Dance the night away, then let go of the overload in a quiet sensory space

“We are creating a festival that welcomes neurodivergent people,” explains Natasha Duffy. “So people dealing with sensory issues can go, well, I can have the absolute crazy craic at this festival and do all the things that everyone else does and dance the night away and meet new people, have some good food. But that there is a space at the festival, when you need a break, to relax, unwind or regulate yourself.

At first glance, a summer music festival is the last place you would expect a quiet space. But with a growing awareness of neurodiversity, there are ways, even in the most manic and noisy environments, to accommodate everyone.

A sensory space at the Sofft Nights festival. Photography: Ruth Medjber

Sofft Nights festival, at Dunderry Park in Navan, Co Meath over the June bank holiday weekend, has a great lineup of lo-fi R&B, dance and pop: Tolu Makay, Elaine Mai with May Kay and Sinead White on Saturday, and more folk Sunday with Lisa O’Neill, Moxie, Kíla, Sean Fitzgerald and Daragh Lynch from Lankum.

There’s also a bunch of other stuff like astronomy lectures, walks with bats, shamanic journeys, sound baths, a kids’ program, site-specific theater and reggae yoga. But alongside all of this, the team is creating sensory environments within the festival, so people with autism, ADHD, or other neurodiverse conditions have a safe, personalized space to hang out.

Sofft Nights was born at the origin of the pandemic, after “two months of fear and depression”, when Duffy and his colleagues Caroline Duke and Conor Jacob came together to create an event for the very few in 2020 that could work during Covid, regardless of restrictions. They managed this, including paying the artists, the crew and themselves, through the government’s live performance support scheme.

“It was a saving grace for all of us. In this industry, we had gone from being incredibly busy and hard workers to nothing. It’s kept us busy and creative, been good for our mental health, and also kept a lot of people in the industry,” says Duffy.

Antidote to difficult days

Sofft Nights grew out of the band’s previous Spirit of Folk festival (hence the double-F). “The idea was an antidote to hard days – and these are Sofft nights.”

After a miniature Sofft festival in 2020 and six more in 2021, this year’s capacity has increased to 1,000.

Throughout, the focus has been on wellness alongside music, but the sensory areas are new. While a slew of festivals overseas – from Neurostages at the National Theater of Scotland to Inclusion in Pennsylvania – are specifically accessible, Sofft is a mainstream festival with additional areas curated for neurodiversity.

One is in a replica megalithic cairn, built in the park 20 years ago as a space for meditation. “It’s breathtaking. It’s like walking into Newgrange. From the outside, it looks like a hobbit house from Lord of the Rings. Inside, the whole wall is filled with candles. The room will be specially lit and I asked composer Philly Holmes, who is neurodiverse, to create a soundscape. It is created by people with neurodiversity, for people with neurodiversity.

The sensory cairn will be scheduled at particular times over the weekend, with meditation sessions at other times.

The second area is a refuge with hammocks and lighting in the forest. Duffy explains how this taps into the proprioceptive sense. “Hammocks are really helpful because you feel body pressure, like a sensory swing. You can go off and lay in a hammock, look at the leaves on the trees, and take that space for yourself. Set and lighting designer Conor Jacob and lighting, video and immersion designer Mick Murray create the spaces.

“People with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] or autism have difficulty with sensory processing. The brain cannot sort, filter, or organize sensory messages,” Duffy explains, so appropriate sensory spaces “help the person self-regulate and reduce sensory overload.”

Pandemic revelation

The initiative is personal; festival director Duffy was diagnosed with ADHD in 2021. “The pandemic has revealed a lot to people,” she says. For her, in her thirties, it led her to “discover what I’ve struggled with all my life. I always thought there was something wrong, but I could never figure it out. Sometimes, I was thinking, is this anxiety? Is this in a bad mood?”

She was smart in school but had trouble concentrating and doing homework, having trouble sitting still in class. “It was a constant battle to get things done.

