A person in a light-coloured t-shirt, photographed from the back, against a natural green background. They have their tattooed arms held in the air, above their head, as though holding their red hair up. © Marta Sobilo

Lifting the mask

Stories of neurodiversity

First impressions count, or so we are taught. We are all guilty of making quick judgements based on the initial few moments of an interaction – the way a person presents themselves, their body language, the way they speak, if they make eye contact. But what if they don’t meet your expectations? Perhaps they won’t speak or meet your eye, or let you get a word in. Maybe they are late, or disorganised. Or immediately forget your name. Should you be offended? Angry even?

All too often, people are both. They view something like a first meeting as simple. Arriving on time, shaking hands and making eye contact are often seen as basic civilities. And they are – in a world where we are all the same and everyone’s brains conduct themselves in line with society’s norms and assumptions. But here’s the thing: not all brains do. Evidence suggests that around a fifth of Europeans are neurodiverse (a combination of the words ‘neurological’ and ‘diversity’), meaning that, for whatever reason, their brains are atypical in a world that is designed for a standard way of functioning.

If you claim to have never met a neurodivergent person, then you’re either lying, don’t meet many people or, more likely, are completely oblivious to the fact. Neurodiversity comes in all shapes and sizes and varies from person to person. It can be dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia, ADHD, autism, or Tourette’s Syndrome – or sometimes a combination of more than one of these. And each comes with their own unseen and/or misunderstood ways of processing and coping with the world. This lack of awareness is much to Marta Sobilo’s frustration. A neurodivergent photographer, her project ‘ATYPICAL Women’ is a work in progress, documenting neurodivergent women, many of whom have only recently received a diagnosis, to tell their stories and show the world the real face of female (and non-binary) neurodiversity. “I think when you’re in your thirties, near your forties, you think ‘this is the point in life where I want some answers’,” she explains. “We feel the need to get better, to know ourselves. So many of my friends got their diagnosis in their thirties.”

A woman wearing a black v-necked top stands in front of red-leafed foliage.
Ami © Marta Sobilo

Marta herself only received her diagnosis last year (“I am autistic and have ADHD – it just explained my whole life. I could have been a totally different person if someone had noticed.”) and has since been inspired to pick up her camera for the first time in two years as a way to raise awareness of people like her and the immense pressure they are under to function to the norms of a neurotypical world. “We are under-exposed, we are under diagnosed,” she says of the recent immense wave of women and non-binary people in their twenties, thirties and forties who were often told they have a mood disorder, such as anxiety or depression, but subsequently received a life-changing diagnosis of ADHD or autism. Her own diagnosis has been pivotal to the project and Marta initially posted the idea to an ADHD group on Facebook. At the time of writing, she has received nearly 400 comments of support, shared stories and enthusiastic volunteering.

From the off, it was clear that the majority, like her, had more than one diagnosis. She is interested in showing where these overlap, and the other, lesser-known aspects of neurodivergence. Sensory and Auditory Processing Disorders are common, which often contribute to struggles with the everyday surroundings that neurotypical people take for granted. For example, people with ADHD often find noisy spaces incredibly challenging because their brain immediately tries to make sense of all sounds, rather than prioritising the one they need. Additionally, strong smells, bright lights and certain textures can all result in extreme discomfort. Marta also experiences ‘RSD’ or ‘Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria’, a condition where she feels extreme emotional pain when she believes she is being rejected or criticised. Together these can lead to acute and constant anxiety, something she understands well. “I know it’s hard because I always feel stressed and ugly and rejected, so I really like photographing these women. Making them feel seen and beautiful and great things about themselves.” A project like this, where her work as a photographer is under scrutiny, is therefore a very real act of bravery. “I have thought that maybe it’s not a good idea. I won’t be good at it,” she admits. “I’ve had my edits criticised in the past and ditched them. So, with this project, I’m sticking to it.”

A woman in a black halter-neck dress stands by foliage. She has long dark curly hair.
Jenna © Marta Sobilo
A blonde haired woman with glasses wearing a black scarf and grey top. She has a white headphone visible in her right ear and has a piercing through her septum and philtrum.
Marta wants to show the real face of neurodiversity. © Marta Sobilo

But why does diagnosis come so late for women in particular? It’s a problem that’s recently become so widely acknowledged that they have been labelled a ‘Lost Generation’ in the media. The simple answer to this complicated question is a combination of masking, misdiagnosis, and misconception. Not everyone with ADHD is openly physically hyperactive, their ‘symptoms’ may be inattentiveness, the inability to complete a task or chronic disorganisation (they are often labelled ‘daydreamers’ at school), which are less noticeable, but just as difficult to cope with. Equally, autism can be mistaken for extreme shyness or social anxiety. ‘Masking’ is when neurodiverse people mimic the conduct of neurotypical people in order to ‘fit in’ and go unnoticed, something which Marta understands well (“we always try to fit somehow”). Can you imagine pretending to be someone you’re not, all day every day? As you might imagine, masking, especially prolonged masking, can be catastrophic for the mental health of neurodivergent people.

None of this is to say that the neurodiverse experience is exclusively negative, problematic or painful, and Marta is keen to highlight the realities – and that includes the positives. These are brains with an incredible capacity for lateral thinking, creativity and curiosity. There is also a theory that hyperfocus, (where an autistic or ADHD brain can direct its entire attention to one thing for an incredible length of time) is actually a means of resting. When the brain processes so much simultaneously, fixating on one thing to the exclusion of everything else is a means to give it less stimulus. It’s an extraordinary concept, but also illustrates the fascinating and special way in which a neurodivergent brain can work. “My brain is sometimes just… I want to have a simple life, being able to just think about what I’m having for dinner,” Marta laughs. “My life would be just so easy. But then my therapist says, ‘would you really want that?’ Maybe just for a week.”

Discover more of Marta’s ATYPICAL Women on her website.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard