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Insights Exceptional Minds

​Throughout October, as part of National Inclusion Week and AtkinsRéalis ’s first-ever global ED&I month, we’re publishing four interviews with colleagues who are living with a hidden condition to help shine a light on their experiences and what we can all do to support them. 

This week, we’ve spoken to Alexandra Best, who is the marketing and communications lead for the Strategic Rail market within our Transportation business. Alex is dyslexic, which broadly involves complexities around reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, and dyspraxic, which is a neurological disorder that impacts an individual’s ability to plan and process motor tasks.
image of Alexandra
In our interview below, Alexandra talks about why she was grateful when she was diagnosed and how her flexibility as a result of her learning difference has shaped her life and career for the better.

Alexandra, could you tell how you were you diagnosed with your hidden conditions?

I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia very late in my life. It was a university lecturer – not during my bachelor’s degree, but much later in my early 30s during my master’s degree – who suggested that some of my learning was perhaps 'creative'. I'll be forever grateful to that academic, because it was the beginning of me really understanding my superpower – a pet term that's stuck. Because the truth is, I love how I think.

I was grateful for the diagnosis, because it meant I could identify the tools I needed and when to apply them. Particularly around project management, which is obviously a huge part of what I do now. Harnessing these tools meant I could understand my own personal rest and productivity patterns far better than I had previously. Though it’s possible that realisation comes to most people once they reach their 30s!

How is your personal and professional life affected by this?

Massively. Very broadly speaking, a dyslexia assessment is measured not by intelligence, but by the difference between intelligence and output. For me, this means a high IQ without the means to produce things at the rate that typically accompanies that IQ. Throw the complexities of a neurological difference into this and you can imagine how frustrating and completely overwhelming it’s been at times.

I’m more than aware of missed opportunities because past employers haven’t always understood non-linear ways of thinking. But as with all things, age brings the benefit of experience and confidence, and I’m much better equipped now to promote diverse thinking and the benefit of diverse teams.

Ultimately, my superpower has taken me in directions that have been eye opening and adventurous – all because I've HAD to be flexible. I've worked with Nobel Prize winners, politicians and celebrities in the film and television industries. I've campaigned for numerous charities and have an ongoing interest in wellbeing and nutrition. I'm also an art historian and a qualified yoga teacher. Such variety wouldn't have been possible in my 39 years if I hadn’t been prone to making connections where most people see none. Life certainly hasn't been boring, but I’ve had to be very determined.

Are there challenges you’ve noticed in the workplace that you’ve had to adjust to as a result of your conditions?

I’ve made a career of being a good communicator, but it wasn’t always like this. It took years of trial and error, and it was often exhausting. My biggest challenge is working memory. Particularly in higher stress situations or when I'm tired, I can struggle to process what people are saying, retain what they have said, order thoughts and construct a reply. Because of this, rest is very important for me.

I’m a very visual person and there’s usually some great vivid scene playing out in my mind at any given time. My brain is continually hooking around small details that explode into possibility. It’s quite hard to explain and for a long time I had no idea that other people didn’t think like me. There’s a huge amount of intuition in the way I apply myself; all of this is brilliant for creative solutions, not always so good for quick-fire thinking.

So, in person, meetings can sometimes be challenging. I think one of the benefits of being so open about my learning difference is having the confidence to share with people that I may need ten minutes to go away and digest something. And when colleagues see that I’m capable and good at my job, they’re always happy to give me that space.

Like a lot of neurologically diverse people, the success of my day depends largely on my energy levels. I’ve made peace with the fact that I just don't work like other people. If it's 4pm and my brain is full – then I go with it. Likewise, if it's 5am and I'm 'on', then this is the time to be productive.

Though I enjoy being spontaneous in my personal life where structure isn't so much of an issue, the element of surprise at work can make me quite anxious. For people who expend a lot of energy just to put the day on paper, a new deliverable isn't necessarily the extra hour's work it 'should' be. For me, this can mean half a day or more.    

When I’m given the space to think, the results are invaluable. We know from history that creative thinkers do not thrive when they're expected to fit into unsuitable parameters. This is one of the reason's my role here has worked so well for me – because flexible working really does mean flexible working. Finally!

