Twenty nine-year-old Adam Bradford runs his own communications agency in the UK and UAE, won the Queen’s Young Leaders Award in 2016 and mentors young entrepreneurs across the world through his many initiatives. He also happens to have autism.
Born in Sheffield, England, Bradford struggled to fit in at school. “Autism definitely made the early years of school difficult because it was hard to cope, to be around lots of people at once and understand what was going on,” he recalls. “I didn’t make friends very easily. Things that would be easy for other students — like going into the dining hall for lunch — would be too much for me to do.”
In spite of being a bright and talented student, things got worse for Bradford in secondary school where he got bullied a lot. “I wasn’t coping very well and dealt with a lot of frustration,” he recalls. “The school recognised this and sent me for an assessment. I saw a private psychologist and that’s when I got diagnosed with autism.” At this point, he was 11 and Bradford remembers his parents as being extremely supportive and always “in his corner”.
Initially, he had no medical help or support. “Back then, there wasn’t a very good public understanding of the condition.” There was also low availability of resources and support. “We have the NHS, the public funded health service, which is overstretched. It didn’t have the resources — I think there was a three-year waiting list to be seen by somebody.” Private therapy and treatment were expensive, and not everyone could afford it. “So really, it was just self-help. I didn’t really do anything for many years,” he says.
Bradford began to read up and when he worked with the National Autistic Society on a few campaigns at age 21, he acquired a deeper understanding of the condition and how it affects people in different ways. “Later on, I found more coping mechanisms and have tried to embrace it, if possible.”
And there is quite a bit to embrace — Bradford, for instance, has a photographic memory. “Someone might have said something to me 20 years ago and I would still remember the whole conversation, word for word. Those things can be both a blessing and a curse — it’s great if you need to remember stuff but it can also be really crippling if there are things you want to forget,” he points out.
With social media, the bullying does sometimes continue online — in 2018, a few UK media outlets had reported on how Bradford, ‘a man with Asperger’s Syndrome’, claimed that he faced abuse online and was called a Nazi after a study concluded that Hans Asperger, the doctor after whom the condition was named, had links to the Nazis. The trolls even questioned his diagnosis and the existence of such a condition. “I do get trolled quite often actually and some people are still sceptical that autism even exists,” says Bradford. “I’ve hardened to it now but before, it used to affect me a lot — social media can be a very unforgiving place.”
He points out that autistic people don’t look for special treatment and that they just want to be able to fit in. “Sometimes they might be really intelligent in science or mathematics but they might find it hard to play on the swings in the playground with other children. But that’s just the way they are.”
Starting out young
At 14, a microbusiness he had set up for a school entrepreneurship competition won several awards and by 16, Bradford knew that he wanted to become an entrepreneur. At 18, he got into the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy, which he describes as his ‘training ground’ — one that prepared him for entrepreneurship which, as he puts it, is a ‘massive dive into the unknown’. It’s generally believed that people with autism can get stressed when they don’t have a plan or don’t know what’s coming next. “But by knowing about the theory of business and having had some practice, I was able to keep self- learning,” says Bradford.
It was also around this time that he realised that he wanted to work with young social entrepreneurs and fill in the knowledge gap by mentoring them not only in business, but also life. So as national ambassador of the Academy and, more recently, through his company Adam Bradford Agency and its various global initiatives and campaigns like AdamStart, Everyone a Changemaker and Inspiring Futures, Bradford has mentored budding entrepreneurs. He was a member of the advisory board which helped set up The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, and worked with none other than Prince Harry.
Impressed by the UAE’s unwavering focus on sustainable mobility, innovation and the next generation of leaders, Bradford opened his agency’s Dubai office in 2020. The 2022 edition of Inspiring Futures, which is a collaboration between his agency, Dan Bolton Creative Management Agency and the British Business Group Dubai, will be held on May 31. Bradford describes it as a Dragon’s Den, Shark Tank-style platform where entrepreneurs below the age of 35 who want to make a difference in the UAE are handpicked. “We have corporate partners who are involved in terms of mentorship and support.”
The focus on neurodivergent leaders
Life has gotten much better for Bradford since his school days and, in many ways, bigger. He reveals that he is currently working as a consultant director in a Hollywood movie about autism, which will release this year. These days, he adds, it’s about surrounding himself with the right people in his professional and personal life.
At work, he is clear about his core strengths and what he can’t do. For instance, Bradford knows that he is good at detecting gaps in the market and finding opportunities, building teams and — the irony is not lost on him — communication, which autistic people, generally, find challenging. “People with autism, supposedly, have problems with communication. But because of the battles that I have been through due to my condition, I have had to work on being a good public speaker and being able to engage people.” He, sometimes, flounders when it comes to social interactions and deals with the anxiety that comes with it. “You just learn what the etiquette is and practice it. Other times, I avoid it,” he says. “I also think being a bit self-deprecating helps as well. I’m quite quirky and I’ve had to craft my personality to suit those quirks while also trying to make a joke out of it.”
Lately, there has been some focus on neurodivergent employees and leaders — Elon Musk, who recently took over Twitter, revealed that he has Asperger’s Syndrome during his Saturday Night Live hosting gig last year. “It’s good that successful businessmen and entrepreneurs can be open and share that they’re on the spectrum,” says Bradford. “I think the best thing we can do is to tell our stories as young people need to see that these people too have had many challenges and have worked hard.”
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