It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week and this new guest post shines an important light on ADHD and how it shapes the work of a busy communications professional.
by Michelle McVeigh
That depends on what day you ask me!
Picture this – you’re sitting in a room, the fluorescent lights are all turned on and humming, the TV is on with the volume all the way up, the radio is playing your favourite song, you have a song you hate playing itself in a loop in your head, there is a really potent automatic air freshener spraying out its scent every 10 seconds, someone is sitting next to you tapping your shoulder. Amidst all that, someone is trying to have an important conversation with you. Could you pay attention to what they’re trying to say to you? And there is my very rudimentary way of describing what it’s like inside an ADHD person’s head!
This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week and I want to talk about the good side of ADHD and, in particular, how a career in communications can play to the strengths of ADHD (while I’ll hopefully not displaying too much toxic positivity). Before I can do that though, I need to talk about what ADHD really is.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental impairment that affects the brain’s self-management system and the way certain neurotransmitters, notably dopamine and norepinephrine, work. Those are the chemicals in the brain that are essential for things like concentration, motivation, memory, and our stress responses like alertness and focus. .
The attention deficit part of ADHD is, in fact, quite the misnomer. Those of us with ADHD actually have too much attention; because the brain isn’t producing its own dopamine properly we are constantly seeking stimulation and it is never at rest. There are always multiple things fighting for our attention and it can be impossible to pick just one thing to focus on, and thus from the outside it looks like we can’t pay attention to anything. It can also mean we’re more sensitive to sounds, smells, and other sensory stimuli and it can be impossible to screen it out – many of us will have very low tolerance for sounds and smells that others won’t even notice.
It’s also why there’s a common misconception that people with ADHD are bad at communication, we’re not, there’s just a million different ways to say a thing and we’re thinking about them all at the same time. One area of comms work that I’ve had to really work on though is my copywriting skills, ADHD people tend to think with our mouth (also why we sometimes come across as blunt or blurt things out!) and it can be hard to get the words out on paper – I’ll often transcribe first drafts to get me started. It also means we tend to write how we speak, so I’ve had to work hard on that side of things (however, you can probably tell I’ve let my ADHD brain loose in the writing of this blog post).
Now, onto those apparent super powers
I can do this all day!
The flipside? Hyperfocus. When an ADHD brain finds something that really engages it the dopamine gets flowing and we can channel all our attention into that one thing. Now, sometimes hyperfocus can be a bad thing – for example, you hyperfocus on this one thing for hours and neglect other responsibilities and even physiological needs like food and water, or you might miss an important meeting or miss social engagements. But it can be a real advantage to having ADHD too, I find it especially helpful for the more hands on creative parts of comms, I can focus for hours on end until that design is just right. The key to harnessing hyperfocus, for me anyway, is to be aware of what else I have going on in my day (which is a challenge all its own with ADHD) So, before I start something I’m likely to get into the ‘zone’ on I will set myself timers for the amount of time I can reasonably dedicate to that task, for when I have a meeting or appointment, or purely to just check in with myself and what I want to achieve today. That last part is really important, people with ADHD often struggle with self-awareness and we can find it hard to know how we are feeling or what we need. It’s why it’s common for someone with ADHD to just forget to eat all day, or we burn out before even realising we were stressed to start with. Comms can be a very fast-paced world and while that plays to our strengths, checking in on ourselves is vital.
It’s probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?
It can come as a surprise to some that we do well with deadlines, but the competing and tight deadlines that usually come with a job in comms are what our brains were made for! It gives us the adrenaline needed to produce great work in a very short amount of time without breaking a sweat. Even when given more than enough time to meet a deadline, it’s not uncommon for someone with ADHD to put it off until it gets to that point where it becomes urgent because that’s how we get that sweet motivation called dopamine. Living in constant “crisis mode” isn’t particularly healthy for anybody though, and while it’s a real asset for those inevitable last minute requests or projects with tight turnarounds, I do have to be mindful not to be the creator of that urgency.
Don’t do anything stupid until I get back…
People with ADHD are often pretty skilled at finding a way to something that works for us, it’s born out of necessity most of the time as the ‘normal’ way just isn’t an option. Because our brains don’t follow the ‘logical’ path when looking at a problem we’re naturals at thinking outside the box, we’re great at creative solutions. There are just some problems that are better solved by looking at them through the ADHD brain!
Time isn’t all things to all people
This is where we get to the crux of why ADHD is usually seen, and felt, as a deficit. In a vacuum ADHD isn’t necessarily an impairment. That’s not to say that ADHD doesn’t have a very real negative impact on many people, it really does. But that is, a lot of the time, because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We have to live in a very linear world, but ADHD is a very non-linear world. There is no past, present, or future, everything is either ‘right now’ or never. This has its advantages though, especially in comms, because it means we’re able to always see the big picture – give me a problem, and I can immediately see how all the little pieces fit together to form the solution. The frustration comes when deciding where to start, or waiting for others to catch up!
I’m going to end with a simple analogy I was given about trying to function with ADHD in a neurotypical world that was, forgive the pun, a light bulb moment for me in understanding myself and accepting my ADHD as a neutral (and sometimes even positive) thing about me, rather than something negative about me:
Imagine you’re in a dark room and you’re stumbling around trying to find the light switch. People tell you “the switch is right there, just flick it on”. So you do, but nothing happens. The people say “just flick the switch, it’s really easy”, and they can’t seem to understand that you are, but nothing happens, they think you’re just choosing to stumble around in the dark because you’re too lazy to go to the switch, or aren’t smart enough to find it, or are just being insolent. But it turns out that they told you the wrong switch, that one worked fine for them but it’s not the right switch for the room you’re in. Your switch is actually on the other side of the room, or on the ceiling, or tucked inside a little cupboard. Once you know where the switch is, it’s pretty easy to go turn the light on and stop stumbling around in the dark, you just might need a ladder or a perhaps a long stick to reach it.
Michelle McVeigh is Head of Engagement and Communication at Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. You can say hello on Twitter at @NHSMichelle
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