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you as a result of your conditions?

I’m a person who travels a lot. New sounds, smells and sights – for me, there’s a kind of stability and comfort in new experiences, and I think that’s probably related to how I process memories. I can’t tell you what I did last Wednesday, but I can tell you what I ate halfway up a mountain in 2002.  So, this year has been quite an adjustment, and if I’m being honest, I’m a little uncomfortable with it. But aren’t we all?

Like a lot of people with dyspraxia, I’m good at big-picture thinking, and I’m also very environmentally aware. So, I’m trying to use the time to be mindful about climate change and my own responsibilities in the years to come.

How do you like to spend your time outside of work, and do your conditions affect how you approach or experience these things?
image of Alexandra sat down
By nature, I’m a creative person. In our home there are plants everywhere, fresh food ready for the pot, interior design projects, poetry and artwork. There are books everywhere as well. It’s untrue that all dyslexics struggle to read. When my energy is good, I love to read.

Finishing a book before I move onto another, however, is a different story. Most books on my shelf have bookmarks halfway through. I have unfinished projects everywhere. Being distracted is completely normal for me, and because I expend so much energy to focus at work or for personal projects where I have a clear goal, generally my home life is relaxed and designed around self-care. I never give myself a hard time for not keeping up with my own (non-goal oriented) creative projects. My mercurial nature is what keeps life interesting. Nothing is off the table; it’s just takes a lot of concentration for me to achieve the things that don’t come naturally to me.

Like anyone, I’m complex, multi-faceted, quirky and weird, and sometimes the lines are blurred between what’s impacted as a result of the learning difference, and what’s just me being me. I’m terrible at pub quizzes, I struggle in large groups after a long day and I sometimes need naps to rest my mind. But I don’t like to focus on my limits, and instead prefer to look at the benefits that my thought difference brings. And for me, the pros far outweigh the cons.

How can colleagues and the business support those who live with similar conditions?

It needs to start with awareness. Dyslexia, dyspraxia, disorder, disability; we’re really talking about difference. And what a time to be doing that.

Dyslexia is relatively common so it’s normalised. Though the idea that it’s only about spelling or reading or writing is just plain wrong. Stereotypes can drive blasé attitudes to conditions that are actually very complex and debilitating within unsuitable parameters. It can be those things, but it presents differently person-to-person. I’ve written this article myself, because I wanted to make the point. I can write. So never make assumptions. Once you’ve met one dyslexic person, you’ve met one dyslexic person.

Responses when I tell people I’m dyspraxic are different because fewer people know what it is. There are subtle but undeniable barriers when people identify you as other and I’m mindful it’s only a taster of what others with more visible differences must experience.

I grew up in a diverse background and I thrive on other, so it’s alien to me when people aren’t interested to learn more about people who aren’t like them. In a work environment, I think individuals go into self-preservation mode through fear of saying the wrong thing. And I think for some employers there’s caution around hiring anyone who may present HR complications down the line. So, I’m never surprised when people choose not to disclose hidden conditions. I’m being so candid here because I’m speaking from experience.

One boss in a different company, with no real catalyst, suggested I should think about doing something less pressured. Another time a contract was terminated with very suspicious timing and a full pay-out, after I mentioned I was dyslexic. Half of me wanted to wave my Telegraph articles in their faces, but ultimately, I decided their outlooks weren’t enriching me in any way – so off I went. My experience of life has always been far more important to me than other people’s impression of my life. I’m very self-serving that way.

It’s important to share experiences like this to highlight discrimination, not only as a moral issue, but because it’s also hugely limiting to businesses. If you deliver work among versions of the same person time and time again, you will miss opportunity because you’re only ever viewing life from one lens. We all know about flawed design due to gender bias for example. We could talk about this all day.

If you’re interested to learn more about my personal experience, please just ask. Or you can join in the discussion through the Neurodiversity network. It’s on all of us to drive real change around attitudes to difference and to educate ourselves on untapped potential. It’s a fascinating thing to delve into the complexities of the human brain, how different people think and how that informs outcome. So, don’t be shy.