The holidays are rough for a lot of us. A lot of expectations and traditions that are counterproductive in a neurodivergent context.
If I may, I think there are three things going on for me during holidays. Being transparent of these differences can be helpful in coming to a mutual understanding.
1) I understand the premise of reconnecting and bonding time and the rituals that feature in the neurotypical way of doing things. And whilst connecting is important to neurodivergent folk as well, without accommodation, it can cause the disconnection and friction instead. For example; planning a group outing without including the needs of the other ends up feeling … like you are not being included. Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance; (Belonging is having a place on the planning committee).
2) Forced interaction, without built-in recharge time, is damaging for us hugely. Often it leads to meltdowns, arguments and an erosion of trust. You wouldn’t continue to go on a kite flying activity if thunderstorms rolled in – so why would you insist on Disney World during the holidays season for autistic folks without sensory breaks built in. For friday night drinks in a noisy bar just because “that’s the way everyone else does it”?
3) Parallel play is intimate play. I’m understanding more and more that this is not only an autistic child development thing. Perhaps it’s due to heightened awareness of the other person and thanks for the deceased social load; perhaps it’s just that we don’t have to be made of social hierarchies and continual reinforcement; nevertheless doing things together but separate is legitimate.
Speaking of inclusion in holidays Ludmila Praslova PhD wrote a great piece on LinkedIn about sharing the holiday period inclusively. It’s a very broad in it’s thoughts of being inclusive, something I’m working on being in myself (you can read the full article here).
This idea is going around all the socials again. All ND folk get the “ADHD/ASD/Dyslexia etc makes my special person super special” or more commonly “is great for business”. But the absolute refutation of neurodivergence being positive has crept back.
The former I have sympathy with, as much as if I had ever heard it from a neurodivergent pal. The world is constructed in such a way that we are set up to fail. If by chance something helps you get an edge in a particular situation and finally feel good about yourself then great. Celebrate the heck out of that superpower. There will be time enough that you will struggle with Lex Luthor and their kryptonite.
The later is where the Superpower slogan really comes from. Organisations, government departments and people out to celebrate the monetary value of neurodiversity. The fact that the majority of the programs are below standard pay level and are run by no ND folk without input into accommodations are a huge problem. Excellent ND lead orgs like Genius Within exist that are the exception but by and large the answer to ND folks low employment rate is met my “How can I profit from this”. Using Elon Musk, or some other (usually white, male, privileged) icon as an example of “success” is more of the problem and more with marketing the inequity.
What I do take exception to is punching down on anyone that has a moment of success and want to feel good about themselves wrt their neurotype. For the sake of everything that’s good, please knock it off. The fact is we have spikey profiles. We find some things easier and some things harder than the baseline. If you want to call the first bunch superpowers and the last kryptonite go for it. But the fact is, the things that neurotypicals are worse at than us, have been built into the rules or society to accommodate THEMSELVES for. Things like sitting still, social unstructured offices, working to a timetable rather than to interest … social structures that set us back. Every time we can’t equally compete in a world built for others or struggle due to difference socially, we are then called disordered and diseased.
Something I’m coming to rediscover is that projects not in conscious attention are still being worked on. My idea, and self experiment, is: if I start an idea with motivation, wire frame it out in my mind, then step away from it by dropping it out of conscious attention, when I pick it back up later I’ll have additional detail, and it’ll surface again when a new connection is made in parallel to the thing I’m doing in conscious work. This is really apparent when I’m getting across a whole business plan and linking detail to strategy. Procrastination and distraction don’t describe that process, and neither does multitasking. But it’s often used to describe what I’m doing.
To be honest I think there are a couple of things in the ND community that worry me. It’s hard not to fall in line with being told “it” – ie. our neurotype – is a disorder and a horrible problem, and by association so are we. I understand us thinking that, as it’s written in the descriptive title “disorder” given to us. It’s compounded by work practices and training that are designed for people unlike us. So we struggle to be something we’re not, using methods that hinder us, and can cause us pain. This leads to poor performance, and feedback that we don’t live up to our “potential”, further driving down our sense of self and acceptance of the deficit narrative.
