Leveraging neurodivergent traits for design strategy | by Meghan Logan | Dec, 2023


Understand how to cope and still be efficient.

Work preferences

Work culture has made some of us believe (or feel) that we can’t have our own preferences when it comes to work style. Here’s an example:

Situation: you work on the West Coast but your East Coast coworker threw a meeting on your calendar for 7:30amPST/10amEST. You know your brain isn’t really “on” until around 10am your time and having a meeting this early wont represent your best state of mind. What do you do?

…Propose a new time, then set future expectations with colleagues for the what your intended work hours are. It’s a small example, but the point is when you understand how you work and what environments you will and wont succeed in, you can communicate that back to your colleagues to set the right expectations.

Each struggle around neurodivergence looks differently, but in order to move past them in our work place we need to understand them and communicate them back to our product partners. In an example taken from Additude Magazine:

“If you’re prone to hyperfocus — to work on something so intently that you lose track of time — it may be helpful to “cue” yourself. Try Post-it notes, a watch alarm, a box that pops up on your computer screen — anything that makes you aware of the time and of what you should be doing.

If your symptoms include hyperactivity, take every opportunity to move around at work. Pace while talking on the phone. If you need to talk to a colleague, walk over instead of calling. Take a break every hour or so for some calisthenics or a stroll through the halls.”

If you need to take breaks during the day to re-focus your energy and attention to be more successful, most work places are flexible with blocking time off during the day as long as you’re meeting your goals and communicating time away from the keyboard (AFK!) to your coworkers.


  • I prefer to take meetings after 9:30am PST.
  • I like to take walks, so there will be blocks of time in 15–20 minute intervals throughout the day.
  • Please do not book over my lunch or focus time hours unless absolutely necessary.

“Absolute requirements”: What do you need to do great work?

What are the things you absolutely need to be successful at work? These are the things that would hinder you or get in the way of doing your best work, whether it’s tech stack, tools, or morale based.

Understand the things that might de-motivate you. If you do have ADHD, de-motivators will be the quickest path to dopamine-death, making it even more difficult for you to focus or complete tasks. Once we become distracted by environmental or cultural roadblocks within the workplace, it can continue buzzing in our minds until it’s resolved, taking up a lot of the space we need to be efficient and focused.

It’s okay to tell employers that you won’t do well in certain situations, especially if they can be avoided all together. Identifying the factors that create the most success and the least amount of distractions will help not only improve personal output but additionally improve the team output as you work harmoniously together towards similar goals.


  • I need trust from my teammates and leaders/manager. Micromanaging kills my morale.
  • My colleagues need to understand design to some degree. I’m not a UI generator. I need time to talk to customers, internal teams, research, etc. It’s a process!
  • Honest feedback if something I’m doing isn’t working well. How can I succeed if I “don’t know what I don’t know”?
  • Growth and equitable compensation. (because whats wrong with wanting to be paid fairly?)

Anything that might become a mental distraction to you at work is something worth noting here.


In my opinion, this is the biggest piece to success in a role! 🚨

People will ADHD or autism are at a higher risk for miscommunication in the workplace than neurotypical individuals. A quote from LA Concierge Psychologist states:

“When autistic and neurotypical people interact, they often have trouble understanding, empathizing with, and being understood by each other. Neurodiversity-affirmative psychotherapists call this the double empathy problem. According to the double empathy framework, the autistic-neurotypical communication gap is a mutual problem which both groups share responsibility for solving.”

Factors of communication that can differ or cause friction include:

  • Directness. We may be more direct to avoid implications, hints, and assumptions because they can be challenging to interpret)
  • Honesty. For many autistic people, the highest priority in a conversation is the communication of facts, which at times can off-put others)
  • Conversation efficiency. Small talk is a preference, a lot of people engage in small talk in meetings to avoid awkward silences or express friendliness, however neurodivergent individuals may prefer to skip past that.
  • And more

Communicating differently does not make anyone wrong, it just means there’s a little bit of extra work to understand individual communication styles, our colleague’s communication styles, and how to align the two successfully.

