Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You
Author: Jenara Nerenberg
Table of contents
Masking occurs when people make an effort, conscious or not, to hide their true selves from the world in order to accommodate other people's existence.
Due to how they are socialised to blend in, masking is common in women and girls. It leaves many feeling empty, depressed, anxious and unable to live according to their true selves.
When society doesn't reflect your actual self, you tend to interpret your own self according to the lenses, structures and terminology society provides. This can be misleading and harmful.
Women that were previously labelled as 'hysterical' are now labelled as 'anxious'.
As well as our genes, biology and childhood experience, we're governed by our "sensory makeup"; how our nervous system responds to and interacts with the sensory world; what we find delightful or repellant. These components interact to produce our emotions and behaviours.
When we see doctors or therapists with anxiety, depression or autoimmune conditions usually talk therapy or medication solutions are the only solutions on offer. These address the surface emotions and behaviours, but not the layers that produce them.
a very core component of what makes people who they are goes completely untended.
Autism and ADHD have been stereotyped. In reality there's a range of experiences.
The diversity in how people process sensory input is not usually considered, particularly that some people have heightened sensitivity. This can affect people's work, family life, education, economic opportunities, intimacy, and parenting.
People with sensory differences such as autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), highly sensitive people (HSP) and synesthesia experience heightened sensitivity everywhere.
This trait is often accompanied by anxiety and depression, particularly if undiagnosed. Often people, including the sufferer themselves, are not aware of it.
Research on this subject has mainly been on men, so there's a lack of awareness of its occurrence in women. Sensitivity is commonly found alongside any development neurodivergence in women.
"Temperament rights" captures the idea that we should respect individual's temperament and neurology in the same way that we should respect other aspects of people such as thei gender, sexuality, or ethnic identity.
Don’t our inner lives deserve just as much attention as our outer lives?
Sensitivity involves a heightened reaction to external stimuli - experiences, noise, other's emotional expression, light or other environmental factors. It can be associated with Asperger’s, ADHD, HSP, and other traits.
The sensory overload associated with HSP, ADHD, autism, SPD, and synesthesia often results in emotional outbursts. "Bad" behaviour might surface.
At least 20% of people are neurodivergent. The normal vs ill binary is invalid.
We are all different flavors of human. There is no one “correct,” “right,” or “standard” way to be.
Understanding neurodivergence better may alleviate comorbidities such as depression, anxiety, shame, guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and distorted self-image.
What is considered ill is often a construct of the times we live in. Mental health specialists argue about the precise parameters for a given diagnoses.
"Neurodivergent" is the correct term to apply to individuals. It includes people identified as ADHD, autistic, bipolar, dyslexic, or another such diagnosis. Being able to name an experience can be liberating and healing. Someone who has no neurodivergence is neurotypical.
Neurodiversity involves recognising and celebrating diversity in brain makeup rather than pathologising brains as being either normal or abnormal. The neurodiversity movement organises and advocates for a neurodiversity framework and its application. Organisations are beginning to address these issues.
As we free ourselves from stereotypes about gender roles, identify, race etc. we should also free ourselves from expectations of how to think and act. This will allow us to use the strengths of each person to the benefit of their lives and society as a whole.
Part 1: Inner Worlds
The Female Mind Throughout History
Language and framing are powerful in that they grant meaning, set boundaries and implications, and empower / disempower people.
When we think of phrases like "mental illness" we should question who invented this term, when and why.
Medicine and psychiatry have used words that greatly affect the lives of women. What women are subjected to to reflects sociocultural dynamics of the time.
- In the 1400s, the idea that madness came from the devil led many women to be killed for being "witches".
- In the 1700s madness was seen as a human weakness. Women was diagnosed as being "hysteric".
- In the 1800s many male doctors thought hysteria was associated with masturbation and advocated to remove women's clitorises.
- When women started employment outside the home in the 20th century some doctors advised that they should to stay at home in order to protect their reproductive organs.
Psychiatry partly originated from the fields of obstetrics and gynecology. Hysteria was seen as a disease of uncontrollable emotion, encouraged by sexuality. No consideration was given to the connection between a woman's emotional life and how they were treated.
Madness was seen both as a failure and a natural aspect of being a woman, contrasting the feminine against "male" scientific rationality.
As part of the fight to gain respect, psychology and psychiatry tried to use the same approaches that worked for other medical fields despite human behaviour and thoughts being much harder to measure than physical disorders. This medicalisation replaced any attention being given to how sociological and historical contexts might affect people's mental states.
Many of the definitions of (particularly women's) "madness" were established at the same time that capitalism was accelerating throughout Western Europe. The context of these changing economic, social and historical forces should be taken into account.
