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How my brain works

A brief guide to understanding why I’m like this

The levers of neurodivergent brains: Why every autistic and ADHD person is different

Imagine a professional recording studio sound mixing deck, perhaps like this:

Top down view of music studio mixing deck neurodivergent levers Joe Hendley

(Notice the fidget spinner at the bottom left of the photo there. Curiously coincidental.)

You know how this basically works – there’s a whole bunch of sliders and dials to fine tune the quality output from input sources. Now I’m no expert in these decks so for the sake of this analogy I’m going to presume that if you adjust one thing, you only adjust that one thing. More bass = more bass only.

Now imagine that this is a vastly simplified version of a brain. We all experience external stimuli – sound, sight, physical sensation from external sources (touch – either we touch something or it touches us, eg the wind, our clothes or another person), smell, taste (ok, technically that’s internal, sort of).

Every input stimulant from the world will trigger our brains to react in various ways to help us perceive and understand that world, which helps us decide whether we like that input or not, whether it’s a threat or not (obviously, a very very basic description here).

On the mixing deck of our brains a slider is moved, a dial twiddled. As we grow up, we learn what we like, what we don’t. We learn what a socially acceptable reaction is or isn’t. Tantrums aren’t. A “normalised”, balanced, calm is ok. Being able to recall and do what is asked of you is good. Forgetting is bad. Remembering the names of all the team members you’ve just been introduced to is good, forgetting all but 2 of them 30 seconds later is bad , especially the “more important” people. Remembering what you said and did 14 years ago is good, forgetting what you said 5 minutes ago is bad. Being able sit still and focus on a task for an hour is good. Being in an office environment and being easily distracted, fidgety, finding your clothes itchy even though they were fine when you chose to put them on 3 hours ago is not. Sitting staring at said task unable to start it for hours is bad. Getting shit done is good. Sticking to a plan over a period of time (more than a day) is good. You get the idea.

As we learn what an acceptable reaction appears like to others, maybe numerous sliders and dial will be moved. To those who don’t feel particularly neurodivergent, it’s possible to learn that a given input will result in a “normal” reaction. For example, someone smiles at you, you may think, “Oh, that’s nice. What a nice person”. Or your boss says, “Can I have a word?” and you may respond affirmatively and think, “I wonder what they want?” with no particular “threat”/”no threat” reaction.

Perhaps for every single “normal” brain that’s ever existed, the way it works is that a given set of mixing deck adjustments will happen with only those adjustments manually moved. It’s predictable to an extent – you punch someone on the nose, they will feel pain, they will probably punch you back (so don’t punch people). Show them your disapproval at something they said, they’re unlikely to smile back, unless they’re being a little bitch, of course.

With neurodivergent (ND) brains, it’s not like that. At all. This analogy was given to me, via a meme image which I can never find again, by an old coaching client who was diagnosed as being autistic. I have since explained it to friends who have either been officially diagnosed with autism or those who, like myself currently, identify as very very probably having autism and/or ADHD or some other neurodivergent brain (eg Highly Sensitive Person, Giftedness, Over-Excitable (OE), etc. For the “Twice Exceptional” or “2E” people, this gets even more complex.) and all seem to find it not just acceptable but a great way to explain it to others.

Like all of humanity, we are all different. We all understand the world (our world) in a vast kaleidoscopic matrix of ways.

For owners ND brains, when an input is received, the mixing deck sliders and dials will naturally be moved by the old neurons firing. What also happens, however, is that the “normal” slider may move, but then a bunch of seemingly random other dials and sliders will move by varying amounts. Sometimes, the same input in a seemingly similar set of circumstances will result in the same output. Sometimes, an entirely different output will result. Sometimes being told “no” as an input will result in acquiescing. Sometimes it may result in a meltdown – sometimes internalised and masked; sometimes very clearly, very audibly not, even in public. Sometimes, being given a task to do will result in that task being completed to the deadline given, sometimes (often) it will not. Why? Only the recipient of the input and owner of the brain will know and sometimes even then, they might not unless they’ve done a lot of work on understanding themselves (and their external world).

This is why memes on Autism social media accounts will often make fun of “normies” (ie “normal people”) with lines like, “You don’t look autistic” or similar.

If you’re unfamiliar with all this, please also know that there is a huge overlap between autism, ADHD, ADD, gifted, HSP and pretty much every type of ND person. Which is a reason why labels can be troublesome, but that’s for a different article.

The best way to understand why someone you interact with on a regular basis reacts the way they do is to ask them, if you can be bothered. Many can’t, which results in untold, undue and unnecessary stress, anxiety, frustration and conflict. I know that asking people why they are the way they appear to be can be difficult but you might just make an incredibly loyal colleague/team member and possibly a lifelong friend by simply taking the time to understand their needs. A radical idea.

I think, therefore I am. I think – An introductory guide to how I am, and the way I live and do.

Sometimes I wonder if my writings make sense and whether they are in an order that seems like it would flow. I try to but sometimes I run out of energy, so, please, if it seems disjointed – tell me. I will attempt to reorder it. No-one can learn if they aren’t told what’s wrong.

