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by Lyric Rivera

Dec 5, 2023

Queer Neurodiversity Workplaces – Emotional Safety

Creating Emotional Safety in Queer Neurodiversity Workplaces

According to Oxford Languages, intersectionality is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

Sometimes, when people first learn about privilege, they falsely believe privilege is about the resources you have. While resources can play a role, more often, privilege has more to do with what you don’t experience (like the hate and discrimination that members of various marginalized groups experience).

For example, if you never had to fight for the right to marry the person you love (because your “type” of love has always been legal and “socially acceptable”). NOT worrying about whether you will have the same rights in your relationship as others have is a privilege.

Not being misgendered and being seen and treated with kindness is a privilege, just as not having to explain yourself repeatedly is.

Will they use the correct name (the one you feel suits you), or will they call you unkind names (that you’ve asked them not to utilize), or use terms that have traumatized you for most of your life?

Knowing most people will address you respectfully is a privilege (it shouldn’t be because everyone deserves basic human kindness, but some people find pleasure in being cruel and demeaning to Queer people).

People can be just as unkind and punitive to NeuroDivergent People.

If your brain is close enough to the “average” that the world around you caters to your communication and other needs, and you don’t constantly need to modify your environment just so you can be comfortable and understood – that is a privilege.

Leaving the house without giving the sensory environment a second thought is a privilege – because some of us have to consider them every time we leave the house (or we may face risks to our health and wellbeing). 

Exposure to my sensory triggers can cause me to experience a wide variety of symptoms ranging from disorientation and fatigue to more severe experiences such as migraines and seizures.

I am a person with multiple marginalized identities, each one like a weight I carry; I am NeuroDivergent; I am Autistic, I am ADHD, I have an anxiety disorder, and I’ve experienced trauma (as is common for those with marginalized identities).

I am also Queer (a common intersection with NeuroDivergence). I am trans-nonbinary, I am Pansexual, I am Polyamorous.

I am multiracial, but since I am fair-complected, I have a privilege that my grandparents did not have (especially in Texas, where being able to hide was tied to survival). Being Queer and NeuroDivergent doesn’t cancel out the privileges I have.

Having a better understanding of people who have very different lived experiences from our own helps to make us better allies to people around us. This is why we must learn how to recognize and understand our privileges (because our unawareness makes us more likely to cause harm to people around us whether we realize it or not).

Autism influences most things in my life: who I socialize with, the types of relationships I have, how I process information and my experience of the world around me. Autism is tied to my hobbies, passions, interests, communication style, and habits. It’s interwoven into how I interpret and fit within social contexts, structures, and hierarchies.’

Many of the Autistic People I know fall under the LGBTQIA2S+ umbrella. In fact, I know more Queer Autistic People than straight ones.

Studies have found that Autistic People are more likely to identify as trans than non-autistic people are. Research from the University of Cambridge suggests that Autistics are less likely to identify as heterosexual and more likely to identify within a more diverse range of sexual orientations when compared to non-autistic people.

Being Autistic has fundamentally shaped how I relate to gender as well as my attractions and the types (and depth) of the relationships I have. For me, being Autistic means I am willing to examine social constructs, including gender and sexuality, very deeply.

Gender for me was a costume, a role I stepped into, that I put it on as part of my mask as an Autistic Person, playing a part, trying to blend in and to be treated better by people in society.

For many years, I was in the closet, hiding both my gender identity and my NeuroDivergence (knowing I was holding parts of myself back but not genuinely understanding those parts). I had a complex mask that hid my NeuroDivergence, tied into what I felt was “socially acceptable behavior” for the gender that I was assigned at birth.

When I stopped performing and catering to “NeuroTypical” expectations, dropping my camouflage, and evaluating how I really felt and saw myself (versus acting in a way that made others around me comfortable at my own expense), it became painfully apparent to me how much of my gender presentation was false and performative.

Both my NeuroDivergence and my Queerness (and all the layers within) are things society has pushed me to hide because outsiders view these traits as “deviant,” diverging from a norm enforced by social hierarchies.

These parts of me need space to exist, so I don’t feel pressured to hide them. I need the freedom and emotional safety to bring my whole self into the spaces I enter. This is true for all people. We need to be accepted as we are, and not expected to be something or someone we’re not. 

Often, when people start initiatives to make spaces more inclusive for groups of people, they lean too heavily into stereotypes and assumptions about what members of those groups will need (instead of listening to the individual people’s direct concerns and requests).

One-size-fits-all solutions don’t work well for NeuroDivergent employees (because even two people with the same NeuroType or Brain-Type can have very different needs and experiences).

One crucial thing you can do as an ally to a member of any marginalized group is to ensure members of these groups experience emotional safety around you and within your workplace. 

If you empower your employees (and they have enough emotional safety to speak up about their needs), they will tell you directly what they need to be their best selves at work.

Emotional safety is crucial for workplaces because it enables members of an organization to collaborate freely, share bold and creative ideas, push envelopes, and express themselves openly with one another.

When People feel a sense of Emotional Safety, they trust one another and feel safe enough to show up authentically in the workplace (and other spaces they enter). It also leads to happier and more engaged employees (who feel seen, respected, and appreciated).

There are numerous levels of safety (or lack thereof) that people might feel within a workplace. Ideally, people should feel safe enough to speak up about their needs and ask for help without fear that doing so may negatively impact their employment.

We know emotional safety is essential, but how can you help create emotional safety in your workplace (and other spaces you enter)? 

Emotional safety tips:

Different experiences and opinions are appreciated and celebrated – instead of repressed and ignored. Diversity is good for business, and shame kills creativity (while acceptance encourages it). When your teams have members with varied backgrounds and lived experiences, setting the expectation that “going against the group” won’t be punished can help people feel safe sharing those experiences (and be freer to express more creative, out-of-the-box ideas).

  1. Lead by example. Employees look to their leaders to set the tone. Leaders who “go first” sharing their vulnerabilities, worries, pains, and struggles set the standard that vulnerability is okay (and encouraged). For example, communicating with your team if your mental health hasn’t been at its best recently (or another struggle you’re currently having) and asking openly what help you need from others (without being ashamed to ask for help).
  2. Create a “no blame” culture where taking risks and making mistakes is okay, one where owning up to one’s mistakes is celebrated, and people are never blamed when things go wrong.
  3. In servant leadership, honesty, trust, and mutual respect are the cornerstones of your organization’s values. Trust goes in all directions. When managers are honest and trustworthy and respect those they serve, those working under that manager will mirror the leader’s behavior.
  4. Feedback goes in all directions – meaning managers are not the only ones giving feedback, and regardless of what position you are in an organization, you can always speak freely to leadership (or anyone) and give feedback as long as it is constructive and helpful. If the janitor sees a problem, they shouldn’t be afraid to mention it to the CEO (as an example).

We know there are NeuroDivergent and Queer People in the workforce today. 

We need to do a better job of supporting talent with invisible differences (both NeuroDivergent and LGBTQIA2S+), and giving our employees the emotional safety to speak up about their needs when something isn’t working for them (or could be made better) is the bare minimum we should be doing.

If we do not take the time to fix our organizational cultures so that they are less hostile to the members of our community who face additional employment barriers and stigmas, then humanity (and our organizations) will continue to suffer.

The future is diverse. Investing in NeuroDivergent and Queer employees is investing in the future of your organization and its culture, which is crucial for the organizations of tomorrow. Those who don’t catch up will be left behind.

Mental Health, Neurodiversity, Intersectionality

by Lyric Rivera

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