Everyone is different. Someone may work differently than you, and that’s okay!

Being a great leader isn’t just about leading in the workplace, it’s also about making a safe environment for everyone, even those who are neurodivergent and work differently than the rest.

Laura Matteson is a visual translator who helps intuitive leaders take complex or mysterious ideas and organize them into understandable visuals to help them boldly take their next steps forward. She loves helping other neurodivergent humans think and communicate in their own way so they can make an impact in their world.

In this episode, Laura talks about neurodivergence and how you can spot it in your workplace. She also shares some tips on what you can do to make your workplace a safe place for everyone, even those with neurodivergence so that you can maximize everyone’s potential.

What you will learn from this episode:

  • Find out what is neurodivergence and how does it look like in the workplace
  • Learn more about the power of communicating and speaking out in the workplace
  • Understand what are the different changes you can adapt in your workplace that can help neurodivergent people


Instead of saying that your neurotype is damaged and disordered, it [neuro-divergence] is saying that your neurotype is divergent from the norm, or what’s expected.

– Laura Matteson


Topics Covered:

01:21 – Laura shares about her business and who she helps

02:55 – What does neurodivergence mean?

04:29 – How can a neurodivergent do time management differently?

07:24 – Laura talks about her neurodivergent clients when it comes to handling neurodivergence

09:14 – How can you recognize neurodivergence in people?

12:47 – Can observing help you see if someone is neurodivergent?

13:47 – Laura shares how can you approach and communicate with a neurodivergent as a business leader

18:33 – What are the mistakes people typically make when working with neurodivergent people?

22:37 – Laura’s parting powerful tip: I use the analogy of labels on clothing. So we don’t use labels to determine if clothing is worthy or good or going to be useful for the task. We use the labels to tell us how to care for that garment and how it needs to be taken care of.

Key Takeaways:

“Knowing all the different ways that you’re different is the first step.” – Laura Matteson

“We’re just trying to do fun things all the time and take risks to get dopamine.” – Laura Matteson

“Other people might judge you, but it’s not their problem, because you have this different way of doing things. And so do these other people. And so you’re not alone.” – Laura Matteson

“Assume that they don’t know how to do it if they’re not doing it.” – Laura Matteson

“You can be professional and start work later and still do a wonderful job. And everything just needs to be transparent with the other person.” – Laura Matteson

Ways to Connect with Laura Matteson:

Ways to Connect with Sarah E. Brown:


Full Episode Transcript:

Laura Matteson  00:00  

Instead of saying that your neurotype is damaged and disordered, it [neuro-divergence] is saying that your neurotype is divergent from the norm, or what’s expected.

Sarah E. Brown  00:16  

Hello, everyone. Welcome to the KTS Success Factor Podcast for Women, where we talk about the challenges senior female leaders face in being happy and successful at work. I’m your host, Dr. Sarah E. Brown. 

Sarah E. Brown  00:36  

My guest today is Laura Matteson. She is a visual translator who helps intuitive leaders take complex or mysterious ideas and organize them into understandable visuals to help them boldly take their next steps forward. She loves helping other neurodivergent humans think and communicate in their own way so they can make an impact in the world. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. So, Laura, welcome. 

Laura Matteson  01:09  

Hi, thank you for having me!

Sarah E. Brown  01:11  

I’m excited about this topic! So tell us a little bit more about your business now– who you’re helping and what problem they typically have when they come to you. 

Laura Matteson  01:21  

Sure! So I started in illustration and branding. And that’s pretty well known in the business industry, like how you show up online. I noticed pretty quickly that I was attracting a lot of clients who had trouble communicating their ideas and had really big visions and were often multi-passionate. And so we were trying to juggle this, the common business norms of picking one thing and sticking to it, having a very concise elevator pitch with how they thought. 

And I started realizing that there was this whole group of people who were very passionate, very creative, and stumbled over their words and apologized for everything they did because they were running late, and they were having these jumbled thoughts. And I was like, “I think that this is a group of people who could use some support in the online space to really communicate in their own way.” 

And that’s what we do now with Illustrative and I use visuals and acting things out and analogies to help people communicate their ideas so that they can be successful online too, with their businesses. And mostly we focus on client experience because that’s really where they can excel with how they treat their clients. And that’s really good marketing as well because if you have a wonderful experience, then you attract team members, and you attract other people. So that’s where we like to focus, and those are the kinds of people that I help– just people who are full of energy and ideas, and feel scattered but also energized and visionaries and people like that.