Stimulation is addictive

Honestly, I think I’m getting “worse” the older I get. It’s quite temptingly easy to blame the internet and the way devices, websites, apps, games and algorithms are designed to keep our bodies feeding us dopamine hits* to keep our eyes on screens and our base monkey brains engaged with outrage, in states of them vs us, or with a range of quick fire interesting ideas. Is the online world making us less able to focus for a long time and retain information? Probably. But we have to take some responsibility for our own actions and behaviours to help us snap out of the hypnosis to re-train ourselves to be more responsible, to be held more accountable for our own actions using our rational, “slow” thinking brains.

(*I’m aware that dopamine isn’t necessarily the cause of additive behaviours of using social media etc, but it does play a part of the cycle of continually looking for activity-reward stimulation satisfaction which is, I believe, a part of addiction forming)

But that’s hard. Harder for some than others.

If you have an easily distractible brain it can be as hard as giving up smoking. I actually gave up smoking in 2015 after about 8 years of starting on social smoking before being on about 20 a day. An expensive addiction at around 10GBP per pack at the time. Curiously, looking back, I now understand why I enjoyed social smoking – ironically it gave me a “legitimate” socially acceptable reason to get out of a noisy pub or club to take an actual breath of fresh air along with the proverbial breaths of nicotine infused air which helped with anxiety. As much as I enjoyed socialising in my younger years (ie approx pre-48yrs old), I did find it all to be somewhat overstimulating and being able to step outside to the relative peaceful areas allowed me to mentally and emotionally “exhale” deeply before inhaling and returning to the loud mix of voices, noises and perhaps “re-masking”.

If you have ever listened to, say, an Eddie Izzard stand-up gig, it’s amazing how he can start on one topic, meander through a number of quite random other topics before (usually) looping back to the original observational topic. It’s also interesting seeing when your favourite meandering comedian loses the mental thread and stops in their tracks saying “What was I talking about?” as if someone unplugged a wire in the loop and the thought processes can’t return to the original topic – I’m sure a lot of us have experienced that. It takes a little quiet processing to recover the path back to the point of the message.

I know I do that a lot when talking to people – not in coaching, I hasten to add, as that utilises a different process: I’m focused deeply on active listening to the coachee and am very focused on what they’re saying vocally, what they’re saying tonally and non-verbally too and formulating relevant questions. In general conversation with others, however, I can quite happily meander through all sorts of anecdotes and “I watched this super interesting thing” for a good 30 minutes. It feels that coaching takes a different part of the brain to activate.

Planning and making continual progress. Hyperfocus vs disciplined daily work

I’m a self-employed coach (Edit update Jan 2024: and now a website designer incorporating coaching and consultancy). I love being self-employed as it gives me the freedom and independence I crave. I need the freedom as I can choose when, where, how and why to work, and who to work with. I don’t have to ask permission for holidays or to go to the toilet or see a doctor and I don’t have to complete a return to work form if I have a day off because I’m mentally exhausted from over-stimulation of untold demands from external sources. Apart from coping with 9 years in IT in the NHS (and even then due to multiple restructurings, and promotions, I changed jobs frequently), I have not really managed to stay in an employed role for longer than a year. I’m well aware future employers may come across this and deny me an interview or a job but I think it’s important people understand how I (or we) work best.

This is the way I am.

Even being self-employed is incredibly tasking and exhausting at times, and I do often wonder about just getting a “normal” job – I am at this point practically accepting I won’t be able to find an employer who gets me and is able to accommodate this brain. I know I ask too many analytical questions like, “Why are we doing it this way?” and “Wouldn’t it be better if we did it this other way?” which rarely goes down well, I’ve found. Plus I lose the “great leveller” of being hired an an external expert of sorts who can talk to all levels of an organisation in adult mode in order to help create a positive solution to their problems. I find it very very hard to suppress the desire to analyse and enquire why things are done the way they are. It’s actually not (always) meant to question things to effectively say, “This is dumb”. I am practically accepting that I sometimes I don’t have enough coaching clients and I need to get a job sometimes, but that it will be for less than a year. It’s all very disheartening and adds to the levels of guilt, shame and sense of disappointing other and not being “good enough”. Every little or big failure adds a brick to the “all of awful” which is chirpily explained very well here

I can and have on occasion sat down and worked diligently on a seemingly longer term task, like creating a sensible business plan for my own business. I have worked on it for up to 40 hours over the course of a week (ie hyperfocused on it). I felt like I completed it enough to get working on it. Great.

