A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Tag: neurodiverse affirming

After nearly 38 years of life, and having seen many success stories on Blue Sky, I’m stoked to share my main ADHD challenges in life before and after starting ADHD meds and the wonderful difference they’ve made.

Challenges -Distraction & Focus

Neurotypical brains produce enough dopamine to allow them to filter out excess sensory information, subconsciously. Apparently, they don’t wander into the classroom and immediately think of five different things they should be doing, and actively try to push four of those things away so they can focus on and complete one thing at a time. And they don’t check their email, and get distracted by a random email that isn’t important right now, or check the digital notice board and get distracted by another non-urgent thing. And interrupt setting up their Reading session with setting up their Writing session. Then get distracted getting a resource for an individual child, then get distracted by packing up something they forgot to put away yesterday, then get distracted by asking a colleague a question, etc.

My entire work day is me using vast amounts of energy trying to push all the non-urgent things clamouring for my attention away, so I can attempt to focus on and complete one thing that needs to be done now at a time. You know what requires even more of my energy? Not forgetting everything I’m not doing in that moment but do need to do sometime, and keeping track of it until I actually do it. This is made harder by the fact I can remember a thing, fully intend to do it right that moment, then get completely distracted by something else and not remember whether I actually did it or not (half the time I didn’t).

Related Challenge: Keeping Track

Diaries and calendars and apps are no good, because if I can’t see everything I need to be doing in front of me at all times; I forget to check the reminder and half the things its reminding me of, for up to a few days. So at work and at home, every incomplete digital task that needs doing in the next two weeks is an open tab (I always have the max number of tabs open). Everything I can’t do right that moment at work gets written down.

I often don’t have the time or headspace to check if I already wrote it down, and sometimes the mere idea of checking what I have recorded is stressful because I’m already overloaded. So there are multiple to do lists, some things duplicated across them, others not yet recorded.

Welcome to the world of hyper active and inattentive ADHD! (Unmedicated).

Challenges -Noticing and Meeting Basic Physical Needs

With all the above going on, who has room in their brain to notice incidental things, like being hungry, tired, needing the bathroom or being sick or in pain? Other writers are doodling their characters and making Spotify playlists for their works in progress, meanwhile I forget multiple characters names, where my characters are or what they’re doing.

I’m also running out of clean clothes because I haven’t noticed the washing basket is overflowing. There’s a small pile of clutter building on the side of my bed, because if I interrupt whatever it is I’m struggling to remember I should be doing to clear that pile, I’ll forget that thing I can hardly remember I’m supposed to be doing.

Challenges: Urgency and Never Stopping

Everywhere I walk at work and in my house, I’m clinging to memory of multiple things I should be doing but haven’t written down yet. Meanwhile sights, sounds and people talking about other things are all around me, clamouring for my attention, all day, every day. And while I struggle to batter away everything that isn’t essential, and at the top of my to do list, all the less essential things that still need doing keep itching to be done.

This is why I was often found at school, half an hour after most of my colleagues had left, rushing around my classroom completing literally five end of day pack up, and next day set up tasks at once. This is why my to do list had to be a physical piece of paper on top of my (messy) desk in a bright colour that screamed for my attention and no other form of task management worked.

The tendency to be distracted, to interrupt my own thoughts, let alone my own task completion created a sense of ongoing urgency. I need to do this —right now—before I forget. Then I need to do this right now —before I forget. And all the other things visually, or auditorily distracting me? I need to urgently block them out to urgently get anything done.

Challenges: ADHD Brain Jam

I assume its somewhere around here that fellow humans with ADHD work too hard, too long on something and experience burn out. I’ve rarely, if ever experienced ADHD burnout. But I’ve had days at work where I’ve taken in so much information that I forget what I learnt today, what I knew yesterday and pretty much everything I need to be doing is melting out my ears. A point where I simply can no longer hold onto or process information. The only solution I have found is drop everything (usually between 4-5pm), and take the rest of the night off.

I started having multiple days of brain jam/ cognitive overload in a row, worrying about meeting deadlines, and just plain feeling far too tired and drained on an ongoing basis in 2023. That’s because I don’t just have ADHD, I also have a chronic illness (courtesy of long covid in 2022). Fibromyalgia was steadily eating my stamina, and ramping up my chronic fatigue, pain, and in hindsight; brain fog, by the end of all four 2023 teaching terms.

This is the point that made me re-evaluate my 2020 decision not to get my ADHD diagnosed because it was clear my ADHD does impact me significantly at work and was making my life harder; possibly A LOT harder.

Self of Elise wearing a long sleeve, blue patterned shirt, with sun dappled, thin, pale trunked gum trees rising behind.
Neurodiverse me, hiking on Mt Macedon, 2023.

Diagnosis, Medication & Clarity

Having waited six months for my appointment, and another two for the follow up, and another two to see a psychiatrist to back up the GP, I got diagnosed with ADHD early in 2024. Only with that diagnosis, only with the psychiatrist explaining to me how lack of dopamine impairs an ADHD brain’s capacity to filter out excess information, only after starting medication did I have the clarity to write the above.

For a contrast of my clarity prior to both, read the jumble that is my blog of ‘I Think I’m Neurodiverse, ADHD? Autism?’ I tried to put it some kind of order, in a way that meaningfully sequenced the content, but having written and edited it before starting meds, I kept losing track and wasn’t sure if I succeeded in sequencing and structuring it well.

Want to hear the really interesting part? I’m writing this blog having not taken my meds for two days. Because after four days on a helpful dosage; I have the clarity to clearly, meaningfully organise and structure my thoughts. This is the clearest my head has ever been while writing. The only other thing that can trigger a state of mental clarity like this, as opposed to chaotic, highly distractible chaos, is the two or so hours after running 4 kilometres (which I still do daily, because even with ADHD meds, it still helps).

I’d like to take this moment to tell people in the US claiming the number of people taking ADHD meds is a ‘problem’ to educate themselves and stop talking shit.

Medication: The Journey

My doctor gets his patients to start ADHD medication gradually, with written instructions on how to mix the powder inside the capsule and water to get 10mg (the starting dosage) up to 70mg. Its a trial and error process with guidelines, where you figure out what works best for your brain and body (and consult your doctor if problems arise).

