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A sonic exploration of neurodivergent identities

Dr Virginia Carter Leno

Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London

20 September 2023

On Sunday 14th May the Divergent Sounds project, a 'sonic exploration of neurodivergent identities', came to life in two performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. Around 300 people attended the two showings. Dr Virginia Carter Leno who led the project, talks about how the project came to life and gives us a tour behind the scenes.

The Divergent Sounds project was funded by a Wellcome Research Enrichment Award to allow me to explore novel strategies for engaging the public with my research. Sometimes I get a sense that the research I do in the academic world, focused around how neurodivergent people’s brains develop differently, does not capture the lived experience of being neurodivergent. I could tell you which parts of the brain we think might work differently in neurodivergent people, but this doesn’t give you a sense of what it is actually like to be neurodivergent. So, I wanted to put on an event that would communicate neurodivergent identities and experiences to those without lived experience. I thought that using music would give the audience a more emotive and immersive idea of neurodivergent worlds. I hoped that by increasing awareness and understanding, this project would encourage people to reflect on how we could make the world more inclusive for people with all different types of minds.

Here is a behind the scenes short film at the rehearsals of the Divergent Sounds project.

To bring my idea to life, I teamed with the City of London Sinfonia (CLS), a London based chamber orchestra that takes a collaborative approach to concert experiences. CLS has substantial experience in creative and collaborative practice in health and social care, so they were a perfect fit for this project. They helped me to source a composer who could turn spoken word recordings into immersive soundscapes. I then ran a series of online focus groups with around 25 neurodivergent people in total, where we explored the ways in which neurodivergent people felt their minds may work differently, and the strengths and challenges that come with being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world.

Composer Amble Skuse and dramaturg Jen McGregor then reviewed recordings of these focus group conversations to draw out themes and think about how complex ideas and individual experiences could be portrayed by the orchestra. Amble wrote a new composition that wove in orchestral pieces that depicted these themes with excerpts of spoken word recordings, meaning focus group attendees could speak directly to the audience. These original compositions were then performed by the orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Timeline photo: credit to Jon Adams.

I worked with the venue and our project steering committee, a group of neurodivergent people interested in creative and engaged projects, to think about what we could provide for audience members to make the concert experience more accessible. One of our committee members, autistic artist Jon Adams, made a visual timeline of the composition which audience members could view beforehand, so they knew what sounds to expect throughout the piece. We also sent additional information on the venue to ticketholders beforehand, provided quiet rooms on-site, and had subtitles and a British Sign Language interpreter. It was really important to me to try and make sure everyone who wanted to come was able to do so and access the piece, and we provided a recording of the piece for those who were not able to attend, or preferred to watch from home. 

Divergent_Sounds_timeline[82]

We received lots of positive feedback on the day about the measures we had put in place, and people really enjoyed looking over the timeline in the atrium before the piece started. We also heard lots of positive feedback about the piece itself...

“The idea of expressing voices of people alongside and through music was fabulous. It really brought neurodivergence alive.” Audience Member

“I felt heard even though I was the one listening” Audience Member

“There is a lot that we have taken from this as an organisation: how we treat our audiences and our performers. A lot we had already considered, but it took us to a new place though in how we think about embedding it. More than that, it made us stop, made us think about the colour of letters on our website, thinking about the language on the website. As part of that we have started redesigning our comms for accessibility.” City London Sinfonia

...and we received a five-star review from The Upcoming which was great!

Divergent Sounds 1 (c) Southbank Centre
I was motivated to create this project because sometimes I get a sense that the research we do in the academic world, focused around how neurodivergent people’s brains develop differently, does not capture the lived experience of being neurodivergent. I could tell you which parts of the brain we think function differently in neurodivergent people, but this doesn’t give you a sense of what it is actually like to be neurodivergent.– Dr Virginia Carter Leno, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biostatistics and Health Informatics, King’s IoPPN

A note on neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is the idea that we all differ in our neurological make-up – namely the way our brains have developed and how they function. These differences mean that we all process information differently, therefore we will all experience the world around us in a different manner.

We acknowledge that the experiences that inspired these soundscapes are not representative of the full neurodivergent community – there is vast diversity within and between neurodivergent people. The focus groups were conducted online and largely via spoken word, therefore they may not have been accessible to all.

Raising awareness of neurodiversity through music and spoken word

I really wanted to work with creative types and neurodivergent people to create something engaging for people who might not know much about neurodiversity – I could stand up and give you an academic lecture about my research, but I suspect this wouldn’t be as interesting or accessible!

Better understanding of these lived experiences will hopefully shift society towards a deeper appreciation of human diversity, and encourage people to consider how we all experience the world slightly differently, and this might dictate how we interact with and respond to the world. Getting people to think more on these topics will hopefully encourage people to reflect on how we could make the world more inclusive for people with all different types of minds. 

Reflections on the event

This project was a real step outside my comfort zone, but I am so glad I went for it. I had been wanting to do something more creative and public facing since starting my fellowship, but I was waiting for the right idea and the right time to do.

It was a lot of hard work to bring all the moving parts together because I was working with multiple creative partners, but 100% worth it to hear the first notes of the musical pieces in rehearsal and realise what an amazing thing everyone had created. Seeing the pieces performed at such a well-known venue by a full orchestra was incredible, as was hearing the positive feedback from both people who attended as curious audience members, and those who were part of the focus groups who then got to hear their own stories being ‘played’ by the musicians. The project has really highlighted to me the value of engagement projects and thinking ‘outside the box’ if you want to communicate your research to people outside of the traditional academic channels.

I would end with saying, the most rewarding part of the project was working with the neurodivergent steering committee, made up of four neurodivergent people with an interest in creative and engaged projects. We met every month or so, and they offered invaluable guidance and support throughout – including challenging me when required! It has really made me think about how I can better incorporate stakeholder and lived experience viewpoints within my projects from the very beginning.

Divergent Sounds Programme

Dr Virginia Carter Leno is a Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. Her research focuses on understanding differences in brain development and functioning that may characterise autism, and the reasons behind the high prevalence of mental health difficulties in autistic youth. 

Images copyright of Southbank Centre

In this story

Virginia  Carter Leno

Virginia Carter Leno

Postdoctoral Fellow

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