Let’s Talk about Neurodiversity at Work
Updated: May 12
In this episode of the Impostor Syndrome Files, we talk about neurodiversity in the workplace. Neurodiverse professionals think and work differently, which can lead them to experience self-doubt and anxiety. A lack of understanding about neurodiversity and lack of access to resources can also create confusion and frustration among managers and colleagues who work with neurodiverse professionals. My guest this week, Toni Bator, a coach who specializes in working with neurodiverse populations, shares insights to help us better understand neurodiversity and how to better navigate it, as neurodiverse individuals, or as those who work with them.
About Toni Bator:
After spending nearly three decades working in leadership and counseling positions in the non-profit sector, Toni Bator continues her passion for serving others to thrive. She is a member of the Asperger/Autism Professional Coaching Association and a Certified Professional Coach from the College of Executive Coaching. She earned her MS degree in Leadership from Norwich University and a BS in Psychology from American International College.
Toni is a member and speaker of the Stability Network, a growing global movement of people living and working with mental health conditions. She is a staunch advocate to destigmatize mental illness and neurodiversity in society.
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Kim Meninger Welcome, Toni. And thank you again for having this conversation with me today. I’m excited to talk with you. And before we jump in, I’d love to invite you to introduce yourself.
Toni Bator Oh, absolutely. And I’m very excited to be here. My name is Toni Bator, and I live in Western Massachusetts, the Northhampton area, actually West Hatfield, which is on the line. And I have spent most of my life in the human service field, social services. And I’ve worked with an array of populations — homeless families, individuals with chronic mental illness. And throughout my career, I was mostly in administrative positions, like a director. Then, towards the end of my career, when I transitioned into coaching, I realized that my greatest gift was being able to watch employees flourish within their own careers. And that’s what was a turning point for me, that I really love coaching, and providing, you know, supervision and for individuals and, and that’s what I pursued, coaching and then transferred into that field and left the human service field, although, as you’ll find out, I work with many individuals who have comorbid conditions or array, you know, similar conditions that I have worked with in the past.
Kim Meninger So it sounds like you have brought together coaching with other aspects of your career history. Is there anything more specific about what draws you to the population that you work with? Because I know you’ve mentioned that you specialize in neurodiversity and I’d love to hear a little bit more about, you know, how you got to that particular focus area.
Toni Bator Yeah, certainly. I think what drew me to neurodiversity? Well, first of all I was, I was practicing as a leadership coach, initially, and I was hired by a company, a well-known company, to coach an individual that was really struggling. He was quite high up on the hierarchy within the organization. And when I met him, I realized that this individual was on the autism spectrum. And I believe that the supervisor didn’t realize this, but they definitely struggled with some of the behaviors that this individual exhibited. And that’s when I realized, wow, I wonder how many other people with neurodiversity are so successful, but they struggle with, you know, social interaction, or even writing an email, you know, how they come across to people. And, and that’s when I really drilled down and, you know, tried to learn more about individuals in corporations and businesses who are neurodiverse.
Kim Meninger So you mentioned someone who’s on the autism spectrum. Is there more to neurodiversity? How would you define that for somebody who’s not familiar with that term?
Toni Bator Yeah, no, that’s a great question. The simplest way that I define neurodiversity is individuals brains are wired differently. So it could be you know, cognitive disability, not necessarily individuals who have, you know, a low IQ, but some cognitive dysfunction. You know, they can be highly, highly intelligent, okay, so it’s not someone that has a development, development disability. It’s an individual who just thinks differently, who sees you know, in colors or is very practical and excellent at numbers and solving puzzles and looking outside the box to come to conclusions, you know, and to find the end results. It’s just how our brains are different than those who are neurodiverse. And it could be those with learning disabilities. You know, many times dyspraxia and dyslexia are also considered part of neurodiversity. Tourette Syndrome, attention deficit disorder, ADHD. And neurodiversity is kept separate from um, mental health conditions, although one would argue that, you know, having, being depressed or having anxiety, the brain chemicals or wiring is also different. And I work with many individuals on the autism spectrum disorder who also have horrible anxiety. And many neurodiverse individuals have experienced anxiety. So it’s very interesting that that argument, yeah.
