As a new term fast approaches, many students will be looking forward to nights out and opportunities to meet new people. However, for neurodivergent students this is a much more daunting prospect and presents a lot of challenges. Recently, I decided to research possible solutions to the problems I have faced throughout my three years of university on nights out as someone with ADHD, but found very little information out there. Thus, I have decided to share with you the triggers I experience whilst clubbing, possible aids to combat these and the more accessible events I have come across in the hopes to help fellow students with sensory issues and to educate the wider student body on how to support their neurodivergent peers.
So why is it that nights out can be a mire for neurodivergent folk?
The answer to this is rather complicated because it will vary on a case-by-case basis, however, there are a few core issues which stand out. Firstly, of course there is the noise; clubs and bars blasting out tunes may be fun for a little while but it can soon get overwhelming. The way I would describe this is for a neurotypical person to understand is that you listen to the music in your surroundings but for those with sensory issues it feels as though the sound is being pumped directly into your brain. Add to this the jarring shout of revellers and sudden changes to the music style and you have a recipe for anxiety and overstimulation. The best way I’ve found to combat this is to take regular breaks by going to the bathroom or to the smoking area to decompress. Alternatively, you may like to bring ear defenders or ear plugs that you can switch to when overwhelmed. Silent discos are also a great way to enjoy music in a more controlled manner and I’ve found the punk scene in Birmingham to be a second home as acts are very attentive to their crowds needs and often provide ear plugs (though note that these can be louder than normal gigs).
The most important thing to remember is those with ADHD experience “burnout” periods.
Secondly, a review of Clinical Implications of the Perception of Time in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has found that “Practical approaches to time perception and its evaluation have shown that individuals with ADHD have difficulties in time estimation and discrimination activities.” The implication here to individuals with ADHD in terms of enjoying nightlife is huge, because in my experience it means that a night can feel very drawn out. Between getting ready, travelling between establishments, dancing, and finding transportation home, sometimes it feels as though the night has gone on forever and all I want is to go home. An easy solution here is to decide a rough plan of your night and the time you will spend out beforehand so it doesn’t come as a surprise. Help from friends in this area is always appreciated because planning can be difficult for neurodivergent individuals. The most important thing to remember is those with ADHD experience “burnout” periods and nobody can force themselves to have a good time if they are overwhelmed and exhausted. There is no shame in cutting a night short whilst you’re still having fun!
Those with ADHD will go to great lengths to please their friends including suffering overstimulation.
Thirdly, the social side of going out can be very daunting to those with ADHD. Often, particularly for those arriving for their first year of university, nightlife can be very pressurised. Neurodivergent people often feel “misunderstood” or under pressure to act “normal” which can make it hard to let loose and enjoy social occasions. Some will resort to masking, which is “when someone with ADHD presents in a way that makes them seem like they are not living with the disorder”, and I have often found myself watching others dancing to make sure I’m doing it “right.” Rejection sensitivity can cause yet further problems and is described as “extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticised by important people in their life.” This can mean those with ADHD will go to great lengths to please their friends, including suffering overstimulation in an uncomfortable environment and fretting over minor disagreements e.g., whether to request a certain song. Clear communication is the best policy here and choosing friends that you trust to go out with. This can be very tricky for freshers who don’t know anyone, but participating in societies like “Autism at Warwick” will help you to find friends with similar needs to your own. Neurotypical students can also help here by checking on their friends and supporting their decisions.
Those with ADHD find emotions hard enough to regulate without the influence of a stimulant.
Finally, we come to the obvious problem of alcohol. Partaking in drinking culture often feels like an essential part of university and many will be familiar with the embarrassing and sometimes dangerous results of this. Little is known about alcohol and ADHD but it is clear that the disorder is “characterised by poor impulse control” which can lead to over indulging. The warped perception that alcohol induces can also trigger the aforementioned issues such as rejection sensitivity, social anxiety, overstimulation, and burnout. Those with ADHD find emotions hard enough to regulate without the influence of a stimulant, thus, adding this into the mix can have negative effects. The main suggestion I have for all these possible problems is to drink responsibly, ensure your friends are too, check how substances may interact with any medications you take, and drink lots of water. Wearing a sunflower lanyard or a pin can also indicate to bar staff that you have additional needs and may not act as they would typically expect to avoid confrontation.
Knowing when you’re in the right headspace to socialise and choosing the right people to do so with is important.
Overall participation in nights out can present challenges but I hope to have demonstrated that with the right thought, support systems, and tools, you can definitely still have an enjoyable time. Knowing when you’re in the right headspace to socialise and choosing the right people to do so with is important, but there are plenty of ways to have a more sensory friendly experience. Respect your limits and those of others and you’re sure to have fun.