Neurodiversity and Freelancing
February 1, 2021 - Adjust
Our latest post explores the links between neurodiversity and freelancing.
Current research shows that there are now over 6.5 million freelancers and solo self-employed people in the UK. With numerous studies also showing that between 20%-35% of freelancers, solo self-employed people and entrepreneurs are neurodivergent, this could amount to over 2 million freelancers and solo self-employed people coming from the neurodiverse community alone.
We spoke with freelance journalist and writer Marianne Eloise to find out why there may be synergies between neurodiversity and freelancing.
This month marks my three-year anniversary of being a full-time freelancer after realising, once and for all, that I’m completely incapable of working in an office. I work as a writer for outlets including The New York Times, Guardian, The Cut, Nylon, Paper, Refinery 29 and more on topics including neurodiversity, mental health and culture, but I also do commercial copywriting and basically anything else that pays the rent. It’s hard sometimes not having a set income, but mostly, it works for me. I went freelance specifically because of my difficulties fitting into traditional workplaces, and those difficulties were a major catalyst in seeking a diagnosis at all.
“I went freelance specifically because of my difficulties fitting into traditional workplaces, and those difficulties were a major catalyst in seeking a diagnosis at all”
As a freelancer, I can make my own schedule, choose work that interests me, and work in an environment that doesn’t cause meltdowns and sensory overload. While there are challenges, being in control of basically every aspect of my professional life has made it a lot easier for me to thrive. While I wasn’t actually diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD until around six months ago, the knowledge that I’m incapable of functioning in traditional environments is not news. I encountered a lot of challenges at school, but by concentrating on my special interests (films and reading) I managed to complete a Master’s in Film Studies at 21.
From the age of 16 to 22, I worked in the service industry, specifically fast food, restaurants and bars. I found the social aspects of that kind of work difficult and got in frequent trouble for not communicating in the way a neurotypical society expects, but I thrived in part off the rules, routines and the ability to move around. The fact that my job was ever-changing and that I was always on my feet suited me and went well with my as-then undiagnosed ADHD. Every single day was different, but with the same rough outline: open the doors, put the chairs on the floor, put the taps on the nozzles, serve the customers, clean, close up.
“As a freelancer, I can make my own schedule, choose work that interests me, and work in an environment that doesn’t cause meltdowns and sensory overload”
While it was suggested to me several times that I might be autistic, whether by customers, friends or teachers, it wasn’t until I had to work in an office that I started to seriously consider it as a possibility. After my Master’s, at 22, I got a job working for a media company with just four other employees. I thought that sitting at a computer all day, something I did in my spare time, would suit me, and that I’d eventually learn to fit into the structure of the office. I was soon proved wrong. The first real hurdle was the time: like many neurodiverse people, my sleep schedule is chaotic. I struggled to get to sleep at a time that meant waking up at 7 wasn’t hell, and even when I got enough sleep, my brain just didn’t function properly until late in the afternoon. At 9, it was as if I wasn’t booted up yet.
Everything about working in an office was overwhelming to the point of causing frequent meltdowns, meaning that I spent my weekends attempting to recover from burnout but never really did. I found small talk so painful that it made me actually furious if not mute; I just couldn’t contribute to the chatter in a way anyone found normal. The sensory experiences of the office itself, too, were impossible: it was too cold, my co-workers’ idiosyncrasies like foot-tapping or loud chewing cut through me, I was uncomfortable sitting still but would be chastised for moving too much.
“The sensory experiences of the office itself, too, were impossible: it was too cold, my co-workers’ idiosyncrasies like foot-tapping or loud chewing cut through me”
Soon, any shred of capability I’d managed to convey in my interviews or first weeks fell away entirely, and I stopped doing my job. I couldn’t do it: couldn’t focus, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t be around other people. I became angry and withdrawn, spending as much time as possible hiding in the bathroom to avoid speaking to anyone. I sought a diagnosis, realising I had a serious problem fitting into that structure that nobody else seemed to. I mean, make no mistake, those colleagues were also insufferable in very real ways. However, the extent to which I found the environment unbearable was unique, and eventually, I was fired.
Not long after starting that job, I realised that I wouldn’t last long that working for myself would be the best thing for my sanity. I knew that I wanted to write for a living, so even before I was fired, I did my research and started pitching articles to outlets as a freelancer. I got lucky and got a few things published, so when I was unemployed I was in a good place to just keep doing what I was doing, only with the massive pressure of no longer having a salary. However, the issues that had come up while I was working there – stomach problems, feeling suicidal, sleep issues – largely disappeared when I was working for myself.
