How professionalism is performative, and why I let my ND quirks loose when I’m working with clients
A lot of expectations around “professionalism” are performative
I’m capable of masking to the point of nearly “passing” as a slightly quirky, fidgety neurotypical. I could put on my professional mask and look much like every other coach, tutor, therapist, counsellor, or advocate my clients have seen before.
Except those professionals and clinicians haven’t always been helpful, otherwise this prospective client wouldn’t be reaching out to me.
For some, those therapists or counsellors were worse than unhelpful and actually caused them harm through ignorance, perpetuating stereotypes, and invalidating their experiences.
If I look like every one that has come before, some of whom are connected to negative experiences, I will be less effective and less able to actually support my client. It is much more difficult to build trust and connect when you are pretending to be someone you’re not.
Is it more important to perform the neuronormative expectation of what “professional” looks like, or to have someone competent and knowledgeable, who also possesses lived experience as an Autistic and ADHD adult?
Further, once they (usually the parents or adults, not the kids) get used to my unique style, they come to identify with what they see. I am a (fairly) successful entrepreneur with a strong academic background. I’m also the parent of an awesome ND kid.
Knowing I’m like them, yet doing well for myself, can provide insight into what is possible when you develop self-knowledge, self-understanding, and self-acceptance.
I’m also role-modelling authenticity and strategies that work for me. When I use fidget toys, or am just fidgety, when I joke about setting at least five reminders for each of my appointments, I’m letting them know it’s okay to need accommodations or supports to thrive when living in a world which is centred around the neurotypical experience.
Performance is unsustainable
We can only keep up the act for so long. If we’re pretending to be someone we’re not, we’re setting ourselves — and our partners or clients — up for disappointment, and possibly failure.
When we enter into a new relationship, we’re setting the tone and expectations for who they will get when they spend time with us, and what the parameters of the relationship will be.
If we can show our true, authentic selves — flaws, quirks and all — we give others permission to also be real and human with us, to let their idiosyncrasies be known and appreciated.
We’re also role-modelling the ways in which being ourselves is not just acceptable, it’s beneficial. Not only is performance (a.k.a. masking) unsustainable, it’s also harmful in the long-run, especially for neurodivergent people.
Hiding one’s neurodivergent (ND) traits, also known as masking or camouflaging, can lead to exhaustion, burn-out, even depression and suicidality.
Modelling the ways in which we use our ND strengths, such as stimming, fidgeting, and letting our creativity shine makes it okay to be ourselves while also showing how we can harness our unique qualities and benefit from them.
Focus on what matters
What do you think of when you hear the word professionalism? I think of unimportant things like how you dress, how you carry yourself, and being good at playing politics.
Perhaps I’m a bit too cynical.
There’s professionalism that matters: Treating others with respect, collaborating, and working cooperatively with others.
Isn’t professionalism that matters just being a decedent human being?
Then there are the surface characteristics we tend to focus on: self-control, tone of voice, facial expression, mannerisms, how we dress and carry ourselves, body language, and even our choice of words.
If we are given the space to be ourselves and offered fair opportunities to show what we’re capable of, people will learn to appreciate our quirks rather than tolerate them, knowing our unique traits are part of what give us our strengths.
Lastly, unmasking in a safe environment is a relief, and can eventually be fun once we have people in our lives who appreciate and accept us for who we are.
We are much more likely to meet those accepting people, as well as meet neurokin (fellow neurodivergents, and/or people who share our neurotype), when we are open about our own identities.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
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Miller, D., Rees, J., Pearson, A. (2021). “Masking Is Life”: Experiences of Masking in Autistic and Nonautistic Adults. Autism in Adulthood 3(4), 330–338. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0083
Price, D. (2022). Unmasking Autism: Discovering the new faces of neurodiversity. Penguin Random House LLC.
Pearson, A., & Rose, K. (2021). A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice. Autism in Adulthood 3(1), 52–60. https://doi.org/10.1089/aut.2020.0043
Radulski, E. M. (2022). Conceptualising Autistic Masking, Camouflaging, and Neurotypical Privilege: Towards a Minority Group Model of Neurodiversity. Human Development 66(2), 113–127. https://doi.org/10.1159/000524122
Walker, N. (2021). Neuroqueer Heresies: Notes on the neurodiversity paradigm, Autistic empowerment, and postnormal possibilities. Autonomous Press.