Thinking differently: Can you see the world as I see it?

Ahead of ACE’s Building Inclusivity roundtable on Wednesday 7 September, Rebecca Bettison shares her personal experiences of neurodivergent working at AECOM.

Ahead of ACE’s Building Inclusivity roundtable on Wednesday 7 September, Rebecca Bettison shares her personal experiences of neurodivergent working at AECOM.

Put simply, being neurodivergent means that I have an alternative approach to learning, as well as a different set of skills. My dyslexia means I view the world differently to neurotypicals.

Other conditions on the neurodiversity spectrum include, but are not limited to, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, dyspraxia (a difficulty in communication and interaction), development co-ordination disorder, and dyscalculia (a difficulty in understanding numbers).

This broad spectrum of conditions mean the neurodivergent share a common ‘spikey’ profile with an extremely strong set of skills, as well as obvious weaknesses. This means that no matter the particular condition, we will need more support than neurotypicals in optimising our strengths and excelling in the workplace.

Understanding my strengths early on

Growing up I preferred to be creative, sitting at the table making art, drawing and building things. I dreaded having to pick up a book. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be assessed and diagnosed with dyslexia from a young age which meant I understood my strengths early on which include creativity, problem solving, strong determination and out of the box thinking.

Even with my diagnosis and finding my “superpowers”, I still found formal education a huge struggle. I had to retake GCSE English several times to gain a C grade, but this did not stop me from eventually achieving a first class Civil and Transportation Engineering (BEng) degree. As part of this, I secured a place at AECOM within its transportation team in my placement year, which gave me practical experience of the workplace and demonstrated that I could contribute positively in the workplace.

Following my degree and placement, I re-joined AECOM as a full time transport planner and they sponsored my MSc in Transportation Planning and Engineering.

At AECOM, I had the opportunity to be creative, innovative and talk through my reasoning and justification without the barrier of pen and paper communication. This allowed me to think outside of the box and describe my ideas without worrying about grammar, punctuation and spelling. They recognised that without ideas and technical skills, it is a lot more difficult to create than it is to correct grammar and spelling with software and a supportive team around you.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. However, we need diversity of people to create new ideas, challenge the status quo and drive innovation. It is clear to me that if everyone thought in the same way, then it would be an extremely challenging and boring world.

One in seven are neurodivergent

In the real world all of this means that the neurodivergent will require additional support to help them succeed. For myself this has included an adapted environment, software support, extra time for tasks, independent external help, as well as a one-to-one support strategy.

The support and understanding I have received from my colleagues in the Birmingham office has enabled me to triumph over my differences and helped me to achieve my goals. 

However, I believe that this may not necessarily be the case for everyone which is why I led the creation of an informal group at AECOM, Thinking Differently, to offer a safe-space where like-minded colleagues can talk and share concerns in a friendly and understanding environment. 

Furthermore, AECOM’s Freedom To Grow flexible culture has ensured we can work flexibly so that I can bring my best self to the workplace. For example, the ability to take a break is important for me, as being dyslexic can mean that some days are more difficult than others due to reduced concentration and energy levels.

According to Mental Health at Work, around 15% of the population in the UK, or one in seven people, are neurodivergent and half of these individuals are unaware of their condition. This is a sizeable community and I imagine all businesses are working with neurodivergent colleagues whether they recognise it or not.

Traditionally being neurodivergent was a deep-seated secret that should not be spoken about. Instead, we should be highlighting neurodivergence, recognising the amazing abilities of the community, including hyper-focus, innovation, challenging of old habits and absorption of information. We should be celebrating and taking full advantage of people's abilities, as we all think differently.

Rebecca Bettison is a transport consultant at AECOM. She is a panellist on ACE’s Building Inclusivity roundtable on Neurodiversity on Wednesday 7 September 2022 at 12.00pm. Book your free place now.

Click here to find out more about Building Inclusivity, the ED&I campaign from ACE.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.