you encourage people to disclose?

Jeanette Ashworth:
That’s a really good question because I have heard pros and cons both ways. I think for the most part, if you are being hired under a neurodivergent hiring initiative, then there’s going to be lots of positives for disclosure, there will be lots of positive supports built in automatically for you. And then also if you’re looking to get hired at a place that you’re under a regular hire, you may decide to wait and see if you need any accommodations.

Jeanette Ashworth:
But hopefully I think the important thing of bringing awareness is that more people will feel comfortable, and then we can also educate employees in the workplace to understand what that means. And I think that’s a concern people may have is because of stigma, but I’ve mostly heard positives, but I have heard from a few individuals that they felt that once they disclosed it, they were worried about being passed over for the really top level positions because maybe they thought someone didn’t know if it would be maybe too stressful, but generally a workplace that’s going to allow you to demonstrate the range of what you can do, hopefully there is no limit to the possibilities.

Tools for Neurodivergent People at Work

Don Crawley:
So, going back to the question now, and thank you for the discussion about programs to support neurodiversity in the workplace, but let’s talk about tools that a neurodivergent person can use or working in a workplace with neurotypical individuals or people who have other aspects of neurodiversity than what they might have. But what are some tools that they might want to put in their toolkit that could work for them to help them integrate into the workplace?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Sure. I think whether someone’s disclosing or not, if there’s communication about what your preferences might be, it’s going to be incredibly helpful. And if there are any sensory challenges, many people have learned how to mask, which means that they may hide or not say certain things that might be bothering them, and then up to a point, but ideally people would not have to mask so much. So let’s say you’re in a workplace and it’s incredibly noisy. Then some people might benefit from noise-canceling headphones, or even being able to just bring their earbuds and listen to music.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And so someone could say, “Hey, I’d like to play my music, but I’m really working hard. Is that a problem?” Kind of checking in? And then also, maybe describing what your preferences are for feedback, that type of thing. Also many people can benefit from sharing how they like to receive their job assignments. So let’s say you prefer to read it and to have written instructions, but maybe your boss likes to just share it at a meeting verbally. Then at that point, the person can decide, do they have the time to write it down and then they have a written one or do they need to request, “Oh, I’m really excited about this job, I look forward to exceeding your expectations, but I really can maximize that if I have it in writing?”

Don Crawley:
Could I get it in writing so that I can review it and you try to find ways to express it in terms of a benefit to your boss?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Exactly, express that as a benefit. And then there’s a variety of things that people can do to alleviate stress in the workplace. For one person it might be to go take a walk at lunch and there might be someone else that actually would like to bring what would be called something to stim, S-T-I-M with, and so they might have like a stim toy. One example that most people have seen is a stress ball, that type of thing, and just have it at their desk.

Jeanette Ashworth:
I know someone who’s neurodivergent that also brought some small figures from one of their favorite games. This person happens to be a big gamer and they work in the tech industry, and no one minded that they had that sitting on their desk. There was just something that was very relaxing for them to look at on their breaks, that type of thing.

Don Crawley:
What about when a neurodivergent individual is put in a position of dealing with a customer? And I think about a potential client who called me a while back and described a situation where he’d taken an engineer to a client location to discuss a problem they were having at the client location. They weren’t able to solve it, it required this one particular engineer to take care of that problem. And so, he went in and fixed the problem. The client was adamant that they have a meeting afterward to debrief, so the engineer did the debriefing and then turned to his boss and said, “See, I told you they were all idiots.”

Don Crawley:
He may have been accurate in his description of the people (or not), but it was behavior that you wouldn’t normally do in the presence of a customer. So, would you have tips for someone who is neurodivergent when they’re put in a position of having to deal with a customer, and in particular, a customer where they don’t particularly feel like the customer did the right thing as in the case that I just mentioned?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. Well, there is such a range of behaviors and ways of interacting for each individual that is neurodivergent. And so for someone that might be prone to maybe blurt out whatever they’re thinking, then there can be some guidelines that they could give themselves, or that their supervisor might in a respectful way to be mindful of that. So one example would be in terms of speaking freely, there’s a time when you’re in your pure professional mode, and then there’s a time when you can speak openly to your teammates and differentiating where that would be. So if this is the meeting room, in the hallway, and then there are times when being very specific about the setting can help.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And then also, because many people like to vent something, if they’re frustrating, but something like that could certainly alienate a customer and also others as well. That is individualized, but I think very thoughtful feedback to someone. And if a person really struggles with that, it’s possible that they might benefit from a different work role. But at the same time, we, as much as possible, trying to allow people the opportunity to be who they are, but at the same time, there’s still those norms of customer service.