Day One: Dosage 10mgs, Notable Difference

My mother noticed hardly anything on a low dosage. I noticed a difference within one hour. I could pause the big thing I was doing to do other small things, like make a phone call or brush my teeth. Then I could return to what I was doing.

This is BIG. I can easily forget to reply to emails, messages or phone calls for a few days. Then I can wait hours after feeling hungry before dragging myself off for food. I often run of an evening when I’d rather run by daylight during winter.

This is because it takes me hours to focus my attention on big things, like writing or editing novels. If I’m nearly focused, I don’t want to give up the hours I spent getting nearly focused to interrupt myself (writing at home lunch ‘breaks’ can last three hours due to distraction). So if I was kind of focused, I’d opt to be hungry for an hour or two as I tried and get something done.

I also found I could choose when to get off social media and just get off it. I didn’t need the dopamine I always need it to provide to help me focus.

After three hours: I could switch off and zone out. That’s something I normally manage perhaps every few weeks, even months and am TERRIBLE at as an adult. My ‘holidays’ are as busy and jam packed as work days, they’re just fun and adventure busy instead of work busy. The ability to mentally switch off is HUGE.

Day Two: Dosage 20mgs, Again, Good Differences

I was more aware of hunger and needing the bathroom. My brain wasn’t fighting off umpteen other distractions, so it was becoming possible to do that thing neurotyoicals apparently do all the time: listen to my body.

Started my day eating breakfast at the kitchen table so I could talk properly to a housemate. I NEVER do this. I always chat briefly, then rush off to finish the thing I don’t want to loose focus on. Not only could did I focus on the conversation for over an hour, at the end I still remembered to bring in the clothes horse I’d noticed mid-conversation was outside. Normally I’d have to fix the thing I notice so I don’t forget it, and can then focus on the conversation.

The other difference is, instead of urgently rushing to start the day’s proof reading (the clock was ticking, I had to upload a finished novel to online bookstores soon), I was able to take stock. Clear some dirty dishes and put a few things away, instead of zoning out everything but today’s big task.

This was the beginning of a less cluttered, less messy, calmer and nicer environment to live and work in. Again -not a small thing!

Day Three: Dosage 20mgs; Inconclusive —External Factors

My doctor’s advice was if you think its having an effect, stay on that dose for three days. So I took twenty milligrams again. This was the day we learnt our landlord was selling the house and we’d have to move out in two months. It was hard to tell if it was the meds that had me so hyper focused I couldn’t get off my computer to exercise, and so agitated I had to run to calm down. I got none of my main task done this day.

Also, my whole body and heart rate were slowing down so much that that night I went to sleep easily despite not exercising. Only when I’m sick or with chronic-illness-levels of fatigue can I normally do that.

Day Four: Dosage 30mgs: Meh!

In hindsight I should have gone back down to 10mgs, but I wanted to get past the wonky I was feeling, so I went up. I felt like I could focus, but lacked the spark and impetus to do anything. Only listening to music got me editing my novel, and I soon became distracted.

I also felt very flat. I’m normally full of energy, smiling and on the go. But that day I just sat there, not feeling like doing anything, just kind of watching the hours tick past. I had to wait for the meds to wear off and go for a run before I got some of the day’s big task done (starting at 9pm, not ideal).

Day Five: Dosage 40mgs: I’m Me AND Focused!

The ADHD urge to rush on to the next thing was strong, so I went up to 40mg. That was when the magic started. My heart rate picked up, my energy levels reset to normal and I felt more like me. I also read the opening chapters of my novel aloud to proof read them, something I have NEVER previously found the patience to attempt. This marked another significant increase in focus, and interestingly; focus on something that normally bores me (which usually requires vast amounts of discipline to attempt, and is usually completed with impatience and frustration).

Time was the other big thing. In the weeks before starting medication I was highly distractible, often staying up to between 2am and 4am. During the day the hours would rush past and I had no idea what I was doing in them. Now, I was focused enough that I was getting the main task done, and looking up to see it had only been tens of minutes, not hours that had past. Time had slowed RIGHT down, which made me feel much more in control of my day.

Day Six: Dosage 50mg ???

Whoops. This should have been day two at 40, followed by day three at 40. All I noted was that I felt settled within 15 mins, much faster than other days.

Day Seven: Dosage 60mg; Brain Jam Unlock

Oh dear. I was now 20mg’s up what I should have been on because it had become too many days in a row to A. re-read dosage instructions, and B. do so correctly.

And yet, before I even took my meds that morning, I was remembering and noting the sort of things my brain jam normally locks up until that blessed ten seconds of quiet when I turn out the lights at night, then recall multiple things I forgot to do. My brain was decluttered of its usual excessive information input overload, and functioning better than usual as a result.

And yet, my heart rate was too fast. I was becoming more distractible throughout the day, didn’t get much done until after my evening run and then still had trouble sleeping. Oddly, my distractibility seemed to be getting worse, to the point it kept me awake until I think 3am. This dosage made my ADHD worse overall.

Day Eight: Dosage 50mg; Not So Good

I remembered myself here and dropped back 10mg, helped by the fact my heart was still beating too fast. It continued to beat too fast and I remained somewhat distractible and didn’t get much of the main task done until after running again in the evening this day.

Day Nine: Dosage None

Having hardly slept the night I uploaded my novel, I wasn’t in a good state to accurately mix meds, so I skipped them.

Day Ten & 11: Dosage 50mgs -Not Right

My heart was still beating too fast for someone sitting still. My focus wasn’t as good as the meds had made it earlier. The next morning, I still didn’t like my heart rate (long covid wreaked havoc with it for weeks and I suspected high dosages of AHD meds were an issue because of this). So on day eleven, I took a break to ensure the incorrect dosage was fully out of my system.

Day 12: Dosage 40mgs -Might Be Good?

This was another day of big external factor. My book was live at online stores, I was posting on all my social media and my friends were congratulating me on getting the whole 360k trilogy out into the world, despite long covid and the chronic illness it caused throwing spanners between book 1’s release and book 3’s.

I let myself make quality launch day graphics, splurge on social media, drank wine, ate chocolate pudding and had a good day. And despite all those other dopamine factors, my heart rate seemed more settled, and I felt better overall.

Day 13 & Beyond: Dosage 40mgs – What is This Magic?

Often when I finish a big project, like the end of a school year or releasing a book, I take time out, take stock, do some cleaning. The strange thing about releasing my third book was; I was up to date with housework, and grocery shopping, and cooking and baking.