Kim Meninger And what would you say, and I imagine that it would be difficult to say this in a sweeping statement, because I’m sure the experience is different for everybody, but what are some of the common challenges that you find some of these individuals experiencing in the workplace?
Toni Bator The way in which they learn, such as some people are visual learners, some, you know, needed to be oral presentations. And, also, other challenges are the sensitivity to noise and sounds. Many individuals have that. So bright lights, distraction from noises. Also how other people interact with them. They, you know, at times, they are considered like black and white, you know, that there’s no middle. So if you’re very abstract in your communication with someone who is neurodiverse, who’s on the spectrum, it can be very difficult for them to understand what you’re trying to say. And many of my clients will say, you know, don’t speak in riddles, don’t speak in metaphors to me, just, you know, very black and white. Just tell me exactly, you know, what I’m supposed to do with this next action step on our, on the goal that I’m creating.
Kim Meninger Well, what’s interesting about that, to me is that if I’m a manager, and I don’t know that about my employee, I would not realize that my behavior may be making it more difficult for my employee to do their best work, right? So do you find, and I know this would still be anecdotal, but I’m curious what you hear from your clients about their comfort level, or their willingness to share this explicitly with their managers or if they feel like there’s a stigma attached to it, and they prefer to try to hide it?
Toni Bator Yeah, they’re, many individuals are afraid to divulge their disability because it is stigmatizing. You know, just like a mental health challenge, you know, if you have a diagnosis of bipolar or depression. And to be classified as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or neurodiverse, or have ADHD, you’re going to be looked upon in a negative light, or not capable of doing your specific job and the job responsibilities that come with your position. So there’s a lot of turmoil, and if someone should disclose or, or not, and try to mask, which many of these individuals do for most of their lives, is and masking is taking on, you know, watching neurotypical individuals so well and observing them so well that you’re able to take on the nuances of, you know, watching people’s eye contact, facial expressions. And that’s exhausting to be you know, to do that day in and day out.
Kim Meninger Yeah, that almost takes impostor syndrome to a whole other level, right? If you truly are trying to behave as someone that you’re not, that, like you said, has got to be exhausting, but it also has to be creating a lot of self-doubt too because you’re not able to show up as your true self.
Toni Bator Exactly. And women, who are not diagnosed as easily as males, are able to mask very well. And so it’ll be hard to determine, you know, is this individual, do they even have a disability? Because they can be outgoing and social and charming, but they suffer the consequences of that masking.
Kim Meninger Do you feel like the, because you mentioned that women may be diagnosed later or differently or not at all, that there’s a difference. [Yeah.] Do you find that the people that come to you know that they have this, they have a different way of thinking? Like, are there are people that come to you that haven’t been diagnosed yet, but they just feel like, something is different and I need help?
Toni Bator Yes, yes. Such as the individual that I initially met with, he had no knowledge of his disability. And, you know, I, I obviously didn’t diagnose him and say, oh, you know, I think you may want to be evaluated, because… And so, you know, is he doing himself a disservice, right, by not moving forward, and, and having an evaluation, you know, which could ultimately help him in his workplace?
Kim Meninger Absolutely, because that’s going to be the most challenging situation of all, when you don’t know, your manager doesn’t know, there’s just a tension or an issue that’s really difficult to name or difficult to navigate. And that’s gotta create all kinds of anxiety.
Toni Bator Yeah, and, you know, and regarding your question, you know, I also work with people who have been diagnosed much later in life, who are successful employees. And they’ve known that something is a little off with them their entire lives, that, like, they just know that their experience of the world is very different. And they struggled, but they ended up being successful, they found their niche, you know, many times individuals in technology, you know, software programming, writing code, you know, you’ll find many of these individuals. And, and they’re very, you know, once they find that niche, they do very well and relieved when they are finally evaluated and diagnosed.
Kim Meninger Well, and I think that’s an important point to reinforce too, is that you’re, you’re making the point that these are highly intelligent, highly competent people that are capable of doing the work. They are struggling with the environmental conditions around them, right? So they can do the work, but they can do it more effectively if they’re able to, perhaps have different accommodations or different ways of interacting with people than people who are not neurodiverse.
