Neurodiversity: Learned Helplessness and The Workplace

We often get caught in a vicious internal cycle, where we believe we can’t accomplish anything because of our learning difficulties. We start to believe that we are not capable of a particular subject or task because we are not good enough or we are just not intelligent.

When this goes unchecked, it leads to depression, it can affect intelligence, lead to low performance and, of course, poor self-esteem.

What do we call this?

We call this ‘Learned helplessness.   A bit of background information: Martin Seligman and his colleagues coined this term in the 1960s. They created 3 sets of experiments with dogs. They tied the first control group to a leash; the second group received electrical shocks and could turn off those shocks, and they gave the last group continuous electrical shocks without being able to turn them off, therefore eliminating all control.

The second group quickly learned to shut off the shock and the third group learned to painfully accept the shocks.

In a second experiment, they had to cross over to the other side, where the shocks would stop. The first & second groups quickly crossed over to escape the shocks. The third group just lay down and accepted the shocks; they developed ‘learned helplessness’.

Where am I going with this? The same conditions apply to people. We enter this mental state of believing we are not good at a subject or skill and we refuse to accept anything to contradict this belief. It takes willingness to reframe our thinking and for circumstances to change, until we consciously break away from such reasoning.

Neurodiverse people have a tendency to fall into this cycle, especially where the conditions are ripe for such thinking to automatically develop.

Let’s look at two particular learned helplessness scenarios:

In the first scenario, because of their difficulties, Neurodiverse individuals believe they are incapable at, for instance, reading, staying focused or spelling. They may avoid a subject or task because of this. When these challenges are unnoticed, a teacher may give poor marks or employers my reprimand them, thus further fuelling this learned helplessness.

The premise can be altered in several ways; first by changing the mindset, followed by understanding that, with patience, one can develop particular skills sets to improve or adapt. Another option is to have set of tools for support where needed, for instance by using a spell checker or a proof-reader.  Once done, one can then focus on the strengths that their Neurodiversity gives them. Personally speaking, it was realising that my dyslexia gave me the creativity to piece elements together which allowed me to see the bigger picture and provide solutions to problems.

In a second scenario, one may be told by a parent or teacher that they have to learn to adapt without accommodations to their particular learning difficulties, because when they get to the real world and get a job, no accommodations will be made.  In this case, it is an outside force looking at the situation from their perspective of the world and instilling the Neurodiverse individual with this learned helplessness.

Let’s think about this for a moment.  The majority of professionals, depending on the industry, get access to tools to aid them with their work.  Persons with physical disabilities get access to assistance for their needs as well.  It should be the same for someone who is Neurodiverse.  By raising awareness, encouraging skills development and making it easier to access accommodations, a Neurodiverse person can succeed as well.

When we look at the scenarios above, we are likely to run into yet another bone of contention; providing qualified teachers or coaches to help students develop coping strategies and teaching them to manage their Neurodiversity as they become older and enter the workplace is not straight forward.

I had a similar discussion with a Head of School while discussing a student’s anxiety.  The Head of School used this argument; there were two things that he/she failed to see. The first was their unwillingness to recognise and accept the anxiety while the other was not providing both the resources and environment where the student could learn to manage their anxiety. This is a typical example where an outside force is creating a learned helplessness situation.

How can the student learn to cope when there is such resistance from the system and, when in fact, it is the meted attitude that is creating an ingrained learned helplessness that the student will carry with them into adulthood and their eventual place of employment?

How do we overcome this?

For me, it started with seeking help to understand my neurodiversity and to develop coping skills to learn how to manage it. Later, I found a coach and mentors to further develop additional strategies. I joined an organisation with good people that inspired and motivated me. Lastly, it was devouring knowledge through books and podcasts that lead me to finding my purpose.

My advice

If you are a neurodiverse individual and wish any change to happen, you need to want to break from this cycle and have to seek outside influence and resources. This change will always start with you. If you want this change and are willing to commit to this change, amazing things will happen both in spite of and because of, your learning difficulties.


Looking to make a change of diversity and inclusion for the neurodiverse in your company?  then click here for a consultations

Listen to this topic and others like it on my podcast Take A Leap & Transform: A Neurodiversity Journey

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