But given space to thrive and practices that support us we can do exceptional things. But often these relaxation of the rules are a privilege afforded to the usual demographics, commonly white, male, financially secure, etc. I’d love to see that acceptance/practices/support extended to all demographics. So team meetings, but start with an agenda, have notes and end with action items (for executive functioning). Meeting spaces where distractions are minimised but doodling is OK (for stimming/fidgeting). Where text, voice and visuals are equally supported (for accessibility).
If neurodivergence is a disease, and treatment of it’s symptoms include, working with an ADHD coach to use motivation mapping to keep an interest in focus, or inventing BuJo to keep your life in a forward flow without (or even despite) executive function collapse, then by that logic every organisation psychologist should be called a medical specialist treating the disease of neurotypicality. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I’d like some equality there. There are stacks of stuff in every Adam Grant book that don’t apply to me – but they are great skills and tips that I have to motivate and accommodate my NT colleagues.
None of the discarded crochet sets I did with my grandmother are about crochet; the squash racket in the back closet from my brief university days getting thrashed by my 70yo Professor, is about squash; the guitar that I spent 72hours learning Bohemian Rhapsody on when I found out that my dearest friend loved that song (on the eve of her birthday), was about guitar; the card game, since unplayed, that I played with my mum after her stoke, in her last days, was not about cards. They are about the attention and motivation and interest that was all consuming – in that relationship.
I get it. Sometimes I hate being different. I’m Autistic with my ADHD. I’m a reasonably good looking, intelligent and nice guy. Not being able to connect in a relationship till I was 27, losing jobs and burning out of university … that almost killed me. I’m a 28 year sober alcoholic. I blamed myself for being lazy and weird because everyone else seemed to say it first. What was odd though was that I also did exceptional things when everyone was in a crisis and saw the world in ways that were clear when others were baffled. Because of that I had friends when I was (ie: my “superpowers” were) exceptionally useful and no support when I needed it. That changed though. I’m making supports. I’m making support structures for others and fighting for inclusion. I’m old enough and accomplished enough (in the good times) that NTs have to put me in their hierarchy. So now I can make space and change and help others up. I’m strong enough now to meltdown and break in ways that we’d normally do in private and shame, but follow that up with education and transparency to try to get accommodation and acceptance for others. Some days I’m really kicking off the bottom and it’s a struggle to go on. I still hear the R word, and get questioned on my worth and ability.
But I show up every day.
So no. I will never subscribe to a disease model of ADHD (or Autism or dyslexia etc). I won’t talk about neurodivergence as a thing I can be separated from, like it’s a parasite hiding the real perfect me underneath. Because that’s not true and that helps nobody. What does help people, the neurominority, is lobbying and pushing for equitable rights. Equitable workplaces and social settings. Acceptance and awareness and appreciation.
Settling into a new job, I was trying to explain the irreverent majesty that is Nerd Summer Camp1 to those of who have only seen it through rumour and the social media posts. Every time I try to explain TLCC to anyone I end up feeling like Judy Garland returning from Oz, and trying to convince her family that a magical place really exists.
From the emotional wave of ‘feels’ on social media, the dulcet tones of the Tessiturians (that majesty I was talking about), to the Campbellan journey of Jen Skelly’s lanyard2, it could seem pretty baffling. Even for those of us there it can be a lot to unpack.
On the way home I took some R&R in San Francisco while trying to wrangle my head and heart, like a parent collecting sugar fueled kids from a birthday party. With no small irony, I found some focus at a late night Jazz bar that serves (non-alcoholic) Kombucha cocktails. Yeah, I was that guy, minus the man-bun and ill advised facial hair.
Anyway I wrote some loosely SQL structured poetry over two nights, on a mini laptop at the bar (eating my vegan sliders). As I was in San Francisco (and had rewatched Mike Myers in “So I Married and Axe Murderer” again on the flight in), I went the full mile to gave it a spoken word recording. Given Andrew’s keynote unveiled his new love of great poetry I thought it’d be fun to share.