Sarah E. Brown  02:46  

What a beautiful way to find a niche! I just think that’s so cool. And so you call these people neurodivergent. So what does that mean? 

Laura Matteson  02:55  

Yeah, neurodivergent is a larger accepted term for people who think differently. So I actually talked about neurodivergent people in different ways. So in the medical field, we call it disorders. And so there’s ADHD, autism, dyslexia, schizophrenia, and it just keeps going on. There are so many disorders. So that can feel damaging because when you’re told that you have a disorder, you’re like, “Oh, well, I guess I’m broken. And so that’s the end of it.” 

But neuro divergence was actually developed in the Autistic community, and then was embraced by many other leaders. Because instead of saying that your neurotype is damaged and disordered, it’s saying that your neurotype is divergent from the norm, or what’s expected. And so you’re actually just doing things differently which is a great thing to have when you’re an entrepreneur or a leader, or a visionary. 

So it’s just helping people realize that our brains are different, not broken. And coming from that space, you can still mourn that some things are hard for you. It’s hard for us to sit still and show up on time. But because we know that our brain has trouble with that, we can think, “Okay, my brain’s different, I have to approach time management differently. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I just can’t do time management.'” So that’s why I like the term, neurodivergent. It’s very inclusive, and it puts us in a space of empowerment, rather than feeling like we just can’t be in society.

Sarah E. Brown  04:20  

Well, since you brought it up, if I were neurodivergent in that way, e.g. I find myself being scattered, bouncing around, and stuff like that. How do I do time management differently?

Laura Matteson  04:31  

Oh, sure! So it depends on what kind of blend of neuro divergence you have. And when I say that, I mean, a lot of people will start with a typical neuro-divergence. Let’s say you have ADHD. And because you grow up realizing that you might not know you have ADHD, but you grew up realizing you’re different, you try to mask it. And then you might get what’s called comorbidities like anxiety, and other things that come along that kind of cause you to feel a little more scattered. So knowing all the different ways that you’re different is the first step. Just realizing how time works for you. 

So for me, I have ADHD. And my time management is affected by the fact that I have trouble prioritizing because everything in my brain is moving so fast. I can’t stop it and make it still to look at it, which a lot of the ADHD medication helps with that, just like holding thoughts still. But I can also do that by putting it on paper, by putting it into an analogy or a story to help me just prioritize what I’m working on. Like, what is the big picture right now? What is important? Also, when I’m doing time management, I need a calendar that’s flexible, that I can easily move things and that I can quickly add in thoughts and notes, but it doesn’t clutter so much that I can’t keep track of what appointments are coming up, and something that gives me reminders. So I’ll use Google Calendar because I know I need to be able to set reminders. I need to be able to drag and drop things. So knowing what you need is helpful. A lot of people will use timers too. So they’ll say, “I’m going to work for this period of time. And when the timer goes off, I do the next thing.” 

The main thing is just knowing what is difficult for you. Like if it’s hard to end something and pull away from a task, come up with some sort of strategy. Whether it’s multiple timers going off to help you close out a task, or having something really fun planned to do right after that, so you end the task. And whatever the time management issue is that you keep running into, make it fun so you get that dopamine. Because ADHDers lack dopamine, which gives you happy feelings so you can finish a task. We’re just trying to do fun things all the time and take risks to get dopamine. So if you know that, then you can say, “Oh, I’m gonna go have my favorite travel after this”, or “I’m gonna go for a little run” as another way to get dopamine, and you know that you’ve planned that for yourself. So it’s really just awareness.

Sarah E. Brown  06:49  

Well, and so one of the things you could be aware of– because I’m big into helping people understand their needs, becoming aware of their needs– one of the things that you’ve mentioned that I just want to reiterate, is this idea of being acutely aware of what’s difficult for you or seems to be more difficult for you than for other people. I get that. Do you find that your neurodivergent clients understand that when they come to you? Or are they in the process of discovering that when they start to work with you?

Laura Matteson  07:24  

Yeah, they definitely know that it’s hard. But often they’ve been told, as they were growing up, that they should stop being lazy. They should try harder. They should know it by now. So that’s their inner voice. They’re like, “Oh, man, I’m so stupid. I should know this”, or like, “I’ll just try harder. I’ll figure it out. What I need is a system.” And that’s like the kind of words that you hear them say, or they keep apologizing for themselves. So they know it internally, but there isn’t that kind of, kind awareness where you’re like, “Oh, this is just difficult for me.” 