But I forgot what else I needed to be doing, so I made a To Do List in a Google doc. Then I attempted the most boring thing I ever do, successfully, for hours. I deleted 500 screen shots from my desktop. Then I organised every file on my desktop into folders, combining four different folders for book files into one. (My computer files haven’t been this organised since since I graduated from high school in 2004, and maybe 90% of the files on my computer now didn’t exist then).

The next day I deleted all duplicate images from my downloads, and sorted images I will reuse into my folders. Then I went through my third party inbox, my personal inbox and cleaned out nearly 1,000 emails from each. I even organised receipts into a folder for this year’s taxes (never done that before).

Then I filled in forms left on open tabs and closed half my many tabs.

30 Mgs

Things were going MUCH better, but I was still hyper focused on organising things and not stopping to eat meals or exercise as often as I wanted throughout the day. And my resting heart rate was still fast. So I went down to 30mgs. This time, I had a good enough handle at 30mg on my focus, not getting distracted and still had energy. I made a call and headed and headed back to work; casual teaching.

I can’t quite focus as well on boring organisational things at this dosage, but my overall focus and organisation are quite good, and distractibility is down. There’s now a calendar with all my pre-booked teaching days, days and times I’m inspecting houses to rent and multiple appointments. I’ve NEVER had the headspace, calmness or clarity to put some much on a calendar.

What Did the Meds Change?

My dopamine levels were now at a stage where my brain filtered out excess information, letting me focus on what I chose, even when the task was so boring (aka so dopamine depriving) I wouldn’t normally attempt and would never otherwise succeed at it.

My To Do List was getting added to, then rearranged into priority order, then subdivided by topic. It was double the length I would ever normally write down, because brain jam and being overwhelmed weren’t holding me back anymore, because they stopped! In other words, I can record and effectively keep track of EVERYTHING I need to be doing, for the FIRST TIME in my life, without being stressed or completely overwhelmed on a regular basis.

I’m also less frustrated by technology. Slow loading pages used to stress me out, because by the time the bloody things loaded I’d thought of three other things I could be doing and had no idea why I was on that page. Now, I can wait. Stay on the slow page, get the job done, move on the next.

Time has slowed. I can take breaks, pause, take stock, tidy things, not just rush through the day with hours flying by, barely getting that day’s main thing done and not touching most others. I feel much calmer, more focused and actually in control. This means I don’t have to go side ways, or risk leaping ahead or involuntarily falling behind as was common when everything was too much to track and process. I can actually keep up with other people in life. Maybe even get ahead, something I rarely aspire to, let alone achieve, for more than a day, or a week.

I feel like a different person. One whom life has become MUCH easier for!

What Didn’t Meds Change?

Initially, this almost put me off diagnosis. I’m a sociable, bubbly, energetic and creative person with lots of ideas. What if medication changed those things? As you may have noticed, for me a too low dosage did suppress those aspects. A too high dosage also mucked them up.

But my goldilocks dose of 30-40mgs leaves me energetic, still sociable when I choose to be (as opposed to permanently too often on social media) and as prone to smile as I normally am (which is a lot more than the average person). I still feel like me. I just have this drastically increased ability to organise and focus.

Going running has been fascinating. I’ve added around three plot ideas to my novels, or three marketing ideas for my books to my list on multiple runs recently. Its like my brain, which was in recent years struggling with the strain of teaching and life to have new ideas, is now having FAR MORE ideas for novels. Because its no longer straining with the effort of compensating for its partial information input filtering and accompany severe distractibility and resulting forgetfulness.

On the whole, I feel far more organised and able to keep track. I have more ideas and feel more creative than ever. I’m still energetic, upbeat and my old self. And I can’t wait to start writing my fourth fantasy novel with the benefit of ADHD meds!

Blue edged, pink, orange and yellow rainbow scroll with text: Get blogs in your inbox & updates from Elise every second month. Join my Fiction Frolics. Select this image to learn more.

Related Reading

I Think I’m Neurodiverse, ADHD? Autism?

Managing My ADHD

Simple ADHD online Test by Clinical Partners UK.

ADDitude (lots of great ADHD blogs, resources etc).

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Problematic Rep to avoid (especially neurodiverse and disabled).

Identifying as Nonbinary

Living with Longcovid —My Experience

Managing My Neurodivergence (ADHD & autism)

Managing your neurodivergence isn’t easy when you don’t have a diagnosis so didn’t know you were neurodivergent when you started developing strategies to manage it. But by the age of twenty I noticed that despite being an adult, there were things I did differently, or needed to do differently. Things most people seemed to find easy that I couldn’t do well, no matter how many times I had to do them or how much I knew.

Alongside the self discoveries I blogged about in I think I’m Neurodivergent, I developed strategies to manage communication and organisation, especially at work. In conversation with other’s who self diagnosed or were diagnosed as adults, I noticed habits that set my wellbeing and mental health in good stead. I share them here in the hopes it may help other neurodivergent (especially fellow ADHD and autistic) people and make us more understandable to neurotypical people.

Communication Strategies

Often I’ve been hyper-focusing on whatever I’m doing when a person walks up to me and asks a question. There’s a huge distance between the thing I’m super focused on and whatever they’re talking about. It takes time, and usually more contextual clues about what they’re talking about to cross that distance. So when a boss or parent approaches at the end of my teaching day with a specific question… I cannot answer immediately.

Processing time isn’t my only difficulty. If I haven’t had time to draft my answer to your question in my head. And I cannot look you in the eye, think what to say and say it. Usually the pressure of you standing there, expecting an immediate answer to what you assume is a simple question distracts me from thinking much at all, even when I look away. So I need strategies to manage professional conversations in particular, because those are the ones I don’t want to present as vague, ignorant or otherwise unprofessional in.

Strategy Number 1: Clarify (and play for time)

I don’t just need additional context because I’m neurodivergent. I rarely speak to parents, so I have little knowledge of them and their concerns. Even as a neurotypical person I might not anticipate what they’re asking about. So when they finish talking, I try to summarise their main concern and confirm it by asking, “Is that your concern? Are you also wondering about x?” Or, “So you’d like to know about Y? Is there anything else you’d like to know about that?”