Except how my brain works is that once I feel it’s done, it gets filed in a proverbial drawer in a hard drive and in my brain and I never refer to it again. It’s done. Box ticked. Good job. Reward for the task is that it’s done. I know what it says so there’s a part of my brain that refuses to accept the need to go back and check actual progress against it. To make matters worse, I know when I am not making progress against it because it exists in my head even vaguely from there on out, and due of a variety of reasons that simple knowledge of not making progress against the things I really want to make progress on results in guilt, shame and self-imposed disappointment. This adds cumulatively to the next day of wanting to make progress – it’s like the shame-filled antimatter version of dopamine hits. Every day making no “tangible” progress towards a goal adds to the guilt, shame, frustration and self-imposed disappointment. A sense of, “My parents and schoolteachers were right”. Another brick in the wall of awful. I have, on occasion (and for months) accidentally made myself rather depressed (not just sad, but frustrated, annoyed, unable to get out of bed some days and sometimes even darker than that because of the feelings of inadequacy and stupidity. It’s not fun.)

Dragging oneself out of that is hard and a long process. Sometimes, simply making the bed in the morning and having a shower has felt like progress. A tiny step on the long stepladder over the wall of awful. Adding tiny steps of (gently, being kind to myself) making myself make even a little bit of progress towards a goal – eg website update, even half a page, writing an article here on Substack can feel enormously rewarding, yet also anxiety inducing. It’s not fast enough progress. It’s not big enough progress. I am yet to be a financially successful coach and I have all these home improvement projects I want to afford so have a warm, cosy house over winters with a big, beautiful garden growing food for my eyes and soul, as much as my stomach. It takes about 4 hours to write a not-planned article. I am working on another article on a subject close to my heart and because I was asked to collaborate on a piece with someone else, it changes the dynamics of why I am doing it. Perfectionism kicks in more, a desire to do a better job. It’s taken over a week already and I am battling my internal “you’re crap” voices which makes it harder and harder to get finished. It’s not even that I’m not enjoying writing about the requested topic – I absolutely love it, but something triggers in my brain – something somehow interacting between perfectionism and not letting others down and writing in a way that matches that other person’s (perceived) higher intelligence (my imposter syndrome). The bricks are staring at me, knowing, predicting exactly what will happen.

Note that I noted up there that I am yet to be a financially successful coach. I have internally irrefutable, externally rational proof that I am a successful coach in terms of getting results with clients via feedback and testimonials. Unsurprisingly the usual feedback I get is to be more structured. Ironically, I do actually offer ways for clients to work in a more structured way but I seem to attract the visionary, creative types of people who are often not best at structure and, in some ways, discipline anyway. I have onboarding focus and motivation forms which are supposed to be completed when signing and sending the acceptance contracts. I try to follow the structure of a GROW model in every session, but often find that clients prefer to run through things in their own way regardless and feel too restricted by that framework so I tend to go with the flow whilst keeping an mind’s eye on their overall goal.

So why not use my coach brain for the rest of my working life? Because it takes such huge focus and deep empath energy that it’s exhausting trying to apply that 8+ hours a day, in a full working week. That empath brain needs daily recovery time and sleep doesn’t count, which limits the number of clients I would ever take on at a time to be able to do an effective job for the people involved. I know how to manage my “load” that way. Add that to the internal tick box mentality of “done that; don’t need to do it again”, and the wall of awful bricks, and fuck me it’s easy to get not much done at all.

How to deal with ADHD

So how do I make progress, how can you make progress if facing similar issues and challenges?

Without formal diagnosis and treatments and support therein, the short answer is, sadly, to perform trial and error attempts to understand how you work best. Your ADHD brain will be different than everyone else’s – your mixing deck will be different based on your own experiences growing into the world. You may already have some ideas on what works best for you.

Last year I came across lectures on ADHD on Youtube by Dr Russell Barkley who is based in Canada I think. He has a very straightforward, blunt yet often humorous way of explaining how the ADHD brain works and what works well for it. One in particular called “This is how you treat ADHD based off science, Dr Russell Barkley part of 2012 Burnett Lecture” may be of interest as it points to tactics that may be opposed to what you’ve learned elsewhere or what may have been imposed on you by the education (and work) systems.

I am absolutely no expert in this – I only worked out maybe 2 years ago that I may have ADHD. I might not, but I feel a super strong affinity towards it being an explanation of how I think and behave. I also feel an affinity towards HSP as well, but that might very well be tied up very closely in an overlap with ADHD, I’m not sure. Degrees of Autism were diagnosed within my immediate family so I would not be surprised if there’s a “touch” of autism/ND brain within me.

What also works for me:

  • Rotating round a range of tasks to be done – focusing and making a little progress on one at a time until I get bored of that one thing. Don’t have too many “areas” or “hobbies”, “interests” etc or you won’t make enough progress to get the “reward”/”satisfaction” stimulus to fire
  • Writing & doodling – with a pen or pencil etc and paper. It’s kind of meditational and very calming, very focusing
  • Self-kindness and meditation: Learning to meditate in a way that works best for you, and learn to practise being nice to yourself. Tara Brach does a lot of great work on this – Radical Acceptance and her “RAIN” meditation has offered me much peace. Meditating does not need to involve sitting cross legged overlooking an exotic mountain range like this:

Sunset meditation to calm the mind

But meditating does enormously help settle the brain and gut especially in dealing with anxiety and self-hatred. Again, find what works for you on your own mixing deck.

Namaste, as they say.

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