A Firefighter

The neurodivergent firefighter

Recently, I had the privilege of working with an exceptional individual called Alex, who serves as a neurodivergent firefighter. For Alex, this entails managing his ADHD traits amidst various responsibilities and priorities. Throughout our coaching discussions, we talked about strategies that have proven helpful for Alex in effectively managing his daily tasks. Moreover, I was fascinated by the incredible stories shared by Alex – stories that not only inspired but also shed light on how we can enhance inclusivity for all individuals.

The neurodivergent firefighter and the dog!

One particular story stood out: Alex would take his dog with him when running errands on several occasions to ensure his dog got his daily exercise. However, during one outing to the shops, he unintentionally left his dog behind and returned home without realising. Only when he received a call from the shop later did he realise he had left his dog. Although seemingly trivial for Alex, this incident was significant as it highlighted his realisation that he needed a visible reminder to trust his memory.

The power of buddy checks

This was the push in Alex’s journey towards self-discovery, which led him down a path where he looked at the fundamentals that had proven invaluable during his time as a firefighter. Among these ideas were buddy checks, which involved a simple yet crucial act of confirming with your partner that everything was in order before tackling a fire. However, this practice extended beyond on-site; it started at the fire station, where meticulous preparation and confirmation ensured all necessary equipment was readily available for emergency responses. Alex wholeheartedly integrated buddy checks into every facet of his work, instilling a sense of responsibility within himself and his entire watch team. This approach fostered an environment where nothing was taken for granted; instead, they consistently questioned and supported one another to ensure thorough preparations.

Reflecting on the dog story, Alex became aware of how transitions impact him. Moving from one job to another often challenges him, leading to mistakes, forgetfulness, or overlooking important details. Similarly, in firefighting, thresholds are discussed as significant moments of transition.

Crossing thresholds

When crossing a threshold, such as moving from one room to another in a burning building, it’s crucial to assess the situation and ensure the safety of yourself and the team before proceeding. However, this concept of thresholds applies not only in dramatic cases but also in everyday life whenever we move or shift spaces. These thresholds allow us to evaluate and plan for what we can do differently. In previous blog posts, I referred to these as meerkat moments, emphasising the need to pause and quickly assess if we have everything we need before progressing. Alex’s fear of transitions stems from his understanding of the potential consequences if he forgets something or loses perspective. Having solid processes in place transforms his ability to manage this effectively.

Why we need to splash

During another of our conversations, we discussed how individuals react when exposed to cold water. Falling into cold water triggers an automatic response in our bodies – taking a deep breath in. If someone is in cold water, it could lead to drowning due to swallowing excessive amounts of water into the lungs. Alex shared an insight about firefighters and their training routine – they habitually splash their faces with cold water before venturing into any cold-water environment to counteract this instinctive reflex. As we contemplated this together, we realised adopting a similar approach can be beneficial when confronted with unappealing tasks or assignments. You can effectively move forward and make meaningful progress by gradually engaging with tasks and progressively squashing any fear or panic that may arise from unfamiliar territory. Alex has found immense value in applying this strategy.

Make it a rule so it can become a habit

Alex also mentioned establishing a rule that eventually becomes ingrained as a habit. In the field of firefighting, there exist a lot of processes and procedures that need learning and execution. Mastering these requires years of practice, continuous evaluation, and retraining. This can only be achieved by making it a rule to consistently perform tasks until they become second nature, forming muscle memory.

Moving forward as a neurodivergent firefighter

When discussing change, Alex emphasised the importance of determination and progression in the role of a firefighter. For instance, if they determine that entering a building is too hazardous, that decision must remain fixed unless circumstances change. The same principle applies when managing our neurodiverse characteristics. At times, we may conclude that a particular course of action is best for us but then face challenges due to fear, rejection and anxiety about disappointing others. Alex made it a rule that once a decision is made, it can’t be changed unless there is a significant shift in the surrounding circumstances.

Finding the right routes

Alex opened up about an exciting quirk he had noticed about himself. Whenever he is in an empty car park, he unconsciously follows the white lines instead of taking a direct path in his car. This behaviour frustrates him because if he were paying attention, he would take the direct route; however, when it comes to problem-solving or working through challenges, he often experiences a similar feeling of uncertainty and hesitation. During our coaching sessions, we explored strategies for Alex to navigate this metaphorical car park more efficiently and avoid wasting time and effort on unnecessary steps. Alex described this journey as navigating a complex maze with someone who understands his unique perspective and can provide practical guidance on moving forward.

Email title “Do Not Read”

He expressed how one of our interactions had impacted him. During our conversation, he mentioned some actions he wanted to start but struggled to do. This led me to jokingly ask, “shall I send you an email titled do not read this?”. We found humour in it, but upon reflection, we realised that the headline could be the most effective way to grab his attention and motivate him to take action. It symbolised a new, exciting, and forbidden way to communicate, which would have made Alex eager to open the email and tackle the necessary tasks. While it may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, it highlights the importance of keeping work engaging.

Putting the lens of the neurodivergent firefighter at the centre

So, what does that resemble? In my conversation with Alex, some of the strategies he found beneficial include establishing agreements beforehand, clarifying expectations and requirements, implementing necessary processes, and revisiting and confirming previous contracts. Additionally, including symbols in his work would help with effective communication. We discussed red and yellow cards as Alex is a passionate football fan, and he quickly grasped the concept. Yellow cards remind him and others to pause and reconsider their actions in minor setbacks. Red cards are valuable to stop and thoroughly assess in more severe situations. Placing ADHD at the centre of discussions with Alex ensures that it is not a taboo subject but rather an open topic that can be explored collaboratively to determine the most effective path forward.


Alex’s work life has been impacted by his journey of self-discovery and understanding of his ADHD. He now realises the need to manage these challenges to produce his best work effectively. Alex is better equipped to handle difficult situations by focusing on amplifying his strengths. The conversations with Alex have been insightful, I am eager to see his future progress and I hope this information proves helpful.

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