Summarising and asking clarifying questions helps me ensure I have perceived the person’s main message (I tend to clutch at side points when I’m put on the spot), and gives me time to process. Only then do I stand a chance of recalling my usual answer to that sort of question (as an experienced teacher I’m lucky to have a bank of these from past experience). It also gives me time and mental space to connect what they are saying with what I know about the topic, to form my answer. Not to mention, clarifying what the other person is saying signals clearly that you are listening, interested in what they have to say and are keen to understand and help them, all good things to signal.

Strategy 2: Play for Time

If I’m having a casual one on one conversation, especially start of the day ones with students where there’s no contextual clues of what they’re talking about, again, I need time to process. I usually seize on a single piece of what they said, and comment on it, encouraging them to elaborate. While they elaborate, I’m processing, connecting the trip to Sydney to visiting their grandparents and that being why the child is excited. This isn’t a one off for me. It happens in MANY conversations where I’m not given multiple contextual clues.

Note for neurotypical people: If you’re ever chatting to someone and you think the point the other person chose to comment on is random, or not your main point, don’t go feeling misunderstood: elaborate. Adults are so time poor these days that I feel like we often start our conversations in the middle. Even a busy neurotypical person may benefit from, “You know how I was visiting my grandmother because she was sick last week? Well it turns out…”

Strategy 3: Ask ‘Stupid’ Questions

Sometimes in the staff room a colleague asks another, “Did you get those times sorted?” In most contexts that means nothing to me. “Times for what?” No, it doesn’t matter that the last conversation I had with that person was about times. That conversation was two hours ago and my head is full of the teaching I did in between. I need to be asked, “Did you get the times for little Jimmy’s parent-teacher interview sorted?”

I’ve always thought it was magic how most of my colleagues can answer questions like that with zero context, when I mostly can’t. When people ask me questions at a time and about a thing or in a location I don’t expect it, I need at least three contextual clues to know what they’re on about. And because teachers spend most of our time working with students, and many of our conversations are rushed between preparing lessons, meetings, yard duty, paperwork etc; my colleagues rarely give me context. So I’m learning to respond to questions with: “Are you talking about x?”

Note for Neurotypicals: Hyper focus makes context a necessity for me. Hyper focus means my focus is on my world building my novel set in a roughly Bronze Age era, fantasy world. So if you’re asking me about real world, modern day politics in America, I’ll first assume you’re asking about Umarinaris politics during Ruarnon’s reign. Then I might realise you mean modern politics, but modern politics has dickheads in every country (and I’m in Australia, so I may or may not assume Australia first), so which modern country’s political dickheads are you referring to? Give me context!

Processing Strategies

Strategy 1: Go With the Flow

Many writers joke about how much they procrastinate. But when I wake up on a Saturday morning, spend two to three hours bouncing around on social media, then go for a walk (possibly a drive first): I’m not procrastinating. I’m letting my restless, highly distractible brain do its ping pong thing. That involves letting it bounce towards whatever interests it, in any order, forget things, bounce to the next, then circle back.

I let my brain go with its flow. Then I walk and do housework to exercise off the physical restlessness and calm my mind. On Saturday night I watch tv or read, or ease into writing with a blog (like I’m doing right now) or a newsletter. Then on Sunday: I’m ready to write or edit some chapters.

This is what I mean when I say ‘go with the flow’. My brain isn’t linear. It may not finish one thought before it rushes to the next, and the next. It may have two lines of thought simultaneously.

Throughout the Day

But at work I HAVE to slow down. Through sheer will and discipline developed over years, I try to explicitly teach a single line of thought, to make learning accessible to my students. And during the day I force myself to, as much as possible, get all my lesson structure timings right and work to the school timetable and bells.

Once the kids go home, I let myself pack up and organise five different things at once. I forget the first, get distracted by the sixth, re-discover the first and so on. I’ve learned to keep looking around, and circling back each time I finish or get distracted from something, to see what else I’m still working on. Letting my brain go with its natural, chaotic flow when I’m tired takes a lot less effort than forcing myself to linearly do one thing at a time.

So with teaching and writing, I don’t fight or jam my brain into a neurotrypical mold. Wherever possible whilst actually getting things done, I let it march to the beat of its own erratic drum. Then I circle round to catch the things I got distracted from and forgot about before/ during completing them.

Strategy 2: To Do Lists

I laughed when people first mentioned these to me. What’s the point of a to do list? I lose the list LONG before I finish half the things on it. And I don’t remember to tick anything off, so I don’t experience the satisfaction of completing things, I just rush headlong into the next five. But editing the chaos of my novels and recalling the many jobs of different types juggled after hours in teaching was too much.

My new system is paper sticky notes. I don’t keep re-reading or ticking things off because that can get overwhelming and stressful. If I think I haven’t written something down, I just write it again and throw the notes in a pile so I don’t lose them. Once a week (there is a particular day where I have more time), I go over less urgent notes to do and cross their items off. Then I re-write the outstanding jobs in order of when they need to be done. That works for me.

For editing novels, instead of losing my edit notes, I type edit notes above each chapter in the draft. And I write notes that apply to the whole book before the first page, and re-read them periodically.

What Works For You?

For keeping track of things authoring and teaching, its been about listening to others, trialling things, identifying why things won’t work, figuring out what does, and being disciplined, stubborn, determined etc to plug the gaps. This is a good time to shout that its about figuring out what works for you and why, or what makes things harder, or stresses you out and why. And from there: what could make life easier for you?

Ideally we all got diagnosed as kids and had loads of strategies by adulthood, but the 90’s, naughties and earlier let us down big time on that front, so there are many women and nonbinary people and some men playing catch up. Good news though: its never too late to learn or to make your life easier!

Strategy 3: Ask For Help

I’m an impatient, adventurous but also a lone wolf type of person. I just want to dive in and get everything done fast (the best time for me to do anything was often yesterday, and sometimes last week. Failing that, its today.)

Sometimes I move too quick and overlook things multiple times. A classic example is supermarkets, where I can walk up and down the same aisle four times and not notice the item I want. Not only do I ask a staff member to tell me which aisle, but even how far down, or between what or even to point directly to it. I tell them, “I’m sorry, I have visual processing issues and I can’t seem to spot that one thing amongst the other stuff. Could you point to the shelf for me?” ‘Stupid question’ but it really helps.

Self of Elise wearing a long sleeve, blue patterned shirt, with sun dappled, thin, pale trunked gum trees rising behind.

