How poetry helped me process growing up as neurodivergent

The Sims. Twilight. Vampire Diaries. WKD and other sugary alcopops. Sleepovers. The Sims, again.

I never thought the things that made up the background to my teenage life would some day fill my notebooks with aliveness, nostalgia and poetry.

In fact, I never thought you could write poetry about these things at all – besides, I was too busy and self-conscious to write poetry as a teenager, struggling every day to just get through school and survive.

But as an adult, poetry has given me the freedom to process, make sense of and even rethink my past experiences of growing up as a neurodivergent femme person in a hostile world.

Looking back on the difficulties I struggled with in a neurotypical society and the imaginary worlds that helped me get by in the real one, has allowed me to revisit my younger self with so much kindness and compassion. 

Writing through pop culture accompanied by the relative brevity of poetry has granted me ways into writing about painful experiences that feel manageable and cathartic.

Pop culture can be a segue into writing about something which might otherwise feel overwhelming.

In my more joyful poetry, this has allowed me the chance to rewrite much of what happens to young neurodivergent people, and give myself and the characters in my poems things that in reality might only be dreamed of.

People often assume that poetry is always autobiographical or confessional but there’s fiction in poetry too. In my notebooks, my imagination can run wild in support of a neurodivergent world.

Poetry has also let me celebrate aspects of myself that I either overlooked or felt ashamed of before. Looking back, it’s obvious that my obsessional playing of the Sims – I would never stop narrating my Sims’ lives to my very patient parents – was a ‘special interest’.

Sometimes called monotropism, these are interests that are intensely interesting and preoccupying for autistic people.

Although I don’t play the Sims that much now, delving back into this aspect of my creative life – the Sims is where I learned about storytelling from, after all! – through a different medium has allowed me to find new joy and pleasure in it.

It’s allowed me to claim this interest as something beautiful and valuable; something that helped me survive by giving me another world to escape into and something worthy of writing poetry about.

In general, poetry is a way to explore an obsession or a fascination with something I’m fixated on and discover more about it – and, inevitably, myself as part of the process.

Another part of myself that I often felt was burdensome, or annoying to other people, was my sharply attuned senses which often led to overwhelm or meltdown when I was growing up.

I started to judge myself for these responses and wished that I was different or more ‘normal’. But through writing poetry, I’ve learned to – at times – love how finely tuned and sensitive my senses are.

It lets me notice little details that other people often don’t, and turn these tiny details into poems.

In my nature writing, in particular, I really feel like my experience of the world is shaped by sensitivity to noise and light. Leaning into this lets me write about my relationship with nature in a unique way that has fostered and deepened my love for it. 

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of writing poetry for me is the way it allows me to look forward.

It’s been incredibly healing in terms of thinking about past (structural) violence but it allows me to imagine different futures too. Especially when writing about pop culture, I feel like I’m living between worlds. There’s our world, the pop culture world and the one I’m creating on the page that’s somewhere in between.

Poetry becomes not only somewhere to escape but somewhere to create and imagine different possibilities. I ask myself how could things look different, and question what are the things that I barely dare to dream about.

Poetry gives me the space to explore different answers. 

My own experience has taught me that in a world where a huge number of disabled people are just struggling to survive day to day, poetry is a necessary, essential thing for allowing us to imagine, connect and explore. It allows us to recognise that not only are our lives worthy of art but indeed they are art.

It might sound dreamy, but I’ll never stop trying to write a different future into existence.

Elspeth’s poetry collection Too Hot to Sleep, published by Bent Key Publishing is available now.

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