“Neurodivergent” (ND) has been a bit of a buzzword for the past decade, and even more so in the past couple of years. Seems like everyone is “neurodivergent” these days, like we are coming out of the woodwork.
Yes and no (a post for another day).
I’ve been hesitant to talk about this topic for a number of reasons, largely because it puts me in a super vulnerable place. Not easy for most people, and I’m certainly not immune.
Additionally, I “get” I’m not an expert beyond my own experiences, so take the post for what you will. I feel that the qualities that make us “neurodivergent” are what make many of us gravitate to creative professions in the first place—writing included.
Being neurodivergent can give us major advantages.
The challenges that go with being neurodivergent can also hinder many of us from ever seeing meaningful success.
For instance, as a writer, I can tell you I’ve listened to 500+ audiobooks in the past 4 years. Many of those titles I’ve listened to in excess of 20 times.
There is NOTHING “NORMAL” about this.
One of my particular quirks (being autistic) is to learn absolutely everything possible about the topic du jour, which is GREAT. When I write any book, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, I am a veritable encyclopedia of information.
I easily make connections others do not, see patterns others might miss (ADHD). Then, I obsess (the OCD) until it is….SQUIRREL!
Being transparent. Today’s post is longer than usual.
But you and I BOTH know everyone skims, so just roll with it. Pick and choose what might apply to/help YOU.
Or read EVERY word because do you really want to be cleaning right now?
I didn’t think so. So read it twice.
All kidding aside, this post will be divided into two parts. In PART ONE, we will go over what I mean when I say “neurodivergent” and a bit of MY experiences, which you might relate to…or totally want to skip.
PART TWO is more “general application.” We’ll cover what it’s like being a neurodivergent author, your strengths, weaknesses, and some tips and tricks to navigate this brave
new weird world.
PART ONE: WHAT is “Neurodivergent”?
Being “neurodivergent”—to use super broad strokes—simply means our brains process information…differently. Can this be a “disability” or a “handicap”? Sure. Autism can be so acute the person cannot function outside in the real world (E.g. Rain Man). But not ALL neurodivergent people (or autistic people) are Rain Man.
I explain it to my son this way. For the most part, autistic people are an Apple OS in a Windows OS world. Is it a “disadvantage” to have a Mac OS?
Ask anyone who’s ever tried to find a connector for their Apple laptop so they could do a Power Point presentation….
It can be a hassle, much like my husband’s Android phone fits nicely in the charging cubby in our SUV…whereas my iPhone needs a special “certified” Apple cord, a detailed horoscope, a blood sample, three letters of recommendation, a credit check and a cosigner.
And yes, we will be mixing metaphors more than a 90s DJ today, so just roll with it….
Ice Ice Baby!
Impairment: Tis a FLESH WOUND!
When one claims any impairment due to being neurodivergent, this can be akin to claiming to be visually impaired.
If I am visually impaired, this can mean anything from I need 1.00+ reading glasses to see the directions on a pill bottle to I was born without EYES! It might mean I am colorblind, have nystagmus, macular degeneration, damaged corneas, retinal tears, glaucoma, Sjogren’s Syndrome, etc., etc.
In fact, with visual impairment, I might have a combination of these problems (as well as ancillary, but related issues, such as diabetes or cardiac problems).
When someone says they’re visually impaired, this does not by default, mean they have a seeing eye dog, read only by Braille, and have no lights in their houses…though they might.
Same with being Neurodivergent (or autistic).
The Neurodivergent “Fruit” Salad
My journey to a diagnosis has been a LONG one, for a number of reasons we’ll discuss another time. Suffice to say that a lot of conditions are listed on what is referred to as the Autistic Spectrum. According to Harvard Health:
Autism often comes paired with other conditions, such as ADD, ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder, dyslexia, ODC, and so on and so forth. We have a “cluster” of issues.
It is possible to be autistic, and have only say, one comorbidity (E.g. ADD). But, it is just as likely one might have several, or NONE.
There is a saying, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”
We are all a Special Unique
Snowflake Fruit Salad, yes. This is a huge part of the challenge many of us face. What combination of weird are you? Still weird, just different weird.
Not ME! I CAN’T be AUTISTIC!
