Here’s an opening statement: I have ADHD and I am a better dispatcher for it! Think I’m kidding? Well, just let me explain what I mean.
… This population of valued, influential, dynamic, and multi-faceted individuals is rapidly growing…
I recently taught a police mandate class on the topic of handling individuals with mental health issues and developmental delays. This was not my first time teaching this class (it was my third time in fact), and it’s become one of my favorites to deliver because as part of my presentation I have incorporated strategies and tips on how to communicate with neurodivergent individuals. I have a few introductory slides in my PowerPoint devoted to addressing the fact that policing in 2023 means being conscious of serving and protecting people who simply may process things differently than the average person (what is classified as “neurodivergent”). In fact, neurodivergent refers to anyone who exhibits an atypical cognitive variation such as ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, ADD, OCD, etc. Neurodiversity might seem like another new and trendy buzzword to cater to millennials, but the simple reality is that this population of valued, influential, dynamic, and multi-faceted individuals is rapidly growing, and they are finally being seen. I know because I belong to that population. (Yep, I’m that thirtysomething who was diagnosed late in life and now can’t get enough of ADHD-related memes on Instagram.)
Now, back to the mandate class… This time around I found that my audience of fresh-faced and bright-eyed police recruits seemed particularly enraptured by my presentation and was unusually very much at the end of my seat. I thought to myself that surely while I have been complimented before on my “stage presence” and delivery as an instructor, I couldn’t possibly be this engaging. They were asking questions and asking me to go back on certain slides so they could take additional notes. I discussed my own challenges from my emotional dysregulation to the difficulties I face in concentrating on tasks to the wars I rage internally with my obsessive, racing thoughts that sometimes disrupt my whole day. I correlated these challenges to ways that it might affect how someone responds to an officer (one of them, potentially) in a routine interaction, whether it’s a traffic stop or a pedestrian stop. I used myself for illustration on how certain behaviors of mine might be interpreted by police as “nervous, guilty” behavior or as signs of some non-compliance when it could just be that I don’t know how to process that particular request or I don’t understand what is being asked of me or I simply do not know what to do with my hands or face.
“The neurodivergent population is more prevalent than many even realize, and, notwithstanding, it accounts for many in professions like ours.”
Eventually, one brave recruit raised her hand drawing my attention to her. I suppose now that she spoke for the majority of the class when she asked me with a sheepish grin on her face, “Umm…instructor, well, is it weird if I feel like I identify personally with just about everything you have listed to describe the neurodivergent population, because all of this really resonates with me?” A few other hands sprouted up and others chimed in with their reflections and admissions as well on how they identified with all that I was describing and how they too felt that maybe they fit into one category or another. I kind of chuckled out loud and answered them all emphatically that it probably was true that my slides were resonating so personally to them. The neurodivergent population is more prevalent than many even realize and notwithstanding it accounts for many in professions like ours, I told them, with a straight face. From law enforcement to firefighters to 911 telecommunicators, we gravitate to professions like these because for all of the emotional and mental dysregulation that goes on with us normally, we somehow find order and structure and routine in the everyday chaos of our jobs in public safety. There is a strange algorithm to the madness we deal with, especially in dispatch, and we tend to thrive in the middle of it all.
“There is a strange algorithm to the madness we deal with, especially in dispatch, and we tend to thrive in the middle of it all.”
So, how really do we make it work… dispatching effectively and efficiently with our masterfully complicated brains? It turns out that the different ways in which we see the world and we process situations can be quite beneficial in the bigger picture.
The little-known secret to having ADHD is that it isn’t so much that we have a “deficit” in our ability to focus or pay attention to tasks, it is more like we have difficulty regulating what we give our attention to and how well we focus on one task versus another task. For example, you may give me a job to do that doesn’t exactly hold my attention or appeals to me on an emotional level, and I might not be able to focus properly on that job or task. But if it’s something that I enjoy doing, or I am passionate about, then I can zone in or “hyper focus” for hours on working on that task or assignment and this allows me to focus my full attention to performing at my best. The most passionate and efficient dispatchers are those who have a way of tuning out everything going on around them and focusing their total energy and attention on their police radio. Because of this, their radio ear is often stellar, and they have such astute awareness of what is going on over the frequency or frequencies they are monitoring.
“The most passionate and efficient dispatchers are those who have a way of tuning out everything going on around them and focusing their total energy and attention on their police radio.”
Our social superpowers tend to be amazing! Studies have recognized that persons with ADHD exhibit higher levels of empathy, feeling, humor, and may even present a more positive and optimistic approach to situations. In the world of emergency telecommunications, emotional intelligence is so severely underrated. The biggest part of our job is communicating pertinent messages, instructions, guidance, and directions to those who need our help in their moments of need. It is communication and effective delivery of these messages in a way that meets the caller where they are at emotionally and mentally. We are adept at communicating with individuals in some of the lowest, darkest moments of their life and gathering important information from them that we need to relay to our responders. We often employ such key human virtues as empathy, compassion, and patience to de-escalate escalating or difficult situations, and we use positivity to inspire calm in our callers. We can be improvisational and creative in our approaches to help our callers engage with us and we know how to uniquely tune into them to hear what they are saying and even not saying, specifically.
Resiliency & Flexibility
As dispatchers, we are always adapting and overcoming through situations. Oftentimes, being neurodivergent, we have a great sense of mental flexibility that we demonstrate in our uncanny ability to “roll with the punches” and adapt to changing circumstances. Our brains are already atypical in its approach to life and the world around us. We can be incredibly spontaneous and impulsive, and from a positive viewpoint, this can translate into being excellent critical thinkers or problem-solvers when we suddenly meet challenges or setbacks. If all hell breaks loose, we may be the first ones to react and jump headfirst into the flames because our courageousness in the face of unplanned situations propels us to act fast and think fast on our feet. We excel in the dispatch environment because of our capacity to bounce back effortlessly from challenging calls and difficult radio traffic. That’s not to say that we don’t feel stressed or get burnt out or have days where we just don’t have it in us to give the job our all, but we manage to find it in ourselves to still show up and give it all that we have that day.
“We may be the first ones to jump headfirst into the flames, because our courageousness in the face of unplanned situations propels us to act fast and think fast on our feet.”
Finally, let’s talk about hyperactivity. Who says that having high amounts of energy is necessarily a bad thing? Ever wondered how we can make a hectic twelve-hour shift on the floor look like a normal nine-to-five? How we miraculously convert cups of coffee into brain fuel and have all this energy to burn in an environment that requires us to bring 120% of ourselves to the job with no questions asked. It’s no secret that for those of us with ADHD, this profession just matches our energy perfectly. It occupies our senses, involves our whole body, and gives us an outlet for all that boundless energy. It’s basically the “ultimate best thing we could do with our hands” kind of job. Working in a fast-paced, high-traffic workplace calls upon us to be high-energy and high-octane at times. That isn’t a problem for our neurodivergent brain when we naturally perform better in environments where we are engaged rather than in a state of inertia. We are human batteries that just keep going over the course of the day. Give us a task and a goal as well as the tools to get the job done, and we can perform for hours on end. Anyone else would think it’s superhuman, but it’s our normal.
“This profession matches our energy perfectly. It occupies our senses, involves our whole body, and gives us an outlet.”
So, for all of the challenges or judgements or mislabeling that may come with a diagnosis of ADHD, there are real benefits for us in dispatch, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!