Note from Erin Oke, CEC Executive Director: This conversation is about having a neurodivergent brain. It reflects the actual thinking process of neurodivergent human Jeff Warren. He is an ADHDer, with a bipolar diagnosis. Instead of writing in a traditional way – which Jeff finds challenging on this subject – we recorded a chat between Jeff and myself. The conversation was canceled and rescheduled several times, and finally took place over zoom with Jeff in an airport waiting lounge. We have allowed the ideas to flow the way they actually came out – with some editing, of course. Ok, not some editing. A LOT of editing :)

Jeff: When you asked me I was like, “awesome, I love talking about neurodiversity!” but then to prepare I listened to 5 podcasts and read through 20 documents where I have ten thousand notes and different versions of guided meditations for ADHD and I got so obsessed I whipped myself into an overwhelmed ADHD state. It seems to be my hilarious karma that trying to talk about ADHD makes me more ADHD and thus unable to clearly talk about ADHD.

Erin: Ooof, that’s a lot! How are you feeling about it now?

Jeff: Surprisingly OK. It’s good to know you’re gonna help me. Because I’m allowed to be who I am with you, I feel more settled. Also it feels right to ask for help. That’s a big part of what I’m learning, actually.

Erin: To ask for help? I’m so bad at that. 

Jeff: My paradigm for thinking about this is One Big Nervous System. The neurodivergent brain is a specialist brain; it’s really good at some things, and it has a harder time with other things. For myself – and my partner Sarah too – there are certain executive functions we find difficult. To function, I need to externalize them to others. To my Dad, for finance stuff. To my manager Lilli’s frontal lobe, for work stuff. That’s also why I love collaborating with others, especially people who have skills I lack. It frees me up to use the overdeveloped parts of my brain that are good at making meditations, for example. That’s the One Big Nervous System in action.

Neurodiversity asks for more understanding and collaborative social structures where people can be spread across a much larger ecology of human capacities and gifts. Where we don’t have some expectation of a “normal” way that everyone needs to function. Sensitive creative healer types need support in order to be sensitive creative healer types. Thing is, these kinds of brains need extra support. More support than other kinds of brains. And for this, society needs to change. It needs to become more accommodating and collaborative. If it doesn’t, then the opposite happens. Those same brains are more vulnerable to suffering and mental illness, And that negatively affects the whole culture and environment. 

Erin: So, what would those support structures look like or feel like?

More community. Workplaces that are more neurodiversity friendly. Where they have an understanding of how people may have a sensory processing sensitivity around, say, lighting, or sound. Where there’s an understanding that some people have different ways of socializing – have a hard time looking people in the eye, or can’t do small talk. It’s expanding the set of norms and the way we go about things to make people feel safer.  It’s equity versus equality. So not about everyone being exactly identical, with identical treatment, but rather everyone having access to the tools and adjustments and accommodations that best fit them.

I like this guy Joel Schwartz – a smart ADHDer and neurodiversity-friendly therapist. He talks about the deranged productivity focus of our culture, the idea that we need to be working to be valued. I couldn’t agree more. As Joel says, we are beautiful sensing creating connecting little creatures – that’s what we’re meant to be and do. Not to be good capitalist worker drones. What a boring letdown for civilization. Many neurodivergent folks are shamed for having a hard time holding down a 9 – 5 job. Well. They’re built for something cooler. 

Erin: Like what? 

Jeff: Well, I think the big picture is that the mind is evolving. In response to the pressures of the time, the unique stresses and the faster pace of living, the increased volume of information that we need to take in … the human nervous system is changing. ADHD has been around for a long time – over 200,000 years by some estimates. There’s even a theory that ADHDers are hunters among the farmers, with an exploratory scanning creativity that played an important role in early societies. AND, there seems to be more ADHD than ever, and more autistic people, and more people with sensory sensitivities, and on and on. 

Mental health authorities often pathologize this increase, but another way to think of it is as nature’s creative response to the challenges we face. If you think about the gifts of neurodiversity, there’s more sensitivity, more emotional and spiritual nuance, more creativity, more capacity to pivot quickly, more systems intelligence. Maybe we’re one expression of how the mind and body are addressing the world’s problems. 