Toni Bator Absolutely, absolutely. They are some of the brightest individuals that I have ever met. And, and it’s interesting, because, you know, we don’t, we don’t alter the environment. You know, we expect the individual to change and, you know, you think about, if a child is in school and they obviously have ADHD, that type of environment is not set up for a child who has ADHD to sit in your seats for hours at a time. You know, they’re not going to be successful. You know, they need to be running around, you know, they have energy, they can be standing up, you know? And what if we altered the environment? Right?
Kim Meninger That’s such an important question because so much, in my opinion, anyway, of the way that we structure these environments, is arbitrary, or it’s rooted in, I would say, ways of doing things that haven’t been examined or questioned for a long time. So there’s a lot of assumptions that this is just the way we do things. And so this is the way it’s supposed to look. And, and there isn’t always a lot of flexibility. And that’s either partly the culture and it’s also partly, I would imagine the fact that a lot of managers are not given great leadership training. I certainly don’t… I as someone who, who managed people in the past and has worked with a lot of managers over the years, I certainly don’t think there are high numbers of managers that are taught about neurodiversity when they’re moving from an individual contributor into a first-time manager or beyond position. And so, if you have an assumption that everyone should be able to perform in the same way, under the same conditions, then when people are not, are not showing up that way, it’s very likely, I would assume, to be treated as a performance issue.
Toni Bator Yes, exactly. Yeah, that’s so true. And when I think about, yeah, when I was in leaders, leadership positions, the individuals that I knew had some form of disability and how even their colleagues and co-workers would treat them. You know, they, it was very stigmatizing. And they would, they would not treat them well. And thinking like, something was wrong with them, you know, they go, they’re so weird. They just say things, and they don’t filter it or, you know, they’re just so brazen, so socially awkward. And, you know, it is, it is very difficult, you know, to have colleagues understand, you know, individuals’ behavior without, without also having to be confidential, you know, and not knowing if the person identified as having a disability, you know, if it wasn’t brought to HR, you know, as you know, you have to be very careful. And, you know, you can’t assume that that has been done, or I would have been informed. So you have to tread lightly.
Kim Meninger Yeah, that’s a very good point, too. It seems like it has a ripple effect. Because one of the other things that I just thought of, too, is that a lot of the people that I work with, and I tend to specialize in working with women with anxiety and impostor syndrome, and a lot of the women that I work with are very highly emotionally intelligent, they’re very empathetic. And they read the room very intently. And they’re, they’re making, or they’re, I guess, interpreting what they’re reading. And so if somebody is, like you said, somebody who’s more brazen, who’s maybe a little bit more socially awkward, engages with them in that way, it’s very easy for them to make it about themselves. And, you know, oh, this person doesn’t like me, or they don’t, they don’t like my, my performance, or the way I’m doing this, or, and then they start to doubt themselves, especially if it’s a person like you’re describing someone who’s or like, higher up the hierarchy. And so there’s an assumption that this person is, you know, a knowledgeable leader, and should it, I’m trying to think of the right way to frame it, but, but essentially, that they would want that person to like them, right? Like, meaning the woman that I’m talking about wants this person to like them, wants them to approve of them because they sit really high in the organization. Yeah, and without that context for understanding the way this person behaves towards me, isn’t about me.
Toni Bator Exactly. Right.
Kim Meninger This is something about them. And so it’s triggering people. So the person, the individual who is experiencing this is feeling their own anxiety and self-doubt. And then the individuals that are around them who don’t understand contextually what’s going on, are starting to doubt themselves, right? So you can see how in the absence of more information and more support, it can actually undermine productivity across the board.
Toni Bator That is so true. So true. And you know, when you talk about individuals that you coach who are very emotionally intelligent, right, many individuals who are neurodiverse lack emotional regulation. [Hmm.] Okay, so not only are they going to understand that, you know, your client is sensitive and think that this person doesn’t like them, but my client will also be very anxious and start to for a better word, lose it. You know, if they’re being put into a corner or even if something is not, you know, accurate or, you know, could be the smallest thing that could, you know, set them off, if you know, they’re being told they did something incorrectly. And yeah, they can go from zero to 100. And that’s where, you know, I have been brought in, like, what’s wrong with this person? Why can’t they hold it together?