TLCC (In some ways)
In some ways, I’d forgotten what TLCC was like. Just how intense and overwhelming, joyful and exciting, frightening and sad.
The experience is something perhaps less like life, and better explained in Norse saga; breathed into existence by Walt Whitman; found in an attic as lost sketches for Picasso’s Guernica or Brett Whitley’s alchemy.
Feelings at TLCC seem taller, and broader. Like things that belong on the stage, poured from the musing of artists; not from the office that supports it3
And perhaps TLCC has answers to that as well. (the) Andrew Recinos quoted Lao Tsu in his closing address The wise have no minds of their own, finding it in the minds of ordinary people.4 And anyway, are there wise people at all?
Something that my friend,5 Mary French and I talked about,
when people say (sceptically or) in flattery, “Are you the smartest Tessitura person here?”
the answer is no … but also yes.
We are not the smartest,
except that we are, because we have the mind of the community behind us.
We are a gestalt;
An incredible hive mind of ordinary people, that do well on our own, but attain genius when we join together in odd harmonies.
And this becomes magnified, geometrically, in that liminal space of conference as our minds do not sum as single blocks, but create new 3rd and 4th opportunities between us that would never be possible apart.
We are more chemistry than physics.
With networking interactions happening at speed, and relationships (previously existing in green lines of commented SQL 6 or the brevity of forum assistance, between people at organisations, continents and hemispheres apart) are filled with both the details of real life, emotion of people who understand your most frustrating predicaments and greatest achievements.
In some ways, TLCC is like meeting your parallel earth doppelganger. That person with a similar experience; the same frustrations with “that” department; that has won “that” personal battle you’ve been fighting so long that you’ve lost the image of success;
and they can give you the key to success.
They are that person that also struggles to be seen 45+ hours a week, that validates all your experience.
They are your reflection, your potential energy, your soul.
In some ways, It’s unsurprising that TLCC is such an emotional experience.
 aka TLCC
 I’ve talked to my therapist extensively about the existential dread of wondering at the fate of Jen Skelly’s lanyard outside of the bubble that is pre-during-post conference that borders on the nature of quantum mechanics. Nietzsche said that we should live life as if the material world was all we could know, but if Jen Skelly’s lanyard only exists in the boundaries of a relative conference bubble, what is the fate of its existence post conference? Is there a post conference at all? Could all the lingering feels that we have post conference be the first evidence of quantum superposition in social media. Scary stuff.
 I really don’t agree. I see art everywhere. Art is in the person not the job. Like Jack (Rubin) said everyone is a little bit manager and a little bit leader in differing ratios. Punching out into the great blue yonder and mapping the path behind.
 not that I think Andrew is “ordinaryifying” Lao Tzu, at least that’s not his primary point. Regardless, I think that Lao Tzu who was aware of the conundrum first, and in essence, was setting himself up. I imagine he’s giggling at his clever joke still.
 and saviour and idol
 I had the pleasure of thanking Brian Wilbur Grundstrom for the number of times he appears in code comments in my database from stored procedures I’ve gleefully poached
So this is my last week at Sydney Dance Company and in rather than doing a big card and big gift we had individual cards and gave some money to a couple of animal sanctuaries that I really wanted to support.
The past 5+ years changed me immensly. When I started I definitely did not have qualifications of a unicorn. But the support from the incredible women who I’ve been lucky to call my bosses and mentors, and the unconditional love and support from my community at SDC and the #tessituranetwork has changed my life.
I will always be grateful for the opportunities to strive and push, grow and change. Opportunities to make small changes the in work life of colleagues with automations, or strategic inputs to the growth of the business be, it data driven decisions, silo removing technology, or EDI.
You learn a lot about your best self through goodbyes. Things that you overlook in your day to day struggles. I’m thankful for the inclusion and acceptance, never being patronised, compitence assumed. The lack of barrier between artists and admin at SDC proves that we are striving for the same goal
“We believe that dance changes you. To experience contemporary dance is to go on an inspiring and fulfilling journey. More than simply witnessing something beautiful or engaging with an art form, it is to be positively altered.”
