Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Revealing My ADHD
I was 11 when I learned I had ADHD and a learning disability. My mom broke the news to me after school. Her look of concern unsettled me. “Robby, we believe you have a learning disability and ADHD,” she said in a serious tone. Then everything went silent. For a little while, I felt the world was crashing in around me, and I began to cry.
At school, I knew kids who had disabilities, and I didn’t want to be that kid. At that moment with Mom, I went from being a carefree, normal (whatever that means) kid to one who struggled in school, who acted out, who tried too hard to be funny, and who compensated in other ways to manage this thing called ADHD.
Now that I was officially diagnosed with ADHD, there was no going back. In some ways, the diagnosis was a relief. It explained a lot of things, like why I couldn’t stay seated for long periods of time. Or, why it felt normal to jump from subject to subject, but following my non-linear train of thought seemed to leave others struggling. It also explained why reading was so difficult — the words got all jumbled. Staring at the page always confused me more than intrigued me.
The mandates and schedules at school confused me, too. As a neurodiverse individual, the traditional K-12 school system didn’t work well for me. I felt like a foreigner living in a culture with no ability to assimilate.
During high school, my parents hired the ADHD coach Jodi Sleeper Triplett, who is a pioneer in the neurodiverse and ADHD communities. Meeting with Jodi helped me put things into perspective and gave me coping mechanisms for my ADHD. My thoughts became more organized, the words on the page less jumbled. But my inability to sit for long periods was still a problem as my brain and body seemed to run in tandem.
After high school, I enrolled in a four-year college far from my family and failed miserably during the first semester. Back at home, I gave community college a try and, thanks in part to my strong Christian faith, I found my groove.
In the fall of 2004, I felt better prepared to attend college away from home, so I transferred to the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa. Jodi helped me throughout this time and I started making leaps academically. Once after a difficult exam, a supportive professor suggested I seek help on campus at the Kokua Program for students with disabilities. Ann Ito, the head of the department, was blind. Her disability was somehow comforting and made me feel I was in the right company. She helped me get the extra help I needed to succeed. Where K-12 didn’t make sense, college seemed the perfect fit.
Being a Young Adult with ADHD
After graduating from college, I worked hard at hiding my ADHD-related challenges. I didn’t want anyone to know that I am neurodiverse. I really just wanted to be like everyone else. I kept my ADHD hidden, never claiming it on work-related forms or job applications.
Two years ago, I landed at a financial services company called State Street in the Global Inclusion Workforce Development Team. My boss, Richard Curtis, has a history of supporting workplace diversity. He is a founding member of Work Without Limits and serves on the Board of Directors at the Carroll Center for the Blind as well as Operation ABLE. On my second day at the job, Richard brought me to a career fair for the visually impaired. The experience helped me find my way back to embracing my neurodiversity.
Today, I’m an inclusion practitioner at State Street and I work primarily with people with disabilities. I’ve always understood that a diverse workplace was one that included veterans and members of the LGBT+ community and accepted all racial, ethnic, and religious groups. My work at State Street has allowed me to dive into the world of disability through great organizations like Work Without Limits and Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD). I’ve hired interns who are neurodiverse like me and feel inspired by the talent I see.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Going Public with My ADHD Diagnosis
Over the summer, I was invited to attend a Disability:IN conference in Chicago, where State Street was recognized for its work to include people with disabilities in business on a local and global scale. (The DEI Award is given to the best places to work for disability inclusion.) Leading up to the conference I found myself wrestling with the question of whether I should speak out and tell my story about growing up as a neurodiverse kid with ADHD.
The satisfying work I do has made me realize that my ADHD is truly my strength. ADHD gives me the ability to think through a myriad topics and jump from project to project with more agility than my neurotypical peers. I enjoy having lots of different tasks and I love constant change. I realize now that I’m also a strategic thinker who often sits outside of the box with my ideas and resolutions.
Attending the conference reminded me that I do not need to live in the shadows any longer; I should celebrate who I am and what I bring to the table. I decided then to share my story on LinkedIn and it was another positive experience: 193 “likes” and 33 positive comments.
So, to my colleagues and partners, I’m happy to share that I’m neurodiverse and have ADHD. Some may describe it as a disability, but I call it my abilities.
To those who don’t know me, “Hi, my name is Rob Surratt and I have ADHD.”
Updated on February 21, 2020
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