Kim Meninger Wow. And again, like when it’s not safe to provide that information or to have an informed conversation about what that looks like and how to handle it differently, then it really creates a lack of ability to support everybody involved.
Toni Bator Yeah, yeah. And, you know, these individuals could be on the cusp of losing their job. [Mm-hmm.] You know, because they’ve had arguments with so many colleagues and co-workers. You know, and it could be something as simple as writing an email and not understanding the context in which to form an email so it doesn’t come across as not only insensitive, but rude, or, yeah, brazen, and barking orders, you know, not having an idea.
Kim Meninger So I’m trying to think of how to ask this question without being overly broad because obviously, we’re speaking in generalities here because we’re not talking about one particular individual. But I’m just curious if there are some common themes that you’ve seen that have worked in terms of providing additional support to individuals who are neurodiverse, and maybe even extending that support to the manager? Like, are there, are there behaviors or action steps or things that you’ve seen work that might be worth sharing so that other people can think about whether that would be a fit for their environment?
Toni Bator Sure, um, I have known several individuals who have requested a mentor at work to help them navigate communication, you know, specifically between their supervisor and themselves, that, you know, there can be some real, real challenges of, you know, if you’re speaking a different language, you know, to people, you’re not going to understand, what does this person want me to do exactly? You know, what are my responsibilities? And if it’s too, you know, general, you know, I want these outputs, you know, it’s like, you have to have someone explain the step by step by step and break it out in small chunks, especially if you’re someone, you know, with ASD and ADHD, you know, so you’re dealing with executive functioning skills. So yeah, there’s a lot to it.
Kim Meninger So what you’re making me think of too, is that if, if there are managers listening that are thinking, that’s my employee, that’s why we’ve been struggling, that it’s important for managers to realize that there are resources out there too. Because if you are worried that you’ve tried everything, and you feel like you’re not getting through or your, your employee is just not able to meet your expectations, then it sounds like going to someone like you, who coaches around this, somebody who has expertise in this area, so that that individual can better understand themselves, their options, and perhaps even work more closely with their manager around this would be a good option.
Toni Bator Yes, that’s so true. And, you know, when I meet with supervisors, you know, from organizations and they’re like, I don’t know what to do with this individual. They’re just, you know, so frustrating. And then when I meet with the individual, and I speak to them, and they’re like, you know, what did I do wrong? You know, okay, so I, yeah, I got a little angry and I exploded in the hallway and I got in someone’s face, but, you know, they were telling me that, you know, my formulations were incorrect. And I know for darn sure, you know, and that’s the thing. They are wonderful employees, they know, they know their stuff. And you know, technically. But, you know, then you have the other aspect of work, right? You have to get along with people, you know, the social norms of… people respect, you can’t go off on them, you, you know, it’s and then to, you know, not only teach them but guide them in, you know, how could you have done this differently? You know, and to help them develop the tools and techniques to make different choices.
Kim Meninger Well, it’s interesting, because we think a lot about toxicity in the workplace, right? And I have always been a big proponent of not protecting toxic employees, that I don’t care how high of a performer you are, if you’re a jerk, if you’re a bully, if you’re making everyone else’s lives miserable, you’re not, your performance will not outweigh the effect you’re having on the people around you. But as you and I are having this conversation, I’m starting to think, I wonder if it’s more complicated than that. Because there are certainly people who are, who have bad behavior that are not neurodiverse and need to be, they need to be treated or whatever, right. However, I wonder if we confuse that sometimes, too. And if there’s a different opportunity there.
Toni Bator Yeah. And it makes me think of, you know, one of the reasons why neurodiverse individuals may act like that, you know, the lack of emotional regulation is because they’re being triggered. And come to find out, you know, they will have a supervisor or manager that is very demanding and presents in a way that can feel unsafe for that individual. And therefore, their anxiety goes through the roof, which becomes an agitated anxiety, an irritability, and then they will lash out because they don’t know how to handle that.
