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Redefining Neurodiversity And Building Authentic Communities – Exclusive Interview With Julie McLennan

Julie McLennan is a counselor, psychoeducator, and group facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. She uses an online format to counsel and connect NeuroDivergent people from around the world. She has worked with vulnerable populations throughout her career and her current journey started when she noticed a distinct presentation in a subsection of people who, despite their best efforts, found themselves in states such as poverty, homelessness, and addiction. These folks seemed hardwired for an alternate reality, and indeed, that was often the case. NeuroDivergent conditions such as ADHD and Autism are rarely screened for and it is challenging to find accessible assessment and diagnostic services. Her private practice which she has aptly named, The Puzzled Life, focuses on assisting NeuroDivergent individuals to understand how their minds work, create meaningful engagement in optimal environments, and find community that is a good fit for them.


Image photo of Julie McLennan

Julie McLennan, Neurodiversity Counsellor & Group Facilitator

 

Can you explain what you mean by ‘NeuroDivergent’ & ‘NeuroTypical’?

 

I am using ‘NeuroTypical’ (NT) to describe the minds that fall into the most common neurotype, which are minds that have the ability to adapt fairly easily in mainstream environments. I use ‘NeuroDivergent’ (ND) to describe those who don’t adapt well in mainstream environments due to executive functioning issues. People can be NeuroDivergent for quite a number of reasons: neurodevelopmental factors such as ADHD, Autism, OCD, Bipolar Disorder, Learning Differences, and/or due to environmental factors such as Complex PTSD or Brain Injury. My ND clients tend to be analytical, exquisitely sensitive, literal, and disarmingly honest. These can be positive traits but may also get in the way of adapting to one’s environment. It is when ND traits hamper quality of life, or in the extreme, threaten survival, that it is time to explore and address them.

 

What do you think is the most important difference between these neurotypes for NeuroDivergents to understand?

 

I would say that two big differences are essential for the individual and those in their life to understand. The first is that ND people and NT people tend to have different motivators. An NT individual will step up when something is important to them, when something is important to someone important to them, and to rewards and consequences. An ND individual will step up when something is interesting, challenging, urgent, and/or novel. These are completely different motivators yet we mostly have ‘one size fits all’ cultures in education and employment. The second difference is that


Neurodivergent sensitivity to their environment can be very different from that of NeuroTypicals. They can be hypersensitive to just about anything: light, sound, temperature, medications, emotions, music, feedback, etc. They can also be hyposensitive and may not even register a sensation such as cold or pain. This is not to say that NT individuals are not variably sensitive to these things. It is to say that ND individuals will have trouble functioning when their nervous system becomes overwhelmed by what is tolerable to most of the population or it may not register a signal that there is danger present, sometimes resulting in failure to act when necessary.

 

Do you consider yourself to be NeuroDivergent?

 

Yes, I do. It took a long time and many years working in the mental health field to understand myself. I have always been excruciatingly sensitive to certain sounds (which I will keep to myself here in case someone reads this and decides to torture me). This is a condition called ‘misophonia’. I used to experience ‘selective mutism’ which is a temporary inability to speak. This would usually occur in intense social settings such as a school dance, a dinner party that was a bad fit, or somewhere that I had to try to be something that I am not, role-playing, charades, etc. The older you get, the easier it is to avoid these scenarios but as an ND child, you’re always on the lookout for situations where you might find yourself inexplicably silent. This would also be the reason that I did not become a psychologist… too much role-playing. I can talk to you about your desire to end your life, but I can’t talk to you pretending to talk about that. The silver lining is that I don’t think the world needs more psychologists. I think it needs more qualified, accessible peer support. I also have ADHD and function much better earlier in the day when my stimulant medication is optimized in my system. This shows up in my coordination, performance, communication, and my social abilities. I have trouble with the retention of information if it is not relevant to me. This issue can completely derail someone when they are in school. I am the absolute worst at small talk but if you want to go deep and real, I’m your gal.

 

What advice would you give someone who thinks that they may be NeuroDivergent?

 

My advice is always to find ND content and see if it resonates with you. A NeuroDiversity Movement has taken off so you can find all kinds of content in a large variety of formats so pick one that you enjoy. There is research, fiction, nonfiction, films, series, articles, social media accounts, podcasts, self-help, support groups, therapists, basically a never-ending supply of content. If you see things about yourself in this content that you haven’t seen elsewhere, you likely fall under the umbrella of NeuroDivergent. The next step is to start being mindful of what is getting in the way of your quality of life. Are you concerned that if you don’t mask your authentic self, you won’t be accepted in some of your life settings? Do you lack friends and have challenges connecting with others? Are there things that are difficult for you that seem to come easily to others? Do people comment on ‘your way of being’, that you are too much, too shy, that you should relax, that you should put yourself out there, etc? If so, start looking for NeuroDivergent informed support and gently embrace the concept that you are never going to find a NeuroTypical you, and that an authentic NeuroDivergent you is going to have a much more fulfilling life than a fake NeuroTypical you could ever have.

 

What services does The Puzzled Life offer?

 

I offer both individual and group sessions. The individual sessions are online in a secure video or messaging format. Some people are more comfortable with the written word so messaging sessions can be a great option; with no eye contact or small talk to worry about, the sessions tend to stay on track better and then the person has a transcript of their session at the end. For Canadian clients, I can do counseling/psychoeducation sessions and for people who live outside of Canada, I can do sessions that are strictly about psychoeducation around NeuroDivergence.

 

The group sessions are often eye-opening, validating, healing and can be quite magical. I’ve had incredible feedback from participants. They’ve said things like “I usually never talk in group settings”, “I feel like I finally met myself when I started coming to this group”, and “It was incredible to feel true acceptance”. My group topics vary based on client needs and what I consider to be the most relevant and assistive areas for discussion. I am currently offering an ADHD Accountability Group, a NeuroDiversity at Work Group, an ADHD Peer Support Group, and an ND Women’s Group. I also hope to start offering some in-person, recreational opportunities such as yoga and art sessions for ND folks in the Calgary area.

 

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

 

Realizing that you are NeuroDivergent catalyzes a huge personal paradigm shift. There is life before it dawns on you and life after. You start to see the circumstances of your life to date through the lens of NeuroDivergence. Suddenly there is an explanation for the disconnect you have felt in mainstream society. There is often grief that accompanies this realization. Clients will often say “Why didn’t someone figure this out when I was 12?” They almost always say 12, probably because that is when hormones


and societal expectations start to kick in. ‘If you want to stay in the tribe, you’d better fit in.’ There is a quote from Canadian trauma and addiction physician Gabor Maté that points out, “People have two needs: attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity”. And so goes the struggle for NeuroDivergents, that is until they understand that their true attachment and community might not look like what society has made them believe it should look like.


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