And one of the big things that a lot of my clients discover or like about working with me and meeting other people in my community is that they’re not the only ones who struggle with it. That’s the big “Aha!” moment. And they’re like, “Oh, there are other people who have been what we call ‘masking’, like covering up and pretending like you don’t have that difficulty. There are other people who have that difficulty? Okay! I’m not like the only one that’s having trouble with this.” So there’s that joy of finding other people and realizing, “Oh, I’m actually not alone. I’m not that weird.” 

And, then there’s also a little bit of mourning of like, “Okay, I actually do think differently. I’m never going to be able to do this thing.” So there’s the letting go of it and being like, “Okay, I’m more than that. I’m not gonna be superwoman over here. That’s not even possible for me in that way.” And then once you get through that mourning process, and you connect with those other people who are also different with you, you can start collecting new ideas for doing things differently. And just accepting that you do things differently. Other people might judge you, but it’s not their problem, because you have this different way of doing things. And so do these other people. And so you’re not alone.

Sarah E. Brown  09:05  

Okay! And if I’m a leader in an organization, how can I recognize this in the people that report to me?

Laura Matteson  09:14  

Yeah. Well, I always like to remind people that everybody in your team is human and dealing with things. So something shows up that might look neurodivergent, but might just be they’re really low on sleep, or they have a newborn and so they’re feeling scattered. So taking care of neurodivergent people requires just kind of changing your overall how you approach your leadership so that everyone’s getting the same kind of support. So that way, you don’t have to necessarily pinpoint someone and be like, “Okay, this person’s neurodivergent, so I will use this tool on them” because then we start to put people in boxes. So I just like to cover that first. 

Once you figure out that people could be thinking differently, just open up the floor for asking if people need accommodations, like “Would you like to leave a voice note instead?” or “Would you like to start to work a little bit earlier or later and come in or leave a little bit later?” So just having those things available. But when you identify someone, often, they will apologize all the time for themselves. I just noticed it all the time. They’re like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m late”, or “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t. I’m not making any sense”, or “I forgot the word. Hold on, I’m sorry.” And so those kinds of things just happen a lot. Or because there are so many different neuro divergences, that would be an ADHDer, they also interrupt a lot. They run late. 

Though the main way you can tell us if they’re telling sentences, and within their sentence, they started a new sentence. And within that sentence, they start another new sentence. And their narrative is all choppy like that. And then for autism, they have favorite things that they like to do over and over again that make them feel comfortable. So if there’s if they are constantly doing the same structured things each day that can kind of give it away. 

And if people have highs of emotion, and then loads of emotion, and it seems like an instant that they switch gears, that could be a neuro divergence, as well. But again, that could just be a really stressed parent at work that day. So helping neurodivergent people is going to help all those people, that people who like structure just because that’s how they were raised, or the people who are feeling tired. You’re helping more than just neurodivergent people when you’re looking out for somebody having an emotional day, or somebody interrupting a lot, or something like that.

Sarah E. Brown  11:38  

Hi, this is Sarah Brown, again, the host of the KTS Success Factor Podcast for Women. I hope you are enjoying this episode, and gaining some tips and inspiration on how you can be happier, more successful, and experience less stress at work. If you would like to learn more about how you can take control of your career, and do it your way, visit sarahebrown.com. There you will be able to download a free chapter from my book, Let Your Personality Be Your Career Guide. It contains information and exercises on how you can identify your unique interests, strengths, and needs, and translate that into career goals that are just right for you. Now back to this informative episode! 

Sarah E. Brown  12:32  

So you gave some good clues to look at– apologizing, always being late, starting sentences in sentences before completing any sentences. You know, things like that. Would it be fair to summarize to say just observe without judgment?

Laura Matteson  12:47  

Oh, yes, definitely! I would observe. And you can tell when you’re observing, you start to notice if people are feeling like they aren’t meeting expectations, even if you haven’t even told them that they did anything wrong, because that means that they’ve been masking, most likely. They’re trying to appear as someone that’s not themselves. And so that’s kind of a good clue if they just seem uncomfortable all the time for no good reason. Like they’re coming in trying to explain something that went wrong. In their everyday life, they’re often coming across as needing to apologize for things, and that’s usually a pretty big giveaway– how they’re energetically showing up in a room kind of already feeling like they’re behind.