“I knew that I wanted to write for a living, so even before I was fired, I did my research and started pitching articles to outlets as a freelancer”
I soon got a six-week long gig working at an office, but somehow, it was different. It was still a traditional environment, but everyone was supportive and able to adapt to others’ needs. The hours were flexible, I could work at home, and they understood that to have creative, happy employees you need to be accommodating. Sadly, though, it wasn’t permanent, so I returned to freelance pretty soon. It was hard: not being able to read people’s tone over email made me feel anxious, not having secure income impacted my mental health, and the constant hustle was hard. I spent a lot of my time panicking and breaking down, convinced that I was never going to make a steady income, that nobody wanted to read my work, that I would have to return to bartending now that I knew office work was out of the question.
After being freelance for a few months, I was offered a job working for an outlet I’d freelanced for a lot. I thought it could suit me: they knew I had mental health issues, it was a creative publication, and they had hired me specifically for the one thing I knew I could do. I thought that as long as I was doing the thing – writing – that I would be able to cope. After a few months, everything got on top of me, from the schedule to the office politics to the sensory overload of being in that space. I explained my difficulties and that I was not diagnosed but needed accommodations like working from home, but I wasn’t able to access that without a diagnosis. I quit, had a breakdown, and went back freelance. While I love working for myself, I would love for the opportunity of working in a full-time job to be possible again, both for the security and the camaraderie.
If you’re neurodiverse, it’s likely that you also struggle with working in traditional environments that prioritise neurotypical functioning – that’s normal, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you. There’s a reason there are so many songs about why the 9-5 grind sucks: for a lot of people, it just does. Depending on how capable you feel to handle the challenges, going freelance could be a good way to take control of your schedule, wellbeing and career. The advice I give everyone is to start slowly – if you can, take on freelance work alongside your day job to build up contacts and a reputation. You shouldn’t quit until you’re sure you’re able to support yourself fully.
“Depending on how capable you feel to handle the challenges, going freelance could be a good way to take control of your schedule, wellbeing and career”
Not everyone can go freelance, but there are lots of disciplines where you don’t actually have to be in full-time employment: writing, copywriting, graphic design, web development, web design, illustration and music are just a few examples. Once you’ve identified your niche, look into ways that it’s marketable and start pitching to companies, brands and agencies that you might be able to work for with an introduction and examples of your work. You can google guides on getting into your specific area of work, and a lot of people have databases for companies, advice and freelance job listings. It’s different for every profession and I can only speak for writing, but it’s possible!
As soon as you get started, even if you’re just pitching potential clients, make sure you have a structure that prioritises your needs and mental health. Try and work a quote-unquote normal amount of hours a day, even if that means waking up later than a neurotypical person, schedule tons of time for breaks, and make sure you take care of yourself and get enough sleep. Be cautious, and treat yourself with ease and kindness – when I quit and dived into being fully freelance, my mental health was not good and I suffered a lot trying to start from scratch.
“there are lots of disciplines where you don’t actually have to be in full-time employment: writing, copywriting, graphic design, web development, web design, illustration and music are just a few examples”
From my experience on both sides of employment, I think employers can learn a lot from how neurodiverse people work. We’re excluded from most traditional workplaces, but we have a lot to offer; many of us have unique perspectives, approaches and opinions that, if we’re nurtured, can help companies to thrive. Employers need to, firstly, not make the mistake of assuming that everyone has the same needs. Offer flexible working where you can and trust your employees to make the best decisions for them to get their work done. Ask new recruits if they need any support, whether or not they have a condition they want to disclose, and make simple adjustments that won’t necessarily impact your office: working from home on certain days, flexible hours, less meetings, whatever it is that they need to get their work done. Being flexible doesn’t mean being careless or disorganised or having people abuse your leniency – it’s likely that your employees will feel more taken care of and more able to work and be creative and think freely”.
We would like to thank Marianne Eloise for her fantastic insight into neurodiversity and freelancing. There were some really useful tips for other ND freelancers, and we also hope that embracing the flexible working practices of ND freelancers and the solo self employed could ensure traditional workplaces are more inclusive. If you would like to find out more, contact Adjust.