*me clutching pearls* circa 2019
Autism never once crossed my radar. I’d pretty much accepted I was probably ADHD (and most definitely weird). Anyone who’s met me five seconds can see that. But autism? PHSAW!
Then, in 2019, I happened to be the main keynote at a large conference in West Texas. A lovely older author (who was a professional psychiatrist by trade) came up to me after I presented. She told me she thoroughly enjoyed my teaching but she wanted to suggest something, but was worried I’d be offended.
I assured her I had rhino skin.
Her: “Just listening to your anecdotes and watching you, have you ever considered you might be a high-functioning autistic?”
Me: Err? Whah? Pshaw! Seriously?
Her: Autism presents very differently in females and is extremely hard to diagnose because women are better at “masking.”
Me: What’s “masking”?
And thus began a long and painful journey. My entire life, I just thought I was annoying, picky, lazy, high-maintenance, crazy, wasn’t “trying” hard enough, etc. etc.
By about 2022, however, it was becoming painfully obvious I could no longer “outwork” my “disabilities.” I would have to approach things differently unless I wanted to be washing down Oreos with a bottle of tequila.
I go into this more in a previous post Neurodivergent: Being ‘Different’ in Life & Fiction.
My Autism Side
I never really played as a child as much as I “organized” things, whether that was my 10 gazillion stickers, my favorite books, or my Barbie collection (clothes by size, by era, or by color?).
From a very early age, I was a “collector” whether that was Barbies, all things Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, series of books, a brand of pen, a certain series of notebooks.
Lisa Frank? I had ALL…THE…THINGS. Stickers, notebooks, spirals, erasers, pens, calendars, backpacks, posters, etc.
GOD HELP anyone who colored in MY coloring books.
If I played pretend, usually it involved forcing younger children to be students while I was the “teacher.”
***For the record, my little brother still has superlative penmanship and is a voracious reader of all the literary classics.
For me, teaching myself Conversational Swahili using Berlitz tapes from the library or making chlorine gas with that new Chemistry set (TOTALLY AN ACCIDENT) was “play” and “fun.”
Whenever I discovered something new, I had to do/learn ALL THE THINGS about whatever. I BINGED.
True, I struggled to make eye contact when I was young. BUT you get smacked and punished enough and you learn really quickly that eye contact is a big deal to adults.
Since I always struggled with social anxiety, I learned to “mask” by being funny. I was terrible at reading social cues but I could (mostly) cover that up by being “clever.” I remember watching all the great comics, studying their timing, their lines and yeah….
People are less judgy if they’re laughing.
As a kid, I refused to wear pants, tights, anything with elastic, or itchy zippers. Often, I tore my clothes apart because I hated the tags, any scratchy fabric (when corduroy was all the rage), wouldn’t wear clips in my hair (gave me headaches), refused headbands (gave me headaches), or hats (yes, gave me headaches).
My mom always bought me the exact same brand of shoes. Always. Maybe change the color, but not the brand. Though my grandmother would buy me other shoes, I’d wear the Buster Browns until…they…DIED.
I had the same shampoo (Johnson & Johnson), the same perfume (Baby Soft, duh), and watched the same movies. To this day, I can pretty much recite “Labyrinth” from memory (and “Grease”, “The Holy Grail”, “Stripes” and “Robin Williams at the Met” and WTH were my parents DOING?)
I’ve always preferred dark/dim lighting, and struggled in school with the bright/fluorescent lights. Mom (who we now know is also ND) never minded that I basically read by candle light (in a tutu, upside down surrounded by my favorite sticker books).
Additionally, I have such super sensitive hearing that it’s caused me terrible sleep issues most of my life.
***I now sleep in noise-canceling head phones because YES, I CAN hear spiders fart.
I loved the same records and am rather shocked my mother didn’t murder me for playing the same FIVE records SIX HUNDRED times a day.
Every day, I packed the very same lunch (peanut butter and honey, cut diagonally and an apple). If we went out to eat, I ordered the exact same thing. If my mom cooked the same meal every night? I was in heaven (and she frequently did cook the same meal every night).
I had the same routine, hated any kind of change, and functioned best when everything was clean, orderly, and organized. In school, I believed in following the rules and fell apart when others didn’t follow the rules.
And teachers who felt the need to be clever and “change up” the seating arrangements?