Ask yourself what type of communication works versus doesn’t work for you. Be aware of where your communication shortcomings are as well. Things to consider in this area are:

  • What type of information should be communicated to you on Slack versus Zoom?
  • Do you have a preference on communication tools or delivery?
  • Do you tend to be very direct?
  • What type of communication styles or approaches shut you down?
  • What type of communication styles or approaches help you understand or feel comfortable?

Strengths: Where do you add value?

Where are the areas you feel most confident in? Where do you feel you add the most value? Identify your superpower and share that with others.

I think designers in general tend to think we have to be good at everything, and the majority of us have imposter syndrome.

Mental illness + imposter syndrome = 😵

Own your strengths and understand your weaknesses. Here’s an example of mine:

I add value to teams by…

I’m not afraid to make decisions, or mistakes. I love learning.

Creating novel solutions to challenging problems. I explore all angles and I’m not afraid to approach problems creatively or “outside the box” of what’s “possible”.

Communicating effectively within and across teams. Keep alignment strong with all parties looped in.

Telling stories. I actively tell stories behind what, why, and how we’re tackling problems on our team that help paint a better picture of the value and outcomes we are driving, for people that aren’t directly involved. It gets folks excited and on board!”

“Manual of Me”

I felt misunderstood at the majority of my jobs. I wasn’t under-performing (except the period mentioned of my diagnosis journey), and I wasn’t doing anything “wrong”, but I was getting consistent feedback on my communication style (which at the time I thought was “good”).

I realized that the way I communicated came off as “aggressive” due to the directness of it in Slack. It was harder for others to read my tone when I would communicate very straight forward in Slack messages.

I started creating a “Manual of Me” at work to share with my colleagues.

manual of me: a website for creating a manual of yourself from templates
Homepage of “Manual of Me” from https://www.manualof.me/

My “Manual of Me” included details about myself, my needs, communication styles, how to motivate me, give me feedback, and my value add. It helped bridge any existing gaps and avoid future gaps within communication styles or understandings.

Tailor your needs to your work style to create the best chance of success within your team and your role by taking control over your narrative and perception through visibility and communication. Get ahead of any potential misunderstandings so as/if things occur in the future, your colleagues understand your behavior and intention.

Some examples from my “Manual of Me”

  • “You’ll convince me to get on board by…”
  • “The environment in which I thrive is..”
  • “Things that de-motivate me are..”
  • “My absolute requirements to do great work are”
  • “Things to know about me”
An example shot from my “Manual of Me”

I found the more transparent I was, the more empowered I felt within my role. I started to see more success with my approaches and methods.

Examples of things I think people need to know about me:

  • If I’m asking a lot of questions about a decision you made or something you built, that usually means I am not fully understanding. It’s to understand process and perspective so I understand in the way that works for my brain. It is not to challenge anyone.
  • If you’re giving me any topic of feedback I can mistakenly enter solution mode of trying to explain or clarify my thought process. It is not because I am pushing back!
  • If you find me over-explaining something, it’s because I have fallen into a cycle of thinking I’m not being clear or articulate enough. Feel free to interrupt that loop lol.

The power of “race car” thinking

As designers, we have the power to see things visually. Part of our role is helping others understand ideas and concepts through visual presentation.

Some designers have shared that they can hear ideas or problems shared with them from product managers or other stakeholders, and in those moments they can visualize a solution in their mind.

So what’s race car thinking? It’s a concept that describes the speed of ones ability to think and process information. Lou Brown wrote a short (yet relatable) piece on “race-car brain” in ADHD folks that describes the potential upsides.

“- Is as quick as lightening.

– Is creative, adventurous, interesting and engaging.

– Accelerates at processing information and understanding concepts.

– Is great at problem solving and enjoys thinking outside the box.

– Will hyperfocus and break records when it’s fuel supply is in abundance.”

Of course with all things good come some “bad”, but the power of speed translated to design can be incredible when workshopping ideas and outcomes, generating solutions, suggesting features or product ideas, hypothesizing outcomes, and more.

Thinking “outside the box”

Some people describe neurodivergent individuals as being able to “think outside of the norm”. The way I see this concept as a “superpower” in business (and design in particular) is through the ability to provide a range of perspectives on how the problem can be solved when you approach your solutions through different lenses.