Erin: I’m so glad you talked about the gifts – I was thinking about the disability movement or accessibility movement when you were talking about that because sometimes it does get pathologized or seen as a problem rather than, “What are the gifts? What are the wonderful things?” 

Jeff: The neurodiversity movement takes a lot of its inspiration from the disability movement. That our differences are not “disorders.” That’s just neurotypical people looking at the atypical behaviors and saying, “we don’t like those, they don’t fit our expectations.” Once you understand the differences, and create a context that can meet the different needs, then they are no longer a problem. A world with only stairs says being in a wheelchair is a problem. As soon as you have wheelchair ramps, it’s less of an issue.

Erin: You often say “my ADHD brain”, can you describe or narrate what it’s like to be in your brain?

Jeff: One big thing is a surplus of attention – not a deficit. That’s a misnomer. It’s too much attention, being interested in everything, pulled in a million directions. Ping ping ping ping ping!

Another part is “time blindness.” The gift of ADHD is you can easily come back to the present. The problem is, you come back to the present stressed about the zillion things you forgot to do. Because your capacity to plan is poor, and you have terrible short-term memory, and you also suck at accurately estimating how long everything takes. Time blindness comes up in so many ways – it’s not just losing track of time and missing appointments. It’s also hard to locate yourself in time – to remember the past, to position yourself in your own memories. If someone asks me, “hey, remember that time at university when we did this?, even if I could remember it (unlikely), I would not be able to place what year it was.

Another aspect is sensitivity. Painful emotional sensitivity, where it can be hard to exist inside big feeling states. And also sensory sensitivity, where certain sense gates are really challenging. So in my case I feel vulnerable when there’s a lot of noise. Or soft light touch makes me cringe. I also have intense interpersonal sensitivities – like “rejection sensitivity dysphoria,” where if I feel like I’ve failed someone it’s like a knife in the chest. I can feel it for days.

ADHD folks are famous for the good side of all this too. Sensitivity mixed with a volatile attention span means high creative capacity. You’re both noticing lots of fine details and also jumping around making connections. Another positive is a kind of exuberance. You don’t stay in your bad moods for long. You jump out of them and are refreshed by the moment and psyched about the next thing. Makes you fun at parties. I should say that I’m talking about my particular presentation of ADHD, which is more the impulsive energized type. Sarah is more of the daydreamy type. There’s diversity even within single neuro-types. Although she’s also fun at parties. 

There seem to be a very high percentage of neurodiverse folks in the activist and advocacy communities. That’s part of the sensitivity. When something’s happening that’s unfair, either in your life, or in the larger world, you can be hypersensitive to those injustices, so it’s hard to go on with business as usual.

But I don’t want to romanticize the pluses. All of these things are also very agonizing. A lot of the abject suffering I went through in my life came from functioning in this way without the support and understanding of how I was.

Erin: Are neurodivergent mental health challenges all the same? Are they different? Is there overlap? Like you have a bipolar diagnosis, right? Do you consider that as a part of neurodivergence or is that separate?

Jeff: If you define neurodivergent as simply feeling like you have a brain that’s different, then bipolar is definitely that. Bipolar has its own challenges that I won’t get into here. Neurodivergent conditions tend to overlap. Also having a neurodiverse brain can compound other mental health challenges –  there’s a big knot to unravel there. Conditions often get confused or misdiagnosed because it may seem like you have chronic anxiety, but really your anxiety is a product of having to spend so much energy trying to be something you’re not. With the right neurodiversity-affirming therapist, you can learn to work with and accept your ADHD, or your autism, and a lot of that anxiety can drop away. I should also say that trauma impacts the whole thing too. That’s a whole other conversation, but basically your trauma amplifies the suffering and the challenge points in your neurodivergence.

Erin:  How does meditation/mindfulness support or interact with neurodivergence?

Jeff: So many ways. There are all different kinds of practices or insights that can support anyone with any neurodivergent profile – the main principle is you have to make them your own. That’s the great thing about our pluralistic outlook at CEC, this idea of exploring what’s gonna support you in life and how to adapt practices to your unique situation. 

But in general I would say there’s a few baskets of how I think meditation can help.