Whether that’s through teaching dance to youth remotley during lockdown, choerographing exceptional works of beauty and relevance, or mentoring new DBAs that need support; we are working off the same playbook. To leave the world in a better place than when we found it.
Thank you for never treating me like I didn’t belong, thank you for giving me space to have a voice, thank you for allowing me to change and make change.
Saturday 2nd April is World Autism Awareness Day (or what a lot of us autistic folk like to rebrand Autistic Appreciation Day). You’ve probably heard me talk a lot about what it’s like to be autistic and neurodivergent in the arts and culture space.
But it’s not time for me to talk. It’s time to clear a space for some black autistic voices. Autistic BIPOC folks in the neurodivergent community and media don’t get heard anywhere near enough. So here are some to get you started
At the start of the year, like many folks, I’ve jumped back into getting the chaos of my job back into order with new planners and journals. Yes, again. However, this year I’ve stumbled across some great ones that I wanted to share.
The Hero’s Journal
A friend from my ASD&D (Autism Spectrum Dungeons and Dragons) group brought this up with me a while ago and I’ve since been enraptured by it. The Hero’s Journal is a daily planner, diary, … thing … that has developed a bit of traction across the neurodiversity community. It takes something that you want to achieve and presents it in a Magical Quest form to keep it interesting and fun. It’s not just whimsical, it presents pretty concrete psychological planning conceits in a (let’s face it) wonderfully nerdy way, giving your personal project the Joseph Campbell treatment. It comes in two versions, the Adventure style and a Magical Wizardry School style
The hardest thing was coming up with a project, and after wracking my brain (pardon the pun) I came up with my mental health. I’ve got so many things that I really want to do at any one time that coming up with a single project seemed small – that’s until I stepped back a bit. So much of what I’ve been trying to achieve (autistic advocacy, personal fitness, support groups, etc) fall completely under my constant struggle with my own mental health. It was a bit of a revelation that I could unify so much of what I want to get done day to day under that super objective.
It starts with mapping out what you want to achieve and getting you to define the stakes. The rest of the journal is a daily planner with 3 goals and a threat and ally list. At first I was a bit sceptical but recurring threats kept appearing during my early morning planning sessions which highlighted lurking concerns that I had in the back of my mind unacknowledged. The allies section was great. Full disclosure, I’m terrible at gratitude. Judge me all you like, I don’t understand the concept. But an ally list was great for me identifying people and processes that I had in my corner.
Dani Donovan (https://www.adhddd.com/) is a cartoonist who creates content explaining the struggles of ADHD. She is marvellous and funny and well worth following on Insta. HOWEVER her new project is the Anti-Planner.
How many of us have picked up a planner on the 1st January only to find that after a few entries it falls by the wayside? Well the Anit-Planner is the thing you do before you get to the Journal (in retrospect this should have been in the beginning of the post)
The by-line is “How to get sh*t done when you don’t feel like it”. It tackles project management, not through planning, but by dealing with the road bumps and potholes that derail us.
I’m beta testing the Overwhelmed section, which is one of the 5 categories of roadblocks. The others are Stuck, Unmotivated, Unorganised and Discouraged. Each of these areas have their own unique challenges and Dani has collected some incredible “mini-games” to clear that path to success. The first task in Overwhelmed is “How to half *** a project” designed to overcome perfectionism. There are 2 lists to fill out here, what is the meat of the project (aka the “must haves”) and what is the gravy (aka nice but are not necessary). Another task is this section is dealing with your dreaded Procrastination Hit List. Cartoon those tasks you keep putting off on the supplied Wanted Posters and send out a posse to bring ’em in!
There are silly things in there but all back with solid psychological theory. It’s an amazing way of getting Projects back on track when you “you know what you need to do, but struggle to get yourself to do it”
This blog post arrived from Hero’s Journal (the product of whom, I love) about distraction. It seemed to infer that distraction was the result of anxiety. It’s not that I’ve not heard that before (it’s quite a common trope in the “How to destress” pop-culture circle), but perhaps it struck me as odd here because the it was making distraction the subject rather than anxiety. The other reason it raised my attention’s right eyebrow was because I was talking (aka info-dumping) with a work pal this morning about the difference between working in the office and working at home.
