By Christine Bariahtaris, prospect researcher and writer

I grew up believing that I was completely neurotypical.

After a rough year in the nonprofit job market, I’m finally starting to see full-time research positions popping up regularly. That’s exciting, because I do miss working for an organization. In the ‘before times,’ I would have felt like I knew exactly the right approach to applying and interviewing. But in the before times, I didn’t know that I have an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And now that I do know, I’m thinking about our working world very differently.

I grew up believing that I was completely neurotypical. I’m a child of the 1990s, when researchers believed boys were up to nine times more likely to have ADHD than girls. Everyone was focused on the hyperactive aspects of the condition, which did present more strongly in boys. I was far from hyperactive. In fact, my teachers usually told my parents that I was a little too quiet and could stand to speak out more. It turns out, all of my hyperactivity was on the inside. I may have seemed shy, but my brain was always on. Imagine a pinball machine, but it’s your mind, and it never resets. Since I was a strong student and didn’t appear to have social challenges, the adults in my life never signalled that I was different in any way. In turn, I assumed that my mind worked in the way everyone’s did, because I met every benchmark set for me.

But in the back of my mind, I also knew I had difficulty with basic things that my friends could do with ease. I couldn’t keep track of time well, or stick to a self-driven practice schedule for music or sports. Process-oriented subjects like math were confounding and finishing projects was a trial. Worst of all, meeting new people made me feel excruciatingly awkward. When I was questioned about these things, I had the stupidest explanations possible: I don’t know why. I just can’t. I need to try harder.

The situation didn’t improve in adulthood. On paper, I navigated college very successfully, but I know that transcript hides a lot of struggles. I was a master procrastinator, which is not great when you’re an English major and every assignment is an 8-page-minimum essay. I would joke about it, but the reality is that I needed the time pressure because it forced me to ignore distractions. I always got very sick after finals because of the stress I experienced trying to do so much focused work in a short period of time. Internally, I could recognize that my mental distress was a little outside the normal bounds for a college student. But my grades were high, so I figured asking for help would make me look dramatic.

I was 31 years old when I received my diagnosis, and suddenly, all those basic-but-difficult things, all that awkwardness, made sense. I wasn’t lazy, or unmotivated, or unfriendly — I’m just wired a little differently.

The story kept repeating itself at graduate school and then in my professional career. I always delivered good work, but I was burying the chaotic experiences I had getting to the finish line. And I had trouble connecting with my coworkers, who always seemed very friendly but unrelatable in a way I couldn’t describe. There were many evenings where I went home telling myself that I had to be the problem. I knew how I was supposed to function in the workplace, and I had no excuse to feel awkward in that system.

I was 31 years old when I received my diagnosis, and suddenly, all those basic-but-difficult things, all that awkwardness, made sense. I wasn’t lazy, or unmotivated, or unfriendly — I’m just wired a little differently.

During the past 18 months, I’ve learned so much about how my mind works and how it both helps and hinders me as I move through the world. I’ve also learned that I’m not alone. There are many adults out there who are navigating the same territory as I am after making it a long way in life through coping strategies that masked their symptoms.

And I’ve learned that the professional world is not built to be kind to us. I never wanted to acknowledge how uncomfortable I have been at times while at work, because I figured it was always a problem with me. But it isn’t. 

My ADHD is only a problem because the world tells me to think of it that way. It’s past time that we got rid of that line of thinking and made our workplaces more welcoming for neurodivergent employees. 

Leave your assumptions at the door

I grew up absorbing the stigma around ADHD and other learning disorders. It was clear to me from a young age that society expected neurodivergent people to be hard to manage. Even worse, expectations of my peers with ADHD seemed to be low, like they had an inherently lower ceiling for achievement. Let’s dispel a few common myths right now:

Myth: ADHD isn’t real. 

I can’t believe I have to say this, but yes, ADHD is a real condition. My therapist very helpfully explained it as a “sleepy” frontal lobe, the part of the brain that regulates organizational thinking such as memory, judgement, planning, and time perception. My frontal lobe is never going to correct itself — it’s going to be a little drowsy for the rest of my life.

Myth: ADHD is overmedicated. 

Wading into the stigma around psychiatric medication was eye-opening for me. I had many people in my life express concern: “Did you really need those drugs? Haven’t you been doing just fine without them? Don’t you know that Adderall is essentially meth?”

The short answer is: Medication helps. ADHD is treated with stimulants because they wake up that sleepy frontal lobe. The idea is to target your dosage so that part of your brain will function at the same baseline as a neurotypical brain and no further. There may be a trial-and-error period to figure out which medication and dosage works best, but there is very little risk when you’re under the care of a licensed psychiatrist.

The long answer is that medication helps a lot when combined with behavioral therapy, especially for those of us diagnosed as adults. I understand now that many habits I formed in adolescence and early adulthood were coping mechanisms. I had to create my own work-arounds so that I could soothe my hyperactive mind and not get derailed by distractions. Now that the medication makes me capable of typical focus, I need to unlearn those habits. No one can go cold turkey on years of ingrained behaviors. For children, the combination of medication and therapy stops those coping mechanisms from forming in the first place.