In the 1930s it was illegal for "insane" people to get married in order to stop them having children. In the 1950s, ~4000 mentally ill patients were sterilised.
As "abnormal behaviour" became medicalised, many fields including those of academics, scientists, government officials, and business professionals all tried to gain some "market share" in treating them.
In the past, the doctors who claimed homosexuality was a disease surely cannot all have been bigots. Nor are those today who diagnose the people who fill their homes with "unnecessary" things as having Hoarding Disorder, at the same time as finding no need to diagnose those who fill their bank accounts with billions of unnecessary dollars whilst other people starve with anything at all.
There is pressure to categorise and itemise every possible disorder in the DSM. The third version of the DSM became a bestseller book in the 1980s.
But categorisations are not stable. In the 1850s "slave drapetomania" was considered as a mental illness that caused slaves to try and escape their fate. 100 years later homosexuality was classified as a disorder. Today we have "internet use disorder".
The DSM is more like a catalogue of current social ailments than scientific hardwired “diseases".
The DSM could be considered as an ethnographic study, detailing how humans respond to the contemporary state and conditions of the world. In the past, slavery and homosexuality were the focus. Now depression and anxiety have taken over. In the future we might see disorders related to climate change - the field of ecopsychology.
"Psychiatric imperialism" is a term used to describe situations where science and medicine pathologise normal responses to trauma.
A 1984 survey suggested 1/3 of Americans would experience mental illness at some point. More than 20% would show symptoms that could lead to a DSM diagnosis.
Who gets framed as "abnormal" or "wrong" is at least partially determined by history, language, context and power. Discrimination and pathologisation are rife.
The primary characteristic of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) relates to their depth of processing. It takes them some time to perceive and process external or internal inputs, including sounds, light, feelings, or new information and explanations.
20% of the population is at least somewhat HSP, with an equal male:female split. 30% of HSPs are extroverts.
Things that seem normal to other people, e.g. loud music or crowds, can be highly stimulating and stressful to HSPs.
When HSPs try to mimic what they understand is normal or expected of them, tolerating these inputs, they get exhausted, burned out, depressed, get headaches and feel fatigue or other symptoms.
HSPs often excel in psychology, writing, art, and music and entrepreneurship. Their nervous system lets them detect subtleties in the environment and be good at perception, detecting nuances and understanding other people.
Being very responsive to their environments may have served as a survival mechanism through time.
HSPs show more activity in brain regions associated with integrating information, awareness, and empathy.
They may require more time to process new information and appreciate the nuances and thence may take longer to reach conclusions.
Aron's HSP questionnaire describes some of the characteristics defining a HSP.
Due to the absence of women in psychology in the past, either as practitioners or test subjects, how we see and support the mind is largely based on what men have concluded from studying the minds of other men. This has become a particular concern for some traits such as autism and ADHD where diagnosis rates are substantially higher in men than women.
The WHO suggests that 450 million people worldwide are diagnosed with a mental illness. As this is a relatively neglected area of concern in many parts of the world, and women are often especially ignored, the real number is probably much higher.
Psychology likes to come up with generalisable theories so tries to avoid taking individual differences into account. Doctors and therapists behave similarly. In the US this can be driven by the way insurance companies dictate diagnoses and reimbursement.
But because women have often been ignored in studies, whole theories and diagnoses are often based on non-generalisable sample populations. This has sometimes resulted in what women wold regard as a normal range of emotional experience being pathologised. This lack of validation can lead to women feeling shame, guilt, depression, and anxiety.
The traits associated with sensitivity, and often women in general, have been ignored, covered up and made unwelcome.
Medical school encourages doctors to think in a detached, unemotional way, not taking context into account. Feeling sad even when babies in their care die is seen as undesirable or inappropriate.
Trauma isn't always about individual traumatic events. The persistent violation of certain demographics of people via cultural structures can induce trauma. Women, who had little say in the construction of e.g. workplace culture, are at risk of this, particularly if they are sensitive or are further marginalised by e.g. class or race.
We can gain insight by looking at how other countries and cultures operate. There are ways of considering health and well-being outside of the Western medical system.
Being a core part of "hysteria", sensitivity or emotional reactivity has historically been used to pathologise women.
A few disciplines today understand sensitivity well, but in general it isn't well understood. Most of the scientific literature still uses words like "disorder" and "abnormal", despite us knowing that a spectrum of sensitivity is to be expected in any population.
The term "sensory processing" is used to describe how individuals process stimuli, how we measure sensitivity.
The fact that so many neurodivergences associate with sensitivity should make us consider what pathologising it says about how we live today, and how well our society enables both those who are and are not sensitive to thrive.