Kim Meninger That’s so interesting. And so unfortunate that we don’t have good tools or good ways of managing this. And that makes me wonder, and I don’t know what your perspective is on this, but how does neurodiversity fit into the overall diversity and inclusion conversation that’s happening right now? We tend to think of, you know, race and gender and age and some of the other dimensions of identity. Do you think neurodiversity gets enough attention?
Toni Bator I think it’s starting to. I think we also have a very long way to go. And as you probably know, you know, you can talk the talk, but you gotta walk the walk, you know, everyone will say, Oh, we’re doing this or, you know, to be inclusive. But at the end of the day, you know, I will note the companies that are truly such as Google, you know, they, they have like an entire department to attract neurodiverse individuals. Oh, wow. They have training and development, and how they can be successful because they are brilliant individuals who excel, especially in tech. And so you want, you know, I mean, Elon Musk, whatever you think of him. Right. Right. He’s on the spectrum. Good example. Yeah. Um, and, you know, and I’ve heard, you know, stories about how he’s not, you know, very pleasant to his employees, you know, I’m sure he doesn’t, he can’t get into that, you know, social engagement. It’s like all about the work, right. And if you didn’t know he was on the spectrum, they would just think about, you know, he’s just a typical, you know, male leader, right. About the output and results. But, yeah, it’s, um, yeah, so I’m hoping that, you know, we do pay more attention to neurodiversity. And I do see a lot of people talking about it, a lot of organizations and a lot of advocates. But there’s so many competing needs elsewhere, right. I mean…
Kim Meninger Well, and I think in many cases, we’re victims of our own efficiency because I think there is such a focus on just producing and getting to outcomes. In a lot of times the, the workaround inclusion, whether you whether you’re somebody who’s completely bought into the concept of inclusion or not, sometimes just the work involved in getting to a place of greater psychological safety and inclusion feels time-consuming in a way that we might see as counterproductive. What we don’t realize is that time invested in those efforts actually allows for much greater output overall. And so a lot of times people are thinking, well, I don’t have time to have these kinds of conversations or I don’t have time to, you know, I need my employee to do X, Y and Z, I don’t have time to accommodate their needs, or better understand why they are not performing. But really, we have to make that time. That’s your job as a manager.
Toni Bator Yes, yes, you do. And I recall having an employee with learning disabilities, and during team meetings, you know, I would speak about what was going on, and, you know, the new initiatives, and afterwards, the individual would come up to me and say, you know, I’m, I’m at a loss, I don’t, you know, know what you were talking about. And I’m like, did you write anything down? And she’s like, no, no, I didn’t, but I think that would really help. So we, you know, had someone that would take the minutes, and I would, you know, give her a copy. And I would spend extra time going over it with her, you know, during our supervisions so she would understand exactly, you know, what was happening, but and she struggled you know, I know that she, you know, not that it was reported to HR, you know, she never did, but I knew that she struggled and other people did, too, you know, that they would just think that she was a flake, you know, instead of saying this person has a disability. Oh, that’s really sad. I know. Yeah. And that’s how many people are, that’s how they are treated. You know, made fun of by their peers.
Kim Meninger That’s heartbreaking. Yeah.
Toni Bator Yeah, they’re tormented, discriminated against. It’s very heartbreaking. Very sad.
Kim Meninger If somebody’s listening, who identifies with this conversation, and, and either knows that they have a diagnosis that we’ve been talking about, or maybe is starting to question that, like, what’s step one do you think like, what would be the very first thing you would recommend that they do?
Toni Bator If they feel like they’re struggling at work and they have an evaluation? Yes. I think hiring a coach is a great idea. And, um, you know, whoever you do hire, just to gain some clarity about options that are available. And, you know, weigh the pros and the cons of do you want to divulge that you have been evaluated and you do have a disability? And what type of reasonable accommodations would benefit you at work to make you more successful? You know, would it be noise-canceling headphones, or a cubicle that’s away from traffic patterns, where you’re distracted, or, you know, different lights over you or, you know, it could be or a mentor, you know, to help you with executive functioning, or communication. Could be an array of different things that you could request.
