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May 2021: Being Neurodivergent in the arts

By Tiffany Rhodes

My name is Tiff, I am an actor, director, stage combatant, producer(kinda) and writer(ish) for Black

I also have dyspraxia.

For many years I have seen dyspraxia as a roadblock that I should try to forget about or move
past, as if admitting I was different was like admitting defeat. I’m stubborn like that I suppose.
But this is something that is forever part of me whether I like it or not, and if I’m trying to accept it,
why not talk about it? Hopefully by discussing my personal experiences, I may help a
layperson/fellow neurodivergent person understand my perspective. Maybe I can help us all feel a
little more included..

What is Dyspraxia?

Dyspraxia (otherwise known as developmental coordination disorder or DCD) is a lesser known
neurological condition that I colloquially describe as similar to dyslexia, but instead of letters being
jumbled up, everything is.

As DCD has always been my experience I have found it difficult to put how dyspraxia feels into
words. Luckily the person who diagnosed me helped me understand what dyspraxia is in
comparison to neurotypical brains which I find hits the nail on the head.

She described the neurotypical brain to be a filing cabinet. It stores information for you in order to
pick it out as and when you need it. When a neurotypical person wants to remember information in
their brain, they can open the filing cabinet, see the file and pick it out with no difficulty.

A dyspraxic brain is not a filing cabinet but a pile of files strewn about on the floor. All the
information is there, but it takes longer to find and often other parts of knowledge are found on the
way that don’t have anything to do with the information you seek.

This difficulty filing information doesn’t just affect memory or the speed in which you can answer a
question. I get sensory overload when given a lot of information too quickly, It affects motor
function and the ability to move, ability to talk and listen effectively, and many other things I have
probably forgotten. (The irony is not lost on me).

Let me give you an example. If someone were to give me a quick list of instructions, for instance:
‘Hey Tiff, can you go downstairs, grab me a bottle of coke from the fridge and pick up my keys
while you're there?’
My brain only has time to process this much:

‘Hey Tiff, can you go grab me a ** from the fridge and ** my keys while you’re there?’

It doesn’t seem like much is missing, but I haven’t processed one of the items you told me about,
and I don’t understand what you want me to do with the keys yet. Shall I hang the keys up? Bring
them to you? Look for them?

Usually the person that has given me that list has already walked off, because to them it is a
simple list of instructions. Either that or I’m too embarrassed or proud to ask you to repeat yourself
so I go upstairs, look in the fridge and hope the item you need is obvious, and I guess what you
want me to do with your keys and hope for the best. This doesn’t always work out. Often when I

have heard all the information correctly I am anxious to do the task for fear of forgetting or doing it

School wasn’t great

I was diagnosed at 18 after I had struggled through my entire school career.
I was able to coast by in school unnoticed partly due to the overwhelmed teachers that couldn’t
focus on individual students, and also probably due to the fact I got middle of the road grades. I
never failed a class so was never on the schools radar of students to worry about.

Often throughout school I wouldn’t be able to keep up with school work, and after many times of
asking for help and still not grasping the task (as well as having teachers audibly sigh when they
had to explain themselves again) I learned that silently struggling was better for the class rather
than having my needs met and having the class slow down just for me.

It wasn’t until Sixth Form, when the emphasis on self taught learning and organising your schedule
became more prevalent that I couldn’t take the pressure anymore and had a minor panic attack in
class (over something minor like not being able to copy an essay title down quick enough before it
was wiped off the board) and a teacher noticed that I may need a test for processing issues.

It was at that moment the difficulties I faced in school made so much sense. It made me reevaluate
a lot of the traumatic experiences I had during my primary school years when I was often labelled a
‘naughty child’ for not answering the question or ‘not listening in class’, having a teacher snatch the
pencil out of my hand in year 2 because she gave me an instruction and I didn’t action the task
immediately. Being called a ‘stupid girl’, and almost being expelled at 10 because I was told I
‘wasn’t a good fit for the school’

Though the diagnosis was affirming and made me feel like less of the stupid person I had labelled
myself as, these difficulties continued.

