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Who doesn’t have ADHD these days?

Updated: May 14

When the team asked me to write a diary of how ADHD affects me as a company founder as part of neurodiversity celebration week, I wasn't sure where to start. I could see the bandwagon coming down the road and thought it might be better to swerve it. After all, who doesn't have ADHD these days?

For me it was all fine until it wasn't fine. About a year ago, I started to feel really low. I wasn't getting the best feedback around me in multiple spaces and I wasn't sure why I could only get half a job done. I generally couldn’t work out why the systems and structures around me felt stifling, overwhelming and overbearing.

My partner, inspired by his boss, (and tired of calling me 'half a job') asked me something that changed my life: "do you think you might have ADHD?"

The universe started doing what it does best, and slowly but surely more people with ADHD came into my life. Clients, new colleagues, friends, a board trustee, I found myself in circles where things started to click. I was suddenly in a WhatsApp group with others grappling with the same question, I was in the queue for a diagnosis just like many others, and I was putting together the pieces of feedback and data around my life and my career that started to become insight.

"The thing about you is that when you know what you want you run out of the room and leave an 'Asad-shaped hole' in the wall. It creates a vacuum and your team doesn't necessarily know how to fit through it".

I was given this feedback over six years ago, and it's not left my mind since. Since being told this, I've tried my best not to run out of the room when I have an idea, to try to make sure the hole isn't Asad-shaped, and to generally slow myself down. It works well when you're trying to set something up and you want to leave a hole in the wall, but not so well when you're running a business and your job is about repetition and bringing people along with you.

Piecing it together, it was when my sister said "one of my earliest memories of you is you hanging out of your high chair as a kid" - what now gets termed hyperactivity - that things started to fall in place. So too did the feedback I got in my first job: "when Asad's doing something he loves there's no stopping him, but the task now is for him to give the same to things he doesn't care about". Not the easiest thing when my job was about working on different accounts - ranging from online eyewear to female contraception.

Mask on, I've gotten to near-mid-life (I use the term 'near' with caution) and have managed my ADHD without medication and in many ways without knowing. What advice would I give to anyone trying to celebrate this (which gives me a bit of ick, but that's for another time)?

Let's break in down:

If feedback is a gift, check the receipts

What led me to take a look at this was that I felt like the feedback I was getting felt insurmountable. In the world of DEI there's a lot of talk around meritocracy and how your chances in life can be affected by who you are. Deep down I've had it instilled in me that I can do anything, and there will always be obstacles - I'll just have to work thrice as hard to be perceived as just as good. Thank you to the Empire for that one.

However, as I sit in the top leadership seat in my company, feeling the responsibility that brings and the opportunity that exists to role model to others, I felt stuck by feedback. With clients we talk about negativity bias, which is that we respond more strongly to negative than to positive or neutral stimuli. It's often the bias that boosts leaders - helping them to troubleshoot and find solutions.

It was when I learnt about Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD) that I started to realise that it wasn't the feedback itself, it was my response to it. RSD is when you experience severe emotional pain because of a failure or feeling rejected. It means the brain is unable to regulate rejection-related emotions and behaviours, which makes them more intense.

What it means as a leader is needing to create space around moments when I receive feedback. That's hard to do with Slack messages, where context is completely missing. In the world of hybrid working, I've had to get more intentional about how and where I get feedback, and making sure I can step away, take a walk, and let my brain do its thing. Working through CBT principles and expressing what might be happening in my head to others has helped, too.

The diagnosis vs. realisation

When it's called a diagnosis it feels heavy, medical and like a weight is attached. At an event called Unmasked: Neurodivergence and Comedy at Conway Hall, one of the speakers offered a reframe: an ADHD realisation.

Not a week goes by without speaking to someone I know or someone new who tells me they think they might be 'you know, a little bit ADHD' and going through realisations of their own - to the point where commentary is surfacing along the lines of 'who doesn't have ADHD these days?'

These sorts of conversations offer an insight into what people are wrestling with, whether it's shame and sadness they didn't know sooner, or excitement that suddenly there might be some answers to all the things that were bothering them or holding them back. Just this week a very close friend of mine learnt he has ADHD, and so much of our friendship makes even more sense.

At a conference one person said 'you're so brave!' when I talked to them. It reminded me of coming out, and the more I dug into this the more I learnt about the term 'neuroqueer' - a relatively new term that describes people who are neurodivergent and queer. I certainly don't need another label, nor do I think they're always helpful, but it goes to show that there's an overlap that isn't particularly rare.

What's more sobering for me is that half of neurodivergent employees have taken time off work due to their neurodivergence according to City & Guilds' annual Neurodiversity Index. At the same time, one in three people diagnosed with ADHD also experience depression and have higher rates of anxiety. The neurodiversity spectrum is vast - covering everything from dyslexia to mental health - featuring overlaps with OCD and autism.

This represents a real need for employers to understand how they can work with employees going through these realisations - it's a bit hollow to start calling it a superpower and hoping that you'll be able to create some awesome Excel macros while sitting in a slightly darkened room - because believe me, the ups and downs of a realisation are constant.

Working with the brain, not against it

While contested amongst people who have ADHD, Gabor Mate's 'Scattered Minds' has been a crucial read for me. In it he breaks down the trends he's seen on how ADHD, trauma, stress and childhood development overlap. He talks about the elements of nature and nurture that exist around neurodiversity, and explores what it all means through the lens of children.

While not perfect, it helped me to open my eyes to how my brain is actually functioning, and in many ways a combination of factors mean I now need to work with this, not against it. Where it's worked at its finest is in the forming and building stage of a business. The energy, excessive flow of ideas and the need to be resilient and resourceful have helped me to build and grow The Unmistakables to what it is today. I'm glad that I know that now, and I'm excited for what's to come.

So what's to celebrate?

I suppose the fact we have a week to talk about this, and that more people are having open and honest conversations about neurodiversity is just one step in the right direction. For someone like me who got to the party a little bit late, thanks for having me, it's nice to be here.

For anyone who might be on their own path with this, I'd suggest a quick search on Instagram for ADHD content, as well as Scattered Minds, and if you want to reach out then please do. My solace has come from connecting with others navigating neurodiversity at the same time.


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