Dyslexia and neurodiversity in the workplace

Rachel Nelson, Head of Cellular Generation & Phenotyping, and Martin Dougherty, Chief Operating Officer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute share experiences of their dyslexia and how it has affected their careers in science.

Interviews by Catherine Gater, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Wellcome Genome Campus.

We are currently focusing on neurodiversity at the Sanger Institute. What has been your own experience of neurodiversity?

Rachel Nelson: My experiences have been two-fold, as I am both neurodiverse myself and have also managed people with different aspects of neurodiversity. In the past, I have found this to be a tricky experience and I was inspired to take more of an interest by the Equality in Science talk from Sara Rankin on being ‘twice exceptional’. Neurodiversity was actually a new term for me and I am interested to get more involved.

Martin Dougherty: I have worked with very many different people over my career and I have developed an understanding that diversity is a critical component of a well-functioning organisation. It also has become apparent to me that that diversity alone is not enough. Without generating a psychologically secure work environment where people are enfranchised to cooperate and speak-up, diversity does not add much to the workplace.

I have never really thought of my dyslexia as a disability and I think this initially blinkered me a little to the concept of neurodiversity. I first started to think about this issue when I was Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society. At a statistics conference, someone told me a joke. It was an old one and referenced stereotypes of those who found themselves on a mathematics career path. I could see the humour; however, the joke really got me thinking about both the benefits and indeed the challenges of creating an inclusive workplace with respect to neurodiversity. This also reignited my thoughts about my own neurodiversity and how I have coped with my mild dyslexia over the years. 

When did you find out about your dyslexia?

RN: In primary school, my mum asked for a test for me but was told that everything was fine. Eventually, I was diagnosed as dyslexic and received some support in year 7 and 8, but then it sort of got forgotten about. During GCSE’s and A Levels, I received a limited amount of help, for example extra time to take exams. Overall, support during my school years was patchy and my dyslexia was half ignored. Eventually, my university did carry out an official test.

I found the whole experience very confusing and I wasn’t really sure whether something was wrong, or not. To be honest, I just wanted the whole thing to go away. Of course, if you ignore it, life gets harder and harder and then you have to do something about it.

MD: I was very lucky to have a very forward thinking teacher during my last year of primary school, especially so as this was during the late 1970’s. She described it to my parents as not understanding “why such a bright boy could not really string a written sentence together”. A support plan was put in place for my start at secondary school and I received additional help at this important point. There was some embarrassment at having to skip lunch twice a week to attend these lessons; I think they really did help.

What impact would you say your dyslexia has had for you?

RN: Dyslexia impacts all areas of your life actually, and there is more to it than just reading and writing. There are both pros and cons that go with it. For me, the biggest impact has been on the mental health side, as I feel I have spent my life battling something.

Some might use neurodiversity as a justification for not doing something, for example not going to university. You know that you are capable, but it feels like the condition is holding you back and slowing you down. This wears you down over time. There is also anger inside that life is not as easy as for your friends. This bleeds into the workplace, as you are surrounded by intelligent, articulate people and you can get a feeling of imposter syndrome, having to work harder to hold your own. I do know my stuff but I tend to forget precise details. I am strong at thinking on a practical level and very good at grasping the tangible big picture, which comes from being a visual thinker.

There is a different level of scrutiny when it comes to working in science. For me, lab-based work makes a lot of sense, because I remember the things I experience. I can struggle to understand the science I have never physically performed and I need people to take the time to explain it to me in a way that I can cement in my brain. The smaller day-to-day impacts are precise spellings or remembering names, finding the right words in sentences and remembering detailed facts and mental to do lists.

One of the great things about being dyslexic for me is creativity and 3D thinking. I am not a linear thinker and my thoughts can fly in multiple different directions. Biology works brilliantly in 3D, from cells to processes, and I can picture proteins moving about. This is why I did well in biology in school and gravitated towards it.

MD: I think I have my role today because of my dyslexia. I can often see the bigger picture that others may find more difficult to see or I can perceive this ahead of others. I also think in a visual way and will often use pictures to explain complex issues. Later in my career, I was able to start to translate this into words as I gained confidence in my written abilities. This means I can now create a clear narrative that started in my brain as a picture and this is a very powerful tool. I love solving complex problems using this technique. I actually started my scientific career as a medical entomologist, working in the field of semiochemistry. I was certainly the best in the team at staring down a powerful microscope and recognising the patterns of various pheromone glands and ducts on the insect species we were studying. Pretty much most of these strengths can be attributed to my dyslexia.

Are there any technology tools or approaches that you find helpful?

