Professor Amanda Kirby is one of the most influential, well informed and globally acclaimed voices talking about neurodiversity today.
We’re honoured to welcome her to our webinar on 9th March on creating a workspace that celebrates and supports neurodiverse teams, in which she’ll be sharing many practical tips (if you haven’t already, and you’re interested in this topic, this is definitely not one to miss – sign up here).
But while Professor Kirby is shrouded in accolades (‘Unstoppable Woman’, ‘top LinkedIn voices’, ‘top business influencer’ and ‘lifetime achiever’, to name just a few) we wanted to find out more about the person behind all the achievements.
In this interview, we discover just how personal her passion for neurodiversity is, where she got her campaigning spirit from and why she now fully embraces her “wacky” brain and “oddness”. For this, we go right back to her Welsh roots and awe-inspiring backstory…
You’re an emeritus professor at the University of South Wales and an honorary professor at Cardiff University. Did you grow up in Wales?
Yes, I come from Cardiff and that’s still my hometown. I went off to medical school, came back, married the boy next door and had my children!
I actually got married halfway through medical school, had a baby and was suddenly a sleep-deprived young mum studying … It was hard. But I’ve got ADHD traits and that time taught me how to be very organised, I had to be.
I became one of the first people in the UK to ever do GP training part-time. I went on to be a GP for many years, setting up a clinical centre for 25 years providing help and support for children and adults with neurodevelopmental conditions.
Did you feel like a trailblazer back then?
Oh, I was just trying to find a solution. I’ve always been a natural campaigner. Usually because I want to get things done, or because I’m uncomfortable with the status quo and think things could be better.
That’s my dad’s genes; he was a campaigner who changed the world of anaesthetics globally.
I learnt from him that we all, even sitting in our living rooms, can affect change by joining up the dots and getting people to engage. We can all have an impact.
That’s a great message for our audience with an interest in workplace wellbeing and making work better. But you’ve also written about, despite your obvious credentials, still feeling nervous about speaking up and not good enough?
I still feel like an imposter. Every time I get asked to speak, I’m always nervous. I’ve reflected on this, and specifically whether it’s a case of neurodivergent folk being highly sensitive, or whether it’s related to experiences had during life that frame who we are.
I undertook research around adults with Dyspraxia or Developmental Coordination Disorder, showing high levels of empathy. I think that if you are very empathic, you can worry a lot about things, as I do, and that gives you a heightened sensitivity to what others are thinking.
We have written lately about many women not feeling heard by the medical profession, like this interview with author Sarah Graham who has written about the gender health gap. Given you’re a doctor, do you think there’s an issue with the medical profession not listening to women?
Well, I think we can always listen better to the patient.
That’s really important when it comes to neurodivergent traits. We really did miss women because the lens we were looking through was a male lens. So, for example, we looked at fidgety boys with ADHD.
It was all to do with behaviour and it was a negative framing. I look back and realise that I was a fidgety girl, but not disruptive. And a lot of girls are helpers, like I was, and so I used to want to move a lot, but I did it, for instance, by clearing away the dishes.
There were other signs, too, like whispering at the back of class, getting extremely bored, loving some subjects and not liking others such as history because of not being able to remember dates. I always asked lots of questions…
But we missed females because we were looking for males. And there’s still more training necessary here for doctors, especially around how females with neurodivergent traits can often present as having anxiety. We need to go beyond the anxiety to see the source of it.
The thing that struck me most about your CV is the many different directions and ideas you’ve had, and implemented, over your career. To what extent do you think your neurodiversity has helped or hindered you in your career?
At this stage in the game, I’m embracing my oddness!
I see that my wacky brain is why I am where I am today. It allows me to grab that bit, and that bit, and put those two bits together and create something new. A common strand has been doing that and sharing what I’ve learnt.
The other thing that comes across strongly about you, even on your LinkedIn profile, is the importance of family. It was your second child’s diagnosis with Dyspraxia at age three that caused you to change direction and focus on neurodiversity, is that right?
Yes! Absolutely selfish reasons… I thought, if I’m exploring these challenges as a parent and as a doctor, then other people will be too. Again, I had this desire to share practical, helpful learnings.
You’ve written a book called Neurodiversity at Work. You’ve said the current workplace is too much about fitting in – but isn’t the need to fit in a basic human urge and, therefore, can we ever really get to a workplace where people don’t feel this need?
We need to have more conversations about what we have in common, rather than how we are different. That way we can all start to have stronger feelings of belonging. When we share what we have in common, we start to feel that we can belong, and there are places where we fit in.
It’s important to say, though, that we won’t fit in everywhere. Not everybody’s menopausal, or had a baby, or got families. So, in every workplace, we will never all fit in, but we can all fit together.
In the forthcoming webinar, you’re going to talk about moving towards a more inclusive work environment and practical tips and strategies. If we are working towards this more universal and inclusive work environment, do you think in future that diagnosis will matter less?
Yes. We shouldn’t need diagnosis for the workplace because we should be putting in inclusive practices. Workplaces have a mix of people, let’s make sure that we’re supporting those individuals overall to be their best self.
Diagnosis should never be the answer for the workplace. We’re not defined by a diagnosis, just as you don’t need to tell people you’ve got diabetes or irritable bowel syndrome. No employer expects you to do that. So why do people expect you to share your neurodivergent conditions and traits?
I’ve interviewed people who’ve said their diagnosis has helped them personally understand who they are, but they’ve felt stigmatised in the workplace. What do you think of that?
The reality is at the moment that we’ve got lots of awareness going on around shouting how you should bring your ‘whole self’ to work. I can’t stand that phrase because nobody brings their whole self to work, we leave lots behind.
That message is the wrong message because it says ‘expose yourself and it’ll all be fine’. Actually, the reality for many men and women is that it won’t be fine. They’ve done that and they’ve lost their job, or haven’t been promoted.
I often say on LinkedIn ‘be cautious’ because I’m hearing about all these stories where people are telling me ‘I did it and it didn’t go down well’.
What about psychological safety, what do you think of that term?
Urgh! It’s just been created because people want this panacea and ‘psychological safety’ is the latest phrase – but what does it actually mean? They’re not real words.
Of course I want to be safe at work. I don’t want to be attacked physically or psychologically.
But if I say something offensive, I might offend you.
We have to be careful.
The best advice I have is to try and be kind and respectful, and curious.
Are there any alarm bells sounding for you currently around the way employers are handling hybrid working?
Yes. Alarm bells are sounding around anything that’s formulaic, like employees must be in work for these two days, for these exact hours. That’s not good practice because within each team, within each organisation, with each individual, you’re going to need variations.
Employers want a formula – like two set days a week – because it’s easy and they can have some sense of control but it doesn’t make sense on the ground. You might then exclude people who are amazing workers who need to work from home, like a worker with Multiple Sclerosis, or a mum with neurodivergent children.
Why would you want to lose that talent? Rigidity means you will.
We need to be thinking about the task, the individual and the environment, and what creates the right environment to afford the best success for that person.
To put your questions to Amanda and hear her talk about why she feels so strongly about universal design, tune into the webinar on 9th March.
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