Studying senses in animals has helped us understand what happens in humans and what might be possible. Other animals can perceive things humans cannot. What extra information might neurodivergent people be perceiving that neurotypical people don't? How can we harness sensitivity in a way that solves some of today's problems?
We should consider how we could change how our world operates, not how to change the individuals that live within it.
Part 2: Outer Frames
Autism, Synesthesia, and ADHD
People with classic autism are often described as socially awkward, in their own world, lacking empathy and the ability to socially interact “normally” or “appropriately”.
That language describes a person in terms of individual norms and expectations. We should consider what in society makes it that such a person sounds "bad". People with these traits aren't inferior; they're just different when measured against a fairly arbitrary standard.
Many people with autism like to point out that some neurotypical expectations could be seen as bad - e.g. small talk, social niceties, herd mentality or compliance.
The experience of autism can differ greatly between people. It should be considered as a spectrum.
Sensitivity often accompanies autism. It can be a strength or a challenge. Because many people have been told that something is wrong with them they can experience shame, depression and anxiety.
The DSM diagnosis of autism changes substantially over time making it hard to diagnose. Samantha Craft has compiled an unofficial list of female autistic traits that is designed to open up discussion and awareness of the female experience of autism.
Other conditions that frequently occur alongside autism:
- obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- sensory issues (sight, sound, texture, smells, taste, synesthesia)
- generalized anxiety
- feelings of polar extremes (depressed/overjoyed; inconsiderate/oversensitive)
- chronic fatigue
- immune challenges
- a (mis)diagnosis of a "mental illness."
As it's so broad, subject to stereotypes and overlaps with other traits, autism is often missed. Many women are self-diagnosed, or have had to go through several different clinical diagnoses before getting to autism.
Synesthesia is the phenomena whereby someone's senses are "crossed". For example, hearing a sound may show up as a colour in the person's visual field.
- With "mirror touch synesthesia" people feel what someone else is feeling just by watching what is happening to them.
- With "mirror emotion synesthesia" people may get overwhelmed by the emotions of nearby people.
- are better than other people at recognising facial expressions, but not superior at facial identity recognition. Research suggests that they may have enhanced emotion processing.
- are more likely to experience "mirror touch errors", mistaking perceived touch as being actual touch.
- may have a heightened emotion recognition response to fear, but not happiness or disgust. This may be evolutionary adaptive.
Many people relate to the experience of sensing other people, emotions and the environment around them. Variations in responsivity, flexibility and plasticity have also been demonstrated in monkeys, birds, rodents, and fish. This is the field of "sensory biology".
The human brain contains 100 billion neurons, each connected to potentially thousands of others.
Rizzolatti first discovered mirror neurons whilst studying monkeys. He noticed that when a scientist reached for something there was a parallel burst of activity in a monkey's brain if they were watching. The monkey didn't move or copy the scientist's action - their motor cells fired based solely on perceiving someone else's actions.
Perception, cognition, and action were previously considered as being distinct areas of study, but now scientists are considering that there may be a crossover.
Experiments have shown that mirror responses are stronger when the subject is nearer. They are not triggered by robots or graphics; the observed subject must be "real".
People are the autism spectrum are more likely to have synesthesia than other people. There's overlap in the genes linked to both conditions. Both involve differences in brain connectivity, and the sensory differences are similar.
The implications of traits such as autism or synesthesia depend on context. For some things they can be beneficial, other times crippling.
DSM definitions should be contextualised and only used to name issues when the person concerned reports distress. The doctor should then investigate to find out whether the environment, brain or body is responsible.
Some people benefit from having a diagnosis label, others do not.
Autistic people use "stimming" to alleviate the anxiety resulting from overstimulation. This involves making movements such as tapping their fingers or "echolalia" such as mentally repeating numbers, words or letters.
Sensitivity associated with ADHD is different. High stimulation can be both exciting and confusing. People with ADHD may get overwhelmed or overstimulated without realising it. Emotion regulation becomes difficult, resulting in sensory overload and meltdowns.
Emotional dysregulation occurs in 30-70% of people with ADHD.
Sensitivity associated with autism and ADHD is often masked with words like dysregulation, abnormality, and dysfunction.
ADHD is usually thought of as something that makes boys fidgety and distracted. What is behind these behaviours, including in the environment, isn't considered.
Many girls with ADHD do well in school and hence aren't picked up for diagnosis or research. They can grow into women who struggle with everyday logistic challenges, leaving then anxious, depressed and feeling inadequate. At the same time they may use their ability to hyperfocus to excel at writing, art, research etc.
ADHD is not really deficit of attention, but more a challenge in regulating it. At times people with ADHD have "too much" attention e.g. in situations where our regimented society deems it socially unacceptable.