My Mental Health Strategies

In conversation with others, I noticed how good luck and the benefits of other struggles in my life have positioned me well to manage my ADHD and autism from a mental health perspective. People with ADHD and or autism are statistically more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, but for most of my life I’ve dodged both. So it seems a good focus for the third section of this blog. (Apologies fellow neurodiverse people, likely nothing in this section is easy and a good chunk works well for me because my experiences and personality predispositions align well).

Strategy 1: Accept What I Cannot Do

I’m realising in conversations with people who are self diagnosing as late in life as I am that I’ve been very fortunate. Some people I know have been carefully masking, measuring themselves up against neurotypicals and berating themselves for not being able to function like neurotypicals their whole lives. I haven’t had that struggle.

When I was around twenty I remember thinking, I’m an adult now. I should be able to do things like navigate to some place I’ve never been and get there on time. I couldn’t. Remembering to leave time for traffic, find a car park, get from car to venue etc is boring. I’m restless, impatient and easily distracted. All I knew back then was I struggled (and still do sometimes) in the moment to recall and allow for ALL the factors that allow you to get somewhere unfamiliar on time.

And I thought: most people with at least half a brain find this easy. I have more than half a brain but find it virtually impossible. I don’t know why or if I will ever know. So rather than be upset about something I can’t change, I’m just going to accept that I randomly suck at some things for no apparent reason. I’ll accept it as one of my quirks, enjoy getting lost, not sweat about being late and laugh it off.

Strategy 2: Don’t Compare Myself to Others

This was probably easy because I’ve rarely ever measured myself against my peers. I don’t date, or have my own kids so there’s no point of comparison as a partner or parent. As a nonbinary person I never cared much about the type of ‘man’, or ‘woman’ I am. I’ve met few nonbinary people, all recently, and as an umbrella term for multiple genders its hard to compare yourself to another nonbinary person anyway, so I didn’t care how my gender and that part of my identity compared to anyone.

When it came to my brain working differently and me behaving or struggling to do certain things in certain situations, I figured that’s just my quirks. I’m unlike many people in many ways, and in these particular ways I suck at things others can do easily. I didn’t suck enough to not be capable of what I want to do in life, it just made many things I wanted to do (like being a teacher and writing novels) A LOT harder and made me look clumsy. So the only times I compared myself to others and masked my ADHD and autism was when I worried it might raise questions about my competence at work (after I’d had years to settle in as a graduate teacher).

Strategy 3: Be Open About My Limitations At Work

I had no choice with this recently at work. The more boxes, colours and types of information a form collects, the more impossible I find it to perceive the whole form. Red hurts my eyes. White print on colour is hard to read correctly. And the more information jammed into more boxes, the more my brain shuts everything out to prevent being overloaded and doesn’t even realise it isn’t perceiving everything. I suspect this is a strategy my brain sub-consciously developed to minimise stress levels and help me avoid meltdowns.

The above became clear when I fell on my face doing a ridiculous amount of paperwork my colleagues found challenging but achievable that I found impossible earlier this year.

Whether or not your boss and colleagues believe you, understand you or appreciate the challenges you face at work makes a huge difference. I’ve been very lucky. And with understanding of my needs, I could develop strategies and work could put supports in place so that what was inaccessible to my neurodiverse brain became workable. (Though it was still exhausting -needlessly, because the organisation who produced the paperwork doesn’t understand how inaccessible they made it to people like me and don’t seem interested in learning.)

Had I not been open and honest about having visual and general processing challenges in completing paperwork, I could have been accused of being careless, lazy, incompetent etc. I was privledged that my bosses could be trusted with the truth of my neurodiversity (and chronic illness). And that they were willing to listen to how, between neurodiversity and chronic illness, I faced many significant obstacles in the workplace that my colleagues didn’t and they were genuinely prepared to support me with that.

Strategy 4: Be Open About My Limitations At Home

Again, I’ve been lucky. For my first three years as a teacher I lived alone in my own house, as chaotically as I wanted while I figured everything out. By the time I moved into a sharehouse, I had a fair idea of how to organise cleaning and other things that could annoy my housemates.

I’ve been clear about systems that help me succeed with housemates. For eg. bills are printed and stuck to my fridge (the one my food is in) and we sign when we’ve paid our share. Because if our bills are shared digitally, the infinite distractions on the internet mean I’ll forget the bill exists each time I close the tab I saw it in. On the fridge there are no distractions and I see it each time I enter the kitchen, creating the eight or so opportunities I need to remember to actually get as far as paying before being distracted by something else. I move a device into the kitchen, so when I bounce between tabs and forget what I’m doing, my physical location reminds me to pay a bill.

One housemate circles the cost and writes what each of us owe on bills, so I don’t get lost sifting through too many words and miss important details, like whether its gas or electricity (the first five or so times I look at it, out of impatience and restlessness).

I’ve also mentioned that I’m a light sleeper with sensitive hearing, and headphones or background noise exacerbate the ringing in my ears. I ask my housemates not to shower after 11pm (my room is next to the bathroom) or be cooking and banging pots and pans at 1am (I’m also near the kitchen). My housemates are good with this.

Key Points for Neurotypicals

  1. Give the person you’re speaking to, especially if you’re asking them a question, context, each time you change the conversation topic.
  2. Give people time to process what you’re saying or asking. If after a pause they still don’t respond, give them more information, in case they’re still unclear (and possibly feeling stupid for being so).
  3. Please be patient and remember that its not that we don’t care. ADHD brains are distractible, impatient and can be impulsive. We will forget things temporarily, often because there’s too many things going on in our heads at once and we don’t have your capacity to focus on only one of them (without a massive struggle). Which one are you referring to?
  4. Thanks for taking an interest in and being willing to learn about what life can be like for neurodiverse people, in particular ADHDers. You being informed and trying to understand can make a big difference in your interactions with us, how we are perceived and ultimately on our wellbeing.