This is important because your organization can get stuck in patterns that have worked in the past, but might not work with current problems teams are aiming solve.

People with ADHD perceive and understand connections or “flows” that are not appreciated by others. We often take a “bird’s eye view” of things, analyzing “what-if” and hypothetical scenarios, creating tangents that we iterate through mentally in a flash. — Leveraging ADHD in Tech by Armando Pantoja

Product orgs (or businesses in general) seem to get stuck in the same line of thinking, often becoming inflexible over time if they’ve seen success even just once from that approach. I think of the lack of flexibility as ghosts. Product teams may start framing project outcomes around north star metrics that are the ghosts of previous success, set to haunt the future of your potential success.

Over the last 7 years of my career, I’ve seen that product stakeholders are less likely to take risks when they don’t understand the full spectrum of what you (or other designers) are proposing. Use your ability to see multiple paths forward to sketch out wireframes and flows that guide your team towards a shared understanding of the pros, cons, and potentials.


This is one of the “superpowers” I find myself using the most. Because of my natural love for design, my dopamine is already pumping when I’m working my 9–5, making is very easy for me to hyperfocus on my tasks and produce high quality work in a short amount of time.

For some, there is a range of “focus” when trying to get work done. It can jump between “splintered”, where you find you may be distracted and fighting yourself on the work needed to be done, or hyperfocused, where you’re able to to zero in intensely on an interesting project or activity for hours at a time

Researchers currently believe that hyperfocus results from abnormally low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is particularly active in the brain’s frontal lobes. This dopamine deficiency can make it difficult to shift gears to take on and complete the boring-but-necessary tasks in most jobs. — The Edge Foundation on “The Attention Spectrum”

While hyper-focusing may be a double edged sword, the upside is that you can inform yourself on your attention span in order to manage and strategically leverage it.

Some benefits in your design workflows may be:

  • Increased productivity: We can spend hours and hours in Figma or Adobe when it’s time to create UI / design assets, requiring close attention to detail, pixel by pixel, inch by inch, REM by REM, and so on and so forth. When engaged, the ADHD brain ignores surrounding distractions and maintains a prolonged and intense focus on a task.
  • Higher motivation and engagement: Motivation to complete tasks regardless of size skyrockets when we become stimulated by our work. Increasing engagement through heightened motivation enables us to work on our tasks actively until it’s completed.
  • Enhanced learning and memory retention: When stimulated and engaged, you’re more likely to remember new learnings or insights. For example, if part of your role involves interviewing users, you know there can be days spent digging through interview scripts and recordings to analyze and parse valuable insights for research takeaways/learnings. When you retain key pieces of information from your sessions, it reduces hours of time you may need to spend combing through recordings.
  • Overcome challenges faster: Being hyperfocused encourages you to persevere in solving problems. This persistence allows you to go further with ideas you generate, risks you gauge, screens you produce, and the number of paths you provide for problems and solutions.

Above all, the number one qualifier here is: do what you love. If you don’t love what you do, this superpower becomes more of a liability.

One article I read recently on Medium titled “The ADHD Superpower: Channeling Hyperfocus in the Tech World” by @Morten Petterøe spoke to this directly.

“What I’ve learned is that understanding oneself early on can save a lot of stress and heartache. And in the tech industry, ADHD can indeed be a superpower. The field’s nature — with its mix of deep, focused work and periods of lighter, creative brainstorming — aligns well with the ADHD brain.”

Be sure to balance along the way

Keep in mind, pitching the idea of 10 different paths to solve a problem won’t give you credibility. The secret to harnessing that “superpower” is being able to boil the problem down to it’s core goal and desired outcome, so you can make a direct connection to your “out of the box” proposals and how you see that impacting the overall business outcome.

Over time you’ll naturally refine any edges you may have within your processes or communication skills. The feedback you receive will start to shape itself into valuable qualities based on the output you produce.

Those could look like:

  • Generates ideas quickly ➡️ Has a strong product sense.
  • Able to think quickly through a range of problems ➡️ Critical thinker.
  • Provides multiple perspectives ➡️ Strong inclination towards product-led growth.
  • Not afraid to tack on big problem spaces ➡️ Ability to tackle complex systems design concepts with ease


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