2 parts of ADHD sensitivity:
- Curiosity and sensitivity around new information and stimuli.
- Sensitivity about having ADHD, especially if undiagnosed, where subjects become sensitive to criticism and being judged.
Sensory overload results when trying to adhere to neurotypical expectations and can result in a blowup or "tantrum".
Women often feel fragile, overly sensitive and ashamed at not being able to fulfil what's seen as the basic duties of being a functional adult.
Because of the research neglect, doctors and teachers often don't recognise ADHD behaviours in women.
Labels can be useful to allow people to articulate and define experiences, but stereotypes cause harm.
Female ADHD is more likely to be of the inattentive type, with people becoming prone to both daydreaming and hyper-focusing.
Things may go well until a life transition results in routine structures changing.
Due to socialisation, women and girls often mimic and mirror other females around them in an effort to learn how to be. They may not realise they're doing this, but nonetheless it requires a lot of energy. Eventually this may be too much to cope with, resulting in depression, burnout, fatigue, and anxiety.
Sensory Processing “Disorder”
SPD is both something to be celebrated - people may be more sensitive and aware of their surroundings - and a potential disability to be managed. They might not be able to work in certain settings or be present in highly stimulating surroundings.
SPD often includes the same emotional sensitivity, perceptive qualities and tendency towards getting over-stimulated that other neurodivergence involve. It's unique aspect comes from the desire to strongly avoid some types of sensory input but craving others. Often this involves fabrics, tastes, sounds, and smells.
SPD is not yet in the DSM but many therapists, researchers, parents and community advocates work on it.
One institute uses a set of statements to indicate someone potentially having SPD:
- I am over-sensitive to environmental stimulation; I do not like being touched
- I avoid visually stimulating environments and/or I am sensitive to sounds.
- I often feel lethargic and slow in starting my day.
- I often begin new tasks simultaneously and leave many of them uncompleted.
- I use an inappropriate amount of force when handling objects.
- I often bump into things or develop bruises that I cannot recall.
- I have difficulty learning new motor tasks or sequencing steps of a task.
- I need physical activities to help me maintain my focus throughout the day.
- I have difficulty staying focused at work and in meetings.
- I misinterpret questions and requests, requiring more clarification than usual.
- I have difficulty reading, especially aloud.
- My speech lacks fluency, I stumble over words.
- I must read material several times to absorb the content.
- I have trouble forming thoughts and ideas in oral presentations.
- I have trouble thinking up ideas for essays or written tasks at school.
Many women seek treatment after moving in with a partner or having children and finding it difficult to cope with the amount of touch involved. They may also have issues with balance or co-ordination. Senses involved may include proprioception (the sense of self and body position), interoception (the internal sense, including feeling warm or hungry), and the vestibular sense of balance and movement.
Many in the SPD community campaign to get SPD recognised in the DSM so children can receive help at schools and patients can access the medical system including via health insurance.
This tension between wanting official medical recognition and also respecting neurological differences is common in neurodivergence. Both wants are valid and can be held at the same time.
3 subtypes of SPD:
- sensory modulation disorder (SMD).
- sensory discrimination disorder (SDD).
- sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD).
Some feel that a neurodivergence isn't inherently a cause of disability, but rather that it acts as one due to the overstimulating environment default in our culture. This is the social model of disability, as opposed to the medical model of disability.
Due to a lack of training and awareness in the medical profession, many patients may have to try several doctors before receiving the correct help.
Sometimes exercise can be useful in relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. Sensory integration clinics often include a gym and an assessment area.
An Integrated Listening Systems approach can be helpful. It's thought to sooth the vagal nerve, which is implicated in PTSD as well as SPD.
The primary function of a SPD occupational therapist is to guide a client through interacting with materials and devices (e.g. a ball, a trampoline, a brush) and point out when they seem soothed, startled, excited, uncomfortable etc. They help patients understand their bodies and reactions to stimuli, and how good, neutral or bad sensory experiences are dual-coded with memories.
Neurologically, dual coding means that whenever someone has a sensory experience a corresponding emotional experience happens. Emotions are overlaid with senses. For example crying may sometimes be caused by an overstimulated brain rather than an emotion.
The goal should be for psychologists, social workers, doctors and others to integrate sensory care into their work, referring patients to occupational therapists when needed.
Many women mistake their sensory overwhelm for more popular concepts like panic attacks. The consequences of an incorrect diagnosis can be severe. Spending years exploring childhood history for answers with a therapist won't help with sensory overload.