What is WRONG with YOU?
Not Much Has Changed
I still eat the exact same foods and wear the same clothes. If I find a shirt or pair of pants I love? I buy all of them…in all colors…and wear them until they DIE (and maybe a little bit after death).
I don’t want a new perfume, I want my favorite (thought they keep GETTING RID of my favorites and then I need to find a NEW favorite). When I go out to eat, it is always the same couple of places and they already know my order.
I listen to the same songs (or genre of songs) until I burn myself out, then cycle to my next fave and repeat.
Every morning is the same routine and if anything disrupts this? God help us all.
When I used to take hot yoga, I’d get there 30 minutes early to get MY spot. Right in front so I could see the instructor’s face in the mirror. In the far left corner by the windows so I wasn’t hemmed in on all sides by people.
If anyone got in my spot before me? All I could feel was incandescent rage for two hours…
OHMMMMM….you’re in my spoooot…..you psychopaaaaaath…..I hope you dieeeeeee….
I’m much better now *left eye twitches*
MY ADHD Side
THIS is where things get jiggy, because as anal and rigid as I can be, my brain is ALSO an explosion of ALL THE IDEAS. I see patterns in everything. Chaos is my middle name.
Back to those 500+ Audible titles? I listen while cleaning, cooking, crocheting, painting, and gardening. It is pretty much impossible for me to do ONE thing at a time.
Kid you not. I’ve been learning Mandarin since April, because doesn’t everyone just decide to learn one of the world’s hardest languages solely FOR FUN?
I will literally be doing a Mandarin lesson, while crocheting and watching television and answering my husband’s questions.
And I CAN do all these things at the same time.
Though this is also how my cellphone ended up in the fridge…and we just don’t need to talk about that.
These 500+ audio books are on top of paper books and ebooks and no I don’t have a problem, DO YOU?
Well, PUNK? DO YOU?
I thought not.
Anyway, as obsessive as I am about order, I can never seem to maintain it.
I am very much my own worst enemy. For those on WANATribe, we have been doing writing sprints every day all day (M-F) for like nine years. I pay NING $65 a month to basically maintain focus using peer pressure and timers.
If I put items in a box to “organize,” those items (to me) cease to exist once the lid closes. I need shelves or clear boxes. As brilliant as I think I can be, I am also…an idiot.
My mind is a whirlwind of ideas and facts and tangents and plot bunnies and, and….
PART TWO: Neurodivergent Creatives
What Does This Have to Do With Writing?
This is a totally unscientific guess, but I imagine many of you reading this blog (who are usually writers) probably were laughing, nodding, or maybe crying at a lot of this post.
As I’ve said many times before, if you are a writer, you are NOT NORMAL. The NORMAL SHIP sailed without us a long time ago. A lot of ND people gravitate to writing, but we might also struggle to be successful at it.
Ironically, the very things that make us ND can also make us superlative authors, which we’ll go over. Take heart.
Neurodivergent Authors: Autism and Writing
For instance, those of us who are on the autistic spectrum? We’ve literally made it our life’s mission studying human behavior. How do humans interact? What is this body language thing (that we clearly keep MISSING)?
We’ve read books on behavior, read fiction, watched movies, and parsed every tiny interaction. We can be masters at imitation in life and writing, which can be good and bad.
I told jokes for YEARS that had people in stitches, and I had literally NO idea what was even funny…just that people laughed…all the way up until HR talked to me.
So, if you’re autistic, you possibly excel at supreme focus, in depth studying, and understanding/explaining certain subjects in amazing (okay, excruciating) detail.
Just remember that not everyone wants to talk about serial killers, the Black Death, or the evolution of Medieval torture devices at that holiday party.
Unless it’s a holiday party with writers, then you’re probably going to be popular for the first time in your life.
Here are some challenges that I (personally) have found as an autistic writer, so again, I AM NOT A PSYCHIATRIST, I just play one on the internet.
Beware of Too Much Detail
We get SO excited about our world, our technology, or describing the world around us down to the molecular level that we can lose the reader.
Readers want stories about PEOPLE facing adversity. If they want a gazillion pages of pure information, they’re over on Reddit or “correcting/adding to” Wikipedia.
Learn to BEND
Flexibility is your friend. I KNOW you so want to go down that research rabbit hole but STOP. I am here to save you from yourself.
