Neurodivergence in Tradespeople

January 24, 2024

Neurodivergence in Tradespeople

Mainstream media is starting to acknowledge neurodivergence in our society, so it is no surprise that the trade industry is only just beginning to acknowledge the prevalence of neurodiversity in its workforce. 

Only a few months ago, On The Tools released “Behind the High Vis: a Mental Health White Paper.” This landmark study found that more than half (52%) of the tradespeople in the UK consider themselves to be neurodivergent. 

This statistic raises questions about the support structures available to neurodivergent students and whether a lack of support forces them to consider alternative options, such as apprenticeships, which tend to lead to more hands-on career paths. 

Speculations aside, one thing is clear. A significant percentage of tradespeople deal with the daily demands of being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. For neurotypical tradeswomen, the issue is exacerbated by the systemic sexism in the trade industry

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity is defined as a range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits. In short, this term covers conditions that impact the way people think. Individuals who have autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and Down Syndrome are classified as neurodiverse. 

Neurodiversity Spectrum Explained

Neurodiversity is an approach that appreciates the fact that neurological conditions (such as ADHD, autism, and dyslexia) are all part of normal variations in the human genome. 

Neurodiversity exists on a vast spectrum. Two people who have autism might share a lot of the same traits but at different ends of the spectrum. For person A, background noises are annoying and occasionally disrupt their concentration. But person B is extremely sensitive to sounds, meaning they can only go outside with noise-cancelling headphones. 

Neurodivergence in the Trade Industry

Let’s go back to that landmark white paper by On the Tools.

 Here are the findings. 

  • The neurodiverse condition most frequently experienced by UK tradespeople is ADHD/ADD (22%), followed by dyslexia (20%), and OCD/OCPD (15%)
  • Neurodiverse tradespeople are 19% more likely to experience mental health challenges than neurotypical tradespeople 
  • Neurodiverse tradespeople are 20% more likely to experience depression and/or anxiety than neurotypical tradespeople

These results are reflected in another study, this time from the National Federation of Builders (NFB). 

Here are the findings from “Neurodiversity in Construction”.

  • 1 in 4 construction workers consider themselves to be neurodiverse 
  • 33% of neurodiverse workers stated that their condition made them want to work in construction

There is limited research into neurodiversity in the trades. However, the few studies that do exist show that hands-on careers attract a high percentage of neurodivergent people.


Neurodiversity in Women vs. Men

Criteria for neurodivergent assessments centre around the male experience, leaving neurodivergent girls to struggle without a diagnosis for an average of 1.8 years longer than neurodivergent boys. And that figure only applies to girls and women who receive a diagnosis. The amount of men diagnosed with autism dwarfs the number of women who receive a diagnosis, with a ratio of 3:1

There are a few schools of thought that attempt to explain this gender disparity. One study hypothesised that “there is growing evidence of a camouflaging effect among females with autism spectrum disorder.” The “camouflaging effect” is better known as masking, a practice by which individuals suppress neurodivergent traits in front of others. 

The study surveyed 228 children to analyse the presentation of autistic traits in girls and boys. It found that an equal number of female and male subjects met the criteria for the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revisied (ADI-R) algorithm. Clearly, masking is not the problem. 

According to the study, the findings “raise questions about the sensitivity of gold standard autism diagnostic tools for females”, noting that girls in the study met other diagnostic criteria for ASD, just not the industry-standard criteria. 

Another school of thought is that men are the baseline for ASD diagnostic criteria, meaning female traits are ignored. This problem is present across the board, with women who have ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia also being subject to male-centric diagnostic criteria. 

One review of the gender disparity in ADHD diagnoses analysed 41 articles and concluded that “attitudes about ADHD among individuals with ADHD and knowledgeable informants (families, teachers, colleagues) vary on the basis of the diagnosed individual’s gender.” It goes on to say that inattentiveness is more common among women than the more widely recognised ADHD traits such as hyperactivity and impulsivity. Wider conversations around ADHD, which inevitably return to the hyperactivity aspect of the condition, are male-coded.

How Neurodivergence Impacts School & Higher Education

According to a 2022 study, 92.1% of children and young people who experienced distress at school were described as neurodivergent. Of those children, 84.3% were described as autistic. The study also found that autistic children and young people displayed school distress at a significantly earlier age, and it was significantly more enduring. 

Less than 40% of the people diagnosed with autism in the UK complete their university education. They are 10 times more likely to drop out, with a 60% dropout rate compared to the overall rate of 6.3%. The accommodations for neurodivergent students are varied, with some colleges and universities offering personalised plans and others providing a default baseline of just two weeks extra time to write a thesis.

Overall, neurodivergent needs are very rarely given the consideration they deserve. And with girls far less likely to receive a diagnosis (or even support for learning difficulties, sensory issues, and communication problems associated with neurodivergence), we have to wonder how many have been failed by the system. 

Why Are So Many Neurodiverse People Interested in the Trades?

Although the neurodiversity spectrum is broad and varied, there are a few common traits that might push neurodiverse people in the direction of the trade industry. 

  • Independence. Many neurodiverse people crave independence and struggle to flourish in confined settings with micromanagers. Hollie, a heating engineers who has been diagnosed with ADHD, put it best. She said, “I’ve got a, “Go away, I won’t do what you tell me to do” attitude.” 
  • Hands-on. It is common for neurodivergent people to prefer hands-on work. It’s theorised that sensory input allows neurodivergent tradespeople to regulate the non-stop chatter in their brains and focus on tasks. 
  • Mentorship. Some neurodivergent people struggle to work in group settings. The mentorship that comes with electrical, plumbing, and heating apprenticeships is a great alternative. 

Final Thoughts 

The statistics don’t lie; neurodivergent children in the UK are more likely to struggle with unrecognised social, sensory, and learning difficulties. Neurodivergent assessments are based on behaviours that are more common among boys and men, meaning girls and women are at risk of flying under the radar. 

The trade industry offers an appealing alternative to neurodivergent children and teenagers who are disillusioned by traditional school environments. The hands-on, problem-solving nature of trade jobs fits some of the more recognisable traits of autism and ADHD.

That being said, neurodivergent women in the trades may face more adversity than their male counterparts. The systemic sexism in the trade industry proves to be a never-ending invisible barrier and, considering that 52% of tradespeople identify as neurodivergent, tradeswomen experience double the social isolation and alienation. 

Rosie and Hollie are success stories; they have both been diagnosed with ADHD and work in the trades. You can read their stories here and here.

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