It was previously thought that children grew out of sensory issues, but this is wrong. The misconception comes from the fact that adults, sometimes unconsciously, can simply avoid situations that make them uncomfortable. They may avoid social situations or have a low tolerance for touch in romantic relationships. The patient may then focus purely on these behaviours and visit a therapist to tackle them, unaware of the underlying causes.
People with misophonia are very sensitive to certain sounds. A common example is chewing noises. Patients report getting fidgety, have a racing heart, sweaty palms and feel angry when they hear them.
Finding groups of people with the same conditions, online or offline, can be helpful for neuro-divergent people.
Gender norms, socialisation, stereotypes and cultural attitudes affect how women and men try to deal with sensory experiences. Women often become anxious or depression. Men often cope via alcohol or drug dependence.
After receiving sensory information from the environment we assess its importance and relevance. We then regulate our arousal level, habituating to unimportant inputs or diverting attention to those that seem threatening or relevant. But people who have atypical processing may remain in a state of high arousal (fight, flight or fright) irrespective of actual threat; constantly on high alert to input that other people ignore. This constant triggering of high arousal can make people unhappy, irritable, antsy, on-edge or unable to concentrate.
Part 3: Something New
There's no universal approach to improving well-being.
The history of psychology can be understood as movements that emerge from historical contexts, shaped by intellectual, political, economic, and social factors. It's important to understand where neurodiversity thinking fits within it.
Understanding the human mind was once considered an exercise of intuition. These days the field is preoccupied with having a scientific basis that uses similar methods and tools as those that have improved our understanding of our biology.
In the 17th century the focus was on determinism and reductionism. Humans were seen as machines.
- Determinism: the idea that every act determines the next.
- Reductionism: the idea that what you can disassemble what you're studying into smaller parts in order to understand how it works.
The scientific method was created. A mechanistic outlook pervaded the study of the nervous system, neurons and brain function.
Johannes Muller came up with a more physiological explanation of behaviour concerning specific energies of nerves. This eventually led to treatments and experiments including electrical stimulation of the brain and lobotomies.
Around the start of the 20th century Freud developed his theories of the mind and psychoanalysis. He focused on the unconscious, especially catharsis, dreams and sexual impulses, with ideas that were less mechanistic and harder to study empirically.
Psychiatry became distinct from other fields in medicine. Psychology became distinct from philosophy.
The American Psychological Association started in 1892. Psychologists gave attention to universities and education where funding and prestige was available.
Humanistic and cognitive psychology emerged. Positive psychology became popular in the 1990s.
Positive psychology aims to help humans flourish by embracing their strengths. This and mindfulness now dominate the discussion, but have been criticised as relying on individualistic and capitalist ideas of what happiness and well-being are, and considering only a specific Western perspective of personhood and thriving.
In general the history described above has been dominated by White men's thinking and work.
A neurodiversity approach differs by not looking to silence the aspects of us that are seen as unhelpful or less productive. Instead it reframes our experiences and reconsiders "disorder". Instead of trying to fix people's anxiety a neurodiversity approach looks to understand what is causing it in the first place, particularly how cognitive differences can create it.
Reframing "disorder" as "difference" lets you uncover the benefits of your traits. This starts with dismantling the stereotypes surround the neurodivergent.
Psychological studies have noted that high sensitivity is often part of giftedness.
"Asynchronous development" is the idea that people can have exceptional growth and talent in some areas of life but delays in others.
Regulating emotions can be hard, with sensitive, gifted or neurodivergent people reacting defensively to comments. This results in behaviour that other people respond badly to. But treating it as a behavioural issue doesn't get to the root of the issue, which is fundamentally a lack of understanding. Intellectual explanations of what caused the misunderstanding can be helpful; people want to understand the "why".
When sensitive and introverted people have more awareness of their traits it gives them permission to be themselves and leverage their gifts. The more permission you give yourself to "be", the better you handle situations that are stressful to you.
Being able to name something can be healing,
Temperament is another form of diversity,
People measure their body signals in many ways, e.g. sweating palms, their heartbeat or pulse. Autistic people tend to have less accurate senses of these, but yet are overwhelmed by a perception that they're constantly receiving these signals. The bigger the mismatch between perception and reality is the more anxiety people have. Studies are looking into whether if we help people perceive these bodily signals more accurately it will also reduce their anxiety.
Autistic or neurodivergent people may over-react when they e.g. notice their heartbeat, becoming alarmed.
The author has found visualising the part of her brain that processes fear and anger, the amygdala, cooling down from red hot to a cool soothing blue is helpful.
Women are often subject to more intense bodily perceptions. They're diagnosed with neurodivergences later in life and have a larger social pressure to mask.
Medication is another method of dealing with heightened sensitivity. Our understanding of how the brain works lets us use medication to change its functioning.
