Dance clubs can overwhelm neurodiverse people — so why do so many become DJs?

Deanna Dee is a self-proclaimed weirdo. In fact, she even chose the DJ name Weeurd — a nod to the “weird” way her brain works.

As a neurodivergent and queer DJ with brightly coloured hair, she said she doesn’t often meet people like her. That’s until night falls, when she’s a fixture in the booth at several dance nights across the city.

“Growing up, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I still experience that today … but I feel like I belong more at a dubstep show because everyone’s weird,” she explained.

Dee was diagnosed with ADHD nearly two years ago. Earlier this year, she began to suspect she may also be on the autism spectrum. 

Deanna Dee says sometimes dance clubs provide the stimulation she craves, while other times she prefers to retreat to the safety of the DJ booth. (Diffracted Media/Lakyn Photography)

They’re two very different conditions, and Dee says they can make the stimulation of the dance club a little confusing.

Sometimes she finds it too much, and like many people who are autistic, she just wants a break from talking to people. At those times, being in the booth or up away from the crowd is the perfect antidote. 

“I can just play a full hour set and get people to feel things, and I don’t have to say a word.”

But other times, “you want lights in your face, you want loud music, you need to dance it off, which I know is a type of somatic therapy,” she said, referring to a form of therapy that deals with stress or tension through focusing on the body.

Dee is not the only neurodivergent person with the DJ bug, despite the complications of being in a dance club. 

Last year, in response to a growing conversation about neurodivergence among electronic musicians, the Association For Electronic Music in the U.S. decided to survey its members on the subject.

It revealed that more than half of the DJs who responded said they had a neurodivergent condition, though a smaller percentage were clinically diagnosed. 

Luke Kuchar prepares for a DJ set at the 27 Club in Ottawa.
Luke Kuchar says his bipolar syndrome can make it challenging to find the motivation to do anything. But he said DJing helps because music is always there for him. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Safety behind the DJ booth

Luke Kuchar, who goes by the artist name Mimsey Demon, says he’s also struggled with the environment in which the music he loves is shared.

He was diagnosed with bipolar, anxiety and social anxiety disorders more than 30 years ago.

The self-proclaimed night owl, who’s also an overnight radio host on CKCU FM, said he started DJing because he wanted to introduce people to genres that often fly under the radar, like industrial electronic music.

But with the social anxiety of being in a crowd, combined with bouts of depression, he said it can sometimes feel impossible to have fun at dance nights. He said he used to turn to alcohol to try to loosen up, or even avoided clubs completely.

“There have been times where the anxiety and the panic attacks would have me cancelling gigs five hours beforehand because I just couldn’t bear going,” he said.

A DJ plays with a DJ controller on stage.
People with neurodivergence often have very intense and creative interests, said Erin Parkes, who teaches special music education. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Those feelings can still trouble him today, but he said he’s realized there’s also safety in the DJ booth, which can feel like a protective bubble that allows him to share his music while maintaining a layer of separation from the crowd.

He compares his experience to that of MMA fighter Brock Lesnar, who’s spoken out about his social anxiety disorder.

“When he’s in the ring … that’s his bubble, that’s a safe space inside the ropes and barriers,” Kuchar said. “I definitely related to him saying that.”

After a period of not performing, Kuchar has returned to DJing, but mostly in front of smaller crowds.

Barriers in the music world

Dee and Kuchar’s push-pull reactions don’t surprise Erin Parkes, who teaches special music education at the University of Ottawa and also founded a school for students with special needs called the Lotus Centre for Special Music Education in 2012.

“Certainly, I know some neurodivergent people that wouldn’t be able to set foot in a club,” Parkes said.

But she feels it’s a misconception to think that all neurodivergent people are hypersensitive and need a quieter environment with dim lighting.

“[Some are] actually hypo-sensitive to a lot of the sensory stimulation, and they need more for their nervous systems,” she said. 

Female DJ performs her DJ set to a crowd
Being able to express herself creatively and interacting with new and loyal fans are what helps Dee keep on performing as a DJ, even if a dance club can sometimes overwhelm her. (Diffracted Media/Lakyn Photography)

Parkes said because they tend to be creative thinkers, many neurodiverse people are generally interested in all types of music. But some genres, such as classical music, can pose barriers.

“There are very rigid expectations around how you’re going to perform the music, how you’re going to interact with fellow performers. That just doesn’t make sense a lot of the time to neurodivergent people,” she said.

“DJing doesn’t have those etiquettes…. It’s much freer.”

Parkes added that in a larger sense, many neurodivergent people don’t have the same view of “fitting into a box that society is telling them,” and are more likely to pursue alternative interests or even careers. 

‘Why I am the way I am’

Both Kuchar and Dee said they’re not bothered by the idea of fitting into societal norms. For them, being neurodivergent isn’t something they hide, either in their daily life or at the club.

That can even help build a relationship with the crowd, said Kuchar, who tells the audience about his bipolar and anxiety disorders because he wants them to be more empathetic.

“You never know if the DJ playing … has mental conditions that make it harder to deal with their task more than it would for other people,” he said.

“It’s why I am the way I am.”

Deanna Dee wears a rainbow-coloured top with the logo of her DJ name - 'Weeurd'. It's a nod to both her neurodivergent and queer identity.
Dee says she’s found community in the electronic music scene, where she said everybody’s a little weird, but they’re weird together. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

It’s a sentiment echoed by Dee, who said she feels proud to call herself a neurodivergent, queer DJ.

“Especially in a very heavily male-dominated industry, it’s hard to come by a lot of [people like me],” she said.

“So I attract people who think and feel the same way that I think and feel … and I want to be that safe space for people.”

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