Sarah E. Brown  13:31  

Okay, got it! Okay, so once I recognize this as a leader in someone else, how do I learn to communicate differently, and figure out what adaptations I should consider or suggest? How do I go about doing that?

Laura Matteson  13:47  

So one is just to know the different formats of communication that you can offer. So you can meet in person. You can offer, what I like to suggest, Loom as a platform, but a lot of businesses have different things, but a little screen share or video where you can just walk through things and send them a video. You can talk on the phone. You can show examples and pictures. Like just thinking about all the different ways that you can show someone something besides just telling them in words is helpful because a lot of people who are neurodivergent don’t process the words the same as other people. 

So you might tell someone with ADHD, “Hey, I need this task done by tomorrow at this time.” And they have time blindness, as well as just the words are just whooped right in there with everything else. So they’re not going to remember. So if you start to notice that they aren’t doing the task, and you have to keep reminding them, for example, then you might want to set up some sort of reminder system like adding it to their calendar. And you can just ask and say like, “Would you like me to add this into your Google Calendar? Or would you like to go ahead and take a moment to put this into your calendar”, or “I’ll send you a calendar invite”– things like that where you can just offer it. 

But I would say when you’re looking for a tool besides the basic business tools that are set up to help people remember things and show up and do a task, besides that, assume that they don’t know how to do it if they’re not doing it. 

So instead of them not doing the task, and being like, “Oh, they’re just trying to avoid doing the work”, I would first question, “Do they actually know how to use the program? Does the task make sense? Or is the task really big to them, even though it seems small to me, and it needs to be broken up into small bits?” And you can just ask! You can say, “Hey, I noticed this task isn’t done yet. Do you want me to break it down into small tasks? Are we having trouble getting started? What do you feel is tough?” 

So you can give them some starter prompts of things that could be going wrong. And then let them tell you what’s going wrong. I like to give the starter prompts because it’s just saying like, “Hey, why isn’t this task done?” Like, they might not know why, especially if they don’t have their diagnosis or anything. And they don’t actually know that they’re neurodivergent, which is very common, especially for females. 

And also just noticing what they do. So if they talk to you, and they’re trying to share their thoughts, and they say, “It’s like, when the squirrels are running up the trees”, and then they give an analogy. If they’re using those a lot, then you can use those with them. If they are trying to explain something, and they’re like, “Oh, here, let me just show you”, and they show it, then that might be what they need. They might need you to show it to them. 

And so just also observing how they tried to communicate with you and just reciprocating that back. And you don’t even have to jump to conclusions about it. You can say like, “I noticed you really like analogies. Would it be helpful if we made one for this project? So we kind of see like how it’s working in the big picture and like what you’re working on here.” Neuro-divergents who are working on tasks sometimes have trouble figuring out where it fits in the big picture. So just talking to them on a human level. 

And also, the last piece would be that no tool is too childish. So if they need to do some role-playing to practice some sales calls, or they need to see a video about how to do something or use characters from their favorite book or something to talk through possibilities when you’re practicing for maybe some client project coming up, that’s gonna go a long way and save you time and energy. Allowing them to communicate in their way and not saying that one form of communication is unprofessional or too childlike when it’s actually just helping them and meeting them at a human level in an area that might just not be making sense yet until you go to a more elementary way of demonstrating something.

Sarah E. Brown  17:46  

Okay. All right. So just a recap of where we are. It’s observing without judgment. It’s not making assumptions. It’s using starter prompts, so you can get more information for you and for the individual, etc. Those are some good things to keep. It’s mimicking back the way they communicate. Always assuming that if something’s not happening is that they don’t know how, and then using starter prompts to figure that out. So all really good things, which, frankly, would work with anybody! So are there any mistakes that people typically make in trying to work with people in their organization who might be neurodivergent?

Laura Matteson  18:34  

Yeah, I think a lot of us have what’s called ‘ableism’ passed down to us because of when neurodivergent people were institutionalized in the past for being crazy, and people not wanting them in society way back then. And then over time, we’ve realized that we’re all actually able to contribute in our own different ways. And so society’s more encouraging, but we still have the leftover, like, “That’s crazy”. Like, “That’s weird. I don’t want it to happen that way!” Like having things be different, we have this clash of how we want a task to be done. “And this other person is doing it some crazy way. And I don’t like that.” 

So I think that some mistakes that happen are one using this ableist language, like telling someone that they’re weird, or what they’re doing is crazy, or things like that. And not prioritizing mental health and that if somebody says they really can’t do that right now, or that they need to take a quick break, instead of assuming that they’re lazy, be like, “Okay, they just need the break, and they’ll be back.” Sometimes it feels scary, like, “Oh, they’re gonna just waste the time and not actually get the task done.” 

