Following the suicides of Avicii in 2018 and The Prodigy’s Keith Flint in 2019, the conversation around mental health within electronic music community saw tremendous expansion and new levels of honesty regarding stress, self medication with drugs and alcohol and the burnout caused by both things in tandem.
Another benefit of this conversation is that it helped open a new one, with the dance music community more recently finding a focus on neurodiversity. The first ever study of neurodiversity within the electronic industry is putting a spotlight on just how many people in dance are neurodiverse, why this space is uniquely suited for them and how the industry can best support these individuals.
“There are artists of the highest level within the electronic music industry that have neurodiverse conditions,” says Tristan Hunt, who helped coordinate the study and last fall left his position as Regional Manager at the Association for Electronic Music (AFEM) to launch a coaching service for neurodiverse people within this world. (Neurodiversity refers to a difference in neurobiological cognitive makeup, so people with neurodiverse conditions have a nervous system biology different to “neurotypical” people.)
Hunt, who’s also a former DJ and who earned this coaching qualification after two years of training and who is himself neurodiverse, now has a thriving business working everyone from artists, to managers, to C-suite execs who are all learning to work with neurodiverse diagnoses like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia and more. His packed schedule makes sense, given the results of the study.
Commissioned and conducted by AFEM, the 2022 study spoke to 137 people within the electronic industry, with 45% of them from the U.K., 22% from the U.S. and the remainder from other parts of the world. 58% of these participants demonstrated a neurodiverse condition, although only 38% currently have a clinical diagnosis. (The decision to include both clinically and self-diagnosed individuals, was made, Hunt says, “given that a significant number of people worldwide go undiagnosed.” He cites NYU research noting that as many as 75% of adults with the condition go undiagnosed.)
While artists including Billie Eilish, Solange, Florence Welch and Cher have all discussed their neurodiverse diagnoses, the AFEM report marks the first time neurodiversity has been studied specifically within the dance space — a world that is in many ways an ideal match for neurodiverse minds.
“The neuroscience out there shows that people who have things like ADHD and dyslexia, for example, are among some of the most creative people,” Hunt says, “because the neurobiology is different in such a way that enables this very radical, nonlinear thinking to happen.” Thus, making music, producing art, creating events — all major components of the industry — are uniquely well-suited to neurodiverse people.
“It’s a natural fit,” he adds. “You can thrive in this place, because we particularly value creative skills.”
But just as mental health was and in cases remains shrouded in secrecy, so too did the study identify a perceived stigma around what Hunt calls “the hidden disability” of neurodiversity, finding that only 52% of people with a neurodiverse condition have told their organization or employer. Only 23% of neurodiverse people said they’d ask for support at their workplace.
“The perception of neurodiverse individuals is that we are lazy, weird, strange, and often can’t work traditional job hours,” says one member of the anonymous study.
The electronic industry also creates particular challenges for neurodiverse people, given its emphases on heavy socialization, partying, late nights and a pace that moves at the speed of email. “Neurodiverse people are often very loving, caring, compassionate individuals that can empathize and understand people in incredible ways,” says Hunt, “but the flip side of this is often that they can be much more easily overwhelmed.”
He notes that straightforward structural issues like an office with an open floor plan, noisy work space, or just being bombarded with an onslaught of calls, emails, texts and social media notifications can create an overwhelming cognitive load on a neurodiverse person, who may struggle to process and filter out this input, leading to overwhelm and shutdown.
Additionally, the current level of support for neurodiverse people within companies is, Hunt says, “really lacking.” The study reports that only 15% of people polled were aware of company policies regarding neurodiversity, with participants saying the topic never came up with human resources, that they had no one to tell about their condition, that they don’t want to be viewed or treated differently and that they worried disclosure might foster discrimination or misunderstanding among colleagues. 69% of people polled said their organization could do more to support them.
“Much is discussed on the drawbacks, but this needs to be balanced out with highlighting the benefits and ’superpowers’ that the neurodiverse brain can bring to any organization and community,” says AFEM member Silvia Montello, who’s been diagnosed with ADHD. “The more people with ND conditions in our industry are happy to discuss, communicate and campaign on the subject – especially those of us with long careers in this industry – the more the understanding will grow and the more those with ND brains will be able to grow and succeed because of their different wiring, rather than be left to struggle with it.”
Both straightforward and cost-effective, fixes include reorganizing office layouts, providing neurodiverse employees with spaces better-suited to their needs or provisions to work from home, checking with existing employees to see who may need support, offering trainings among non-neurodiverse employees to help them understand the issue, creating a company toolkit on the topic and acknowledging neurodiversity during interviews, in company policies and amidst onboarding.
“If employers and colleagues can both understand and accommodate their ND peers,” Montello says, “it will create a better, more harmonious and more successful community where everyone can thrive and all of our various unique talents and skills can be enjoyed both commercially and creatively.”
The overall goal of the AFEM study is to further the conversation around neurodiversity, thereby creating environments where neurodiverse people can thrive. Such destigmatization should lead to less self medicating, which can become a survival strategy when drinking and drugs are they only way to calm the mind.
“Many neurodiverse artists use drugs, sex, and/or alcohol as a copying mechanism,” says one anonymous members of the study. “Access to addiction or mental health advocates that specialize in the music industry would be helpful. There are general providers, but this niche requires specialized care.”
The good news is that all these changes are in motion. While Hunt’s client list is confidential, it includes some of the biggest players in the industry, with both Hunt and Montello saying they’re hearing much more on the topic now than ever before in their long careers in electronic music.
“The [companies I’m working with] are on the forefront with this, bringing people like myself and therapists and experts to support their staff and make adjustments,” Hunt says. “They’re creating a compassionate, warm, empathetic atmosphere that says ‘this is cool.’”
AFEM 2022 Neurodiversity Study At a Glance
— Of 137 people polled, 58% have a neurodiverse condition, but only 38% have a clinical diagnosis
— 79% of people polled are aware of neurodiversity, 70% have been hearing more about it recently
— 55% of respondents say they understand neurodiversity well, but this number drops to only 24% among people without an neurodiverse condition
— 71% say they wish they knew more about how neurodiversity affects people’s lives
— 53% say they believe neurodiversity is an important issue compared to other issues the industry is facing. This number drops to 40% amongst people without a ND condition
— 52% ofpeople with a ND condition have told their organization. Only 23% have asked for support
— 15% know their organization has policies and procedures in place for Neurodiversity
— 72% of people agree there are many benefits to a workplace that supports neurodiverse people
— 19% of people think music industry supports neurodiverse people.
— 69% agree their organization could do more to support them
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