Uni wasn’t that great either

Going to school to specialise in acting was one of the most exciting things for young me. Drama
was one of the only classes I excelled at and I am most comfortable when I’m creative, especially if
it involved making others laugh. However, doing higher education in performing arts had its own list
of difficulties that I wasn’t expecting.

When university started I was thankful to receive a disabled students grant, which meant I received
technology that was supposed to help ease my learning and put me on a more level playing field
with the other students. I was very grateful to receive this help and these bits of kit, but the tech on
offer were mostly for lecture based courses rather than anything specific to my degree. I couldn’t
use the dictaphone in almost all of my classes because they were physical or movement based.
Speech to text software was only helpful to the one essay I wrote a term, and the software that was
added to my laptop was too complicated for me to wrap my head around.

The real difficulties I faced throughout my course couldn’t be solved with any resources given to
me because they were difficulties I had to face with the use of my body, when body language and
body use is integral to succeeding in your course.

Learning choreography was a struggle, and I would often be silently overwhelmed in any physically
demanding class. Stage combat (a joy of mine now) felt impossible for the entire year I studied it
during my second year. I was only able to feel comfortable with stage combat after doing an
intensive two week course, and I felt like a burden on my combat partner when I couldn’t figure the
choreography out.

Learning lines quickly (for instance learning a poem for a class the next day) was often impossible,
especially when my cognitive abilities get worse when I am tired or stressed.

These difficulties were something that made a lot of my university experiences suffer as there was
often no way to ‘level the playing field’ with my peers. Looking back with the added self confidence
I have now I could have made my needs known a little better with my tutors and peers. However, in
a drama school environment where the emphasis is often on ‘never bringing your problems to
rehearsal’, ‘never take a sick day’ and ‘no matter how good you are, there will always be 20
people to replace you so be as easy to work with as possible’. Asking for help or admitting your
faults felt like even more of an admission of guilt, failure and putting yourself on the blacklist of
‘difficult actors’.

But I graduated with the support of family and lifelong friends. This led me to be the path I am on
now. I love my job, and I’m learning to manage my DCD.

Difficulties in the professional world

Often the biggest things we are told as creatives is that we are story tellers. Which is true, and it is
a blessing. However, when you struggle with DCD, your confidence as a storyteller is always put
into question. You are usually your own worst critic, so its easy to bum yourself out with the idea
that your performance would have been better if you had better control of my body and mind.

When trying to convey my point I will often jumble myself up, and this leads to horrendous anxiety
when speaking. I constantly worry when I am directing actors that I haven’t made my point
effectively and have confused them rather than helped them with their character.

Confidence: in the last few years I have actively tried to unlearn the toxic attitudes instilled in me at
university. I now know difficulties caused by DCD aren’t failures, but opportunities for growth in
myself and others around me. However this is easier said than done. The feelings of inadequacy
when admitting I am having a hard time in rehearsals, and the fear that requesting additional help
paints me as a ‘diva’. These unfair voices in my head still get through from time to time, but I am
working on it.

How I help myself as a creative

Over the years I have had to teach myself the best way I learn/work with myself, here are a few
things that help me:

Coloured lens glasses: white paper scripts/computer screens are often far too bright for me and
make it harder for me to read. Earlier this year I invested in blue filtered glasses that are so helpful
to alleviate this problem (coloured paper scripts are also very helpful).

Draw pictures to learn lines: Words on a page are often a difficult thing to comprehend unless I
give myself the best chance possible. When learning lines, I read them aloud to myself and draw a
corresponding picture that forms the sentence. This engages my aural and visual brain as well as
the part of my brain that has a knack for noticing patterns. So for instance for the line ‘She loves
petting dogs’ I would draw a woman, a hand and a dog. Since discovering this trick I can’t imagine
learning lines any other way.