If you are writing your novel and realize you don’t know how to describe, say, a fishing boat, feel free to type INSERT COOL DETAILS ABOUT FISHING BOATS HERE LATER.
Then finish your story (again, that thing about people) and when you are resting after that draft, read all things “commercial fishing” and LAYER those details in later.
I have a writer who started out as a commenter who’s become a lovely friend. He hired me to look at why his sci-fi series wasn’t selling. There was no doubting his work ethic. He had like 15 books at the time.
But, I was only a couple chapters in and saw the problem. Magnificent world-building…but he kind of forgot to focus on the people and their problems (and no shocker, he is ND).
Once his recalibrated his focus? A MILLION TIMES BETTER!
It’s an Outline, Not a Suicide Pact
Many autistic people can fall into being planners and plotters, which is fabulous, unless this rigidity is keeping you from exploring your story in a deeper way.
Stephen King talks about the “boys in the basement.” I can personally attest my subconscious has come up with MUCH cooler stuff than I ever could have planned out ahead of time.
Yet, I will say (largely because I was “overcorrecting” for being ADHD) I’ve had times I refused to change course because I was terrified of being “a flake.” Which is all well and good except when your course is taking you off a CLIFF!
Neurodivergent? Be Mindful of Energy Levels
This actually applies to the autistic as well as other “fruits” in our Special
Snowflake Fruit Salad. We can become so engrossed in whatever that we fail to keep in touch with how tired, hungry, or stressed we are.
If you add this on top of the exhausting effort it takes to “appear normal” it is a LOT.
Remember the kind psychiatrist who hinted I “might” be autistic? And how I had no clue what “masking” was?
There was a good reason this took time to discover.
It is because it’s only very recently that the psychiatric community is even admitting ADULTS can be autistic, let alone WOMEN.
*more clutching of pearls*.
Let’s say there just hasn’t been all that much out there until recent years.
But back to masking.
All my life, I struggled with being “fine, fine, fine” then something small/stupid happening—I can’t find my favorite pen—that would absolutely DERAIL me and leave me a hysterical raging mess of tears, snot and apologies.
I had no clue what was causing this (Hint: it’s called an autistic meltdown and applies to most neurodivergent people).
Case in point:
Early this year, I had a professional appointment. No one “mandated” I bring copies of my resume, but why be prepared when you can be OVER-PREPARED?
Suffice to say, my mom had just had surgery, I was trying to get over Whooping Cough, was homeschooling a gifted 8th grader, we’d just had a death in the family, and so I…delegated.
Normally, I would have checked what my husband printed, but I thought, “Kristen! This is you being a control freak. It’s FINE!”
When I opened my leather portfolio in the meeting, to my horror, I realized Hubby had printed all of my pages…crooked.
And in the wrong order.
With the headers cut off.
Good news is Hubby is alive and I am not in jail (or even on bail! Go me!).
I’d yet to learn about the Spoon Theory of Autism (and this also applies to anyone dealing with chronic issues, pain, etc.)
I only have so many spoons of energy until I need to withdraw and regroup…or BOOM!
Now, for Neurodivergent ADD/ADHD Writers
I’ll be the first to admit that I went to extreme lengths to avoid any formal diagnosis. To me, it seemed that too many people were using autism, ADHD/ADD, etc. as an excuse for bad habits, poor character, obnoxious behavior and to be willfully lazy.
***Don’t shout me down, that was MY opinion at the time (and still a little today).
Back in college, I was engaged to a brilliant man who quit halfway through a PhD. He actually quit most things, which was largely why we didn’t work out. Years later, I ran into him and he asked what I was doing. I told him I was a writer.
Him: I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I am way too ADHD.
Me (inside voice): No, you’ve never written a book because you lack the discipline to finish what you start.
***I’m actually much better at the inside words staying inside thing.
If you are ADD/ADHD, you can be a fountain of creativity. You see patterns in everything and make connections others don’t see…until you point them out. Your innovative way of seeing the world can make you a groundbreaking author…
…if you just sit and FINISH.
Remember, if this applies to you, I have one finger pointing at you and the others all pointing at ME.