RN: I have a strategy that I use when people speak at length or when attending training courses – if I am told something, I need to stop people, repeat what they have said in my own words and seek confirmation that I have understood. Or I need to write the information down, read it back and then talk it through with someone. The physical act of saying the information myself is what helps me learn and confirms for me that I have understood it. This is somewhat easier with junior staff or people I know – stopping senior members of staff to repeat what they have said is less easy!

Images are really helpful, for example picturing words on a mood board. I use mind mapping technology to organise my ideas. I have glasses that help with a secondary condition that leads to words appearing to move around on the page. Without them, my eyes would be burning at the end of the day!

If I attend talks, I use a dictaphone as otherwise I struggle to write fast enough. Dragon software enables me to talk to a screen without writing. During meetings, I can get pushed off track by following different trains of thought, so I like to stop 10 minutes before the end to pull everything back together.

I’ve noticed that COVID has increased the level of emails and we seem to have lost the ability to just go and have a chat or pick up the phone. Conversations help to gradually build the picture for me. Writing instead of discussing gives me an underlying level of anxiety, as I constantly feel judged on my prose. To be honest, it’s not how I shine and I am much better at talking, especially in structured presentations!

MD: As I started to manage and lead individuals and teams, I became very interested in the mechanics of leadership, starting with things like active listening skills that can be developed over time. Being a good listener can be a problem if you are dyslexic. I then started to read about new skills like transactional analysis and neurolinguistic programming. Working at these basic skills for years and then more recently around broader approaches to management, I think I have been able to adopt a much more relaxed and informal approach to leadership. I suppose my driving goal of leadership is to create the psychological safety I mentioned earlier, this seems to get the best out of those I work with and myself. On a practical level, the concept of a word processor with a spell checker was a revelation

What do you see as the strengths of neurodiversity within an organisation?

RN: For me, the strength of neurodiversity in the organisation is the creative element. As a child you are told what you can’t do, not what you can and what strengths you bring. I am a big supporter of the idea that diversity is key. I want to hear from people who look at the world in a different way. That way might not be quite right either, but in the middle we will probably find the best course. It is diversity that can ensure Sanger remains a world leader, from bringing in those novel elements. Quite frankly, neurodiverse people think of things that others don’t!

Creativity really helps me in my job, as 3D thinking comes naturally to me. I see others struggle to resist getting bogged down in the detail and to keep their eye on the big picture in a way that does not affect me. When managing a project, I find that I can readily see all the implications of taking an option, which others cannot. In science, the ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘what’ and that is my strength. Luckily, I have found my niche! This knowledge has empowered me but it can still be a battle day-to-day.

MD: I think the biggest strength of neurodiversity in an organisation is having people that are able to interpret information in different ways. This is especially important for an organisation like Sanger as we are all about generating vast amounts of data and investigating the small variations. Having people that can bring different lenses to bear on this challenge and find alternative and creative ways to solve problems is at the core of what we do as an Institute.

What advice would you give to colleagues on ways to best support someone with dyslexia?

RN: If you are working with neurodiverse colleagues, do have confidence in them and see difference as a positive. Above all, don’t laugh or belittle, even if someone misspells ‘simple’ words repeatedly. Explore those differences with them, draw out their strengths and don’t forget to be an active bystander and speak up if hurtful or dismissive things are said.

If you are neurodiverse yourself, take pride in it and speak about it with your boss and colleagues, because it sets you apart from the herd. Help them to understand what your neurodiversity means for you to counteract some of the ingrained assumptions that they might hold. If you do find that neurodiversity is impacting on your mental health, however, do go and seek help. You do not want to have both neurodiversity and mental health holding you back when there is so much to be gained.

MD: I used to be embarrassed to write, especially with a pen. At the start of my career, I became a medical writer. I set myself the challenge of understanding highly complex issues, starting from little knowledge, and then crafting words around this, usually in the form a publication for a journal. These papers would start with an image that I then drafted in to words. From these experiences, I would encourage managers to explore different ways of working with dyslexics; no one approach will suit everyone. Help them see the big picture as this is often their starting point for a more focused dialogue. I often make mistakes in my first drafts when I write, forget people’s names and sometimes cannot find the right words when discussing things. A last piece of advice is not to be too critical of someone if there is the odd spelling mistake in an email. 

RN: I genuinely feel that we are on the cusp of an exciting wave at Sanger and in the world in general. We are now acknowledging the positives of neurodiversity, not just focusing on the negatives. Neurodiversity really brings something new to the table.

More information

Equality in Science at the Sanger Institute

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