Creative Approaches to Health & Wellbeing: A Neurodivergent Perspective

Creative Approaches to Health & Wellbeing: A Neurodivergent Perspective

At NCCH we promote Creative Health, both as a type of activity and an approach to health and social care. Creative Health approaches encompass a wide array of methods, from utilising cultural assets in the absence of clinical provisions, to creatively engaging participants in academic research.

At the heart of our values lies the active inclusion and knowledge sharing from Lived Experience Experts, affectionately known as 'LExperts.' In this article, I delve into my lived experience of being neurodivergent to explore how Creative Health approaches can support health and wellbeing within neurodivergent communities.

What is Neurodiversity?

The term ‘neurodivergent’ encompasses ‘individuals whose minds or functioning falls outside dominant social norms’ (1), including those with genetic or acquired conditions like OCD, Dyslexia, ASD, ADHD, and more. Linked to the neurodiversity movement, it challenges the pathologizing of diverse cognitive styles and celebrates natural variation within humanity.

The neurodiversity movement may be considered an inherently creative approach, as it re-imagines how we respond to divergent ways of thinking and being. It encourages us to shift away from the idea of ‘fixing’ individuals or enforcing a singular standard of ‘normalcy.’ Instead, it advocates for environments that nurture individual’s strengths.

In this article, I explore four aspects of my neurodivergent experience and how creativity enhances my well-being. It's crucial to note that my experience isn't universal (see my positionality statement at the end of the article). Rather than prescribing a universal approach, I encourage readers to draw inspiration from my narrative for imaginative and novel care strategies.

Healthy Ways of Attaining Stimulation

Neurodivergent people engage in more stimming than the general population. This involves manipulating sensory input for various purposes such as eliciting joy, self-soothing, mood stabilization, or cognitive processing.

In ADHD, the search for stimulation is linked to a dopamine deficiency – the neurotransmitter which regulates pleasure and attention (1). Individuals with ADHD instinctively seek stimulation to avoid feelings of depression, and this can manifest as hyperactive behaviour. Without healthy outlets, they're at greater risk of engaging in risky or addictive behaviours like substance misuse (2, 3, 4, 5).

Here are three ways I keep myself feeling happy and well, via healthy stimulatory behaviour:

  1. Visual Stims – Everybody has different sensory preferences for stimming. I like to limit certain sounds and amplify visual stimulus. I feel happier wearing bright, patterned, or eccentric clothing. Bright colours behind computer monitors help me concentrate, and spaces like hot pod yoga, with special lighting and colour design, are particularly calming for me.
  2. Tailored Novelty – Whilst my Autism seeks familiarity and routine, my ADHD craves novelty and spontaneity. Engaging in the Creative Arts helps me strike a balance between these contrasting aspects of my personality. The routine of creative activity provides familiarity, whilst the diverse outcomes and sensory experiences of different crafts satisfy my need for mystery and discovery.
  3. Unique Glimmers – ‘Glimmers’ refer to sources of unrelenting joy, the opposite of emotional triggers. Due to my heightened sensitivity and broader emotional range, I'm deeply affected by these. I've been known to tear up with joy at the sight of a husky, or impulsively tap puddles with childlike glee. After reading about how tattoos can be used as a form of narrative therapy (2, 3, 4, 5), I decided to immortalize some of these glimmers as permanent body art.

Creative Responses to Dysregulation and Delayed Processing

Research indicates that 73–78% of individuals with ADHD sleep and wake up later than societal norms dictate (6). This delayed circadian rhythm could be the underlying mechanism associated with a number of ADHD symptoms. One of the consequences of this is that people with ADHD who try to align with societal norms experience ‘social jet-lag’.

I resonate with this as it reflects my experiences - feeling low when waking early, craving long nights of sleep, and noticing heightened productivity later in the day. If accurate, it could explain why many neurodivergent individuals face more frequent emotional and physiological dysregulation, along with challenges in working memory and processing information.

Here are some creative ways that I have responded to dysregulation and/or delayed processing:

  1. Internal Snap – Encountering triggers can dysregulate me, making emotions harder to navigate. When I experience delayed processing, it can leave me unaware of a triggering event. When combined, I risk linking events incorrectly and catastrophising. I’ve learnt to pause and play an internal game of snap, connecting triggers to corresponding emotions. This practice prevents me from overlooking details about boundary-crossings, validates my natural responses to the world, and ultimately regulates my emotions.
  2. Small Wins – Individuals with ADHD and/or Autism often experience periods of hyperfocus, enabling intense concentration and above-average productivity. However, I see hyperfocus as borrowing energy from the future. While I can accomplish a week's worth of work in a day, it exhausts me, risking burnout if sustained. During burnout, dysregulation increases, making it harder to recognize when to stop. To manage this, our team at NCCH adopted a weekly practice of sharing 'small wins'. This allowed me to monitor the speed of progress that was expected from me, whilst getting to celebrate the achievements of other people in the same role.
  3. Dancing/ Walking Routines – While delayed processing in neurodivergent brains relates to information sorting, unaddressed emotions can lead to retained stress in the body. That's why I prioritize movement habits throughout the day. Dancing before bed is a long-standing practice that releases tension, easing insomnia-inducing thoughts. I also incorporate regular 5-minute exercise breaks during work, like a Leslie Sansone walking routine. This movement frequency supports concentration in ADHD brains, smoothing out work fluctuations and guarding against burnout.