“ADHD in women and girls is not detected as well as in boys because we present ourselves differently and mask more. We internalize hyperactivity, which can turn into anxiety.

Duffy’s ADHD went undetected at school. “I remember feeling, after school, a sense of shame that I hadn’t done as well as I thought I could.” She worked right after school, and being “always busy, busy, busy and running” likely masked ADHD.

Aged 32, she has a degree in cinema and theater. “I’m very hands-on, I’m very hands-on, a good project manager. But reading has always been difficult, studying, writing essays. She still got a first in her degree.

It was when she decided, in the midst of a pandemic, to do a master’s degree, that she encountered problems. “I had to read three plays a week. I couldn’t do it. I struggled a lot with not being able to concentrate. Zoom added a whole extra layer of obstacles.

She describes “reading two or three lines and your mind begins to race, or your body becomes tense or anxious, trying to maintain concentration. It’s almost physical. There is good support and resources at the third level, “but you have to know you have it, that’s it”.

A college counselor suggested she might have ADHD, reinforced by symptoms from a friend and a recent diagnosis of ADHD. “My sister said, Tasha, I think you have ADHD, I think that’s what your challenges are. I hadn’t seen myself in the popular conception of what ADHD was.

She started to lean into it “and oh my God, it was like someone was describing me.” In online groups, “I was finally surrounded by adults who could relate. It was a real eye-opener.”

Children and adolescents with ADHD can find a multidisciplinary approach in child and adolescent mental health services, if they are lucky enough to have access to public health; waiting lists are long and the quality of services is geographically uneven. But for adults, it’s even worse. Natasha was alone to figure it out, with no integrated service available.

She waded around looking for help. She went to see a psychologist privately, who diagnosed ADHD after extensive testing. ADHD can be inattentive or hyperactive, or combined. Duffy is both, with hyper-focus: “I’m good at work,” she says, and she can focus when she’s doing something she loves.

But that was just a diagnosis. “There was no follow-up, no treatment plan. My GP said, well, there’s nothing I can do either. It wasn’t something they could get involved in. I was discouraged, disappointed. The GP referred Duffy to a psychiatrist, again privately, who did similar, extensive tests (for a second batch of fees), confirming the diagnosis. Basically, the psychiatrist, ADHD specialist, designed a treatment plan and follow-up.

Relief and grief

Appropriate public health provision for adults with ADHD would be so much better, Duffy says. While the trial and error process, the lack of clarity or guidance, and the doubling of tests (and costs) were upsetting, Duffy is very happy that diagnosis and treatment have now made things better.

“I am able to frame my life experience completely differently. They say that for people who receive a late diagnosis of ADHD, there is relief and grief. Relief to finally understand what has been going on for so long. And the grief wasn’t picked up earlier, and you didn’t get the resources that you could get now later in life.

Its treatment involves drugs and several techniques: “weighted blankets, massages. I learn in a different way through audio rather than trying to read. There are things that I now incorporate into my life that I had never done before because I didn’t understand that.

Festival-goers take the time for a sound bath session

Festival-goers take the time for a sound bath session

His experience has informed his work. She is excited about how creativity interacts with diversity and how neurodiverse people view music, art or theater.

“I’ve run festivals all my life. And I never stopped thinking about how sometimes they can be a bit of a sensory overload. I found myself at festivals looking for quiet areas. I said to the team, why don’t we develop specific sensory spaces where people like me or others with neurodivergence, ADHD or autism, can go to the festival, have a good time, dancing the night away and enjoying the whole party, but knowing that when I need just a little bit of space, I can take a little time to get rid of the overload? Go hang out in a hammock or meditate, and it’s a specifically organized and thought out space.

“It’s about feeling that there are different kinds of people and that it’s important to make room for everyone. The Sofft festival is not specifically for neurodivergent people. It’s for everyone, but it allows for space to accommodate everyone.

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