ADD/ADHD Needs Structure
If you are ADD or ADHD and this doesn’t apply to you? Scroll past or feel free to leave your way of handling things in the comments. For me? I was a hot mess. I had a terrible habit of starting things and never finishing. Did I fail to finish because I was lazy?
***Okay, maybe sometimes.
I failed to finish because I lacked the discipline to stay the course and I followed every single plot bunny…and their babies…and their babies’ babies.
This was HOW I ended up with my first “novel” being 187,000 word romantic-mystery-thriller-suspense-religious-comedy-self-help.
I started blogging back in 2007 (on MySpace) then blogging here in 2008 (???). The main reason I forced myself to blog was to learn to SHIP. It created a space that trained me to get butt IN chair until the work was COMPLETE.
Then LET GO.
And commit to a schedule.
Perfect is the enemy of the finished.
If you are struggling to finish a novel, then maybe do a blog or do a flash fiction every day, week, whatever. Train those writing muscles. More importantly, train those finishing muscles.
For instance, I taught myself to crochet. I am NOT ALLOWED to begin anything new, until what I am working on is finished.
***Reading books? Totally doesn’t count. I usually have like 5 going at any given time.
Neurodivergent: Did I Mention Structure?
This is where we can part ways with those who are autistic (or go to war with our “autistic” side). I believe a lot of pansters likely are ADHD. We actually need to start telling the story to figure OUT the story.
To be blunt? This is a highly inefficient way to write. No shade if it works for you! If you are a panster and finishing novels faster than Mortal KOMBAT? Then don’t change. Duh.
But, if you keep getting off track, then try getting your idea at least into ONE SENTENCE.
I even have to do this with NF.
When I helped write The Trap: Sex, Social Media, and Surveillance Capitalism I HAD to write a small paragraph describing what the book was about. When writing about the dark depths of the digital adult entertainment industry, there were SO MANY tangents.
Jewels and I simply couldn’t cover them ALL in one book. We needed essentially a log-line.
Even for fiction. If you’re neurodivergent (or even if you aren’t) this is GOLD. In ONE sentence, what is your story ABOUT? Even if it is something simple like what I am doing now: My story is about a ghost ship in the derby days of crabbing.
NOT a lot of details, but if I start going down too many trails that suddenly make my story NOT about a ghost ship in the derby days of crabbing…there is a problem.
Neurodivergent to Neuro-DIVERTED: NO to the Bunnies
Again, us ADHD people see patterns and new ways of seeing and doing and thinking and, and, and, and….
IF you are writing your novel, you can take a trick from what I do with my autism. Should you think there is a thread you need to pursue, try writing WHAT IF THEY GO X DIRECTION INSTEAD? Then let your brain sit on it.
At least try to keep moving forward. If that detour, however, does not serve the overall story you are currently working on?
Put it in a folder.
Go to that blog I linked to about log-lines. See if your “plot bunny idea” might have enough meat to stand on its own. Write a log-line and maybe a little synopsis. Then when you FINISH the current idea, your bunny(ies) will be waiting…and likely breeding.
Here is how to write a synopsis, no salt circle necessary. This will keep you from smashing fifteen story ideas into ONE BOOK.
Conversely, IF you are unsure because, like I said, we often talk through/work through to FIND the story, then I highly recommend Google Docs. Break up your story with HEADINGS you can easily shift through (I think Word and Scrivener can do this too).
This will help you trim all that FAT when you get to the end.
For instance, my ghost ship story? My main character needs to be a land-lover greenhorn. So how does he end up on a boat in the Arctic circle? I literally have sections that read Probably NOT Part of Main Story but WTH, WHY NOT? Maybe I will keep it, ditch it. I don’t yet KNOW.
But the header function keeps me from having a bazillion separate documents and allows me to zip through what I already know is a hellaciously over-bloated document.
Neurodivergent, NOT Lazy or “a Flake“
The writing profession has never been easy and we now face challenges no writer in this history of PLANET EARTH has ever faced.
We have enough odds stacked against our success without self-sabotaging. This said, before I realized “being neurodivergent” was a thing, and that I might actually BE neurodivergent? I was harder on myself than anyone.
BUT, I also gave myself slack where I shouldn’t have.
To this day, I wear a rubber band on my wrist (to lightly snap) to keep me present so I don’t talk over people. Apparently, people get annoyed when you keep finishing their sentences.
