Neurodiversity In Photographers

Today, I would love to raise awareness of a topic that is both close to my heart and I believe is important to discuss more within photography communities and publications – Living With Neurodiversity. In very simple terms, there are two distinct brain types. Neurotypical and Neurodiverse. The diverse part is just that these brains function differently and can lead to a range of conditions, the most common of which are Autism and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

My own direct experience is with supporting my daughter who now has a diagnosis of both Autism and ADHD. On that 5 year journey, I’ve read a lot on the subject and I think that many photographers are ‘on the spectrum’ somewhere. Some might already have a diagnosis, some might be wondering if they might be and some will be walking around not having made the connection yet.

It is a topic that we’ve been discussing in the Facebook Group and one member described how it felt for her to live with ADHD – “You are fighting an uphill battle whilst wearing roller skates. I am not any less of a person just because I need a lie down after making a phone call that is 4 months overdue. But I can capture the most important day in people’s lives with zero anxiety”. 

I think photography appeals to a neurodivergent brain and so does running your own business, but the world is mainly set up for neurotypical brains – there is often a sense of being a square peg in a round hole in more structured 9-5 careers. Another person in my group said, “Some ND minds find running a business appealing because it allows us to shape the work to fit us as opposed to shaping ourselves to fit the rest of the world”.

If any of this is starting to feel relevant to you, it might be because you’ve been living with one of these conditions and masking in order to fit in. Females, in particular, are underdiagnosed as they often don’t present in ways that are as obvious as males. I think of it like this – boys externalise it and girls internalise it.

How to Tell if You Are Neurodivergent

This list of signs might help you if you are unsure.

  1. Time Blindness
    Many neurodivergent folks struggle to accurately perceive the way that time passes. They might often be late for things.
  1. Executive Dysfunction
    There are actually 8 executive functions: impulse control, emotional regulation, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, task initiation, planning & prioritising, and organisation. Executive dysfunction is when things go wrong in these areas. This often looks like desperately wanting to do something and simply not being able to.
  1. Task Multiplying
    Have you ever tried to do something seemingly simple, and all of the sudden, you find yourself doing 9 million other things? Like, you open up Lightroom and while that is loading you go through your inbox and click on a link, then end up shopping or falling into an internet hole and forgetting that you are meant to be uploading images. This can happen to anyone, but it happens to neurodivergent people more frequently.
  1. Inconsistent Sleep Needs
    A lot of neurodivergent people struggle with insomnia or hypersomnia, or both at different times. Additionally, Neurodivergents often deal with excessive fatigue due to the effort that’s required to exist as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world.
  1. Emotional Dysregulation
    Do you ever feel totally overwhelmed by your emotions, like they’re a force outside of your control? You might be struggling with emotional dysregulation, which can be a symptom of many neurodivergence conditions.
  1. Special Interests & Hyperfixations
    Hyperfixations are typically associated with ADHD while special interests tend to go along with autism. Neurodivergent brains get very excited about interests. You might just happen to have made a career out of your photography hyper fixation or special interest.
  1. Missing the Obvious, But Picking Up On the Subtle
    A lot of neurodivergent people may get labelled “spacey” because of the tendency to miss seemingly obvious things, but what many neurotypical people don’t realise is that you miss the obvious because you are too busy picking up on the subtle. You’d be amazed at the minuscule details many neurodivergent people pick up on. Again, this is what can make you a great photographer.
  1. Sensory Sensitivities
    Many neurodivergent folks are either hyper- or hyposensitive to sensory experiences. This means some neurodivergent folks hear every electric device, feel the tag on their shirt, and smell a banana peel in a nearby bin, while others appear almost numb to many sensory experiences.
  1. Rejection Sensitivity
    Are you hypersensitive to rejection, whether it’s real or perceived? That’s called rejection sensitivity, and because so many neurodivergent people experience rejection at school, work, and home, they become extra sensitive to it and it affects them more than neurotypical people. You might be devastated if you get even the slightest criticism or if someone doesn’t respond after you’ve delivered a gallery.
  1. Auditory Processing Disorder
    This is a condition where your ears hear just fine, but your brain has trouble making sense of the signals. It’s more common among neurodivergent people than among neurotypicals. Noise-cancelling earphones help and I know many photographers who walk around weddings wearing them.
  1. Meltdowns & Shutdowns
    Another common experience amongst neurodivergent brains is meltdowns and shutdowns. A meltdown is what happens when someone is overstimulated and simply can’t take it anymore and they end up externalising their frustration. A shutdown, on the other hand, is when the person is overstimulated, can’t take it anymore, and then internalises their frustration through dissociation, internal spiralling, negative self-talk, etc. It is also why you might think everyone else is much better than you.
  1. Eye Contact
    This is a classic sign of neurodivergence, but many people don’t know that it doesn’t just mean avoiding eye contact. It can also look like making too much eye contact. Not knowing how to handle eye contact is common among neurodivergent people.
  1. Stimming
    Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, is basically whenever you move your body in a way that allows you to relax, express yourself, or release pent-up energy. Bouncing your leg is a popular stim, along with biting your nails. Everybody stims, but neurodivergent people might do it more in order to self-soothe.
  2. No Secretary for The CEO
    One metaphor to describe neurodivergence is this idea that everyone’s brain has a CEO that’s in charge of making important decisions, and neurotypical people have a brain secretary that keeps the unimportant stuff off the CEO’s desk. But neurodivergent people might not have a secretary, which means the CEO has to deal with everything all at once, making life harder.

Neurodivergence is as complex as the human brain. There are many possible conditions, which is why it’s thought of as a spectrum. Symptoms can be mild to severe. Someone might have spent so much energy trying to fit into a neurotypical world that by the time they become adults they are functioning with a high level of masking. This becomes your version of normal. Recently I read something that talked about our inner voices and how for someone with neurodivergence, the voice can be very negative for much of the time. That’s hard to deal with and can be one of the things that leads to overwhelm. Having poor executive functioning can make parts of running a photography business more difficult but if you know why then you can explore alternative methods of working.

If you are wondering if you might be a little ‘neurospicy’ or you just want to get more understanding, I recommend starting with the ADDitude website where you will find a symptom checker. Then please seek some medical advice. The road to a diagnosis can be long via the NHS but there are also private clinics that can accelerate the process. Having a better understanding of your brain function can help you work more with rather than against yourself.