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Why are there so many neurodivergent people in electronic music?

The growing awareness around the prevalence of neurodivergence within electronic music has led many to wonder if they might be neurodivergent too. Here, following up his 2022 exploration of the topic, AuDHD writer and DJ Harold Heath investigates, speaking to DJs, producers, publicists and coaches about their experiences

Read our 2022 feature exploring the relationship between neurodiversity and dance music here

Last year’s Association For Electronic Music (AFEM) survey into neurodivergence in the electronic music industry found that 58% of participants demonstrated a neurodivergent condition, with 38% clinically diagnosed. Levels of neurodivergent conditions in the general population are estimated to be between 15 and 20%, and the AFEM survey clearly backs up anecdotal evidence that there are higher-than-average numbers of neurodivergent people working in dance and electronic music. Former DJ and certified Transformational Coach with specialist ADHD training, Tristan Hunt, tells DJ Mag: “Although the AFEM study was a relatively small sample size, the results are supported by more widespread empirical scientific research globally.”

Neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in how human brains process information. There is a ‘neuro-typical’ majority, whose brains function and process information in the way that society expects, and a ‘neurodivergent’ minority — those with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, dyscalculia, Tourettes, dyspraxia and so on — whose brains function and process information differently to the majority due to differences in neurobiological make-up. I’m a lifelong dance music fan/participant and (mis)spent much of my working life as a low-level DJ/producer before becoming a writer. My recent ADHD and autism diagnosis led me to write about the connections between club culture and neurodivergence for DJ Mag last year, and through interviewing neurodivergent people in dance music it became clear that, while every neurodivergent person’s experience is different, neurodivergent people are often drawn to club culture for similar reasons.

Most obviously, music increases dopamine neurotransmission and ADHD is defined by a paucity of dopamine, so it’s not surprising that there’s a correlation between ADHD people and the music industry. Likewise, we produce dopamine when we do something new or novel, and dance music is nothing if not constantly novel. Many people with ADHD also find the loud music, flashing lights and generally high stimulatory environment of clubs and raves calms some of their ADHD symptoms. For some neurodivergents who struggle with social interaction, the particularly tolerant and inclusive nature of many parts of dance music provides them with somewhere they are accepted and can ‘fit in’. Then there are others whose neurodivergence is expressed through their verbal skills, sociability, empathy and intuition — all qualities that can really shine in many music industry work contexts.

Many neurodivergent people are highly creative, original thinkers, and adept at connecting seemingly unrelated ideas, and the ever-changing, high-stimulatory world of electronic music can be an ideal work environment for their non-linear thinking styles. Likewise, the ability to see things from a fresh perspective and the unorthodox creative approach of many neurodivergent people is well suited to an industry that thrives on innovation. Some neurodivergent people experience ‘hyperfocus’, a flow-state where they can dedicatedly concentrate on a particular task for substantial periods, which can be highly conducive to music production. Others experience monotropism, where their particular interests pull them in more strongly than the neurotypical, often resulting in impressive levels of niche subject knowledge and ability in their chosen field, be it DJing, design, sound engineering etc.

An image of former DJ and certified Transformational Coach with specialist ADHD training, Tristan Hunt, placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

The unwritten rules and norms of the traditional workspace can be challenging for some neurodivergents, who find the less rigid structures of many music industry roles more suited to them. Also, dance music culture is very night-centred, and the unorthodox hours often appeal to neurodivergent people, many of whom are at their best late at night or very early in the morning. And finally, self-medication is a big issue for those with undiagnosed neurodivergence and, as we know, our industry can have a much more tolerant attitude to substance use and abuse than others.

As an undiagnosed AuDHD person, pretty much all of these reasons pulled me into dance music and club culture. I loved music and dancing, felt at home in the sensory overload of clubs and raves, and have always felt an affinity to the night. My music obsession became actually useful once I started DJing, and my ability to lose myself in the creative flow of music production made me a prolific, albeit small-time, producer. DJing allowed the sociable ADHD part of me to be part of the party while allowing my autism to be a little separate from it too, and I’ve only ever really been successful when self-employed rather than in a traditional workplace. Oh, and I really liked the drugs too, finding the various substances popular during my peak-raving years provided a temporary respite from many of the worst of my ADHD symptoms, as well as activating a sociable side of me that my autism had often found hard to express.

