My colleague Rebecca Kornmehl and I recently published two Linked In articles on “Coaching for Neurodiversity – Parts 1 and 2” – which you can read here.

We hope you enjoy Part 3, our last article in this series, where I continue my conversation with Rebecca on the important role coaches can play in supporting neurodiverse professionals in the workplace.  Thanks to Rebecca for her knowledge, experience and wisdom.

Suzy:  Rebecca, we’ve learnt through our previous conversations that ND individuals face a range of challenges that are similar in nature to people with the predominant neurotype (NT); however, dissimilar in extremity.  How are the skills, theories and models from Coaching Psychology relevant?

Rebecca:  It is my view that the skills, theories and models from Coaching Psychology should be equally applicable for ND professionals provided the coach applies them with extra sensitivity to the coachee’s heightened (or dulled) experience with themselves, others and the world.

Suzy:  What do you think is the absolute key to working with and coaching ND individuals? 

Rebecca:  The quality of the coaching relationship is undoubtedly key. While trust is a prerequisite for all effective coaching engagements, I think there is a case for emphasising the initial trust-building phase for ND coachees. Our society has a dominant way of communicating, processing and experiencing the world that privileges the neuromajority and excludes the neurominority. As a result of this exclusion, ND professionals often show up to coaching with decades of experience as ‘the odd one out’. They fear that they may say or do the ‘wrong’ thing in the coaching engagement, and it is therefore common for neurodivergent coachees to initially appear hypervigilant, sceptical and/or show signs of social anxiety or ineffective boundaries as they evaluate whether coaching might offer a safe and effective path towards flourishing.

Given this context, it’s important for coaches to dedicate sufficient time towards establishing trust early in the coaching relationship. Not only does this show goodwill, but also serves to protect the coachee’s privacy and dignity, and can enhance their sense of psychological safety. Speaking from experience, I think it’s critical to move away from an expert-centric approach and towards a more collaborative conversation in which both parties are invited to share their philosophies, preferred ways of working and experience with neurodiversity.  Chapman and Botha (2022) refer to this as cultivating relational epistemic humility. Clients who have recently realised their neurodivergence may find it cathartic to simply be seen, heard and accepted without judgement in the context of their blossoming identity. This respectful stance is conducive to building trust.

Suzy:  Can NT and ND coaches both provide effective support?

Rebecca: While there are some advantages to a coach being ND themselves, NT coaches can provide very effective support if they are willing and able to cultivate epistemic humility and take the perspective of their ND coachees. Having said this, ND coaches may be naturally positioned to better empathise with ND coachees. Damien Milton makes this argument in his theory, the Double-Empathy Problem , which suggests neurodivergent individuals are more suited to communicating and empathising with each other than with people of the predominant neurotype, and vice versa (Zamzow, 2021).

Anecdotally, I have found there to be a familiar rhythm of speaking, processing and gesturing between ND individuals that puts a ND coachee at ease, and this creates more capacity for reflection and exploring new perspectives. I suspect this chemistry may also help ND coachees relax their ‘masks’, which is helpful for deciphering when support is required (as opposed to challenge, which I find is most commonly requested). If masking inside the coaching relationship is not recognised, there’s a real risk of the coachee burning out since ND individuals can pursue goals quite passionately and relentlessly.

Whether a coach is ND themselves or not, it seems to me that taking a neuroaffirmative stance (i.e. ‘your neurotype is a natural part of human diversity; what do you need to flourish?’) is more conducive to helping coachees feel trusted and valued than pathologising neurotypes (e.g ‘you have a disorder; how can we fix you?’)

Suzy: What is the role of the coach when they observe signs of neurodiversity?

Rebecca:  I wouldn’t treat ‘signs of neurodiversity’ differently from any other observation in coaching. In my practice, I’m continually assessing which data to retain in my own mind (as part of case conceptualisation) versus place in the shared space of the coaching conversation. So, if I observed neurodivergent traits in my coachee, I would ask myself whether sharing and exploring these observations would be in service to the coachee’s growth, wellbeing and goal-pursuit at this point in time – or whether this would sidetrack or derail our remit. Needless to say, I would never presume to diagnose a client or push them towards a particular identity.

