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Adopting a neurodivergent lifestyle

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

Photo credit: Robo Wunderkind for Unsplash


My forever advice for Autistic adults and parents of Autistic children is to adopt a neurodivergent lifestyle to make life calmer and more enjoyable for the neurodivergent family members and for all family members.


The world is made for neurotypical people. That creates challenges for neurodivergent people on a regular basis. Creating a neurodiverse lifestyle pushes out things that don't work and makes room for what helps us thrive.

A neurodivergent lifestyle is one that centers on the needs of the neurodivergent person or people. The details of the changes needed will vary from person to person, but in general, these changes are soothing and enriching and offer a life that is less chaotic and busy and more predictable and calm. A neurodivergent lifestyle is one that accommodates and offers comfort to neurodivergent people, one that meets the individual's particular needs.

What adopting a neurodivergent lifestyle means is this: stop trying to fit into a world not made for you and make a world for yourself--make every aspect of your life work for you. Or at least as much as you can.

Sensory needs
Sensory issues are a huge part of being neurodivergent, and these needs being met means clearing the way for other issues to be addressed and daily life to happen with less struggle.

I suggest that you make a list with each person in the household and go over sensory aversions and sensory affinities and then try to meet those needs creating separate spaces if possible for places where those needs conflict.

You will find that if possible, people will meet these needs on their own. Children and adults with high support needs will need assistance. Here is a brief list of my aversions and affinities and how I accommodate them:


Aversions:

Affinities:

Accommodations:

Loud noise

White noise

Fans/TV-low w/CC

Bright light inside

Warm yellow and colored lights

Stained glass lamps

Bright lights outside

Golden hour sun

Prescription sunglasses

Strong savory smells

Strong sweet smells

Candles with sweet scents

Multiple sources of noise

Low volume tv or music

Only 1 source at a time

Sitting still

rocking or bouncing

Rocking chair/Yoga chair

Crowds

Activities with few people

Planned event times with few people

Places that feel uncared for/unclean

Beautiful spaces

Leaving unclean spaces/creating beauty

Idleness

Doing "important" things

Moving on/Multi-tasking

Rigid, uncomfortable clothes

Commmmmffffffy

Forever althetaleisure


Sensory needs move with the person, but where individuals spend most of their time should be designed and decorated with sensory needs in mind.

Clothing is very much a part of the sensory experience. Wear what you want to wear. Seriously. It's ok. Whatever you want for comfort, for expression.

Sensory needs include food. Access to desired, safe foods and drinks for each neurodivergent person is a must. Keeping in stock is helpful to have things on hand but can also serve as a comfort for those with anxiety over food or very restrictive diets.

Home
Neurodivergent homes should be made to meet our needs. This is true in both form and function.

Form: What does it look like? What we can do with our home spaces is dependent upon some factors that aren't within our control. If you rent, you might not be able to make physical changes to a space. If money is tight, there are limited options available for buying something new or making changes to a space like painting or installing a swing, etc. For me a space being attractive and cozy is important to my comfort. Wall color, artwork, furniture, and decorative items are extremely important to me. My tastes aren't extravagant, but they are specific. I have a vision for each space. I also work with my husband and daughter, who are both also Autistic, to create spaces that they find pleasing as well. The design of their specific spaces reflects their requests and needs.

Things to consider in the design: how do colors impact your mood? Do you prefer an uncluttered space or lots of things to look at? Does each space have a theme? Are your special interests reflected in the design and decorations? Are there things that bother you in the space that you want to cover or conceal? What's missing?

Function: How does it work? You should make some modifications that make things easier for you and your family members. You should consider what your challenges are. Do you have socks and clothes all over the house? Put laundry baskets in every room. Collect cups in your office (Guilty!)? Put a bin under your desk to make it easy to take your cups back to the kitchen en masse. Keep notebooks in each room to keep track of things that might come up when you're in that room. Keep phone or device chargers in each room to prevent looking for them all the time when you need one. Get a tracker for your keys like a Tile, and keep a spare set. If you like blankets, have a throw in every room. Or two! If you love Legos, display them. Set up a small desk just for you to work on them. This is your house! You're a whole adult--you can do whatever you want!

A swing and a yoga ball in the living room along with a Christmas treat put up the first week of November.


Sensory needs should absolutely be included in the process of creating spaces in your home. That goes for both form and function. Aesthetics are a part of sensory needs, but other issues related to the senses are even more important. If movement is important for you or your family members, including items in the room for meeting those needs should be a primary focus. In our house, we have swings for my daughter in three rooms and outside. We have a 6-foot trampoline in my office that she and I both use. We also have a row machine and an elliptical that help with meeting the need for movement. We have a large chalkboard by the front door where we have the day's agenda and upcoming events including appointments for all of us to see. We each also benefit from having our own spaces to retreat to when needed. My daughter has her bedroom and the guest room, which she calls her "second bedroom." My husband has his office, and I have my own. Each of these spaces is decorated with the individual in mind and offers items that meet sensory needs, executive function needs, and special interests.