Take a shit ton of notes: I cannot go anywhere without a notebook. For some reason, the act of
writing what I have just heard down helps me process those words into a sentence that I can
understand and move on from. I also know that I can look back on my notes of the day when I
inevitably forget something.

Constantly have your yearly diary with you: As a self employed person who has to juggle a lot
of things, I have anxiety about forgetting important dates, events or being late for appointments.
Checking my diary at the beginning and end of every day helps alleviate those anxieties.

To do lists: as the filing cabinet in my head often won’t help me remember the tasks I have left to
do, I help myself by writing detailed (but not overwhelming) to do lists. Not only does it alleviate the
stress of potentially forgetting an important job I have to do, it is really satisfying to tick a job off the

Give yourself time: Cold reading scripts are very difficult for me to do, as even though I can read
the words fairly competently, figuring out the meaning of those words can be missed and I
suddenly don’t seem as connected to the character as I know I am. I often ask a casting director to
give me five minutes to familiarise myself with a new piece of text before starting the scene.

Although I find it embarrassing, I remember to ask for help when I need it and will ask for extra time
to understand a note given to me by a director.

Be blunt with wants and needs: I have also learned to be more comfortable with being blunt with my points. Often if my language isn’t direct I won’t convey my request properly or my intention will be misconstrued, so I have had to teach myself to be blunt with my needs, even if it sounds rude or brash to some.

How Dyspraxia is good, actually

Although there have been frustrating and confidence ruining bumps along the road, there are many
things that I am grateful for when it comes to my personal experience as a dyspraxic creative.

Producing: My constant anxiety about being late for deadlines, getting things done and writing
everything down means that I’m not too shabby at producing. Although organising causes me
stress, I am usually able to get a lot of admin done for Black Dog, and that makes me feel helpful.

I have discovered a love for teaching: Since graduating I have been lucky enough to be the
leader some of drama workshops for theatre school students of varying ages, as well as assisting
some classes at my old university. As I am someone that has struggled seeing eye to eye with
teachers in the past, I discovered the joy of helping a student understand a concept, and helping
them develop in a way that is individual to them. My way of learning, and therefore my way of
teaching, is flexible and abstract, and helping as many students understand as possible gives me
so much joy.

When something is hard to learn, the reward feels even sweeter: the road to learning or
perfecting something new is daunting and difficult, with a few (or a lot) of tears along the way. But
the act of pushing through the roadblocks and seeing progress feels incredible. Try to congratulate
myself for my successes rather than the struggle to get there.

You have a unique perspective on the world: my friends affectionately describe my personality
as ‘chaos’ and I think that is quite fitting. Because I am an easily overwhelmed person I am often
comfortable in traditionally stressful situations, as ‘stress’ is my go to emotion. I love to problem
solve, and help others in crisis if I can, because I know how it feels.

Be patient with yourself: I am comfortable in my mediocrity. And on the face of it that sounds a
little cruel, but I find this notion so freeing.

I spent most of my life beating myself up about the things I didn’t and couldn’t excel at, and at
times it made me spiral into self hatred.

Now that I am trying to accept that I will never be as quick to learn as my peers, or that my body
will never quite do what I want it to, or that there will always be someone better than me at a skill I
enjoy, I feel more able to give new tasks a try without as much of the pressure I put on myself
before. I will never be the best comic actor, director, producer or writer, but I am willing to give all of

them a bloody good go. After all, the worst that can happen is I don’t understand it, and I am really
good at doing that already.

If you are a creative with a similar experience, I understand that life can sometimes feel like an
uphill trek through the mud when others are driving up the hill in a 4x4. Just know that you are
unique, and so is your journey. And while you’re trudging through mud you might find some really
cool nature, bugs and other cool mud related things that the 4x4 might miss. You got this.

TL;DR: Life as an artist with DCD can be a struggle, but there are ways to cope and it gives you a
unique perspective.


Photo credit:

The Breach - Joe Samuels

There's Nothing There - Matt Sterling

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