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Entering the workforce can be overwhelming for any young professional. For many, it’s not just about leaving the structure and stability of school; it’s also about learning the ins and outs of a particular industry, navigating office culture and adapting to a new routine. And for some, there’s an added layer, like having a learning and thinking difference such as dyslexia or ADHD. In college, many people who learn and think differently have accommodations that allow them to do their best work—but when entering the workforce, they suddenly have to learn how to advocate for themselves in a professional setting.
If someone told me when I started my career as an entry-level account manager at Ogilvy in the late 1990s that I’d eventually work my way to the C-suite as someone with dyslexia, my first question would have been, “How?”
One in five people worldwide have a learning and thinking difference, and while dyslexia is a well-known learning disability, there are some common misconceptions. People will often ask me, “You seem fine—did you outgrow it?” But “it” isn’t something someone outgrows. People with dyslexia, ADHD and other learning and thinking differences have to navigate these challenges throughout their entire lives.
I remember trying to apply the strategies I used in college to my new role, but it felt impossible. I navigated new and difficult situations, like in 2000 when my manager demanded I follow his way of keeping organized with a PalmPilot, which required its own specific type of scribbling to input words. This created so much confusion, made me feel less capable and embarrassed about why I couldn’t make his way work for me.
While there are strategies that allow people with dyslexia to read and comprehend text more easily, it can still be challenging. So, how have I thrived over the years? By trying new approaches and adapting old ones to fit different workplace situations. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Vet organizations and navigate the interview process
As a neurodivergent person, the first step toward succeeding in any role starts long before the first day on the job. Getting an idea of a potential employer’s capacity to support employees happens before and during the interview process to gauge if certain working styles and specific needs will be supported by the company.
When researching roles and organizations, look for a commitment to DEI and neurodiversity in the company’s vision and mission. Anonymous review sites like Glassdoor are great tools for gathering insight into the organization’s culture and employee experience. Look for red flags in reviews that might suggest an unpleasant experience for a neurodivergent person.
Back when I was interviewing for my first job at Ogilvy, I was given a take-home test that was untimed. I submitted it and they didn’t think it was my own work, so they had me come to the office for a timed test. They asked me to write a two-page press release, but I couldn’t comprehend the written directions and complete the test in the 30 minutes they gave me. I took a brave step and explained my struggle, and the head of the office took a chance on me.
If disclosing a learning and thinking difference feels comfortable during the application and interview process, ask questions about how the company can meet individual needs, such as flexibility to have more time on an interview assignment. To get a sense of the culture, consider asking questions about how the company supports employees with similar struggles. Another option is to say something more general like, “Tell me about the organization’s employee resource groups.”
When it comes to the physical working environment, consider asking about aspects like noise, lighting and work-from-home opportunities. Listen for answers that suggest there’s flexibility and an openness to new ideas. If the questions are met with silence or an uncomfortable stare, it probably means the company isn’t set up for a neurodivergent employee to succeed.
Manage challenges, find support, build confidence
Disclosing is a very personal decision and should only be done if someone feels comfortable. But I discovered early on that speaking up is a confidence-builder, and it’s helped me thrive professionally.
Early in my career, I knew I needed mentors to support me as an individual with unique strengths. I also needed co-workers to help me understand the office culture and what was expected so I could assimilate into the workplace. Finding the right people to disclose this type of information with and who understand the unique challenges and strengths can help with a faster growth trajectory and foster community internally. Consider connecting with people outside the company through organizations like the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network or the Asperger/Autism Network for mentorship and coaching.
If someone struggles with multitasking, consider using a visual aid like a flow chart to keep track of tasks and projects. Or if someone is easily distracted in meetings—something those with ADHD struggle with—consider asking for pre-reads or other materials to go over at a more individualized pace. If lengthy emails are overwhelming, ask co-workers to leave a brief voice message or use bullet points in their emails. It’s all about finding what works for the individual.
Marketing highlighted my strengths
When I started my career, there was no social media, no #ADHD and no influencers sharing tips—there was barely a World Wide Web. While it was harder to find advice and information about learning and thinking differences, with time I found I was able to think differently, assess situations from fresh perspectives and provide a drive to get the job done.
Neurodivergent individuals spend so much time and effort trying to operate at the same level as neurotypical employees, but we need to remember to lean into our strengths. Every neurodivergent employee brings an innovative lens and unique point of view to the table, something that is a must within this field. Because we know how it feels to be excluded from the target audience for advertisements, we’re hyper-aware of cultural and social differences, lending itself to opportunities for new creative content and new markets.
Here’s the most important thing to remember as a neurodivergent person entering the workforce: There is support. Learning and thinking differences are very common. A community is out there that will help drive professional goals forward in ways that focus on neurodivergence as a strength rather than a challenge.
This story is part of Adweek’s New Consumer digital package, which focuses on diversity in all the ways it manifests for consumers—including gender, race, age and ability—and how marketers need to reach people where they are and meet their unique needs.