ADHD and Autism: Women describe 'constant shame’ at work due to ‘stigma’ surrounding diagnosis

It is estimated that around one in seven people in the UK have some kind of neurodiverse conditions, like autism or dyslexia. Credit: PA Images

People living with developmental disorders including ADHD and autism say stigma and misconceptions surrounding their diagnosis have left them feeling ‘filled with shame’ at work. 

Tilly Morgan, 29, from Caerphilly was diagnosed with ADHD, autism (AuDHD) and dyspraxia earlier last year. Ms Morgan said despite her diagnosis helping her better understand herself, she has continued to struggle in the workplace.

She said: “Living in frustration with yourself for 29 years and not understanding why you can’t function in the way you feel you should takes a toll on you. It’s even harder when you start to understand yourself after a diagnosis but if anything, people understand you less. 

“I have felt constant shame my whole life, especially at work. My main struggle there was audio processing which resulted in me sometimes missing tasks or completing tasks incorrectly because I misunderstood instructions. 

“This has been the reason for me being dismissed by two employers. In their eyes, I just wasn’t doing my job. This was before I understood that I was neurodivergent.” 

What is neurodiversity? 

Neurodiversity refers to differences in the way people process information and that these differences are simply variations of the human brain. 

Neurodiverse conditions include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, tourette syndrome and complex tic disorders.

It is estimated that around one in seven people in the UK have some kind of neurodiversity. 

For Ms Morgan, her diagnosis gave her a feeling of “relief” but she explained without the right adaptions at work, neurodiverse people will “continue to struggle”.

The 29-year-old explained how a week after her diagnosis she had what she called an ‘autistic meltdown’ at work. She had explained to colleagues how to accommodate her, but she claims no one did. 

She recalls a manager turning to colleagues and saying, “Someone’s got their knickers in a twist”. 

“It was humiliating,” Ms Morgan remembered. 

“Losing three jobs in the space of six months because of the way you function is hard enough, but to then get a diagnosis for your colleagues to just stigmatise you more is really sad for me.” 

Ms Morgan is currently not working after leaving her last job two months ago.

She added: “I want to work, I love working and being busy but I just can’t. I’m filled with constant shame and it feels embarrassing to say that as a physically healthy 29-year-old that I can’t work because I can’t mentally cope in a neurotypical world.”

Recent data reveals that those with ADHD are twice as likely to be dismissed from the workplace compared those without the disorder.

Research also highlights that amongst those with ADHD and autism, the unemployment rate is higher compared to neurotypical people.  

A spokesperson for the National Autistic Society Cymru said: “Autistic people have a huge contribution to make in the workplace and can be a real asset to employers. However, the autism employment gap remains far too wide, with only 29% of autistic people in work, according to latest stats.” 

Elena Palmer, 21, from Newport was diagnosed with AuDHD when she was 19. She explains how years of masking her symptoms has resulted in the workplace feeling like “a living hell” for her. 

“School wasn’t designed for neurodivergent people, and I’ve discovered neither is the workplace,” Ms Palmer said. 

“During a busy shift the only way I can describe how I feel is as if my brain is on fire, and until I’m in a silent room nothing can put it out. On these busy days, it might be six or seven hours before I can have a break, so I frequently get burned out and on occasion, have had meltdowns in work.

“I’m exhausted. I think the only reason I’m still in employment is because I lived without a diagnosis for years so I’ve learnt to mask my symptoms. Even though masking makes my day smoother, I am beyond burnt out by the end of the day.”

The National Autistic Society say employers can do small things, like offer quiet spaces and awareness training, to help. Credit: PA Images

What is masking?

Many neurodiverse people ‘mask’. It’s when people learn, practice and perform certain behaviours and suppress others in order to be more like the people around them.

Research often shows that masking is particularly common for people who have autism and affects women more than men. 

A spokesperson for the National Autistic Society said: “No two autistic people are the same but many have excellent attention to detail, strong technical skills and can offer a different perspective.

“All employers can take some small steps which can make a big difference, such as offering quiet spaces and awareness training for staff.”