Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Alex Dahl:
Neurodiversity and Creativity

I do not believe in labels, though I’m sure it has been tempting to give me several over the years. As a child growing up in Scandinavia, I was attention-deficit. Hyperactive. Hypersensitive. Extremely imaginative. Very narrow-focused. I just wanted to read, write, repeat. But I was lucky- those traits, which could have been diagnosed and medicated, were actually specifically encouraged, and then directed in a constructive way. My teacher let me read books up in a tree, and my mother encouraged me to release energy through endless cycling and skiing.

I am not suggesting that medication is never the answer, but I am suggesting that as these traits can also be an important and positive aspect of an individual, perhaps the world needs to adjust to fit the individuals, rather than the other way around. Too much creative gold is being lost in the rigid, conformist system our kids are forced through. Can’t sit still? Maybe that kid wasn’t designed to sit still all day in a classroom. Constantly daydreaming? Maybe those dreams are precisely what will take that child somewhere amazing.

I am a novelist because of many of these traits, not in spite of them. My attention deficit was never a problem when I was allowed to direct most of my focus towards the areas that interested me, and these days, it is a huge advantage to have so many interests- as a writer it makes research a breeze! Hyperactive became hyper-energetic, and there is no doubt in my mind that my energy levels serve me well in my career as a writer- I quite often do between 5000 and 8000 words a day. I was, and am, extremely sensitive, and while this sometimes can be difficult on a personal level because it can be exhausting to feel so much all the time, it is an enormous advantage as a novelist. I feel my characters so profoundly that their experiences become part of my own. I spent my childhood dreaming up plots and developing characters in my head. I spend adulthood much the same, and it has led me to the career of my dreams. Being narrow-focused (and a natural risk-taker) has also been a big advantage- I only ever wanted to be a writer, so I pursued it relentlessly, with no plan B, and determination is essential in an industry where rejection and set-backs are unavoidable.

It is important to discuss the potential gifts associated with some of the neurodiverse ways of being a human. We are not all the same, and we are not supposed to be. If you pursue something you love and channel your hyper focus, you are going to have a competitive advantage that other people can’t borrow, buy or steal. If you try to conform to tasks which seem easy for others but difficult to you, you will never be very good at it. Being dreamy, imaginative, narrow-focused and hypersensitive may earn you a diagnosis in the standard classroom, but it may earn you a book deal in the real world.


Half-American, half-Norwegian, Alex Dahl was born in Oslo. She graduated with a B.A. in Russian and German linguistics with international studies and went on to complete an M.A. in creative writing at Bath Spa University, followed by an M.S. in business management at Bath University. Alex has published short stories in the U.K. and the U.S. She is a serious Francophile. The Boy at the Door is her first novel and she wrote it while living in Sandefjord.


I loved The Boy at the Door Read Sue Trowbridge's review of Alex Dahl's The Boy at the Door at The Saturday Reader. The Boy at the Door is available for pre-order.


Dana King said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post. It's amazing how many avenues we block by the manner in which we educate, when the whole purpose of education is to open them.

Alex said...

I wish this kind of forward thinking was standard practise the world over, we might have more geniuses and creatives living on a more harmonious and happy planet. Thank you Janet and Alex for this wonderful guest post.

Julia Buckley said...

This was fascinating!Thank you, Alex and Janet. I see some of this in my own experience, as I have anxiety and do not medicate it, but instead try to channel it into creativity and my writing. (My doctor also recommended a punching bag, which is surprisingly effective).

Various physicians I've talked to about anxiety, attention deficit, hyperactivity, et cetera have suggested that if those conditions do not interfere significantly with your life, your goals, or your relationships, then medication is not needed. As you suggested, we all have distinctive brains, and sometimes the "oddities" of our wiring can be seen as gifts.

Mary Feliz said...

How refreshing to hear from someone who is saying something other than: all neurodiverse people are the same and they should all want to be coders! I’ve forwarded this to my friend Jan Johnston Tyler who does ground-breaking work with neurodiverse teens.