In a world where health insurance companies compensate based on "disorders" it can be challenging for doctors who are also advocates for the neurodiverse.
The current system can effectively treat the symptoms of disorders but doesn't tend to help people achieve their own desired goals. Medication can help with focus, but the next step would be to understand what the patient wants to do with their improved focus and help them move towards accomplishing it.
"Spiritual emergence" is a different take on mental health challenges which views "mental illness" as being a process where artistic and intellectual gifts start to stir, which can in the end lead to novel contributions being made to society.
A diagnosis is only as effective as the treatment it helps provide.
...the idea is to treat distress, not difference.
Consumers are in a difficult situation in that if they want to seek alternatives to the standard medical system they usually have to pay for it themselves.
The recent awareness of how trauma affects people's lives is important but brings with it a risk that we now want to attribute everything to trauma. This misguidedly implies that everyone would return to some kind of accepted "normal" if their trauma was resolved or had never developed.
Sound effects our nervous systems, for example very low frequency sounds like refrigerator hum or high frequency sounds like car horns can trigger a fight-or-flight state.
Neurodivergent people are affected more intensely by sound than others.
The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) aims to help steer people away from triggering sounds.
We need to focus more on how environment, policy, and societal structures impact us rather than intervene on individuals. For example the addressing of noise pollution with regulations from bodies such as the WHO.
Sound design should consider inequality; sounds affect people in unequal ways.
Auditory sensitivity can be the result of trauma, but for many people it is a source of trauma, constantly being exposed to a world that is too loud for them.
Tips for taking care of yourself if you're neurodivergent
- Take your time.
- Try several different approaches and take what works from each of them.
- Don't stop something if it's working.
- Educate yourself, particularly with regards to visual knowledge about the human body, anatomy, nervous system and the brain.
- Write down what is working for you.
- Tell family, friends, and maybe your social media circles about your neurodivergence if it's safe to do so.
- Don't feel guilty when you start to feel better.
- Don't feel like you need to match the stereotype of a neurodivergent person.
"Umvelt" is a word used to describe an individual's sensory world (from the German "umwelt", meaning environment).
There's a clear link between your environment, mental health and well-being.
Nature isn't always quiet and still, but is still the most calming setting we can access.
We confuse calming with unstimulating. Many of our environments are under-stimulating. It's not necessarily that we're over or under-stimulated, but rather that we're not stimulated in the right way for our individual proclivities.
Public health studies have often focused on how the environment affects only physical illnesses, such as the influence of neighbourhood walkability on diabetes or obesity.
Western architecture has a similar kind of bias to psychology, coming from a colonialist mindset. Europeans wanted to differentiate themselves from the expressiveness and ways of celebrating joy found in the native people from countries they colonised who they regarded as "savage". This had implications for fashions in e.g. architecture and clothing.
If we feel out of sync with the dominant preferences of color, design, relationships, and other such factors that give us a sense of comfort then we might consider whether what is considered "normal" is not actually in our own interest.
How we've designed spaces for relaxing and working has led to problems, e.g. people think windows will create distraction, but in reality they improve concentration.
Design is physical; everything we touch and use has weight, sound and temperature.
A consideration of our senses should be included into how we design our environment. We should seek to learn what suits us and how we can sustain a feeling of comfort. Some people find the design and layout of their house, street and neighborhood is important in regulating their nervous system and anxiety. Everyone has different needs; there are no set rules. But when they're accommodated then we can all flourish and feel peace.
We should move away from pathologising language - e.g. talk about clients, not patients.
Tips for relationships:
- Have time apart.
- Focus on authentic communication. Speak up when a communication style doesn't suit you.
- Check in with each other, e.g. when you're running late.
- Some conversations may be better face-to-face, others in written form.
Couples counselling involving a neurodiverse person should involve framing the neurodiverse person's perspective. Emotional reciprocity and understanding the context of behaviours are common challenges. Often a lack of understanding has led to hurt on both sides.
The ability to focus on details that some neurodivergent people have may be great at work but can lead to them focusing on small details in the relationship that feel very meaningful when they can't zoom out.
Historically, therapy has typically been male dominated and came with a dynamic of the therapist being the expert and the client being a patient. In reality the individual seeking help is the expert on themselves.
Exercise is important. As is taking care who you spend time with and setting boundaries. Learn to recognise what triggers you.
Tips for home life:
- Identify your ideal color palette.
- Include nature. Walk or exercise outside. Have plants.
- Be open with (potential) partners about your sensory needs.
- Consider your lighting, color, and neighborhood setup.
- Find a therapist - individual or couples - that understands sensory needs.