Adam Ficek is an accredited Clinical Psychotherapist and Counsellor, as well as a professional musician (Babyshambles, Roses Kings Castles) and DJ with 35 years in the industry. He has an ADHD and dyslexia clinical diagnosis and found that working in music perfectly suited his neurodivergent traits. “Being a musician or DJing around the world facilitated the stimulation I needed as I was constantly touring, recording or being consumed by the merry-go-round of hectic scheduling and so on,” Adam tells DJ Mag. “In a way, I feel that the music industry is an ideal place for the hyper-requirements of people that need lots of stimulation and that struggle with the (subjectively) mundane life.” So if our industry is such a great fit for those with neurodivergent conditions, we thought we’d speak to some music industry neurodivergent people to see how their neurodivergence helps in their job role.

Before we do, though, a couple of brief caveats: first, obviously we’re discussing the electronic music industry but it’s worth mentioning that neurodivergent people can succeed in any industry at all. Second, the traits we’re discussing here aren’t exclusive to neurodivergent people. Just because you spend all your spare time hunting down every bootlegged Aphex Twin performance in existence doesn’t mean you’re autistic, and just because you find your nine-to-five boring or often lose your keys doesn’t mean you have ADHD. But traits like these are often more pronounced in neurodivergent people and could be part of a bigger diagnostic picture. All contributors’ neurodivergent conditions are described in their own words.

An image of Adam Ficek, an accredited Clinical Psychotherapist and Counsellor, as well as a professional musician and DJ, placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

“I feel that the music industry is an ideal place for the hyper-requirements of people that need lots of stimulation and that struggle with the (subjectively) mundane life.” — Adam Ficek

DJing is a unique role, falling somewhere between sonic-voodoo-facilitator and children’s entertainer. A DJ has to know their chosen genre extremely well, be able to read and respond to their audience, be able to keep it together under pressure, and have at least some degree of technical acumen too. Turns out, this particular skill-set chimes perfectly with lots of autistic and ADHD people, many of whom have ‘special interests’: a deep fascination or single-minded obsession with certain subjects, which can be super-conducive to working as a DJ. “DJs or artists who are autistic can have this amazing ability to recall information and catalogue things, and bring it all together in the moment,” Tristan Hunt (who has ADHD) tells us, “which can be an incredible resource if you’re a DJ crowd-reading... I think it can give a huge advantage to people with these conditions.”

Caroline The DJ is a UK producer, researcher and DJ tutor who has combined autism and ADHD. “Having music as one of my lifelong special interests meant that my music library was extensive before I began DJing,” she tells DJ Mag. “I was able to enjoy rediscovering old music, which would further help me to tap into a creative flow when producing or mixing beats.” Caroline was originally misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, similar to autistic DJ and writer Kate Wildblood, who was misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). “This is a situation,” Kate tells us, “sadly very common in women and non-binary folks of my age.”

Kate’s autistic attention to detail has been a great aid in their DJing career too: “Like the deep-dive into the detail and my attention to making things right — I can’t list you every catalogue number of every Salsoul release, but I will insist on having every release of the Salsoul back catalogue in my possession. I keep everything — all the paraphernalia of my career behind the decks, in the right box, labelled properly. Obviously. I really like an archive: I love finding the details that matter.” And what is a good DJ if they can’t find the musical details that matter?

For me, the musical details that matter were what drove my selections when DJing. When I was playing, my brain would automatically generate a list of the optimum tunes that could perfectly complement the current one playing, tunes with similar drum tracks or synth stabs, or that used the same sample, or that had worked before in this context — maybe just once, several years ago. That ability to make multiple musical connections in the moment always seemed natural and innate to me, and I struggled to understand why others didn’t possess a similar automatic, highly-detailed, multiple-cross-referenced musical spreadsheet in their brain. Now I understand it as an expression of my neurodivergence.

Separate images of Caroline the Ifeoluwa placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

While many find their neurodivergent traits a perfect fit for DJing, DJing itself can also improve the well-being of neurodivergent people. As a somewhat socially awkward, undiagnosed autistic DJ, DJing was a bridge from me to the neurotypical world that allowed me to access some of that neurotypical community spirit, that social connection that they all seemed to generate so effortlessly. It can be a way of communicating for people who may struggle to communicate in neurotypical ways: DJing can be an authentic and transformative way in which neurodivergent people express ourselves, connect with others, and that allows us, and our deep connection to music and this culture, to be seen and heard. “DJing helps me process the feelings I struggle to communicate and provides me with a tool that helps me bring myself back to my baseline when I’m overwhelmed socially or sensorily,” Caroline The DJ continues. “Given the nature of autism and its relation to sensory difficulties, it can seem counterintuitive to others that loud music can help me to feel better, but it provides me with a unique sense of relief that’s hard to describe.”

