Every so often a new hot topic sweeps across the coaching world. Every professional body, publication, social media platform, training company and business school buzzes with information, insights, and interactive opportunities. Coaches are either out there in the vanguard as thought leaders in practice development, or diligently working hard to get up to speed.
One of the hot topics in coaching right now is neurodiversity. Many coaches now make a point of learning about the neurodivergent mind in its various forms as part of their CPD and some have carved out a niche specialism in the field. A sizeable sub-group of the specialist coaches bring lived experience to their practice, either because they are neurodivergent themselves (for example with ADHD, dyslexia or ASD), or they experience neurodiversity at close quarters in family members (or both, given the established genetic factor). But even for non-specialists it is generally now accepted and expected that all coaches should have a decent working understanding of the range of characteristics presented by the neurodivergent brain.
Estimates vary, but it is believed that 15% – 20% of people are neurodivergent. I have been coaching full time since 2003 and it has only been in the past three years or so that neurodivergent conditions have started to be mentioned explicitly in coaching briefs. If 15% – 20% of people are neurodivergent in 2023 then it follows that the same percentage were neurodivergent in 2013, and also in 2003. This means that, ever since executive coaching began to flourish in the late 1990s, there have been neurodivergent coaches and neurodivergent coachees. For many of those coachees the issues they brought to their coaching sessions were directly linked to the neurodiversity factor, yet in the majority of cases this was only imperfectly understood or acknowledged by both parties (if it was understood at all). Rather shamefully I will admit to occasions in my early days as a coach when I allowed myself wry private observations that Coachee A might be “on the spectrum,” or Coachee B was “another one of those Type A impulsives.” And all the time wearing my perfectly fitting blinkers and focusing diligently upon “helping” the coachee to recast themselves closer to the neurotypical mould.
The key difference between the past and now is the huge strides that have been made in understanding, diagnosis, support and removing stigma. It has however been an uneven journey. Dyslexia led the way, with dedicated support in UK schools and universities routinely available by the 1990s. By the early 2000s, boosted by the levelling effects of technology, dyslexic professionals were by and large absorbed into their workplaces pretty seemlessly and rarely disadvantaged from reaching the most senior positions. Indeed the celebrated dyslexic traits of bringing a fresh perspective and original solutions are now actively sought out in the creation of diverse senior teams.
The ride has been bumpier however with other neurodivergent conditions, such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and ADHD. ADHD in particular was less understood in the workplace context until relatively recently. Adults were not tested at all for suspected ADHD in the UK until around 15 years ago, due to the mistaken belief that it was purely a childhood condition that one “grew out of”. Many adults with ADHD are only now seeking and obtaining a diagnosis because their school age children are getting picked up with the condition and they realise that they have lived a lifetime with identical characteristics and challenges. For many the relief of understanding why they are “different” is both cathartic and palpable.
This piece is about neurodiversity in the context of executive coaching and it is important to keep in mind that organisations tend to invest their coaching budgets in people who are already in senior roles or high potential rising talent. Therefore coachees with ADHD or ASD are typically already successful high achievers and in many cases one of their most highly developed skills is what is known as “masking”. For example someone with ADHD will invent “neurotypical” excuses for lateness or being distracted; they will often need to put in twice the effort compared with others to produce the same outcome; and they may need to check their work multiple times before submission.
People with both ADHD and ASD often also become highly adept at imitation, another classic form of masking. They observe the norms and behaviours of neurotypicals and aim to blend in through delivering a “performance”. Neurodivergent women in particular are known for their ability to become highly skilled at imitation (one reason why ASD tends to be underdiagnosed in females).
All of these masking devices demand huge amounts of time, energy and ingenuity and can be utterly exhausting. In my experience this is the sweet spot territory for executive coaching. Gone are the days, thank goodness, when the well-meaning coach attempts to remodel the neurodivergent coachee in the form of a neurotypical. Instead, by ensuring that we develop a decent level of understanding of the neurodivergent brain, we can work with the grain rather than against it and, crucially, keep in mind that change for the coachee will happen via the neurodivergent brain and not despite it. When coaching partnerships work through this lens they can make a measurable difference to the coachee’s mental and physical wellbeing, productivity, performance and ultimate career potential.
Paula Roberts has a background in executive recruitment and has been supporting the careers of established and rising leaders for many decades, especially during key transitions, or when a particular development issue needs to be addressed that could otherwise become a career derailer.