Neurodivergent people think and process differently, meaning they work differently. This can be a challenge. For example keeping to deadlines may be hard when over/underwhelmed, bored or overexcited. But they're not plugged into this aspect of the world they may become isolated and lonely.
Many find that being therapists, writers, or entrepreneurs works for them.
Learn everything you can about how your mind works so you can design and communicate your needs at work and home.
Often companies just don't know how to approach neurodiversity.
The "neurodiversity movement" focuses on diversity of mind, similarly to how activists in the 1960s-1970s addressed racial equality and gay rights. They aim to put pressure on workplaces to take account of neurodiversity.
Bravely build on your strengths. Don't try to work in the same way as others do.
Our internal perceptions and how they are shaped by people in power dictates the reality we experience. Sensitive people raised in supportive places can thrive and leverage their gifts. In negative environments they may suffer depression and anxiety.
"Temperament rights" is the concept that we should consider people's inner conditions in every sphere of life. Every individual deserves an articulation, respect and accommodation for their unique makeup.
This doesn't mean everyone gets everything they want all the time. But companies should record whether the employees identify as neurodivergent alongside their workplace needs and preferences. Employees should be able to use the language of temperament rights and neurodiversity to address any relevant issues.
Neurodivergent people sharing stories of their life is often the first step of enabling change in workplaces. Their colleagues are often surprised by the differences between what they assume neurodivergence looks like and how it actually presents. Leaders speaking about these issues makes other feel safe to do so.
Teams can then be enhanced by the gifts that neurodivergent people have.
Insights around the body, movement and kinesthetic styles of learnings are adding to psychology's traditional focus on the mind.
Technology can reflect society's mood. There's a cultural shift towards considering the whole person.
Tools that are useful to neurodiverse people may also benefit neurotypical people, e.g. text to speech.
There is a high incidence of ADHD in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
The stigma around dyslexia has largely gone, but ADHD still suffers from some. The outdated stereotype is that ADHD means being hyperactive and always moving around.
Wherever open conversations and support groups exist it becomes clear many people have neurodivergence.
The friction between neurotypical workplace expectations and the reality of neurodiversity shows up right away in the job interview process. People often feel they have to mask.
The author would like to see neurodivergent employees expressing more of their entire selves at work and others celebrating them. Journalists, conferences organisers and university department should invite and/or cover neurodivergent people.
Giving employees choice and autonomy helps their health and performance.
People feeling able to express themselves openly with a better understanding of the impacts of mental health forces governments and employees to find solutions.
- Support from the leadership team
- Resources to meet the needs of employees.
- Awareness building via everyday conversations regarding mental health.
Some companies train "mental health allies" - colleagues that others can safely approach confident that their discussions will be kept confidential.
Mental health at work has traditionally been seen as a minority issue and only addressed when someone is at the point of needing help. Reframing mental health as something we all have and that it can change over time will help normalise the conversation and get employers to be more proactive.
Millennials may prioritise mental health more than other generations.
People in e.g. the film industry are often so obviously grasping for opportunities that the social conversations are easier for autistic people to understand. Other people may regard Hollywood conversations as "fake", but in reality many other social interactions are at least as fake but simply hide it better.
Physical illnesses such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome often accompany neurodivergences but are frequently ignored, sometimes due to gender bias.
Neurodivergent people don't necessarily feel more than neurotypicals, but the automatic regulation of emotions doesn't take place in the same way so tend to feel higher highs and lower lows. They may be great to consult with in order to find out how employees are feeling due to being able to pick up on other people's emotions more. They're also likely to speak more honestly and openly.
There's a backlash against open plan offices. Being constantly bombarded with sights and sounds and feeling like you're being watched and judged can create anxiety especially amongst HSPs and introverts.
The superpower of being able to feel what's happening on your team and talk to different team members differently is hard to use when you're feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelm and anxiety can make people behave in a self-absorbed or selfish way.
Things companies could do:
- During new hire orientation make it clear that neurodiversity is understood, welcomed, embraced, and accommodated.
- Train everyone in the language and framework of neurodiversity.
- Deliberately create opportunities, groups and positions that rely more on creative rather than linear thinking.
- Create a variety of physical spaces that accommodate different working styles.
- Find ways to integrate the natural environment into the work environment.
- Offer regular small-group meetings on topics like mental health, burnout, sleep, communication, boundaries and organisation.
It's time to build ecosystems that sustain neurodivergent people. Many people, organisations and movements are trying to do so. Sensitive neurodivergent women are "coming out", improving life for everyone.
Fields like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, augmented reality, and sensory design need input from neurodivergent people.
Replika is an AI chatbot that realistically converses with those who need to be listened to, empathised with, reassured or a connection. A bot programmed based on the communication patterns of a sensitive neurodivergent person might lead to new insights, understanding and applications.