NTS DJ and founder of the INTERVENTION DJ/production workshops, Ifeoluwa is autistic with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, and also experiences similar benefits from DJing. “Being both ADHD and autistic is challenging with feeling overwhelmed,” they tell DJ Mag, “but physically connecting with the equipment and channelling my sometimes high energy and thoughts into sound, calms me. I hear and interpret sounds differently from neurotypical people, which means the way I put my sets together differs from the average person, down to everything from frequencies to tempos.” This use of music as a way for the neurodivergent to help manage our conditions was familiar to Adam Ficek too: “I also think (and have found in my research),” he told us, “that creatives in general are more sensitive emotionally and perhaps drawn to music as a way to connect to, and regulate, their emotional states.”

DJ, coach, speaker and radio presenter Brandon Block is ADD, possibly ADHD, and has found that different aspects of his neurodivergence have helped his DJ career over the years. “Firstly,” he tells DJ Mag, “it’s the musical knowledge and the ability to retain the memories of certain tunes which have emotional attachments to you, but then also having the ability to dip into the box and go, ‘Wow, I remember this, or this or that would work now...’. I can dip into a world of music from 50 years back and connect it all together.” But he’s also a perfect illustration of how neurodivergence presents differently from person to person: many ADD/ADHD people possess a high-energy, novelty-seeking, party-friendly side to their personalities, along with a seemingly endless drive to connect. “That’s me a million percent, and I think it helped my career no end,” Brandon tells us. “I still like being a bit of a showman now, and the fact that I like to interact is just part of that whole connectivity thing, isn’t it? It goes back to the basics of music and how the emotional attachment to music makes you feel good. And when I’m playing, I guess if I’m projecting that I’m feeling good then hopefully people are feeling that too.”

Non-linear thinking is common to many neurodivergent people, who can be highly creative, with an ability to connect apparently disparate ideas in new and innovative ways. “Rather than thinking from A to Z,” Tristan tells us, “they’ll go from A to G to F to Z, dancing around the mental alphabet and coming up with new musical works, new marketing campaigns, new ideas for a record label... neurodiverse people are drawn to our industry because it’s a creative space and that’s where they can best leverage these amazing brains that they have.”

An image of Brandon Block placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

“Firstly it’s the musical knowledge and the ability to retain memories of certain tunes which have emotional attachments to you.” — Brandon Block

Jeryl Wilton-Kruger is founding director/co-owner of Infectious PR & Remedy Label Services, and also consults with US label Thrive Music. He has ADHD and has found that ADHD traits like hyperfocus, non-linear thinking, and an innovative approach to problem-solving have been a distinct advantage in his industry. “I may not always be consistent as a manager or a leader in the team, but I can spot an opportunity like nobody’s business,” he says, “and I can join the dots instinctively. Every service that we sell, I invented, because I thought people needed it, and I figured out how to do it. I can make change, I can solve problems, I can cut through the bullshit really quickly.”

When Jeryl mentions consistency here, he’s referring to some of the limitations caused by his ADHD, which for him can manifest as inconsistency in his role. “I can invent it, build it and put it together,” he tells us, “but I find it really fucking challenging to train someone to do it the way I would do it and to give them consistent support while they learn.” Once diagnosed, neurodivergent ‘deficits’ — like Jeryl’s classic ADHD preference for new, novel projects over more regular, down-to-earth work tasks like long-term staff training — can be understood and accommodated. But when left undiagnosed, they can result in all sorts of problems, including neurodivergent people having to work way harder than neurotypicals.

This links into another common trait found in many neurodivergent people, that of a hardcore single-mindedness, a highly-focused determination to succeed. This drive is often down to a subtle interplay of many different factors including ADHD hyperfocus, autistic monotropism or special interests, and/or the extremely high standards that many neurodivergent people hold themselves to. These high standards can be due, in part, to neurodivergent brain chemistry, but are also often a learned response to a lifetime spent not quite fitting in or not quite living up to their potential: the neurodivergent unswerving drive can be another expression of the extra effort neurodivergent people need to put in in order to succeed in the neurotypical world.

Whatever the reasons, neurodivergent people often exhibit impressive levels of focus and commitment. “And the object of that focus doesn’t really matter so much,” Tristan tells us, “it’s about where the interest lies. So the interest of one person could be collecting records, for another it could be about building an amazing roster of incredible talent, or it could be about running a record label... and this sort of single-minded focus can be incredibly powerful for helping build a very successful music industry career.”