Working With a Hyperactive Mind or Messy Internal Dialogues

Neurodivergent women often go undiagnosed due to biased diagnostic criteria and differences in symptom presentation. An example of a less stereotypical manifestation is excessive mental hyperactivity rather than overt physical hyperactivity.

This thinking style brings both positive and negative outcomes, including adept pattern recognition, ability to notice small or obscure details, non-linear thinking, novel linking of information, periods of persistent or unusual daydreaming, co-occurring or continuous internal monologues, and hyper-realistic 3D visual thinking.

While I cherish this aspect of my neurodivergence, managing it is essential to avoid mental fatigue. Here are three strategies I employ:

  1. Life Drawing – Individuals seeking mental relaxation often pursue a 'flow state,' characterized by complete focus on a single task or activity (6). For me, Life Drawing is a simple method to achieve this state. The intense concentration needed to study a life model and reproduce their form quiets my usually busy internal monologue.
  2. Writing and Narrative Diagrams – The type of hyperactivity I'm experiencing dictates the form of writing I find most beneficial. For simplifying complex ideas, I turn to the rhyme and rhythm of poetry. Exploring implicit subtext leads me to develop dialogue-light film scripts. When capturing intricate observations, I delve into long-form fiction and memoirs. And for recording a multitude of thoughts, diagrams help capture my non-linear thinking.
  3. Silent Disco/ Nurturing Flow Yoga – When I struggle to quiet my mind, I find solace in listening to someone else narrate for a while. In creative spaces, where there is a facilitator who holds an interest in mental wellbeing, this external narrator is easily accessed. For instance, there is a silent disco-style experience by Secret Sunrise, where participants are encouraged to let go of harmful social discourses, celebrate their ambitions, and connect to like-minded people. Similarly, I have enjoyed the nurturing guidance of Natasha Almaz Mina Queirós, a Leicester-based yoga instructor, who celebrates her participants for showing up and prioritising their self-care.

Play-Based Health Behaviours

Another unique aspect of being neurodivergent involves how we experience our bodies. This can manifest in various ways, such as struggles with Interoception (knowing what's happening inside our bodies, like hunger or fatigue), Vestibular issues (affecting our sense of movement, balance, and coordination), or Proprioception challenges (understanding where our bodies are in space).

Personally, my greatest difficulty lies in Interoception, but I've developed habits to navigate all three sensory systems for a healthier lifestyle. Here's how:

  1. Plant Watering App and Meal Plans – My loud brain often drowns out my body's signals. As a teenager, I could go days without drinking until prompted by others. To address this, I gamified hydration using a phone app where I watered virtual plants and drank water with each watering. Similarly, when engrossed in work, I'd overlook hunger until dysregulation set in. Meal plans with novel recipes help me maintain regular meals despite dysregulation.
  2. Competitive Physiotherapy – In my late 20s, my proprioception difficulties led to frequent ankle sprains requiring crutches, and traditional physiotherapy didn't yield results. One day, neurodivergent practitioner Mel Kitenga challenged my vestibular capabilities by asking me to close my eyes and balance on one leg. Removing my visual coping mechanisms led to great results. Twice a day, for 2-minutes each time, I coupled this exercise with brushing my teeth. After just one month I had strengthened my ankle muscles, and improved the neuro-pathways associated with bodily perception. I haven’t have a sprain since.
  3. Bungee Fit – I struggle to maintain a regular exercise routine due to boredom with repetitive tasks, so I gravitate towards novel activities like bungee fit. This class uses body harnesses and bungee cords to reduce joint pressure. It not only allowed me to experience childlike joy but also taught me about proprioception. Manoeuvring to avoid hitting my knees or face on the floor boosted my confidence and provided laughs with my best friend.

Final thoughts…

As you consider ways of integrating creativity into the care of yourselves, your loved ones, your patients, or participants, it is important to ask them about their unique experiences of neurodivergence. For me, it is not my brain that is disabling, rather the way that my brain is told to fit into normative ways of living. Creativity has been at the core of keeping my life free from disabling aspects of society, and has in turn left my life feeling rich, plentiful, and full of joyous moments.

I hope this article is not just a point of inspiration for neurodiversity services, but also a catalyst for Creative Health approaches more widely. Different demographics and individuals require different types of support, meaning that creative approaches are instrumental in providing person-centred care.

Positionality statement: I approach this article from the perspective of a woman with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) – sometimes abbreviated as AuDHD.

The unique mix of these two conditions results in different symptomatic expressions/ experiences when compared to people who experience only one or the other. Moreover, both of these conditions exist on a spectrum, with different people having greater or fewer needs in different aspects of their lives.

Overall, I am considered to have low support needs. This article is not intended to be applied as a one-size-fits-all solution – particularly when collaborating with people who have greater support needs (they are the experts of their experience).

I have been raised in- and have continued access to- affirming communities, which means I view my identity in terms of divergence rather than disorder. For this reason, I speak from a different perspective to other neurodivergent people who have experienced more negative social discourses relating to assimilation, disability, and belonging.

Finally, I have access to both formal and informal support, which helps me to mitigate some of the more disabling sides of my experience – a privilege that not all readers and their loved ones/ colleagues/ service-users may carry.

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