And maybe at the beginning, there might be some tension there where everyone’s trying to land and figure out what’s going on. But it’s a good way to develop the trust that when someone says “No”, it means no. When someone says “I need a break”, it means I need a break, and Just being able to have an honest conversation with someone about that. There are leaders who will feel like, “Oh, they’re, they’re disrespecting me”, or “They’re being lazy, and they’re not being productive.” And so you try to fix them to be productive. 

Even if your values don’t align with that, it might just be a reaction that you, maybe, saw in childhood, or you learned in your leadership training that this is what respect looks like, and this is what professionalism looks like. But you can be professional and start work later and still do a wonderful job. And everything just needs to be transparent with the other person. 

And then a lot of people don’t sit and question why they’re expecting a certain thing to be done a certain way. So I think that is a challenge as well. We should be questioning everything right now as things are being restructured, and people are doing things a different way, post-COVID. It will make what you do more innovative, and it will help your team stick around more. Because if you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know why lunch has to be at noon. I guess that’s just always been the time. So you can take your break between this window of time, just be consistent. So let’s pick a time that works for your body. And that will be your lunchtime each day.” But if you do have a reason for it, like, “We have to do it at noon because, at 1 PM, every day, this thing is happening.” 

So just sitting there and questioning, “Why am I expecting this?” And then see if you actually have a real thing behind it. Neurodivergence is great about providing that for our businesses because we start to question everything, like, “Why do you have to have your camera on during this meeting? You actually don’t. If you need to walk around, you can”, and then, “Oh, during this meeting, we need to sit because we’re doing this interactive thing” or “We need to do- whatever.”

So there are little things like that, where as much as you can let a person be a human and have human needs like they need to take a restroom break, drink water, fidget with something like, that’s really not going to hurt anything in the long run if you’re letting them be human. And if there’s a moment where that’s not possible, just explaining the “why” can go a long way. A lot of people just need to know why you’re expecting it to be done that way. And just picking your battles, I guess, with what’s really important for the big picture, and what actually is just passed down and you’re not even sure why that’s a rule anymore. And so maybe it’s time to question it.

Sarah E. Brown  22:26  

Laura, what question should I have asked you that I didn’t that would help my audience recognize neurodivergence and take maximum advantage of it in the workplace?

Laura Matteson  22:35  

I mean, you asked very good questions. I feel like I’ve pretty much said everything I would want to say because the main point that I usually like to get across to people is we talk about these labels because they help us care for people. And I use the analogy of labels on clothing. So we don’t use labels to determine if clothing is worthy or good or going to be useful for the task. 

We use the labels to tell us how to care for that garment and how it needs to be taken care of. And so these labels will help us know what kind of tools we can use and how we can take care of the people in our space. But as you said, it helps everyone. 

And so, I would just want everyone to remember that these are starters. And then you can just drop the labels and just have an inclusive space where everyone gets to show up as themselves. And we don’t have to figure out who’s who at some point. So this is kind of a turnover where we can say, “Okay, these people are neurodivergent. I’m neurodivergent. What am I going to do about it?” And then eventually, your space will be inclusive enough. That it just doesn’t matter, that people will just be able to show up as themselves.

Sarah E. Brown  23:42  

Very cool! Laura, where can my listeners find you?

Laura Matteson  23:45  

So my business is called Illustrative and my website is illustrative.us. I have a membership there where people come and learn how to create visual aids to help their neurodivergent clients, which helps everyone. So just to help people get on the same page and to share your vision. And I’m also on Instagram at the same handle @illustrative.us. And I like to hang out in the stories there with people who love to email as well. So just showing up at the website, you’ll find all the places, tons of free articles and supportive tools to get started with this kind of work.

Sarah E. Brown  24:20  

So Laura, thank you so much for being with me today!

Laura Matteson  24:23  

Thank you for having me. 

Sarah E. Brown  24:25  

Thanks for listening to the KTS Success Factor Podcast for Women. If you like what you’re hearing, please go to iTunes to subscribe, rate us, and leave a review. And if you would like more information on how we can help women in your organization to thrive, then go to www.sarahebrown.com. You can sign up for our newsletter, read show notes and learn more about our podcast guests, read my blog, browse through the books, or contact us for a chat. Goodbye for now!

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