Throughout my 15+ years embedded in kinky spaces I have made an observation. There is a distinct overlap between those who identify as neurodiverse and those who are part of the BDSM community. Noticing the patterns of this intersectionality has been even easier, because finally, we as a society, are becoming increasingly aware of neurodiversity, especially in the fields of education, psychology, social work, therapy, counseling, and now kink.
This greater understanding of the many ways in which brains work and how that impacts social interaction has permeated into kinky subcultures, polyamorous and other ethically non-monogamous (ENM) populations. And while I, myself am not neurodiverse, all of my partners are neurodivergent. Over the years I’ve wanted to better understand and support them through shared awareness.
What is Neurodivergence?
Neurodivergence is an umbrella term which broadly covers those whose neurological development differs to what is considered ‘typical’ within society. Neurodiversity is generally defined as ‘the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.’ It can be thought of as analogous to biodiversity.
The term itself is neutral and is simply a descriptive term. It’s also a relatively new term; coined in the 1990s by Australian sociologist Judy Singer. However, the neurodiversity paradigm and the neurodiversity movement are philosophical and political perspectives. They emphasize embracing neurocognitive diversity and challenging the idea that there is a ‘normal’ type of brain. Through the neurodiversity paradigm, we should embrace there is variation in neurotype within our species. No neurotype is more valid than any other.
Rather than being a concept of division and othering, neurodiversity is really about connection and celebrating that we are a neurodiverse species.
Examples of Neurodivergence
The self-identifying label of “neurodivergent” originally focused on those who are autistic. In more recent years it has been used to describe those who think, behave, and learn differently to what is typical in society. Being neurodivergent should not be considered an inherent deficit. It is simply experiencing and processing the world around us differently to ‘neurotypical people’. Per the British Medical Bulletin, an estimated 15-20% of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence, that means 120-160 million humans all share traits of this label.
- Autism, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Pathological Demand Avoidance or Sensory Processing Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Tourette’s Syndrome
- Meares-Irlen Syndrome
Some other conditions such as schizophrenia, OCD, Down syndrome, epilepsy, chronic mental health issues, anxiety, depression, anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorder, and bipolar disorder can be classed as a form of neurodivergence too.
Individuals can have two or more neurodivergent categories/labels (e.g., autism and ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia etc.). Such individuals are called multiply neurodivergent and this is common amongst neurodivergent people. In addition, people who suspect that they might have one of the labels/categories listed above may identify as being neurodivergent, but do not have a formal diagnosis.
How does one find out if they are neurodivergent?
Becoming aware of neurodiversity can help normalize differences, boost confidence and self-esteem in neurodivergent people. It can also inform how leaders (such as Tops, Dominants, teachers and employers) offer support. This starts with understanding the signs of neurodivergence to look for.
The best way to find out if you’re neurodivergent is to speak with a medical professional. They can test for learning disabilities and other cognitive and neurodevelopmental conditions. Your primary care doctor can provide a referral. Even still, there are some common symptoms that might signal neurodivergence. For many people, these are often challenging symptoms, such as…
- Reading or writing difficulties
- Poor motor skills
- Sensitivity to crowds and other stimuli
- Trouble focusing
- Struggling to connect with and relate to peers
On the other hand, some signs of neurodivergence can be advantageous. Depending on the condition, neurodivergent people might be more spontaneous, empathetic, detail-oriented, visually inclined, or skilled in a specific area or interest.
Keep in mind that neurodivergence exists on a spectrum and can vary greatly depending on the person. Several distinct factors, such as gender, social environment, genetics, and age, can play a significant role in how the symptoms of neurodivergence show up.
If you suspect that you learn or interact with the world differently than others, talk to your doctor candidly. Neurodivergence isn’t a weakness and in fact it can be a strength. That’s why getting a proper diagnosis might help you better understand yourself and your needs.
Self-assessment is a valid option too
If don’t have access to a medical professional, services and/or don’t feel ready for that step, there are a lot of online tests you can self-test with:
Don’t be afraid to dive deeper online and check out Meetups, social online communities, free or low-cost virtual workshops, YouTubers, books, and more. Many of us notice patterns of behaviors in the kink community that could be indicative of folk who are neurodivergent. There are lots of free resources that may help you understand yourself better. My favorite ones give examples of coping strategies if you feel parts of your life are particularly challenging. Chatting to other people who are openly neurodivergent may also be beneficial.
Personally, I am fascinated by the large degree of overlap between these communities. I am interested in studying how neurodiversity can yield different experiences of kink. Moreso how kink in turn can yield resources for neurodiverse folks.
How do neurodiversity and kink interlink?
I have heard a lot of interesting theories surrounding the correlation between neurodiversity and kink. There has been speculation that the social skill culture of BDSM is a leading factor to consider. I believe this to be true because, the appeal is in that the rules for engagement are clearly and explicitly laid out. In BDSM there are tutorials, negotiation, rules and consent parameters which may appeal to those who like to approach sex and social situations with structure and order. The very nature of what BDSM is built on relies on clear, up front guidelines. We discuss how to interact before, during and after engaging in BDSM. Which means that folk with supposed social deficits have less pressure surrounding what they ‘should/shouldn’t’ do. Another theory is the tendency for neurodiverse people to have special interests that then become kinks.
This is why I initially thought I might be neurodivergent. I found myself hyper focusing on BDSM as a special interest in my studies. That focus took me down an eventual rabbit hole to where I am now; centering my life, home, work, and support group around kink and alternative lifestyles. But after much testing, it turns out I am just a very perverted individual with a taste for Type-A tendencies.
Personally rewarding knowledge
Studying human sexuality as a form of communication and self-expression to a doctorate level has helped me become a more fulfilled human and partner. It removed the overwhelming feelings of sharing a life with people with additional needs (often those with a diagnosis related to neurodivergence). I continue to greatly benefit from knowing some neurodivergent strategies designed to help cope with dating, working and everyday life. Today, I am more clued in to my partner’s individual differences than ever. I am able to adjust our surroundings and responses, D/s dynamics, play, training, and more based on their uniqueness.
When I hold kinky parties/events I try to keep these same things in mind for those who may have hyper sensitivities. I include sensory-deprivation style aftercare rooms, party music with less lyrics, neutral tasting refreshments, calming aromatherapy, and more. I want to make everyone feel welcome, especially those who are neurodivergent. This let’s me, as the host, relax more. I want to create a space for guests with a less chance of unexpected agitation, anxiety, overstimulation, or sensory blocks. I stand firm in my belief that kink can be for everyone if given the space.
All people can have different sexual expressions and interests, however neurodivergent people may have less traditional perspectives on sex and a greater desire for different sensory experiences that can be found when practicing BDSM and adjacent activities.
It will be interesting to see more psychological research being conducted about this little-known, but highly insightful topic. I would especially advocate for more research about neurodiverse people by neurodiverse people. Soon, I’ll be writing more about neurodiversity in Kinking with A.D.D..