Example: My office. My office has a beautiful mural of one of my special interests painted by a local artist, Corie Hinton. I have multiple notebooks and datebooks where I keep everything. The rower and trampoline are here so I can get in some movement especially when I need writing breaks. I have a Portal for video calls that won't interrupt writing. I have bookcases with supplies for everything I need. I get lovely afternoon light and can keep my overhead lights off most of the time. I have a moon lamp that brings me a little joy. It's often messy as I'm forever on my way to do something else.


Corie Hinton, muralist, finishing up in my office

Photo credit: Alondra Rogers-Clements


Relationships and Boundaries
This section could be so long that I decided to make it super short instead else I'd be writing a whole book.

You are under no obligation to maintain relationships that are harmful to you. You can let go. You can walk away. Build friendships and other relationships build on authenticity and openness. Decide what you want and then be clear about your needs and rules for engagement with you. Be clear with others when they have crossed a line. Be accountable when you have.

Do no harm, take no shit.

Work
If you have the ability to find work that "works" for you, do that. I've personally done a lot of work including food services and retail as a young person and then office jobs, volunteer positions, internships and more. It's all hard in different ways. I was very good at some things, but I'm just a terrible waitress and an awful bank teller. For many years, I had to work for health care and income to support myself and contribute to the household. It was kinda soul sucking, to be honest. If you are in the position where you have to work in an office or a retail environment, try to make it work best for you. If you feel safe asking for accommodations, do that. It seems that's easier in larger companies in my experience. If you have a parent or spouse providing health care for you and you don't have to work some dreadful gig, find somewhere you feel like you belong. If you have a skill you can use independently like making art, writing, photography, being a therapist or a consultant like me, it may feel rewarding and allow more naturally for you to accommodate your own needs.

School
If you are in college or graduate school or plan to attend, I recommend considering if in-person or online is a better fit for you. I've done both. I can see the pros and cons. I personally experienced much less anxiety and overwhelm in an online environment. Other people may require more structure and in-person makes that possible.

In either case, consider contacting the student services or disability services office and ask what they might be able to do for you. In some cases, it's not very much, and in others, they can be genuinely helpful. It won't hurt to ask. You can also let your instructors and teaching assistants know about being Autistic and let them know how they can be supportive. Always keep them informed when there's a problem. They can't help if they don't know what's going on--on the flip side, they don't need to know all the details. Protect your privacy too.


Activities
How we spend our time is incredibly important. Set yourself and your family up for happiness by making sure you dedicate your time to where you'll get the most joy. This might mean showing up late to events or parties, leaving early, or even skipping them altogether. If you know you, your partner, or your child is not going to do well at something--do you need to go? If you feel like you do, how can you make it successful? What sensory accommodations can you make? Can you go to a movie 15 minutes late to skip the previews? Can you bring the Ipad to Christmas Eve mass for your child? Can you pop into a birthday party after presents for cake?

Once you start making these modifications to your social events, people get used to it. Largely, they appreciate your efforts. If you find your family or friends aren't accepting, maybe you don't need to work so hard to show up for those events.

Holidays and traditions
Just as with other activities, holidays and traditions should be observed and modified as appropriate for you and your family's needs. We don't sing the Happy Birthday song--my daughter hates it. I hate it when it's for me--what are you supposed to be doing when everyone stares at you and sings off-key? Make wonderful memories for yourself and your family by celebrating holidays and traditions in your own way--they may look very different than other people. You may decide Thanksgiving isn't a real holiday and skip it. You may make Valentine's Day a HUGE deal because it's a huge deal for you. The only part of this that matters is if your family is enjoying what you've crafted. For us, having holiday events at our house is much easier for my daughter who is comfortable and can retreat to her safe spaces and use sensory tools we have available live the indoor trampoline or swings that other family homes don't have. We also have a short window--2-3 hours and everybody out! People don't stay over at our house because it's an enormous source of stress for all three of us. If we go visiting friends, there better be a dog, a cat, or some hostessing I can do because I need to stay busy and distracted.

Politics
As a neurodivergent family, you are a part of the disability community. Consider the place of disabled children and adults in the political world and what candidates are going to provide monetary and substantive supports to disabled people. Generally speaking, that's the blue end of the political spectrum. Compassionate conservatism relies on faith-based efforts to sustain the neediest people. It doesn't work. As a social worker and someone who has worked to find resources for people in desperate positions, we have far more needs than charities and churches can address. Vote to protect yourselves and others.

Obligations
Practice saying no. You can use excuses if you need to, but minimizing your obligations will only do good things for you as a neurodivergent person. If you're impulsive like me, also leave yourself an escape hatch. I have a blanket policy with friends and family and we may not be able to do what we planned to--even if I have tickets, even if I have plane tickets! Because I can't know in advance if we can all manage to come through on those plans. Once you've given yourself permission to change things and risk the terrible "disappointing" someone else (at your own expense), I promise you, it gets easier and more comfortable. Putting your needs first in this way if better for all.

It's a neurotypical world and we're just living in it! But it doesn't have to feel that way all the time. Neurodivergent individuals, parents, and families can and should design a life that works for them without regard for how others are doing the same or similar things. Your job isn't to be like everyone else. Evolution has seen fit to bring a variety of brains into the world and we can and should make things work for us.




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