While everyone experiences the ups and downs of life, adding the intersectionality of neurodivergence, being a Black person, AND being perceived as a woman, can intensify the experience beyond what feels manageable. For the past four weeks, as someone who identifies with each of those layers, it’s like I’ve been sous-vided, which is to say thrown into a plastic bag, vacuum sealed and gently boiled alive.
When I feel trapped in the confines of my brain, or the systemic violence against my body, community is the only thing that can pull me out of the spiral. It’s a blessing to have so many people in and around my life who can remind me of all there is to celebrate about the intersecting identities of being Black and neurodivergent. So, I searched within my community and found 3 beautiful perspectives on how it feels to exist in both worlds.
Meet nationally renowned writer and mental health advocate Walela Nehanda (they/them), neuroindigenous queer trans-pangender and community organizer Ben-Oní (any/all pronouns), and Founding Artistic Director of OMG! Studios, filmmaker, and artist Sunflower B Rose (She/ze/he).
What does neurodivergence mean to you?
Sunflower Rose: To me, it’s the umbrella term for all the different ways that brains work and operate. There are lots of categories like ADHD, Autism, PTSD, generalized anxiety, Tourette’s, BPD – of all kinds. Neurotypical brains are brains that were primarily studied and standardized. But neurodivergent brains divert from that norm.
Ben-Oní: I am quite interested in how words are used and defined, and have spent some time mulling over this word, neurodivergence. Because words are important, especially in a world where some labels carry more stigmas than and others depending on what body it rests on. I actually ascribe to a synonymous term, neurodistinct.
A definition of neurodistinct I have come to is a being who experiences developmental and acquired sensory, cognitive, and psychosocial distinctions. Neurodistinctions are responses to the way our minds and bodies receive and interact with the world around us. I actually find the term neurodistinct, as someone who has already ‘diverged’ as a Black queer trans-pangender being, to be more empowering than the term neurodivergent.
Walela Nehanda: I think, in a broader sense, neurodivergence is really labeled as whatever deviates from this false norm that has been established in society. When we think of what is normal and what is typical in our society…if you really look into it, it’s bullshit made up by white men. My brain is “divergent” from the standard of a white society that relies on ableism, eugenics, capitalism, fascism, and colonialism to enforce exploiting our bodyminds for the sake of profit.
I think even when the term neurodivergent was created, I don’t believe it was considering Black folks, I think that term still works within the framework and a binary that validates certain norms. For this reason, I particularly resonate with the term neuroexpansive coined by Kassiane Asasumasu meant for Black people.
What’s your favorite way to support yourself at this moment?
B-O: Giving myself more time. I learned how to do well and thrive under pressure, but I’ve moved into a space of really wanting to take the pressure off. Part of taking that pressure off is just moving slower. Giving myself more time to transition between tasks and parts of the day. I’ve done a lot of work on reframing how I move about a ‘productive’ day. It’s less about how much gets done but how present and pleased I am with the work I do get done. Which is a daily practice and I don’t always succeed. But I am always asking myself how can I move slowly and powerfully. My mind feels better, and more grounded in the present when I am not in a rush or being over-demanding of myself.
SR: I like to make. I am a creative and when I get overwhelmed I dance, sing, paint, and DO things to get the energy out of me. I also go to therapy on a weekly basis (because I got that good Medicaid). And recently started to do EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] to work through a lot of my trauma, and the DBT [Dialectical Behavior Therapy] and CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] help me to truly understand and navigate daily life and social understandings of the world.
I process in the moment by trying not to judge myself, and then I reflect on the big picture to not get lost in the day to day. I also throw myself into my work a lot because I like to help people, and working in an arts education system, there are a lot of ways I can support others, and myself in the mode that I know best.
WN: I use Finch – which is an app where you get a small virtual penguin and you can customize its outfits and home. It also grows with the goals you set for yourself each day and sends reminders/affirmations. It helps me with what’s considered “basic” for other people but can be really difficult for me because of task initiation and emotional dysregulation. You also can add other people to your tree town and send your finches to each other with words of support, hugs, and reminders.
When I get really burnt out, it’s helpful, and it has been for 2 years now. I thrive in routine but I also don’t, Finch creates a no pressure zone for me that I appreciate that doesn’t hinge on productivity alone. I also love how taking care of myself is externalized and visualized in a pet penguin. It makes me feel less ashamed for needing help literally every day. I think it’s easy to infantilize disabled people and be condescending towards us about the level of support we need, so when I go into that app – I tend to leave that at the door.
What’s your favorite way to be supported by your community?
WN: My best friend introduced me to Mapping Our Madness which is a zine (small circulation, independently published magazine) created by The Icarus Project NYC – a mental health grassroots organization. We sat with one another and answered the prompts – some of them were: Daily things to take care of myself, write a note to self, what can my friends do when I’m experiencing a crisis, low capacity meals I can make, spaces I feel safe(r) in.
I struggle with asking for help, I struggle with receiving care as that has been a site of significant trauma for me. Being able to do this with my best friend helped me reach out to people, and I’m still working on reaching out to people when I want to experience connection and care. I think it can be really difficult being honest about our capacities in new or established connections – this zine helped me feel less ashamed, especially completing it alongside someone else without judgment or shame.