The first is about empowered identification, knowing who you are and owning your unique neurodivergent self. Practicing mindfulness is one way to get insight here (so is reading books and listening to podcasts and talking to other humans). You start to get clear that you have this different pattern of sensitivities, attention, and emotionality, that you’re not the norm. And that’s an ongoing process, learning with ever more nuance the uniqueness of your situation. That leads into acceptance of the self – basically the core of meditation – and from there, self-compassion. It also begins the long journey of communicating these differences to people in your life, and building external systems and support structures to help you manage. This took me a loooong time. But once I got there I was able to flourish. 

Mindfulness also helps with self-regulation. It helps you notice and honor the special interest that you already use to sooth and regulate yourself. Valuing these things, communicating their importance to others. But the real gift of mindfulness is it helps you build capacity to notice when you’re in a suffering loop, or you’re dissociating, or you’re paying attention to something that’s not serving you. It teaches you how to interrupt that pattern by coming back to the present. The psychologist and autism activist Devon Price wrote a good little piece about this. You can also learn this through the use of a home base in meditation – the breath, or a sound, or whatever interests you. You can do this in a way that honors that you have a body that likes to move, and an attention that likes to wander around. You absolutely don’t have to sit unmoving, focused on the breath. In fact that will be agony for many ADHDers. It isn’t necessary. You can physically move, and you can wander your attention all over and still train yourself to get better at coming back. This kind of self regulation is a game changer – you need some way to disembed from your suffering, from the shame and the negative stories about how you are. 

There’s also a deep-end practice available that most people have no idea about. And that’s what I would call empowered disidentification.  If you actually pay attention to your in-the-moment experience, your experience of (for example) “ADHD-ness” actually goes up and down. There are times when your attention is really blown out and volatile, and there are times when it’s more stable. So it’s not a single, unchanging identity. The nervous system, the mind and body are constantly changing.

I want to be clear here. You are still an ADHD-er. That does not change, and it doesn’t need to change. You will always be predisposed to sensitivity and attentional volatility and all those things. But any experienced contemplative can tell you that you also have a broader “empty” awareness that can see all of those things. That awareness does not have ADHD, it does not have autism, that awareness is not white or black or brown, it’s not male or female or non-binary, it’s not a mother or a father…it’s not anything. And it’s also everything. You know, the whole paradoxical mystical eureka. Really knowing this, living this, is the deepest healing possible for any human nervous system, although that understanding is a long road with many traps and cul-de-sacs.

That’s one thing I think is missing from the neurodiversity conversation. The identity-first language is important, but there’s also this other wider and deeper perspective that can be so healing. If you can connect to that, you realize that – in a sense – in this moment, there is no problem. That is nourishment every human can benefit from.

Erin: Do you think there are any actual neurotypical people? Like there’s one guy somewhere who’s the baseline?

Jeff: That one guy. He’s the only neurotypical person on the planet. I bet he feels really … different!

Erin: Poor guy.

Jeff: I think it’s like dropping a stone in a pond. Nobody lives at the exact impact point. Everyone is at least one circle out, and it just goes further out from there. It’s degrees of difference. Everyone is unique, there’s no question that’s true. Insofar as you feel yourself to be having a hard time with the neuro “typical” expectations of the culture, then you could say that you’re in some form of neurodivergence. Whether it’s because of a profound mystical experience that you’ve had, or whether it’s bipolar, or ADHD, autism, a brain injury, Tourette’s, or OCD. Or in any other way that makes getting by as a 21st century citizen somehow challenging for you. But there’s no defined line that is the official marker. 

Neurodiversity is a description of the reality of the human condition, but naming it matters for people who are suffering and living in those specific ways, because it’s a term of empowerment. The term emerged from the autism community, where those differences had only ever been pathologized. Really they should have the final say in how the term is used. I do think it’s kind of beautiful how the term ended up creating this much larger umbrella of celebrating human difference.

Erin: So beautiful. Hey, what time is your flight?

Jeff: Hmm. It seems to be happening right now! Uh oh I gotta go!

Erin: There’s that brain in action! Go catch that plane!!

Jeff: Thanks for helping me Erin. I am excited for the different teachers and practices this month – all different perspectives on the neurodiverse experience!