Key Points for Neurodiverse People

  1. It’s ok to ask ‘stupid questions,’ restate and clarify what others are saying and to ask for time to process information. Its also ok to ask if you can get back to someone at a later time. You are allowed to take the time you need to process the situation, even and most especially when that timing doesn’t match neurotypical expectations.
  2. Figure out how your brain works best. Develop strategies that work with and support your brain where possible, and that scaffold your brain where it struggles. Talking to other ND people may help, but we, our brains and circumstances vary and you’ll need to figure out what works best for you.
  3. It may seem I’m asking you for the sun AND the moon, but we need to accept what we can and can’t do and make our peace with it to be content in life. This includes not comparing ourselves to neurotypicals and not beating ourselves up for not measuring up to or not meeting neurotypical expectations. This world was not designed for us and that is NOT our fault.
  4. If it is safe to do so and people at your work and home are willing to listen and are receptive to your words, tell them honestly what you struggle with. Tell them (when you’ve figured it out) how your brain makes some things difficult, and what they and you can do to make things easier.
  5. Best of luck finding strategies that work for you!
Blue edged, pink, orange and yellow rainbow scroll with text: Get blogs in your inbox & updates from Elise every second month. Join my Fiction Frolics. Select this image to learn more.

Related Reading

I Think I’m Neurodivergent: ADHD?

Starting ADHD Meds & ADHD Struggles

40 ADHD Hacks by ADDitude (why did it never occur to me to read something like this before? Now I’ve reinvented the wheel for many of these.)

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Problematic Rep to avoid (especially neurodiverse and disabled).

Writing Diverse Characters Part 2: How to (Write Disabled and Neurodiverse Characters Tips)

Identifying as Nonbinary

What Does Pride Mean to You?

My Neurodivergent Self Diagnosis. ADHD? Autistic?

I’ve never considered myself to be ‘normal’ or ‘just like everyone else’. When you’re a nonbinary person, and an asexual, aromantic in a world of binary gender adults interested in romantic relationships and sex —you don’t fit. You often don’t quite present, sound or act like most people. But as I try to iron out creases that trip me up in my teaching career, and talk to neurodiverse friends on social media, I’m seeing another set of differences in how I think, feel and function that also set me apart. I Think I’m Neurodivergent (ADHD being the likely candidate).

Neurodiverse Communication

Rehearsing Conversations

I’m guessing neurotypical people rehearse conversations in their heads when they’re giving a speech, or telling someone they really care about something that really matters to them. By the time I was around fifteen, I rehearsed ANYTHING and EVERYTHING I may like to say to my friends before saying it aloud. I would approach social situations with prepared topics and comments drafted in my brain and would be happy when I got to say them all.

Did I monitor the interest levels of people as I plunged through my pre-rehearsed topics? Not really. Sometimes when I’d finished talking I did. Knowing how much to say about a topic and not rambling on when the other person isn’t as interested as me is a life skill I am still refining, in my thirties.

What are You on About?

As a teenager, I routinely initiated conversations with peers because it was the easiest way to communicate. Even as an adult I find other people starting the conversation challenging. With people I don’t know well, the first thing I think they’re saying usually isn’t what they mean. I’ve developed a habit of listening, ignoring my first interpretation, and waiting until a second or third interpretation forms in my mind before I respond. Usually by then I’ve correctly identified the topic and their intended meaning. If I take too long to do that, I comment on one aspect I’m sure I understand, to encourage them to say more, to give me more time to figure out what they’re talking about.

When I’m tired, I also struggle because I interpret things literally. I suspect that any other time I remember what I know about that person, or topic and do mental gymnastics to get from what they literally said to what they actually mean. That gets socially awkward because neurotypical people, especially adults in a professional context, tend to want immediate answers to their questions. But they don’t say what they literally mean, so I need processing time to do mental gymnastics before I can answer.

Hyper Focus

This can make social interactions difficult. For example, when I’m planning what I’m teaching next week I plan teacher groups on four days of writing, despite thirty minutes earlier discussing having only three Writing lessons that week. Because if I am planning Writing, my brain is NOT thinking about the timetable, it is thinking about WRITING (this is the case for almost every complex thing I’m thinking about, almost always).

Often in meetings I’m hyper focused on one main thing, and someone asks or talks about something else. There’s a mental distance between me and them. To cross it, I have to pull back from that one thing I was thinking about. I need at least two, if not three details to figure out where on Earth my colleague is standing, let alone how to cross the mental gulf between us to talk about the same thing. And piecing together those clues takes time, so again I need more processing time in face to face, or on the phone conversations, when adults expect an immediate response. (This is why I love emails and social media, because I can take all the processing time I want before responding.)

[2024 edit: hyper focus is how I countered extremely high, persistent levels of distractibility, stemming from lack of dopamine in my brain due to ADHD meaning my brain doesn’t filter out anywhere near as much information as it should. Hence focusing on a single thing and not four others all in that moment also competing for my attention took A LOT of energy].

Group Conversations

Picture this. You’re in a meeting in which other people frequently give very few contextual clues, and elaborate on each other’s thoughts or change the topic rapidly. You don’t have enough contextual information to pull back from your hyper-focus to get what Joe is saying, and now Jane is saying something else, and then Max changes the topic again. Its like everyone else is is cycling on a level surface as a group, and you’re in the skate park stuck on jumps. You’re hitting road blocks, and doing all sorts of crazy gymnastics to move in a straight line and wondering why its so hard to keep up with the group cycling/ conversation. This is me in staff meetings.

[2024 edit: the above is a classic ADHD struggle.]

What are Social Graces?

I’ve never been a fan of a few basic social conventions.

1. I don’t use names.

I’m a teacher. I know that people like being addressed by name. That a simple thing like that can fill people’s buckets. But in a state of nature I would never speak to anyone by name unless they had their back to me. I’m just not wired that way. I’ve had to learn to use my students and colleagues names often and it’s something I often have to do consciously and deliberately, where everyone else seems to do it naturally.

So how do I speak to people? As a sociable person who likes people, I just walk up to them and start talking about whatever I notice that relates to them/ us/ the setting at the time. I often catch people off guard, and they take a moment to process what I’m saying, and introverts struggle. But I’ve started some great conversations that way.

2. I don’t like eye contact.

This is a classic, obvious autistic trait but I was unconcious of it for quite some time. Because people look you in the eyes and insist you look back from childhood. So you make yourself do it and pretend it doesn’t bother you. Or you make eye contact so they know you’re listening but you keep finding excuses to look away. They don’t notice anything. And you don’t want to notice how uncomfortable eye contact makes you, because God knows how often how many people are trying to make eye contact with you and you’re trying to uncomfortably meet it!