Separate images of Esta Orem,senior events manager at non-profit trade body the Association of Independent Music (AIM), and Jeryl Wilton-Kruger, founding director/co-owner of Infectious PR & Remedy Label Services, placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

Esta Oram is senior events manager at non-profit trade body the Association of Independent Music (AIM). She has dyslexia and dyspraxia and has often observed how her neurodivergent thinking is highly beneficial in her job role. “My neurodivergence helps me because I’m not conventional,” she tells DJ Mag. “For example, the event I did yesterday was an artist album launch party in a museum. My dyslexia allows me to think outside the box.” Many dyslexics have excellent problem-solving skills and excel at non-linear thinking, and Esta is adept at both coming up with new ideas, and envisaging a completed project in her mind right at the start.

“When I go out to events,” she continues, “all the creative energies I have start flowing, and say we’ve got to do an award show, I’ll start thinking of all the people that can perform the different parts, who’s going to be the opening act, we can have someone doing juggling, this catering company will be amazing, and it’d be great if we have 57 lights coming up on the ceiling, and a special entry at the back and confetti — the whole thing, joining up all the dots... that’s my non-linear thinking.” It’s also a great example of ‘big-picture-thinking’ — seeing past the detail to overview a project strategically — and of the ability to think in three dimensions, both traits often found in dyslexics, and traits that are extremely useful when working in events.

A dance music producer needs to be creative, to possess technical and musical ability, have attention to detail, and the ability to stay focused on complicated projects. Despite the popular conception of people with ADHD as easily distracted and unable to maintain focus, music production is often a perfect fit for people with ADHD. Matthew ‘Bushwacka!’ Benjamin is a producer and DJ who has recently been diagnosed ADHD and autistic, and who experiences the flow state of hyperfocus. “I got asked to remix one of my favourite acid house tracks from back in the day,” he tells us, “‘Get Real’ by Paul Rutherford from Frankie Goes To Hollywood. They sent me the stems and I got on a three or four-hour aeroplane journey, and by the time I got off the plane the mix was finished and ready to be put out. Production-wise it was one of the most awesome things I’ve done — and I don’t really know what happened in between taking off or landing other than I was just in this zone, and then I’d got to the venue and I’d done it.”

Adam Ficek also has no doubt that the way his brain works has been conducive to a successful music industry career. “The hyperfocus has enabled me to have a high level of discipline in relation to practising instruments, production, or even academic study, if I find the material interesting enough,” he tells DJ Mag. “I think my dyslexic brain also facilitates a rich creativity and left-field approach to music making or academia. I think, without a doubt, my creativity and ability to ‘push through’ is enhanced through the uniqueness of my brain structure.” So clearly, many neurodivergent people thrive in dance music, and there are lots of neurodivergent traits which can be extremely advantageous in our industry, and which often pull neurodivergents into club culture. The 15 to 20% of the UK population estimated to be neurodivergent adds up to between 10 and 13.5 million people, and I’m not saying that they all work in dance music, but let’s be real, clearly a lot of them do, and plenty of them are currently undiagnosed.

An image of Matthew ‘Bushwacka!’ Benjamin placed on a green background with illustrations of neural pathways

Living with undiagnosed neurodivergence can bring enormous challenges, which we discussed in depth in our feature on the relationship between dance music and neurogivergence feature last year. So what, if anything, should you do if you recognise yourself in this article? One option for people who feel that they may have an undiagnosed neurodivergent condition that negatively affects their quality of life is to look into a formal diagnosis. This is done via a qualified, accredited clinical professional, either through the NHS, Psychiatry UK, or a private practitioner. Current UK NHS waiting lists mean this can be a lengthy process, and the private option isn’t cheap. In the short term, there are neurodiversity resources and information available, and, as Jeryl points out: “If you’re on a fucking waiting list for three or four years you can still learn tools and try them and see if they work for you.”

However, a formal diagnosis can lead to significant improvements in quality of life, and for some, it can be life-changing, allowing people who’ve spent their entire lives thinking there was something wrong with them to find genuine peace and acceptance with who they are and how their mind works. A diagnosis can also be empowering, bringing an understanding of who you are, clarifying your past behaviours, and facilitating genuine, positive change. “With explanation comes understanding, and with understanding comes awareness,” Tristan tells us, “and with awareness comes the ability to do something about it, to harness your superpower, your neurodiverse talents, in a way that is conducive to you really thriving in your personal and professional life.”