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My journey to an ADHD and autism diagnosis

"As a woman, I, like many other autistic and ADHD women, learnt to mask my traits and so I went undiagnosed for 32 years."

Warning: this story contains potentially triggering content about suicide or suicidal thoughts. Please read with care. 

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Sonay's story

I am a solicitor advocate, just under 2 years PQE. I have recently been diagnosed with autism and ADHD which has started a journey in understanding my brain more, and working with it.

In March 2022, I started working as a consultant solicitor advocate. This is relatively unusual for junior lawyers but the jump was needed to take care of my mental health.

As a woman, I, like many other autistic and ADHD women, learnt to mask my traits and so I went undiagnosed for 32 years. I am also of an ethnic minority background, my family didn’t talk about mental health or neurodiversity. In fact, I grew up believing the stigma and also in the stereotypical images of an autistic person or an ADHDer.

Sonay

As a child I was quite chatty, but once school started and I was subjected to criticism, bullying and self-doubt, I learnt to try and fit a mould. I didn’t know I was doing it, it was entirely subconscious. I struggled to make friends at secondary school and at University, I behaved like someone I wasn’t in order to fit in. 

This is what is referred to as masking, conscious or subconscious attempts to fit in with others around us and how society expects us to behave.

I didn’t have my life figured out and went through a rollercoaster until finally starting out in the legal profession. But that’s where my years of masking started to take its toll on me. In November 2019, 3 months into my training contract, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression.

"I had masked for years but now I also had to fit the mould of a lawyer, whilst commuting full time into Central London and having to cope with the sensory nightmare that is an open plan office."

In May 2020, I went on furlough for three months. I perceived this as an act of rejection, that I wasn’t good enough.

I didn’t know it at the time but what I was experiencing was Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD). This is severe emotional pain because of a failure or feeling rejected, common in ADHDers.

My depression became worse and I had suicidal ideations. If it wasn’t for my now husband, I don’t know if I’d still be here. He was the only one I could tell exactly what was going on. I didn’t want to worry my family. In March 2021, I was prescribed antidepressants. I was burned out and exhausted, trying to prove myself after being furloughed, beating myself up for not being good enough.

Over the next year I learnt more about autism and ADHD, specifically in women and heard accounts of those who had been diagnosed late. Their stories seemed so similar to my own. In February 2022, I asked my GP to refer me for assessments for autism and ADHD. In September 2022, I was diagnosed with ADHD. In January 2023, I was diagnosed with autism.

Following my mental health struggles, which were very much tied to my autism and ADHD, these are some of the things that I would suggest firms consider trying to help all employees, whether they are diagnosed neurodivergent or not.

  1. Ask all members of staff to complete ‘Working with me’ documents which sets out what conditions ensure they work best - what motivates them, what their preferred method of communication is. This doesn’t just help neurodivergent employees but everyone.
  2. Take on board what people put in their ‘Working with me’ documents - do they require positive encouragement, what is their preferred style of communication? Have a conversation with employees about putting in place adjustments to ensure they work at their best.
  3. Have options for attending meetings. If meetings are not helpful for some members of staff, ask them to provide their contribution in writing beforehand and make sure minutes are sent to them. Also, don’t enforce a blanket rule on having videos on for virtual meetings - have the option that people can turn off cameras after the initial 5 minutes.
  4. Be honest and clear in your communication.
  5. Listen to suggestions made by employees. Neurodivergent people can be very creative but if all their ideas are ignored, they will stop coming up with ideas.

We're here to listen...without judgement

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