3. I don’t do small talk.

When you talk to people you’re supposed to ask how they are. When they’re strangers you’re supposed to do ice breakers, or ‘polite conversation starters’ like the weather, or —hell, I don’t know because I don’t do it. Why? Because I’m not interested. I’m interested in what I’m interested in, so in a state of nature I’m just going to launch into that with no names, greetings, preamble or niceties —no time wasting— lets get into it! (Yes the impatience is likely ADHD which I have quite a few traits of, and not just the ones that overlap with autism.)

Again, I have had to spend lots of time learning and practicing asking how people are, or thinking of things that matter to them and asking how those things are going. I do care about the latter. If they start talking about it I will show interest in my responses. But its not natural for me to think what to ask about other people. I used to just assume that if something mattered to people they wouldn’t need an invitation to talk about it and would just say it, but I’m learning there are many exceptions to that.

Elise Carlson selfie, smiling, wearing glasses, a cap, with short curls poking out the sides, stripy top, river and mossy rocks in background.
Neurodiverse me, hiking in the Otway Ranges, March 2023.

Brain Functioning

Organisation

Time Management High School

I had no idea what the above words meant as a kid or teenager. I lived a five-minute walk from the back gate of my school. I walked to school and was often a few minutes late. Why? Because to get to class on time I had to know how long it took me to get ready for school, how long the walk was, factor in the time to get from the gate to my locker, to carry my books from my locker to my classroom. I had to juggle four things I have no inclination to deal with it, at the same time.

[And what was the point of being on time to class? Lining up outside the room? Waiting for everyone to slowly take their seats? If I came in right as the teacher was starting the roll —no time was wasted. I’ve always known I was a why person. If you asked me to do something I saw no reason for doing and gave me no reason —I wouldn’t do it. (More on this later.)]

Time Management University

At University I quickly realised I was not going to keep track of which assignments were due when, or even remember the assignments I had to do. And I’ve always found dates meaningless. There’s just days of the week, and which week it is of the school term or holidays (which works well for me as a teacher).

So how did I manage time around classes, a casual job and getting all the assignments done? I learned early on that starting an assignment within a week of getting it, working on it as often as I was motivated to, then doing the next got things done on time. So my ‘time management’ was just ‘start early and hope it works’. (Even now, this and ‘work on it as often as possible’ and maybe ‘achieve big thing x this week and thing y the next week is the limit of my ‘scheduling.’)

Navigating to New Places

I sucked at this, for over a decade after getting my licence. Navigating to an unfamiliar place meant looking it up in the Melways (a print book as this was pre sat nav and pre Google Maps), calculate travel time, factor in time to find a car park and time to walk from my car to the unfamiliar place. I got lost A LOT the year I got my licence. As an adventurous, easy-going person, I learned to embrace and enjoy it. If you drove too far out of town, the green signs would tell you where the next town/ suburb was and I trusted those signs and didn’t worry too much.

But when I had to be at that unfamiliar place at a certain time? That remained a challenge because I found it REALLY hard to factor all four of those things to get there on time for… about fifteen years. Not because I’m stupid. Not because I’m too lazy to plan. But because the night before when I set my alarm clock, or when I decide my departure time, I forget time to find a carpark, or get from my car to the unfamiliar place or that peak hour traffic is a thing (to this day that one catches me out).

I’m Thinking…

Hyper Focus

This has advantages too. As a teen, my mum and brother could be arguing in the next room, and I wouldn’t really hear them because I was hyper-focused on writing or editing my latest novel. But it wasn’t the greatest for my health as a teenager. In hindsight, I didn’t dress warmly enough in winter. I’d hyper-focus on the fun stuff I was doing with friends and not notice how cold I was. That wasn’t good for my asthma or hey fever.

Or I’d hyper focus on writing on school holidays, then realise it was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. I still have to be careful when I’m working on anything important to me —at work or books at home— to keep an eye on the time, and not go too long without meal or bathroom breaks or get too hot or too cold (or write/edit novels until 2am when not teaching). Its a constant thing.

What’s the Point?

As I said earlier, why be on time for class, so I can line up outside, wait for everyone else to enter and sit down slowly and get zero benefits for having got out of bed a bit earlier? If you want me to do something —tell me why. The fact you want me to do it doesn’t motivate me. The fact you were my parent or teacher and even now, the fact alone that its my boss asking doesn’t motivate me. Intrinsic motivation for me is not conforming to other people’s expectations, their wants, being obedient or doing anything purely because someone asked. I care about, I want to understand, I am motivated by WHY. Tell me how it benefits people —students, colleagues, my boss, me —anybody— or how it makes my work more productive, or easier, or safer or whatever. That’s what motivates me. I don’t know anyone else so strongly motivated by being told why.

Who Cares What People Think?

I concluded as a teenager that collectively: people are stupid. Everyone else’s main motivator at high school seemed to be ‘does this help me fit in’? or ‘is it cool’? And what makes something cool? Cool kids think it’s cool. And what makes them cool? They just are. Does that make any rational sense whatsoever? No. So did I have any respect for their opinions about anything? No.

I suspect the weight I’ve given to rational arguments over everything else since about the age of seven, and especially throughout my teens, the black and white way I tend to see people and complex situations is another neurodiverse trait I have. Yes, I like people and I’ve always desired friends. But I want friends on my terms. I want to be me. I don’t want to conform to other people’s expectations of me. They expect me to a binary female. They expect me to be hetro sexual. They expect me to be neurotypical. I am none of those things. So I’ve always been disinterested in anyone who doesn’t like me for me and created my own space to be me. Since I was 15, my attitude was “I am me and if you don’t like it you can get stuffed.”

I’m Excited! Are You Excited?

There are many reasons I love teaching primary school children. Mainly, because so many things are new and exciting to them. They’re excited to be alive, and so am I. They see new amazing things and cry ‘Wow!’ They don’t care if they draw attention to themselves. They don’t care if people judge them for their enthusiasm. I don’t either.

I remember sitting in a tutorial in my first year of university and being astounded at how un-animated my classmates were. They sat so still. They looked so out of it. I put my hand up to give a wrong answer on purpose because no one else would answer the question. I wanted to knock on their skulls and call, ‘Hello? Is anybody home? Or am I taking this class with a bunch of zombies?’

