3 Key tips for neurodivergent writers: ADHD/ Autism

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed (and subsequently smashed) the ‘Myth of the ‘Natural’ Writer’ and discussed the absolute best thing to do to improve your writing skills (spoiler alert: it’s practice). This week, we’re addressing another toxic preconception challenging a key group in our community; the idea that having ADHD and/or Autism fundamentally inhibits writing ability. As a team comprised of neurodivergent editors and writers, we have first-hand knowledge of the challenges (and benefits!) that come from having ADHD/Autism.

Through conversation, we’re also highly aware of the struggles facing our Autistic/ADHD clients and fellow authors. That’s why we’re taking this opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of writing with these specific neurodiversities and what people with ADHD and Autism can do to channel their neurodivergence into becoming a writing pro.

First, let’s get the main elephant-in-the-room misconception out of the way. Autism and ADHD should not be considered obstacles to writing success. In fact, Autism and ADHD both have traits ideal for nonfiction writing. Nonfiction writing requires an intense passion for your topic and creativity, common with both Autism and ADHD. Both conditions also have individual characteristics crucial to being a successful nonfiction writer. It’s the innovative thinking and insane energy typical of people with ADHD that has them racing away from their writing peers. For people with Autism, on the other hand, their ability to remember facts and problem-solving prowess make them an editor’s dream. 

If you have both ADHD and Autism, congratulations, you’re likely an ideal nonfiction writer. However, with great power comes to some drawbacks. Procrastination, time management, and burnout can be considered the three horsemen of the creative apocalypse facing autistic and ADHD writers. Unfortunately, traditional advice for these issues is often framed towards neurotypicals or rooted in the idea that you can somehow rewire your brain structure on a whim. Fortunately, here at The Book Shelf, we don’t require you to have a PHD in Fantasy Ableist Neuroscience to help find solutions to your writing woes. Instead, here are some suggestions on how to effectively beat these obstacles and get you on track to becoming a full-fledged author. 

Getting into a Routine

A successful writing process lives and dies by its routine. Creating a long piece of writing takes time and dedication, particularly when you add time for tweaks and edits. If you fail to establish a routine and rely on sporadic bursts of energy, it’ll be like walking in quicksand, a tiring, futile experience. Unfortunately, establishing a routine when you have ADHD or executive dysfunction is no easy feat. If you have this neurodivergence, here’s what you can do to make your routine aspirations a reality.

A schedule is for life, not just for Pinterest-A schedule is your best weapon when establishing a routine. Make a schedule for every part of your writing process to keep yourself on track. If you are concerned about a schedule’s potential adverse effects on your creativity, don’t be! A schedule leads to less stress and forces you to focus on one task at a time, enabling you to channel all of your creativity which would have otherwise been diverted elsewhere.

Time is of the essence-Executive dysfunction and task recall is not on friendly terms. To combat any difficulties with remembering the next item on your schedule, set plenty of timers. If you are the type who looks at a timer, sets it to snooze and flings it across the room, try setting multiple timers or enlist the help of a friend to keep you on track.

Start small-Changing your behaviour patterns and routines isn’t going to happen overnight. If you try and change everything at once, it will quickly become too overwhelming and then boom, back to square one! Instead, try to change one small thing at a time (e.g. writing for one hour in the evening) and then build up. It may seem like baby steps at first, but over time, these small changes will amount to huge positive changes in your outlook and focus. Don’t forget to celebrate these smaller changes either, the more you pride yourself on your small victories, the better you’ll feel about the writing process in general.

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Committing to a schedule is committing to writing success

Kick Procrastination to the Curb 

Procrastination, I do it, you do it, we all do it. One minute you were writing that first sentence, then suddenly, you’ve ended up bingeing the latest series or spiralling down the deep, dark recesses of Twitter. If you want to make sure that you have a finished book at the end of your writing journey as opposed to several finished box sets, try the following: 

Get to the root of YOUR procrastination

whilst procrastination is one big Netflix-inducing nightmare for neurodivergent writers, the reasons for it vary. Try to find out what exactly is holding you back from starting or even finishing your tasks. If it’s too many distractions, remove yourself and find a low-stimulus environment to work in. If it’s a time management issue, try overestimating the time it takes you to do tasks and plan accordingly. This is especially important for people with ADHD, who tend to underestimate the time it takes to write and therefore miss deadlines. Whatever it is that is putting the breaks on your writing engine, identifying and mitigating its effects will give you the kick start you need to bring your writing efforts back up to speed. 

Set reasonable expectations

Whilst the stereotypical view of procrastinators is of a lazy, unmotivated individual, researchers have found that chronic procrastinators are actually afflicted with caring too much about their projects. Chronic procrastinators also tend to suffer from low self-esteem or a vicious case of perfection-itis. We know this one is particularly tricky for people with Autism, whose brains tend to seek order and perfection as a rule and so procrastinate out of fear of imperfection. If this is true for you, take it from us that perfectionism is overrated, so last season, and just not going to happen. Be patient if a chapter isn’t working out exactly the way you want it to or if a sentence seems clumsy. As editors, we can tell you that no one writes a masterpiece on the first draft. Allow yourself to be a human that makes mistakes and sometimes needs time to recharge and tweak what they are writing. 

Avoid the Burnout Bomb

Burnout is a killer for any aspiring neurodivergent writer. The pressure of managing daily life whilst also hyper-fixating can cause intense burnout that leaves writers unable to continue their work for hours, days or even weeks. It’s no wonder that neurodivergent writers with ADHD/Autism can often feel discouraged and disheartened after an intense burnout. To avoid burnout, make sure you do the following:

Schedule regular breaks

Whilst taking a break when consumed by your work may seem counterintuitive, not doing so is a guaranteed harbinger of burnout. Try setting timers for regular pauses where you can take a moment to relax and unwind, ideally in a low-stimulus environment. Bonus points if you set that time aside to do something relaxing you enjoy, thereby incentivising this time away. If your preocupationwith your work starts to get a little on the Gollum side of obsessive, try enlisting a friend or family member to drag you out of your writing cave and into some fresh air. Whatever it takes, have enough breaks to keep you from wearing yourself out.

Stick to a flexible schedule

Keeping a writing schedule that allows some flexibility means you avoid the pitfalls of feeling distressed if you don’t reach your deadline and stop you from pushing yourself over the edge by trying to complete too many tasks at once.

Fuel up

Fuelling your brain is crucial if you want to keep yourself on top of your writing schedule. As executive dysfunction and difficulty processing bodily signals often make it difficult for people with Autism/ADHD to register the need to eat/drink, it is vitally important that you consciously set time aside to grab food and drink. Set a timer, stockpile nutritious food to mitigate impulsive snacking and always keep a water bottle by your side. Loading your body with regular, nutritious food is a surefire way to keep your body and brain on an even, productive keel.

Go easy on yourself

Burnout is brought about by our internal expectations just as much as by our external stressors. A lack of self-compassion is unfortunately common amongst those brought up in a world inpatient and unsympathetic to the needs of their neurodivergence. Take the time to reclaim your own needs and worth, even if that means taking five or playing games for a couple of hours.

So there you have it, our top life and writing hacks for ADHD/Autistic writers! Being a writer with neurodivergence isn’t always easy, but the suggestions here should enable you to build a strong foundation for your writing routine and success. If you wish to find out more information on how to get your writing to the next level, as well as how to succeed in the writing and publishing world with a neurodivergency, make sure to follow The Book Shelf Ltd. on all of our socials for honest, accessible, and friendly advice.

By Kate Perry