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The challenges of engineering with ADHD

For Ian Spruce, a Principal Process Engineer with engineering consultancy SMEC, being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) helped explain some personal and professional challenges he had faced during his career in the water sector – as well as illuminate some of his strengths.

Spruce will discuss his experiences with ADHD in a presentation at Ozwater’23 in May titled “Engineering with a neurodivergent brain”. Looking at neurodiversity and ADHD, he will explore questions about brain function, chemistry and dopamine, challenges to executive function, and how neurodivergence can be a strength.

Spruce said that he had trouble with prioritisation and some executive function tasks.

“There's obviously a range of experiences with ADHD, and people deal with it and cope with it differently,” he said.

Being diagnosed relatively late in life – around the age of 40 – meant Spruce had already advanced quite far in his career before he found an explanation for some of the difficulties he was confronting.

“As I progressed within my career, those limitations became more and more problematic,” he said.

“For me, it was seeing that there were aspects about my work that I did not like and that I seemed to be unable to change that led me to my diagnosis,” he said.

A journey, not a single point

Even though identifying the issue made a difference, it did not change Spruce’s life overnight.

“It's definitely been a journey rather than a single point in time where I experienced an inflection,” he said.

“It helped me understand a little bit about some of the challenges I faced. Getting diagnosed and getting medicated was quite a change – a profound change – in my experience.

“At first, the change was so significant that it felt like everything was fixed and I could move on with life. But the fundamental issues – the limitations on some of these executive functional skills like planning and prioritising – are still there.”

Like many other neurodivergent people who had found success in fields such as engineering, Spruce said he exhibits a high-functioning form of ADHD.

Spruce has found that medication helps him a lot, but he describes it as a tool, not a solution. And having a mind that works a bit differently to other peoples’ can have its advantages.

“One of the things that comes with ADHD is this sense of hyper-focus,” he said.

“It's called hyper-focus because I will zone in on something and ignore everything else. It can be problematic because you lose track of everything else, but it does also allow me to take in a huge amount of information and data in a very condensed period and see links in it.

“I think that people with neurodivergence can excel at processing data in different ways, and that's one place where I see a positive impact.”

Despite possessing strengths such as these, not all organisations are set up to allow people with neurodivergent brains to work at their best.

“One thing that I'll talk about in the presentation is the idea of round holes and square pegs. The industry still consists of a lot of round holes, and even though people who are square pegs can be quite valuable within organisations, they’re sometimes just not going to fit in the round holes,” Spruce said.

“It can be very challenging for neurodivergent people. Your strengths can be appreciated and can benefit projects and the other people working with you, but the typical way of working is not something you can easily adapt to.”

Beginning a discussion

Spruce hopes that by discussing his challenges he can help other people feel more comfortable sharing their own experiences, particularly as more and more workplaces gain a better understanding of neurodivergence.

“What I would really love is for people to be comfortable coming forward and saying that they are neurodivergent, acknowledging the challenges that this brings, and be able to put in some strategies to work with it,” he said.

“I'm far along enough in my career that I'm a bit more confident with talking about these things. I know my limitations, but it's a little harder for some younger people.

“Some people might not easily fit into a group or an organisation, but they can bring some really tremendous benefits if you can find the right way to use their skills.”

Interested in hearing more about Spruce’s experience as a neurodivergent engineer?
Register for Ozwater’23 here