Don Crawley:
What would you say to that individual, if you were the boss after that had happened? How would you counsel the individual?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Well, I personally always try to come from a strength based orientation, so that I try to be mindful of also where I can, giving positive, so would try find something to praise in terms of the work that they’ve done to get to this point with the client, but then also wanting to let them know that by saying this, I would label it, it could be an insult, and then trying to bring it back to empathy, so maybe have them think about a time if someone has said something that feels like an insult to them. Then in that regard, then I would also say, there’s a time and place where you vent that, but going forward, it’s very important not to say it in front of the client.

Jeanette Ashworth:
So, I would basically say that in regards to what I just shared, and then in addition on a side note, a lot of people are not aware of in terms of intellectual disabilities, there are many terms common in our society still that are like idiot and moron and terms like that, that were once medical terms for people who are intellectually disabled. And then those terms have fallen out of use, but were often used in general society. So, that person may or may not be interested in that kind of trivia, but just try to create another level of awareness.

Don Crawley:
Any more tips for neurodivergent people on when they have to work with customers on anything that you might want them to know or some tool that they might be able to use before we move on?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Well, I think as much as possible, I think to relax, and when I say that, there tends to be, not for everybody, but for many people, there can be an anxiety that can come up very quickly when interacting with other people. However, it’s not there when interacting with one’s very close friends or family. So sometimes if someone can put themselves in that same, almost like a form of biofeedback, put themselves in the mindset and the state of body awareness that they’re in when they’re interacting with their friends, and then just try to speak from that point, and try to reduce the anxiety.

Jeanette Ashworth:
I was speaking to someone the other day that tends to get very nervous and they were able to kind of drop anxiety, and then later they were described as very charming. And I think that’s because some of their personality was shining through.

Don Crawley:
Almost able to trick your brain.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Exactly. So, people could try to do that through some breathing exercises, some mindfulness, some people might have an app or a video of something that is calming to them. And then over time, it should become easier. Because I do know a number of neurodivergent individuals that have been very successful in customer service and they originally didn’t think they would be, but actually, it turns out it could be an excellent fit.

Don Crawley:
So, do you know any of the tools that they use to allow themselves to become so good at customer service? Just thinking about the person who’s watching this interview thinking, “Wow, I could really use that.” What are some of the tools?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Well, I think that it did have to do with lowering anxiety. There’s also many people that can benefit, and understand many, many things in customer service may also come with a script, some do and some don’t, some hybrid. But I think for some people having either a script or having some bullet points of what to hit on, but then also if they were able to feel that they could also relax and let a little bit of who they were also shine through where it became a little bit more conversational-

Don Crawley:
A framework that they could use, and you mentioned bullet points. So that’s not exactly a script that they would read verbatim, but something that would give them some talking points.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. And I think maybe … So for some people they might experiment with that. But I think that reducing anxiety was really the big piece. And then if they’re more … and that would be maybe for some basic customer service skills, if they’re more advanced and more nuanced, then I think that there’s communication skills that can be more sophisticated too. And they’re the things that are the classic customer service about building rapport, connecting, selling the benefits of the product, those types of things. But I think that this is definitely an area where neurodivergent people can really shine.

Don Crawley:
It’s fascinating to me that you say that because I feel like someone who is not familiar with the field of neurodivergence would automatically assume that a customer service role would be a very difficult role for someone who is neurodivergent. And yet you’re saying the exact opposite, which is really encouraging.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Sure. If you look at it, let’s say for example, a company like Microsoft that has a very robust neurodivergent hiring program, they’re currently hiring for customer service reps. And I think that, again, there’s such a wide range of people who are diagnosed as neurodivergent and then that it also may attract people that tend to also be a little bit more outgoing as well. Because you can have … Many people will focus on what can be a bit of a stereotype, but that what a neurodivergent person might look like and act like.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And so, people do tend to be more introverted, but that’s not necessarily true for everyone. And at the same time, people can also go through an energy cycle of being outgoing for a period of time, and then they need to rest and recharge and be able to do that again.

Don Crawley:
That would be someone who would consider themselves to be an introvert, who can go through the motions of acting like they’re outgoing, but after a while they’ve got to take a break.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. Maybe someone who, for lack of a better term, like an extroverted introvert, and it may be someone who does genuinely enjoy interacting with other people, but then it is common for neurodivergent people to also need time to regroup and restore their energy and have some time alone or time doing some of their favorite things.