MYTH: If you can focus on one activity, you can’t have ADHD.

I also used to believe that ADHD was an all-or-nothing situation, but that is far from the truth. People with ADHD have trouble with open-ended, unstructured tasks. I absolutely love creative projects, but I always give myself a pep-talk before I start them. Working from square one is where I’m most prone to distraction and I know I will have to be extra cognizant of how I spend my time.

Structure is the ADHD lifesaver. We’re usually good at activities like cooking and video games. You can be creative around a recipe, and there may be multiple strategies to beat a game level, but the core structure is set. The brain can’t wander when the next step is known. I’m certain that I gravitated towards research and data management because it is all highly structured work.

Let us talk about it

A 2013 CDC report stated that approximately 4% of adults in the U.S. deal with ADHD daily. I had no idea, and there is a reason for that. The prevailing advice is to never, ever discuss ADHD at work. The reasoning is that employers don’t want to have to deal with potential accommodations, so your job is safer if you don’t disclose your diagnosis. 

Let us pause for a moment to consider how messed up this is. What is the point of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if this is the type of guidance we give to people who might need its protections? This advice is its own form of discimination. It shames people who may need legally-mandated help into silence, forcing them to work in ways that could actually hurt their job performance. It’s a preposterous Catch-22: I can’t ask for accommodation because it will put my job in jeopardy — but I can’t do my job well without the accommodation, so my job is in jeopardy.

Honestly, nothing made me feel lower than being told to keep my mouth shut about something that will always be a part of me. I’m lucky in that I don’t require formal accommodations to do my work, so I cannot imagine how painful this must be for someone who does.

Embrace flex work

One major realization I’ve had in the past year is that the average office environment is not designed to help people like me. Fundraising is a very social work environment, and that’s to be expected when the job is to form relationships and foster connection. Like many people with inattentive ADHD, I’m introverted, a little anxious, and inconsistent with social cues. The extroverted atmosphere of a fundraising team can feel very overwhelming, no matter how badly I want to participate. 

Most of the social obstacles that come with ADHD were solved when I started working remotely. There was no more extraneous noise coming from a cubicle sea. In the office, I always felt bad that I preferred to communicate over email or messenger when my colleagues were around the corner, but having everything in writing helped me to stay organized. A casual drop-in to my desk could completely derail my train of thought, so I tried to keep conversation short. It was extremely awkward, and I worried I came off as anti-social, when I was really just afraid of losing track of my work.

When I started working from home, I could control my environment, which meant I could maintain focus. There was no noise and few unanticipated interruptions to deal with. As a result, I was less stressed. I noticed almost immediately that I was happier and more easy-going with my colleagues. I truly believe I cultivated some of my best work relationships over Zoom. It also made the time that I did see my colleagues in person feel more valuable. As the world hopefully starts to move back to normal, I hope that we can start acknowledging that the home office actually is the better choice for some employees.

Recognize our strengths

When I was first diagnosed, I was angry. It felt like I had never been as good as I believed at anything in life because my ADHD must have been holding me back. I understand now that not only is that mindset unkind, it’s also incorrect: ADHD has its advantages.

I have always gravitated towards artistic activities. This is a common theme among people with ADHD, because our brains are geared for creativity. Research has shown that people with ADHD are incredibly good at divergent thinking, or coming up with multiple ideas from a single starting point. That constant pinballing in our brains also makes us highly innovative, because we are actually wired to follow thought tangents that other people would dismiss. Who knew there was an upside to being bored easily?

I can say with confidence that my ADHD makes me a better researcher. I don’t give up easily, and I’m willing to dig into small details that might not seem promising but I find interesting. I’ve found some of my best information following a thread that didn’t seem important. My craving for structure also means that I care about how research is disseminated and organized for my entire team. Most people I know think that part of the job is torture, but I can’t get enough.

The community of adults with ADHD is large. I never knew it existed until a year ago, and now I’m proud to be a member. I’ve learned to like the term “neurodivergent,” because that is the most accurate way to describe the condition — our brains are just a little different. We may need a little more quiet and a little more process around our work, but we don’t need babysitting. We can be just as successful as our neurotypical peers, and can even excel in areas that they find challenging. So let us out of our boxes at work. Let us be ourselves.

Christine Bariahtaris

Christine Bariahtaris

Christine Bariahtaris (she/her) is a consulting prospect researcher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has a special interest in helping small nonprofits access research resources and develop good data practices. In her free time, she is an avid gamer and knitter. She writes about her amateur genealogy work and family history at Pictures of her very cute dog (and sometimes food) can be found on Instagram at @cbariahtaris. She’s still learning to Twitter at @CEBariWritesTo tip Christine for this essay, Venmo @cbariahtaris.