July 15, 2024

Advancing Business Excellence

Pioneering Corporate Success

Neurodivergent workers see better chance to thrive with entrepreneurship

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On a recent video call from Vancouver, Margaux Wosk shows off hundreds of small pins, each one denoting the condition or identity of its bearer: ‘Disabled is not a bad word’, ‘Autistic, not rude’, and ‘I have social anxiety’. These are just some of the merchandise they sell to help people express their identities, disabilities, and accessibility needs.

Employment isn’t easy for many people in Mx. Wosk’s position. The 35-year-old is autistic, has ADHD and doesn’t have a postsecondary education. They have worked at several different art stores, but found the combination of fluorescent lighting, strong smells (particularly the fish brought by a colleague at an art supply store) and dealing with people to be exhausting. For many with autism, these sensations can be debilitating.

So, by early 2023, Mx. Wosk had launched a business selling merchandise like pins and keychains, one they describe as a low six-figure operation. On Etsy alone, they have more than 12,000 sales, on top of sales through other wholesale accounts. All of it can be done on their own schedule.

For many employees who are neurodivergent, a term that encompasses conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), autism and other mental health or sensory conditions, the working world isn’t kind. The unemployment rate for disabled Canadians, which includes people who are neurodivergent, is roughly twice that of the broader Canadian population, according to Statistics Canada data. In the case of autistic Canadians, 85.7 per cent of adults over the age of 15 are unemployed, according to the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

The reasons for this gap in employment are as varied as the myriad conditions within the ‘neurodivergent’ label. Difficulties reading social cues, paying attention, or understanding a complex contract – all potential problems for neurodivergent people – can make the office a difficult place to do well.

Self-employment, for many, is a way to carve out a career. Some neurodivergent workers find it easier to manage their symptoms if they’re also fully in charge of their workload and hours. Others take to entrepreneurship or freelancing more reluctantly, after years spent fighting against discrimination in the workplace.

Regardless of their reasoning, most of the dozen neurodivergent workers we spoke to for this story found self-employment, for all its challenges, to be a better option than stepping into an office again.

About 13 per cent of all Canadian workers are self-employed, according to RBC – and while it is difficult to give an exact rate for neurodivergent workers, some conditions do seem more conducive to self-employment than others. A 2019 paper published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, a peer-reviewed journal, found the odds of a worker becoming an entrepreneur went up 30 per cent if they happened to be diagnosed with ADHD, compared to neurotypical workers.

Plenty of neurodivergent conditions, such as autism and ADHD, can be exhausting in a nine-to-five office setting. The former typically find loud noises, bright lights and strong scents to be physically draining. ADHD people can find themselves super-productive one hour, and then completely unfocused the next.

For Lucie le Noeur, an autistic content designer based in Berlin, a workday consists of three to four hours in the morning, followed by a long break until mid-afternoon, then another period in the evening. She doesn’t work on Fridays, and generally tries to conserve her energy to avoid burning out – and stay productive. “I work in sprints,” she says.

Freelancing allows Ms. le Noeur the autonomy she needs to manage her symptoms while also working in her field. She’s been fired from numerous jobs over the years. “The social dynamics are extremely difficult for me to deal with,” she says. “I don’t understand all of the corporate doublespeak. I tend to speak my mind a lot.” After losing her latest staff job at the end of 2022, during her probationary period, she decided to try her hand as a freelancer.

Having control over who she works for, and how she works, makes all the difference. Now that she doesn’t go into an office or deal with the dynamics of office politics, Ms. le Noeur says she feels a lot calmer. She is able to set the terms and environment of her work.

Priyanka Chanda, a 31-year-old freelance designer with ADHD in Oshawa, Ont. says she tailors her working hours to her ability to concentrate. She simply wouldn’t have this flexibility in an office setting. “If you’re working a nine-to-five, you cannot say you are not in a mood to talk, or not in a mood to work,” Ms. Chanda says. “You have to work, and you have to deliver.”

But some neurodivergent freelancers find they thrive in the highly chaotic, uncertain world of self-employment. To Meggan Van Harten, co-chief executive officer of Design de Plume, an Indigenous-owned creative agency, running a business taps into a talent a lot of neurodivergent people develop from a young age: the ability to adapt to their surroundings, especially in the face of adversity.

Solving problems in out-of-the-box ways, Ms. Van Harten says, was something she couldn’t do until she left her first job as a graphic designer. Instead of rigidly following brand guidelines, she can now apply her talents to all sorts of creative projects. “We have to be really innovative,” the 36-year-old with ADHD says, “especially from a whole lifetime of being told you’re not good enough, or that you have to behave in a specific way. It’s made us really good innovators.”

That isn’t to say freelancing or entrepreneurship are easy options for neurodivergent professionals, or anyone else. Handling your own taxes, invoices and marketing can be a challenge, especially for people with attention, working memory and planning issues. Burning out, or having to take sick leave, carries far greater consequences when you don’t have long-term medical leave of any kind. And a constant rotation of precarious, part-time contracts is stressful.

Meredith Richards, a 51-year-old federal civil servant with ADHD, says she never started a business or went freelance when she was younger because she wasn’t confident she could handle it. Although she worked in the past as a psychotherapist, a profession where self-employment isn’t unusual, Ms. Richards says she was worried about the possibility of screwing up.

She didn’t receive her ADHD diagnosis until recently, she says, and struggled with her mental health. She is also a single parent, and wanted to be sure she could support her son. “I never believed in my ability to actually run a business,” Ms. Richards says. “I didn’t think I was good enough. And so I allowed myself to stay in spaces that were super unhealthy.”

Today, as a federal civil service worker, she has stable income, benefits and a good pension. The civil service is vast, and so she’s able to rotate through jobs every couple of years – a phenomenon that’s not uncommon for many ADHD workers – without quitting.

Chris Wainwright, chief operating officer of HR software company Humi, didn’t have an easy time in the corporate world either, as someone with ADHD and autism. He understands why neurodivergent professionals might search elsewhere for work, although he never took that road.

“I think a lot of being in the corporate world is about taking feedback and trying to grow on a predefined path,” he says. “When the predefined path isn’t helpful to you, the instinct is to run away.”

But he says employment, especially in a startup, can be rewarding to neurodivergent professionals who are able to stick it out. The chaos of the startup world isn’t all that stressful to him as an executive who has ADHD.

“I’m very comfortable in situations where there’s incomplete information, and I’m very comfortable having to modify my behaviour to suit different people in different situations,” Mr. Wainwright says, “because I’ve had to do that my entire life.”

Many neurodivergent workers simply aren’t considered viable candidates for freelance work or entrepreneurship. Mx. Wosk says business supports for neurodivergent employees are typically aimed at large companies to hire wage or salary workers, rather than helping them launch their own enterprises. That, to Mx. Wosk, is a problem: their freelance career has given them a degree of control over their working conditions they wouldn’t find elsewhere. “People just don’t think it’s an option,” Mx. Wosk says, “because it’s not even presented.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 14.3 per cent of autistic adults over the age of 15 are unemployed in Canada. The employment rate for autistic adults is 14.3 per cent; 85.7 per cent are unemployed. This version has been updated.

(July 4, 2024) This article was further updated to clarify the details of Margaux Wosk’s business.