Anxiety is not the primary reason for me to be distracted. IN FACT anxiety is a great driver of focus. In the office I tend to hyper-focus a lot because the excessive noise and human electricity-pollution creates such a atmosphere of stimulus stress that I usually have little choice but to burrow into work. Similarly task urgency makes me push into hyper-focus easily.
Additionally I’m more inclined to daydream when I’m in my home office working with much lower distractions and sensory pain.
Look, I’m no stranger to Yerkes-Dodson curve. I know that pressure leads to performance to a point. BUT I’m much more likely to hyper-focus with higher stress even when that stress is damaging.
It’s an ADHD thing (I’m pretty sure). I get distracted at low stress points and highly attentive at high stress points (until I meltdown). Heck, I went into business mode for a week when I arrived in Cairo the morning of Arab-spring when liaising with Australian and Canadian Governments (and the beautiful people of Egypt) saved our lives.
There’s also the judgment call on what we call performance. Free associating is great innovation work. It’s essential to me making innovative ground on projects.
So “No.” Destressing is not a solution to my distractedness. In many cases it’s the exact opposite.
On the other hand do check out the Hero’s Journal. I love mine and I’m using it to my personal mental health project. More on that soon
So as I’m on holiday at the moment and powering through my holiday reading … and listening as I’ve taken to long walks accompanied by podcasts. I’d Just finished Sarah Kurchak’s hilarious memoir (I Overcame My Autism and All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder) that I’d been trying to finish all year. It was a book that I’ll read when I felt my sense of self starting to become insubstantial, like Marty McFly vanishing because his past was starting to become erased. Whenever I felt so apart from the world around me I’d read some of that book and know that I wasn’t the alone (and it was ok to laugh).
Since then I’ve been searching for my next literary adventure, which I found in …
Katherine May’s “Wintering Sessions” Podcast
So full disclosure – I love Katherine May’s stuff. She is an excellent writer that I discovered through her memoir “The Electricity of Every Living Thing.” In the book Katherine talks about the year that she took on the 630 km South West Coast Path walk to try and understand why her life seemed to be so overwhelming and isolating, with the realisation that she is autistic. As diverse as the spectrum is there are things that we almost all agree on, and her fitting together that puzzle of a lifetime of experiences during her years journey was something that very familiar.
Her second book is “Wintering.” Wintering (as a verb) is described as the power of rest and retreat in difficult times. It’s a very apt metaphor for pulling back and healing in response to those times when trauma comes into our life. But rather than a dormant time Katherine talks about how actively nurturing, necessary and powerful that time is. It isn’t a maudlin or depressing read at all. It’s a beautiful exploration of growth and opportunity.
And from that book she has curated an incredible series of discussions in podcast form that I urge anyone to listen to. In the Wintering Sessions Katherine interviews writers and artists who have weathered their own difficult times and have been transformed. The format is wonderfully personal and informal, making it very easy to connect to the people at the heart of their own story. I picked the podcast up in the Divergent Conversations Instagram series starting with her conversation with multiform artist Sonia Boué. The incredibly open and easy conversation between two neurodivergent artists was incredibly refreshing.
So that’s my reading list for this end of 2021; both healing and inclusive. If you need new podcast (or book) have a crack.
I’m interested in what you might be consuming during the holiday season.
The holidays can be rough for everyone. And for us Neuro Distinct folx it can be difficult to explain how differently tough they can be. Routine changes, flashing lights and loud music, social pressures, crowds and fine motor control puzzles can throw a spanner into your executive function machine, at the very least.
For me it is an exorbitantly overwhelming time that I struggle to keep just shy of whelmed. But however you want to celebrate – small, big, quiet or noisy – your way is valid.
That might mean:
Taking time out from a big social scene to lie on your bed with NC headphones on and recuperate (ie: get some spoons back)
Blocking out “Do Not Disturb” time to revise your plan for the next few days
Opening gifts the way you want to (for me it’s one piece of tape at a time)
Politely stating your boundaries
Getting a buddy to help you out when it gets too much (or too little)