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Access All Areas: Eliminating barriers for neurodiverse people in music

With awareness of neurodiversity on the rise, M Magazine explores the benefits and challenges of neurodivergence in the industry, and takes a look at where progress is being made.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 16 Nov 2022
  • min read

Neurodiversity is a deeply personal experience. Going through life with a neurocognitive difference –  such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia or dyspraxia – affects your entire way of being in the world. Even within individual conditions such as ADHD, the presentation of symptoms is extremely variable. Many of these conditions also co-occur, meaning that an autistic person is also likely to have ADHD, and someone with ADHD is likely to be dyslexic. Combined, these conditions can have an entirely different presentation than one or the other experienced alone.

Aside from the widely-known tick box symptoms, such as distractibility for those with ADHD, neurodivergence shapes the way we relate to language, respond to sensory input, or interact in social situations. Within the workplace, a neurodivergent person might work in a completely different way to their neurotypical colleagues. In creative industries such as music, this can be a real benefit. However, without appropriate support or the basic understanding of their colleagues, autistic people and those with ADHD or other conditions can feel left behind.

UK Music’s 2020 report – the most recent year for which figures are available, ahead of the release of data for 2022 – found that of 3,670 respondents, 11 percent identified as neurodiverse. Each of these respondents likely has an experience with neurodiversity entirely unique to them. As a result, the skills a neurodivergent person might bring to the table, as well as any support they may need, can vary widely. This is one of many reasons why ensuring that robust support systems in place is vital for the music industry. 

As awareness of neurodivergence has increased, so has the understanding of both its benefits and challenges. In 2020, Universal Music UK launched their Creative Differences Handbook, setting out guidelines to help embrace neurodiversity in the music industry. The handbook opened with a message from Florence Welch, who notes that she has often heard she has succeeded in music ‘despite’ her dyslexia and dyscalculia. She asks instead if her success ‘might not be because of those things?’

In recent years, ADHD in particular has often been reframed as a ‘superpower’. This minimises the very real and often exhausting difficulties faced by those with the condition. It doesn’t do any of us any good to act as though ADHD is always positive. But, like Florence noted of her dyslexia and dyscalculia, neurodivergence can come with unique perspectives and skills that allow people to thrive when given the space to do so.

One of the biggest barriers facing neurodiverse people in the industry is a lack of understanding.  Firmly embedded cultural stereotypes claim that autistic people are not creative, don’t have good people skills, and can only succeed in data-driven, analytical positions. People with ADHD are considered the opposite – scatty, creative thinkers unsuited to more regimented professions.

‘Neurodivergent people can do any job a neurotypical person can. They can be CEOs, A&Rs, artist managers, agents, lawyers, and more.'

Andy Edwards, director of research and analysis at UK Music, says it is important to stress that neurodiverse people can succeed in any area – not just the ones that society expects them to excel in. ‘Neurodivergent people can do any job a neurotypical person can. They can be CEOs, A&Rs, artist managers, agents, lawyers, and more,’ he says. ‘There should be no barriers, but often there are. Those barriers can be subtle, vague, and subjective because neurodivergent people often have different processes for completing tasks or communicating. Greater awareness, reasonable adjustments, and celebrating difference help eliminate barriers.’

‘I know a senior lawyer who has ADHD and a broadcaster who is autistic; both those individuals confound stereotypes. Often, it takes a special kind of leader to recognise special people who do things a little differently, but I would like to see that become the norm and not the exception, and that will take time,’ Andy adds.

The music industry can be very accepting of difference and perceived ‘eccentricity’. Many areas of the business are founded on creative thinking and individuality, and an ability to cut right to the heart of an issue can be an asset in an industry whose survival depends on innovation. On a fundamental level, the music industry is built on artistry.

Still, there are areas that could use increased awareness. One solution is to democratise, allowing voices that might otherwise not be heard to share new perspectives. 

'Being more open and less hierarchical creates an environment where “different” thinkers have a greater chance to shine, which is good for creativity and business.’

‘I think music people tend to understand neurodiversity better than most; but so they should! This business is powered by people’s ability to think differently; that starts with artistry,’ Andy says. ‘Things fall apart when power, statistics, and image are prioritised over artistry, because those things lead to conformity. That said, the industry is changing. Being more open and less hierarchical creates an environment where “different” thinkers have a greater chance to shine, which is good for creativity and business.’ 

Being open to experiences and differences of neurodiverse people is important on a number of levels, says Black Honey vocalist and songwriter Izzy Bee Phillips. A culture of openness can also mean that neurodiverse people who might otherwise be masking –  the umbrella term for all the tiny changes and behavioural restrictions neurodivergent people employ to try to seem neurotypical – can feel free to be authentically themselves. 

‘It’s very exhausting to be like “I’m fine! I’m fine all the time,” when you’re not fine all the time,’ says Izzy. ‘The more that the dialogue opens up, the more space and more allowance we have of, “yeah, someone’s going to have a weird behaviour in public”, the more we can all carry on with life.’

There are positive strides being made. In addition to tools like the Creative Differences Handbook, which empower colleagues and businesses to better support neurodiverse peers, more individuals are beginning to share their experiences of ADHD, autism, dyslexia and other conditions. Having previously written about his experiences with ADHD and autism, Andy has seen first-hand the ripple effect this openness can have.

‘All praise to David Joseph, Selina Webb, and the Universal team; they made going public with my own story much less daunting,’ he says. ‘Leadership matters. The most positive impact I see is people in the industry coming up to me and sharing their own experiences and having the confidence to be more open; this helps break down barriers and challenge stereotypes.’

It’s not just individuals who benefit from these barriers being removed. The more people are able to challenge the status quo, the greater awareness others have about the needs of neurodiverse people. This can affect working and hiring practices, which in turn allows companies to bring in talent they previously may not have been able to reach. ‘I had someone call me recently asking my thoughts about making reasonable adjustments for a job interview for a role they were recruiting; moments like that fill me with hope,’ he says.

‘I want other people who are struggling with their differences to know that they are valid, and their perspective is valid, and they’re smart. They’re not bad people.'

With Black Honey, Izzy has written about her experiences on new album A Fistful of Peaches, too. Lead single Charlie Bronson explores the ‘feral energy’ of rage, particularly the kind felt by neurodivergent women forced to conform to both sexist and ableist societal pressures. It speaks to the challenge of masking, and the internal battle that can come with not feeling as though you are able to live up to neurotypical norms.

‘I’m realising how much I present as “normal”. This is a battle that I have every day,’ says Izzy. ‘I want other people who are struggling with their differences to know that they are valid, and their perspective is valid, and they’re smart. They’re not bad people. They’re not punishable for their behaviours that are designed by a structure of people.’

‘As long as you’re not killing people, as long as you’re not being a fucking racist, you’re probably not a bad person. As long as you’re trying to be the best version of yourself, and you try to be good and kind and show compassion, that’s enough.’