Neurodiversity: The Power of Mentors and Community


Dave Brebner is a successful teacher and career coach who has lived with Tourette's Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety since an early age. With qualifications in educational neuroscience and career development, Dave is now driven to support others. He offers presentations on neurodiversity and inclusion, sharing his story to inspire others to improve their lives. 

In 1962, I was born into an average working-class family. Seven years later, something strange happened to me. I felt an irresistible urge to shake my head and continuously clear my throat. I also began to have the compulsion to make grunting and squeaking noises and developed obsessions and fears.

I soon found myself in front of our family doctor whose opinion was, “The fact that young David does this sometimes and not others indicates a level of control of his actions. Because of certain things that have occurred in the family over the last few years, I imagine it is an attention-seeking device, and he will most certainly grow out of it. Nothing to worry about.”

Being hardly noticeable when in public, I could conceal the compulsions while at primary school. But at age 13, my compulsions greatly amplified with grunting and many very antisocial actions and behaviours. I became the target of terrible bullying and teasing, and some students were even allowed to imitate my ‘tics’ while the teacher would pretend not to notice.

My actions and compulsion became far worse, the tapping of objects, doing things in patterns and only even numbers, and repeating noises and words became a continual part of my day. Some teachers, thinking that I was being deliberately disruptive, made me do demoralising things like sit on an upside-down chair at the front of the class, leaving me there to shake. 

I developed a deep fear of people, creating coping mechanisms like holding my breath to not stutter. But little was known about Tourette's Syndrome in the 1970s. After being admitted as a day patient to a child psychiatric unit, I was heavily medicated. While it stopped my outward conditions, it also stopped me from functioning much at all. 

A prominent professor told my parents that I was disabled and would probably not achieve much in my future. He advised I may suit menial factory tasks that were not in the public eye. I left school, uninterested and tired of the attention. I spent six months on unemployment benefits and although trying for a few jobs, I couldn’t gain employment.

Getting Unstuck - The Power of Mentors

In 1979, I was enrolled into a ‘sheltered workshop’ for the disabled. My first task was to spend 8 hours a day weighing and packing rubber bands. After 6 months, I progressed to the crayon packing department and the cleaning department.

After this, I was moved to metalwork, where a retired aircraft engineer took me under his wing. This kind-hearted, slightly eccentric man, Ian Keene, inspired me to try things and work with lathes, welders, and engineering equipment. This awakened something within me and I realised I could do more with my life. 

New Skills and Self-Acceptance - The Power of Community

My fear of people began to diminish, and although my condition ebbed and flowed, I found my self-acceptance beginning to eclipse the problems created by it. Through the persistence of my parents, a few lifelong friends, and a large church youth group, I came to life. I saw a future for myself, and I wanted to develop a path to reach my goals. 

I gained a local hardware store position and after three weeks of work experience stayed for 4 years. I trained new staff and studied courses to extend my knowledge. I found that I could easily motivate people, explain concepts, and impart ideas. I learned to view experimentation and mistakes as “healthy creativity “and did not tolerate put-downs or negativity.

I took on a piece of advice to successfully manage my career with my own Tourette’s, which was:

“In architecture, if you can’t hide something, you make a feature of it!”

After travelling the world, I gained an electrician apprenticeship, and after four years became licenced. By chance, I turned on the TV one day and observed a show character with my traits. What a shock! I had never met anyone like me and I quickly wrote down the condition’s name.

I rang the hospital to ask about it, which coincided with an American Neurologist's visit. I had a miraculous meeting with him the next day, and he told me at 27, that I had a condition called Tourette’s Syndrome.

I have since been diagnosed with ADHD and OCD and have continued to gain a love of learning. I have completed a Bachelor's in Adult Education, my Master’s in Career Development and a Master’s in Educational Neuroscience. My goal is to assist others who are Neurodiverse that don't thrive in mainstream education.

I now deliver neurodiversity and inclusion professional development for educational organisations and companies. I assist organisations in discovering how to get the best out of their neurodiverse staff and students. 

Here are five key techniques I use to help job seekers with challenges, approach companies and create effective CVs and cover letters:

  1. Avoid disclosing disabilities in CVs and cover letters. Sadly, many employers have preconceived notions that hiring individuals with disabilities is complicated or requires expensive adjustments. Even with legal protections and good intentions, biased attitudes can affect an employer's initial reception of an application. Focus on securing an interview, showcasing skills, determination, and personality. Generally, attitude and personal qualities carry more weight than formal qualifications.

  2. When job hunting, remember you are selling yourself. To get the job, you need to solve the employer's problem. Brainstorm and try to think like the potential employer.

  3. CVs have an average of 20 seconds to impress. To solve the reader's problem, I ask for a summary of outcomes and accomplishments in the first 5 lines. This summary should be followed by supporting details.

  4. Be prepared to volunteer. Worst case, you get valuable experience and find out if it is for you. Best case, they see you can do the work and get on with your colleagues (half the battle). I did work experience, and they liked me so much they made a position for me.

  5. Surround yourself with people who are going somewhere. Our brains become like those around us, either rising to meet them or falling to meet them. My success is because of positive parents, a strong youth group, and various successful mentors. What we read, listen to, watch and talk about affects our outlook.