Suzy:  What would you say are the key coaching approaches and theories relevant to coaching ND individuals?

Rebecca:  I think the ‘spiky’ ND profile lends itself well to a strengths-based approach to coaching. This approach offers an opportunity for ND individuals to discover and take ownership of signature strengths, challenge ND stereotypes and take practical steps to mitigate the effects of weaker areas (perhaps social or executive function difficulties). To minimise the chance of signature strengths being immobilised by energy-draining tasks, a strengths-based approach can be complemented by an understanding of Spoon Theory, which explains the limited energy available to people who are chronically ill or disabled  (Miserandino, 2003).

Given that neurominorities are more likely to encounter distressing experiences than the neuromajority and their internal experience of distress can also be heightened, it would be helpful to help ND clients build psychological flexibility. Acceptance-based approaches like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment approach seem well-suited for enhancing psychological flexibility in ND coachees due to their focus on uncovering contextual obstacles to self-regulation and helping coachees shift from rule-governed to values-directed behaviours (Gardner & Moore, 2007). One word of caution in using acceptance-based approaches or any cognitive behavioural approach: some ND individuals may find it particularly difficult to engage in self-reflection or interpret physiological or emotional cues (Attwood et al., 2013). This points to the importance of identifying appropriate supplemental support, for example around emotional literacy or self-reflection skills.

Finally, given that ND professionals exist in a world designed for NTs, coaches would do well to ponder systemic questions to effectively support their ND clients. For example: When is masking harmful vs useful given current societal norms? How realistic is it to have meaningful conversations around ND needs inside organisations? How can ND individuals best relate to people, situations and systems today; how do they hope to relate tomorrow; and which individual, organisational and systemic changes will help bridge this gap? 

Suzy:  What additional training/education could coaches invest in to ensure they are well equipped to coach individuals with ND?

Rebecca: I wish there were a simple answer to this. As an emerging area of specialty, I believe that coaching for ND would be best supported by empirical research projects in collaboration with a reputable university. So, I would certainly encourage any coaches who are keen to conduct their own research. In the absence of specialist research, I think this is an area where it’s absolutely critical for coaches to have an education in evidence-based coaching theories and techniques as a duty of care to our clients. I stress this because I’m acutely aware that coaching is still an unregulated occupation and we’re talking about a particularly vulnerable population. In addition, a coach working with ND professionals should have sufficient training in mental health issues to be able to recognise when a client may need additional support.

Next steps

If you’d like a brief conversation with Rebecca, as a new Senior Associate of PI, to discuss how she/we may support your organisation through education and/or coaching please contact info@thepositivityinstitute.com.au.  For those interested in learning more about Coaching Psychology, you can register your interest for my upcoming short course “Foundations of Coaching Psychology” at our website under the tab “ACADEMY+”.  Stay tuned for a specialist short course on “Coaching for ND” coming in the future .

We’d  love to hear your continued comments or questions below, in particular if you have any additional thoughts and/or examples on coaching for neurodiversity.  You may also like to message us directly to learn more about our approach to neurodiversity at work.

References

Attwood, Tony, and Angela Scarpa. (2013) “Modifications of cognitive-behavioral therapy for children and adolescents with high-functioning ASD and their common difficulties.” CBT for children and adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders: 27-44.

Chapman, R., & Botha, M. (2022). Neurodivergence‐informed therapy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2007). The psychology of enhancing human performance: The mindfulness-acceptance-commitment (MAC) approach. In (pp. 21-40). Springer Publishing Company.

Miserandino, C. (2003). The spoon theory. But you don’t look sick, 9781315453217-19.

Zamzow, R. (2021) Double empathy, explainedhttps://www.spectrumnews.org/news/double-empathy-explained/