Wanda Deschamps, founder of Liberty Co.

The Reality of Masking: Understanding the Neurodivergent Perspective

Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan

Neurodiversity is a term used to promote the recognition and respect for neurological differences in individuals like we would for any other human variations. However, this recognition and respect for neurodivergent individuals continues to be a challenge in organizations dominated by neurotypicality.  

For many neurodivergent individuals, masking has become a survival lifestyle in neurotypical societies and organizations. Masking (or camouflaging) is often used to describe the artificial performance of social behaviours that are seen as more socially acceptable in a neurotypical society. You might be wondering, as I did when starting this research, why masking is so common among neurodivergent individuals?. According to Professor Sara Rankin, a proud Neurodivergent academic at the National Heart and Lung Institute in England, neurodivergent individuals engage in masking due to an overlooked gap in our society. Professor Rankin discussed Neurodiversity in the workplace, identifying how our neurotypically driven society presents an evident and difficult gap that neurodiverse individuals need to cross to “fit in.” The truth in that statement perplexed me. Why is there pressure to fit in?

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop by Good Friends that highlighted a few challenges neurodivergent employees face in the workplace that can place pressure on them to engage in masking. These challenges were similar to those highlighted by Will Wheeler, a proud dyslexic professional as well as the founder and director at The Dyslexic Evolution, who we interviewed a while back. 

One challenge, highlighted by Good Friends and Will Wheeler, is that some neurotypical individuals do not understand how neurodivergent people think. This lack of understanding (and through no fault of their own), is further influenced by the fact that people can’t “see” neurodiversity, which places pressure to mask on neurodivergent individuals who may be struggling to “fit in.” They also highlighted a common fear of repercussions among neurodivergent individuals which can hinder them from speaking up and saying what they are struggling with. The fear of repercussions is multi-faceted and enforced by a neurotypical culture. It is connected to the fear of negative reactions as well as the fear of being isolated for not being “normal.” 

Jane (who wishes to remain anonymous) acknowledged these fears and shared the struggles she faced in the workplace as the only neurodiverse individual at her organization. For the six months she was at her organization, she was frustrated and anxious every second of her workday. She struggled to speak up and ask for help for what she described as a crippling fear of being isolated by her coworkers and making others uncomfortable. She felt the need to mask and pretend to be someone she was not to “fit in” with others. The impact of masking eventually led her to leave her organization as the sense of never belonging became overwhelming to face on her own. This made me wonder just how many individuals like Jane have felt the same? What can organizations do to better understand the challenges faced by neurodivergent employees and how to support them better?

To help us answer this question, we turned to Wanda Deschamps. Wanda is the openly autistic founder and principal of Liberty Co, a consultancy which seeks to increase the participation level of the neurodiverse population in the workforce.

Photo of Wanda Deschamps, the founder of Liberty Co.

What can organizations do to better understand the challenges neurodivergent individuals face in the workplace?

“Learn and Listen. Increase your awareness through research, books, articles, webinars and interviews on the topic especially ones that are from the perspective of members of the neurodiverse population. Always bear in mind that disability is a dimension of diversity and neurodiversity is a dimension of disability, so learn about disability broadly, especially from reports that highlight the value that disabled individuals bring to the workplace and the contributions we make.”

What can organizations do to help neurodivergent employees feel more included and supported in the workplace?

“Recognize, promote and celebrate all facets of diversity. This will build confidence in neurodiverse employees that differences are truly desired and appreciated. Openly talk about the importance of everyone bringing their full selves to work and demonstrate how this is true in your organization. Avoid assumptions or pre-judgements about employees’ intentions. If you do not understand a perspective or comment, then ask for understanding and clarification coming from a place of good faith. Consistently and continuously practice open, honest, straightforward and trusting two-way communication. This is good for everyone – neurodiverse employees and neurotypicals. Finally, accommodate our needs, bearing in mind that accommodations rarely benefit only one person or group, what is brought forward as a form of accommodation for one person usually has much wider benefit.”

What advice do you have for neurodivergent employees struggling in the workplace or with masking?

“Know yourself, believe in yourself and surround yourself with others in and outside the workplace who believe in you. Always remember that you have a right to a safe workplace. The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) is an international human rights treaty – ratified by Canada in 2010 – aimed at protecting the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities without discrimination and on an equal basis with others, therefore, the rights of the neurodiverse population are human rights. Advocate for yourself and if need be, retain the services of a professional to help advocate for you. Above all else, be you.”

If you want to learn more about Neurodiversity, Wanda has amazing resources, including a conference video on Neurodiverse Talent in the Workplace and a primer on Neurodiversity
Want to learn more about Wanda? Check out her Reader’s Digest article!

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