I know I get enthusiastic and I certainly don’t mean to be rude. But that doesn’t mean it is okay for me to be Tigger and bounce through all the conversational crockery making a mess.
Additionally, when I give my word, I strive very hard to keep it and not take on any more work. I ran an editing special back in October, then everything decided it needed to update…so it could then CRASH.
Word crashed, wiping out over 100 pages of edits. Then WP coughed up a digital hairball. Event Espresso (what I use to “sell” services) decided to toss all messages into the ABYSS and even WANATribe was 404 and took a week to fix.
Edits that normally should have been easy-peasy turned into a month-long nightmare (because of technology; the writing samples were unusually brilliant).
The old me would have just refunded the money out of sheer overwhelm.
But I’ve matured. I let people know what the tech issues were, and figured most people actually are not nearly as hard on me as I am.
Embracing Being Neurodivergent
When my mom sent me to be tested in August (I am NOT joking)…
Yes, my mother had me tested…
Anyway, she asked me what I hoped to gain from an “official” diagnosis. Which, was a fair question.
I wanted to know what are called “critical nodes.” Whenever a company hires a security specialist (like, say for building a DAM in Venezuela), that specialist should point out unique areas of weakness that are inherent to the design.
For instance, if the company is aware that rebel groups might want to sabotage their dam, they don’t want to pay for security everywhere, just the most likely points of attack or system failure.
Same with being neurodivergent.
Was I autistic? Or just wanting an excuse for being controlling? Or was I being over-controlling because of being autistic? Was I ADHD or just undisciplined? A combination of both?
So on and so forth.
For me, since getting a diagnosis, life is MUCH easier (mostly because I can plan and also give myself grace). I no longer feel guilty because I never wear the stunning dress I paid a fortune for, because NOW I know I’m never going wear it because of the seams and type of fabric.
***This also informs me of what to buy/not buy in the future.
Yes, I am swimming in 9,000 different hair clips (which I will donate at the beginning of the year). I kept believing I just had the wrong clip and didn’t put 2 and 2 together that it was a sensory issue.
I’m more mindful that I can be much too loud. People think I am upset or yelling at them. No, my hearing is stupid sensitive. The world (to me) is very, VERY loud.
I hear the AC cutting on and off, the computer processor humming, the traffic, the kids playing outside, the GUY WITH THE LEAF BLOWER, WHAT IS WITH THAT AND HOW IS HE EVERYWHERE?
So, to me, I am talking over a very noisy world.
Again, I use the rubber band. A quick snap on my wrist to remind me to slow down (the ADHD) and assess if the world is really that loud, or if I’m overexcited/overstimulated. Before my diagnosis, I had NO CLUE why I’d get so loud I was irritating people.
Now? I know hurdles I might encounter.
A diagnosis has given me tools to better communicate. For instance, my husband likes getting everywhere at the last minute, whereas I need to be places a half hour early.
We’ve come to an agreement.
IF he wants me to sit still and be quiet, he THEN must get me there early enough to center myself and calm my anxiety (or no kicking me under the pew).
What Are Your Thoughts?
We can talk on this topic again if there is any interest. I just know I felt unbelievably alone until I became a writer…then I DISCOVERED MY PEOPLE!
Trust me, I know that not every writer is ND, but I think many of us are. Additionally, I think a lot of us don’t KNOW we are ND and we beat ourselves up feeling like freaks, weirdos and failures.
I firmly stick by my theory that what can make us brilliant artists is also linked to why we struggle to finish, get/remain organized, have a hard time being able to stick-and-move and change with all the trends…
***OR we are SO good at sticking-and-moving with the trends we forget to WRITE BOOKS.
Did you relate to any of this? Maybe have a friend? A family member? Obviously I know today was a lot, but in the future I’d like to break this all into smaller pieces we can explore.
Do you see yourself in this? Or do you have something to add? I’m totally new to all this so I’m exploring ALL THE THINGS!
Are you ND, but maybe in a different way? A Tropical Fruit Salad (
papaya hypoactive, mango dyscalculia, and banana ADD) instead of that North American ( apple autism, walnuts OCD, and pear ADHD)?
I LOVE hearing from you! What are your stories, struggles, tips, tricks, links, epiphanies?