Don Crawley:
What about if you’re a neurodivergent individual and you’re in just an average workspace, any tips for communicating effectively with neurotypical individuals if you are neurodivergent?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Sure. Again, it’s about communicating who you are and how you work well. And then I think some people do feel now with disability pride that they want to educate people more. And I have heard from more and more people that they had shared openly, they say, “Hey, I’m …” They might share that they’re autistic or that they have ADHD or that they have a learning disability, whatever the case might be. And then say, “Also if you have any questions, let me know.” And I’ve seen a lot of people do that these days where they’re really becoming an advocate for the community at large and feeling very comfortable about educating others.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And then in addition, it’s not that it’s always every individual’s responsibility because there is … I think you may have heard of the term, emotional labor.

Don Crawley:
Yes.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Those people, they can get tired of being the representative for everyone and feeling like that’s really not their role, but-

Don Crawley:
Always putting on your game face.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. And there’s a wide range of resources. And then also one thing that’s very important is, there’s a concept of nothing about us without us, and that’s a concept that the companies that are doing this work, it’s very meaningful if they’re mindful of including people for their neurodivergence programs that are neurodivergent in some way. And having them included at all levels, including in leadership, so that they can be part of the process and part of the decision-making. And that also creates the most effective utilization and integration of people over time and the best long term outcomes.

What if You Think You Might be Neurodivergent?

Don Crawley:
So, last question, suppose that you think you might be neurodivergent yourself. So what? What do you do with that? How do you find out if it’s true? If you feel like you might be a neurodivergent individual, what do you do?

Jeanette Ashworth:
Well, a lot of people will seek a diagnosis, and then that may depend on the state that you’re in. In the State of Washington, there are certain credentials that you need to diagnose autism, for example, although in other situations like a mental health, a therapist can diagnose almost every single thing, every single category in the DSM-5, but then autism also requires additional information.

Jeanette Ashworth:
A lot of people will start out self-diagnosing. There’s a lot of different books, a lot of information on the internet, people will start recognizing themselves sometimes on the list, and they have a real hunch that this fits them. And if they find that some of the lists for solutions or things to try in your life is making a huge difference, then that’s meaningful. There tend to be a lot of waiting lists right now for evaluations. And again, it may depend on the level of support that a person might think that they need. We know now that a lot of the resources and original evaluations were normed on males. Now one thing I’m trying to do is help provide more supports for girls and women, like on autism spectrum and other areas of neurodivergence. But I think those are two pathways that people can take.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And then one thing that comes up a lot is the identity of a person-first language. So a person with autism or identity-first language, which would be autistic person. And I saw the other day where a company was suggesting to use person-first language, but most people that are actually neurodivergence say to use identity first.

Don Crawley:
Interesting.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And it is interesting. And so, I’ve seen people use both in an alternating way on some of their literature and saying, “We want to be respectful.” And it’s not an easy solution because I have also heard from neurodivergent people that also prefer the person first language. But as much as you can, try to respond to people how they prefer to be identified. I mean, that can be difficult in a large group setting, if you’re interacting with a large group of people at once to remember each individual, but as much as you can, you do what you can.

Don Crawley:
And you’d be flexible and you listen to the other people.

Jeanette Ashworth:
Right. And then you often see, too, where … and even I, I might mix it up sometimes not intentionally, but a neurodiversity … If someone says neurodiverse person, neurodiverse typically refers to a group, and neurodivergent refers to an individual. And then there’s a consideration that’s more than grammatical, but I often see it either way. And so I’m not the grammar police, but someone wants to know what that distinction is.

Don Crawley:
I heard somebody refer to “grammardos” as people who are very finicky about grammar, unfortunately guilty as charged on that somehow. Any last words before we wrap up this session? Anything you want to say to a person who is neurodivergent or a neurodivergent person about how to deal with the workplace and with workplace issues and neurotypical people. Any last words for them?

Jeanette Ashworth:
There are a number of companies that are doing amazing work in this area. So, if someone is looking for employment or looking to expand that’s something that they can check out neurodiversity at work type initiatives, and there’s quite a few, you can also work in an area where … and find other places that can be very meaningful, and there’s a wide range of resources. So I encourage you to read, learn as much as you can.

Jeanette Ashworth:
I’ll be putting a list of resources up on my website early next month. And there’s so many amazing, inspirational, talented people that are neurodivergent. So, there’s a whole community, there’s a lot of different role models and mentors. So, I want to encourage people to get the support that they need and then also to dream big and go for whatever it is that they want for their lives and their careers.

Jeanette Ashworth:
And then also encourage employers to continue to either create Neurodiversity at Work programs or to expand those that they have. Thank you, Don, for this opportunity to speak to you. I really admire the work that you do and appreciate that you care about neurodivergent employees.

Don Crawley:
Well, thank you, Jeanette, and we’ll post a link to your website in the description below. So, thanks again, Jeanette, much appreciated, and we’ll talk to you soon.

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