Kim Meninger I think that’s a great tip. And, you know, I feel like as coaches that might sound self-serving, but there’s a reason why we do this work. And I think that it’s a very important resource to consider because you have so much experience with this population. And I know that one of the, one of the real benefits of working with somebody who understands you is that they normalize it, right? Because so often, no matter what it is that makes us different, we feel like we’re the only ones. We think that there’s something wrong with us or that, you know, nobody else can understand this. And so finding somebody that really understands you and has helped other people navigate similar challenges, I think is really important.
Toni Bator Yeah, yeah, I agree. And, you know, not only their professional lives but also their personal lives, you know, I also help individuals with their relationships. And, you know, and I’m sure you can imagine, you know, having difficulties with communication and, you know, being in a relationship many with neurotypical people, right, and how to navigate that. And parenting, there’s just so much more to it.
Kim Meninger That’s a good point. We think about it holistically.
Toni Bator Yeah, dating, I mean, oh, yeah. And it’s a spectrum, you know? And it’s a large, wide spectrum,
Kim Meninger Yeah. And would you offer the same first step? Let’s imagine, now we’re talking about the manager, the manager is feeling like I’ve tried everything I’m not getting through to my employee, based on this conversation, I’m thinking that’s probably what’s going on. Like, what’s the first step there? Do you think that they should consider getting a coach for this individual? Or are there other resources you would recommend that they access?
Toni Bator Yeah, I think that, you know, when I have met with the head of organizations who are at the wit’s end of how to deal with this, and they’re, you know, individuals that are very talented but struggle with social behaviors. And, you know, I, I will say, well, let me, you know, meet with the individual and get a better understanding of, you know, their perspective, and you know, where they’re coming from. So, you know, that has been successful, and, you know, establishing a relationship with the individual. And, you know, as, you know, when you’re working with clients that are within a company, you know, for the most part, you know, everything’s confidential, and if not, you know, whatever is shared will be in that, you know, coaching agreement. So, you know, the person can gain trust, and then if they want. They want to succeed, you know, they, they want to excel and, and their struggle is real. [Yeah] And it’s, you know, it’s painful and, and they know that they just think differently, that, you know, they’re not, they’re not neurotypical, they’re, they’re different, you know, it’s neither good or bad, it’s, you think differently.
Kim Meninger That’s a good way to put it. And I guess my final scenario that I will throw at you is, let’s imagine, I’m a coworker, and I’m feeling like, I don’t know how to engage with this person, and I’m worried that they’re, you know, they don’t like me, or I’m feeling intimidated by them, is there anything I can do, as a colleague, to either better engage or to better understand what might be happening?
Toni Bator Um, you know, I don’t want to overgeneralize but usually individuals who are on the spectrum, they have very intense interests, likes and dislikes. And if you can find out, like, what does this person really enjoy, you know, what are they fascinated by? That is, you know, you can establish common ground and get to know that person. You know, I, I was fascinated by this one gentleman who was creating, basically writing his own code to develop a task list, a task list, who, which had, how long it took to complete a task, where it was on the priority level. I mean, it was amazing. It was like something that was out of this world. And I was like, you know, this is really cool. This is really amazing. I don’t understand it at all. But I know you do. And he just laughed. He’s like, that’s great. That’s wonderful. That’s exactly how it should be. So I think yeah, you know, just getting to learn what your coworker is vested in and what they really enjoy. And, you know, be, be gentle with people, you know, just be kind and listen and be empathetic. Because everyone, we all have struggles right that we don’t see.
Kim Meninger I think that’s a really good point. And I would also add don’t make it about yourself or personalize those.
Toni Bator Yeah. Because you don’t know what’s, what’s going on with another individual. Right? You just don’t know.
Kim Meninger That’s right. And yeah, well, Toni, how can people find you if they want to follow up with you and learn more about your services?
Toni Bator Sure. I’m on LinkedIn, Toni Bator, and I also have a website www.tonibator.com. And, yeah, that’s, that’s basically it nice and simple. I’m on Facebook. Yeah. And thank you so much, Kim, for allowing me to come on and be part of this podcast. It was great.
Kim Meninger Thank you, Toni. I really appreciate your perspective on this. And I will link to those links in the show notes for anybody who wants to learn more. And once again, yeah, it was great to talk to you, Toni.
Toni Bator Okay, thank you.