These Fashion Brands Are Breaking The Stigma On Neurodivergence

In March this year, LinkedIn added “dyslexic thinking” to its options of skills to add to profiles. LinkedIn worked with the charity Made By Dyslexia whose research shows that dyslexic people excel in creativity, problem-solving and leadership.

The move sparked an important discussion about reframing neurodiversity as an asset, rather than an impediment, and is part of a growing movement to better support the neurodivergent community. Neurodiverse conditions include, but are not limited to, dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism and ADHD. According to recent Deloitte analysis of multiple sources, around 10-20% of the global population has a neurodivergence.

With creativity a core skill for many neurodivergent people, it’s no wonder that fashion is at the forefront of the movement. A number of independent designers have been speaking out about their experience of neurodivergence and producing designs which reflect life for those who aren’t neurotypical.

Jake Posner is a dyslexic fashion designer whose label No One True Anything tries to share his way of seeing the world with its design. For example, the brand’s ‘DEB-UT’ collection features embroidered words split by hyphens as a representation of how Posner sees words when he is reading and writing.

“I’ve always shouted about my dyslexia because I feel that it makes me unique,” says Posner. “I don’t want other people, especially younger people, to feel like they can’t speak out about it and share it because they’re embarrassed, or because they think it might impact them getting jobs in the future. I truly believe that neurodivergence is a gift because it gives you that different way of thinking.”

Leanne Maskell, an ADHD consultant, coach, fashion model and author of ADHD: An A to Z, agrees: “If you’re neurodivergent, your brain is wired differently to ‘most’ people – which is a good thing! You think outside of the box and ask ‘why’ instead of following orders. As an ADHD Coach, I see extremely high levels of creativity in all of my clients, as we have an interest-based nervous system. If we’re interested in something, we can hyper-focus for hours, producing exceptionally high quality work.”

Posner says that the tension between the perfection of the luxury fashion sphere and the imperfection of his dyslexia creates an interesting dynamic in his work. “Everything that comes from fashion, especially within the high-end, luxury sector, is perfection. I want to be able to make sure that my pieces can be as perfect as possible, while implementing a slightly imperfect balance. The materials and production would be 100% perfect, but the design may be slightly obscure, maybe slightly off, maybe slightly set back a bit so that it creates something that people are thinking about.”

For Simon Whitehouse, founder of EBIT, fashion is a creative outlet to provoke dialogue and empathy around mental health, including neurodivergence. EBIT creates projects across music and the arts but has just launched a digital sneaker collection, with 10% of proceeds going to the National Autistic Society.

The collection explores the similarity between the changing narratives of neurological conditions and footwear. Whitehouse explains: “100 years ago, if you had any mental health issue the label was ‘you’re crazy’, 20 years ago, patients were labeled with an individual illness (schizophrenia or depression or autism). Fast forward to today, patients are placed on a spectrum where elements of conditions overlap.

“In an odd parallel, the same has happened in fashion footwear design. 150 years ago, sneakers were not even invented. Twenty years ago, it was a strict individual classification industry: a shoe, a boot, a heel, a sneaker. Now, in modern footwear, everything is hybrid. We found this fascinating, and a beautiful and unusual parallel to draw to subtly raise awareness in the creative community.”

Whitehouse’s passion for tackling this issue comes from his brother who has schizophrenia. “He is not ‘ill’. His brain is working, just in a very different, unique way. I have faith that one day science, or medicine, or philosophy, will create the society whereby he is not judged with the stigma and prejudice he is now.”

Doyenne, a female-run skate brand, has partnered with Hart Club, an organization that champions neurodiversity in the arts, to create a collection with two of their artists. The collection includes t-shirts with messages such as a play on the word “Discomfort” and “You don’t see what I see”. A portion of profits go to the Hart School which provides free, accessible education to those typically excluded from such spaces.

A spokesperson for the Doyenne team says: “We are a brand dedicated to inclusivity and we felt that sometimes some identities are overlooked in this discourse, especially disabilities and neurodiversity, so it was important for us to do a project involving neurodivergent people, artists, and organizations.”

The brand is releasing a short film this summer featuring neurodivergent skaters talking about their experiences and wants to ensure clothing is accessible to as many wearers as possible. “Generally, we would love for design to also take into account neurodivergent bodies which might struggle with some choices of color, materials, and wearability. We are currently collecting stories and feedback to incorporate into our clothes,” the spokesperson said.

Maskell applauds the rise in collaborations with neurodivergent talent but warns brands to treat collaborators fairly. “It’s obviously challenging for brands to showcase neurodivergent conditions as they’re invisible, so working with neurodivergent talent is a brilliant way to raise awareness and acceptance. However, it’s important to say that neurodivergent talent should be paid for their work.”

Maskell was part of a group of models and brands who took part in a UK Parliamentary inquiry on body image. “We found disabled models had been paid less or expected to work for free by brands, in comparison to non-disabled models,” she says.

Independent brands like No One True Anything, EBIT and Doyenne are paving the way for fashion to embrace neurodivergence better. There’s a role for larger brands to be part of the conversation too but they should be careful with how they approach it.

The Doyenne spokesperson says: “We hope that the conversation about neurodivergence continues, in a way that we can all have a more authentic understanding of it, leaving behind stereotypes, outdated theories, and offensive media representations. Most importantly we hope that neurodivergent voices will be part of these conversations rather than just a subject study.”