There’s always been a large disconnect between my excitability and the majority of the adult population. When I meet new people, or familiar people, when I’m outside experiencing nature or exploring new places —I’m energised. I’m excited. I’m animatedly loving and living life to the full. I’m surprised that everyone is smiling at me. Then I realise I’m doing that thing where I walk around with a big smile on my face and am oblivious to doing so. This another of my traits I don’t have in common with any adults I know.

Does my brain have an off button?

I have two speeds: fast and stationary. I’m functioning at 100 miles an hour, or I’m asleep. There are rarely inbetween modes. This is because my brain DOES NOT STOP. No matter how tired I am, I am almost always thinking something, often something complicated and deep (this nearly killed me when I had long covid. My body was FUCKED and I still couldn’t rest properly for weeks).

The only things that keep me present in my physical surroundings are hyper-focusing on the scenery around me and or the inner symphony playing in my head (I often have instrumental music playing in my head, usually matching my mood, especially when I’m really happy).

As a teenager I’d sometimes stay up writing novels till midnight, when my exhausted body would insist on sleep. In my twenties I switched from power walking to running five days a week, to make my body so tired that it would drag my brain to sleep at night. (That was still crucial when I started teaching full time, which should have tired me sufficiently but didn’t). In my thirties I tire more easily, but still need to run 4km most days a week to sleep when fit (as opposed to the 6-7km I was running in my twenties). Regular exercise makes a HUGE difference in how well I mentally switch off and how deeply and effectively I sleep at night.

Stopping and Resting to Get Well

Self-care has perhaps been my single greatest challenge as a teacher. I always underestimate how sick I am. Usually drastically (and with a weak chest and asthma I can get SICK in winter). I spent years being terrible at lying in bed or on the couch. I’d get bored so easily. I’d try to write novels when my brain wasn’t up to it. I’d read them when it was still tiring. I’d go out for walks when I was barely well enough to stand because I HATE sitting inside all day. (Yes, even when long covid fatigue made me feel I’d literally gained 20-30 kilos I’d still drag myself out to walk even when a three hour lie down was what I desperately needed).

I suspect ADHD levels of desire for sensory and mental stimulation make rest very challenging for me. That’s probably why if I’m on social media a lot —I’m sick. Posts are short, easy to read and write unless I’m in a comma. And they’re stimulating. So social media is how I talk my brain into taking it easy. Then I try to switch to tv shows, then reading, to properly relax my mind and body and let them rest so I can get well. Again, learning how to do this defies all my natural instincts and has taken YEARS. I really see ADHD all over this.

Why did you change that?

In a recent meeting at work, I was asked to do something in a different order, for which I couldn’t use my normal data, with no forewarning. I sat there going WHAT? How am I supposed to do that? We’re supposed to do the other thing first? And I won’t be able to use the thing that normally helps me. How on Earth am I supposed to do that?

There was a solution, and having had to develop all sorts of habits to make navigating a neurotypical world as a neurodivergent person easier my entire life, I quickly found it. But I’m not fond of things changing without notice. Last time I missed a flight, I had to take time to take it in. Just breathe. I can’t now do x, y, or z. Plans have changed. Then gradually, one step at a time I make a new plan of how to do things. Standing in the ticketing queue for two hours was a perfect opportunity to do this.

So heads up, if you know a neurodivergent person (especially someone who’s autistic): don’t spring sudden changes on them! Sudden change is stressful. It often needs to be processed faster than I’m capable of processing it. And if you’re the parents of an autistic child: always give them an idea of how long they can do that thing they love, that they must pack up in five minutes, in two minutes, now. Sudden change is bad!

What was I doing again?

It’s classic me that at this stage in the blog, if there was any logical connection between one subheading and another —I completely forget what it is. I knew I’d fully recovered from long covid the day I found myself working on the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth jobs I wanted to do at home, having started, not finished and forgotten about jobs 1-5. I’m very easily distracted. The notion of beginning one thing and continuing it until its finished without starting at least three other things first is utterly foreign to me.

I normally have 70 tabs open on my computer, the maximum. If I don’t have every tab I use as an author and in my private life open at once, how will I possibly remember all the digital jobs I was doing? When I completely lose track, at least once I week, I open all tabs I don’t recognise. I find writing competitions, book promotions, the latest author platform to join etc.

I like open tabs for the same reason I write to do lists on physical sticky notes: because its right in front of me. I never understood the point of diaries. You write dates in them, shut them, and everything inside them ceases to exist. If I can’t see it, I forget its there. So I keep my To Do List on a single page, and in some cases literally put physical tasks where I will fall over them so I don’t forget them.

ADHD?

My high levels of energy, inability to switch off, tendency to prefer doing umpteen things at once, to forget anything I can’t see, to fail to focus well enough to manage time or navigate to new places all point to ADHD for me. My doctor thinks so too. I’ve bumbled along, noticing things I find it easier to do differently to everyone else, accepting things I suck at that they find easy, and just doing what works for me. Or making it work for me, like exercising regularly to sleep well at night.

I’m relearning to manage it all, long covid having suppressed all my ADHD tendencies completely for seven months. So my next blog on this topic will be strategies I’ve developed to help manage being neurodivergent.

March 2024 Diagnosis Update

My ADHD has just been diagnosed. I think it was in the area of focus that a medical professional told me I needed to score six for ADHD on one of the tests. He also said, ‘Congratulations, you scored nine.’ I was totally unsurprised and content with this.

ADHD has always been more obvious in how my neurodivergent self presents. But on reflection, I’ve listed quite a few autistic traits above. And there is some overlap between autism and ADHD, and my mother is AuDHD. This is likely not the end of exploring my neurodivergent-ness, but only a stage in the journey.

Blue edged, pink, orange and yellow rainbow scroll with text: Get blogs in your inbox & updates from Elise every second month. Join my Fiction Frolics. Select this image to learn more.
Total Page Visits: 1858

Related Reading

Starting ADHD Meds & ADHD Struggles

Managing My ADHD

Simple ADHD online Test by Clinical Partners UK (surprise, surprise I score highly).

Simple Autism online Test by Clinical Partners UK (I scored low here).

Writing Diverse Characters Part 1: Problematic Rep to avoid (especially neurodiverse and disabled).

Writing Diverse Characters Part 2: How to (Write Disabled and Neurodiverse Characters Tips)

Identifying as Nonbinary

Living with Longcovid —My Experience

© 2024 Elise Carlson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

error

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)