SR: I LOVE PARTIES! And Hangs! One-on-one time with folks to talk about everything and nothing. To dance and wiggle the night away with laughs and smiles can really take me out of the loud jungle gym that is my brain. At work, my team knows my signals, and if I am freaking out they know when to slow down on the questions or maybe ask more if they think I’m not fully processing and just people-pleasing.
Being honest with how I work and how I show up at work has let the people around me shift to know how to support me. I have a “huddle” room and fidgets I can always pull and use. For example, there were some giant fuzzy puppet snakes that we used in a show, and I have to keep them for our future education props stock. But during tech, I took a nap in the snakes. I wore them on my neck and shared them with the room, and it’s so nice to rub on the mermaid sequins and talk through stressful moments when everyone is covered in sequin fuzzy snakes.
B-O: I love the celebrations within my friendships that acknowledge when we do something we are proud of. I love making my friends proud. And they make me proud all of the time. There is a different kind of intimacy within friendship that makes room for that.
Why is the Black & neurodivergent lens a beautiful way to perceive?
WN: Because we operate outside of settler idealizations of the norm. I see neuroexpansive folks as some of the most bountifully creative and innovative people in the world. We exist in the margins, on the fringes, and while that may be intimidating to so many – I love the ways in which our very existence and ways of being, challenge impossible standards we are held to and frankly, unlivable conditions many of us die under.
We push up against that and get real uncomfortable but in that discomfort blooms new ideas, new words, and new culture. And what is any movement, any society, the undercurrent of anything without culture? We produce such a significant heritage.
B-O: It’s like the further you stand from the center, the wider view you’ve got. And there is a way you move when you perceive a world so full. And I think Black and neurodistinct people have long shown us how beautiful that lens is as so many of our favorite Black artists, actors, comedians, inventors, and civil rights leaders were and are neurodistinct. We have seen the vision of Black neurodistinct people for as long as Black people have had a history on this land. You can’t have one without the other, because disability history is Black history. When I ask other Black neurodistinct people what their vision is, it’s still freedom. And I think it’s that constant striving for freedom that makes it so beautiful.
SR: For me, life is like a never-ending musical movie. The soundtrack is lit as so many songs, phrases, and quotes keep looping through my brain at any given moment. I stare off into space and “time travel” as I look back at my life and process unprocessed moments and reimagine moments I wish went different or I wish I had the words to truly fulfill myself. And then when I come to, [it’s] like Raven in That’s So Raven, I’m recharged and ready to do something grand and bold because why not?! I am a courageous individual who takes on 5 projects at once, dances through my stressors and excitements, and has no issues (major issues but I mask well) with standing up for what I think is right, telling institutions where they could improve, or just inserting my 2 cents into everybody’s business.
Being Black and neurodivergent is being full of main character energy. And as a creative harnessing it, is to know the danger of many stories and being quick to reinvent your own path within. Which by the way I have ADHD, BPD, (recovering from both kinds), complex PTSD, generalized anxiety, and #autizzy. So I really identify as Neurospicy. And my community is just as impulsive, adrenaline seeking, but with clear plans, order, and care as I am. So it’s truly a fun life to live once you’ve found your people and environment.
What does a neurodiverse future look or feel like?
B-O: A lot like what I said earlier about the ways Black neurodistinct people perceive this world. It is the holding of a world that puts value in interdependence, communal care, and love. It feels full and connected. It feels well-fed and well-sourced. It feels abundant.
SR: Honestly there would be a lot more character in our architecture, fashion, and culture. Quirks, bumps, and conversation starters would dance across our skylines, tv screens, and streets. For someone who is looking for more stimuli, maximalism will take over. For those who need to be understimulated, sterile rooms will exist. There will be more silent discos, and please touch museums. More interactive exhibitions, and various ways of engagement to all forms of entertainment. There would be panic rooms, and fidgets everywhere. And we’d have more breaks and rest built into our lives, because we truly just need it.
WN: Being able to show up as I am without needing to mask, put on a performance of “neurotypicality” for the sake of my survival under capitalism, ideally we all wouldn’t have to do anything EXCEPT exist in order to be “worthy” of care under capitalism. So when I am asked this question, I see freedom and what freedom looks like to me is different day to day. So today, when I speak, I feel a breeze, I smell a forest, I see an open window, I hear laughter, I see the people I love sitting in a circle, talking, eating, engaging in whatever they wish to because they sincerely wish to and no other reason, and it’s small right? But to me, freedom is those small choices that can be made and enjoyed without the systems that be destroying us, our future, the environment, and our bodyminds.
What I love most about these responses is that we get an inkling of the way each person thinks and approaches the same question differently. Within this broad umbrella term of neurodivergence, we’ve learned 3 different ways to identify —neuroexpansive, neurospicy, and neurodistinct— using specific words that evoke unique feelings. I can see multiple common threads between everyone’s answers, but it’s amazing to see how a single seed can manifest in such varied ways.
I’m so proud to be Black and neurodivergent, and I’m in genuine awe of the brilliance that is cultivated and nurtured in this community. You were built different— lean into it! Find the loves of your life (people, desires, practices) that make it easier for you to stand in your full uninterrupted self.
May the wisdom of these creators and your own internal knowing be a balm to your nervous system.
Athena is a neurodivergent mystic who translates ethereal ideas into embodied insight. She roots into Indigenous spirituality to share practical advice about emotional wellness.