If AI is to make decisions that affect us then we must ensure the programming isn't biased. The teams that create the technology need to be diverse otherwise research will go in the direction of the already privileged.
Neurodivergent thinking needs to be present in all sorts of fields. Architects, designers and researchers have shown about how autistic sensibilities can benefit the world.
Blind people can learn to echolocate via mouth clicks. Researchers are trying to understand how that works. This is an example of "neuroqueering" - the altering of how humans perform in the world, or "sensequeering". It shows us what's possible when we change how we respond to sensory stimulation or the lack of it.
Sensitive people can adopt certain behaviours and the world around them can change in helpful ways. For example some supermarkets have quiet hours for autistic shoppers. What if norms changed such that:
- all offices had Snoezelen rooms to help with sensory overload?
- deep pressure hugs and quiet talking in meetings were the standard?
- airports, which currently have smoking areas, also had areas for people who are sensitive to environmental stimuli.
Left handed scissors are an example of something that met the need of a minority without imposing a real burden on others.
Whilst hearing voices has been considered an abnormality, almost everyone experiences it at some point in their lives.
Sensitive people may come up with new ways of operating and interacting if given the freedom to do so. Perhaps these ways would help improve the more general functioning of society.
We need more involvement from autistic people in research; selecting the questions, conducting the research, interviewing others.
Professionals, including those in the fields of medicine, psychology and justice need to be taught about the importance of sensory processing and its impact on behaviour. Parents, teachers, colleagues and others have to learn about this in order to make adjustments that enable neurodivergent people to thrive. We shouldn't expect the neurodiverse to retrain themselves to behave in ways that don't reflect who they are.
Changing the stories around sensitivity and behaviour is both practical and revolutionary.
Many neurodiverse children feel overwhelm and fear which affects their emotional, cognitive, and social development.
Ending shame and stigma should be a high priority. Changes in language help here. Using negative words like "deficit" is still common in this field.
Neurodiversity advocates shouldn't dismiss treatments out of hand; we should be open to any therapy that can bring some benefit.
Focus on integration. A world of increasing alienation, coldness, superficiality, and emotional hardness will benefit from people with talents such as empathy, emotional intensity, certitude, sensitivity, attention to detail and deep thinking.
Sensitivity should be considered when thinking about other of today's mental health categories including borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, OCD, and bipolar disorder.
With resources and support, neurodivergent people can thrive. It is a disservice to lower our expectations of what they can do.
Masking can make research difficult. A therapist might not recognise that their client is neurodivergent. Re-evaluating diagnostic tools is a priority, particularly for women who tend to be better at masking.
There’s really nothing right or wrong about people; we’re all just people doing our best
Why do we need to categorise neurodivergences at all, especially if there's so much overlap between them?
- Categorisations are usually used by insurance companies, doctors and therapists who today must label something in order to offer access to support, treatment, or therapy.
- Some people find getting a diagnosis from a doctor is important and affirming.
- A formal label might be needed to access certain accommodations.
The meaning of each label is not static. It will change over time.
Whilst we can acknowledge the importance of categorisation, the incredible diversity seen in humans should make us question its primacy, whether they're fixed and how we use them.
It’s important that we see differences, that we don’t deny them; but let it stop there and respond to everyone with kindness and help.
Don't gatekeep help based on whether someone appears to be "high" or "low" functioning. Having a job, money and family doesn't mean someone doesn't feel suicidal.
The author feels they were greatly helped by:
- Finding the right career.
- Coming to understand their needs.
- Communicating those needs and having them respected by their friends, family, and colleagues. This can be hard, especially when you don't understand them yourself, but start with whatever feels achievable to you - perhaps pausing a conversation it it's overwhelming or asking to go shopping when it's quiet.
- Learning more about their body. You can find documentaries about how the human body works online.
Acceptance is critical in allowing neurodivergent people to develop and thrive.
The way we conduct medicine and talk about sensitivity and differences in society must change. This isn't specific to neurodiversity, but the more general way in which we view human difference and how our language and actions empower some people over others.
Some Canadian hospitals refer patients with depression and anxiety to art museums. In some places therapists rather than police officers are the first responders to homeless people.
Isolation results in physical and psychological symptoms. As loneliness rises, doctors have been put in the position of trying to fix people's social lives, leading to they themselves burning out and needing help.
Nothing will change if people don't feel able to connect and share their internal experiences with others. We must learn how have better conversations and reveal more of ourselves to others. Telling other people about our struggles is a path to connection.
Unmasking requires bravery, but puts you on a path towards being able to lead the life you want to live.