Merlee Jayme
Oct 3, 2023

'Different, not less': Merlee Jayme on nurturing neurodivergent creative talent

"Nobody has ever been comfortable being the square peg in the round hole," one of the most celebrated female leaders in Asia's advertising circles, Jayme reflects on her journey that allowed her to think differently to create different.

Photo: Merlee Jayme
Photo: Merlee Jayme

If you watched the Cannes Lions-winning awareness film ‘Me, My Autism and I’ by Vanish Laundry, showing its ambition about autism, you would feel for Ash, the protagonist. You will feel her agony of noisy surroundings and the pain of being misunderstood. Two essential things stood out in the story. One is how creativity can be a therapy and an emotional outlet, and the second is the comfort of loving family members who support her in every way they can.

Individuals with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) use creativity, specifically art, to express themselves. It’s a way to release their feelings and calm them down. To think of it, it’s not so different from creatives in the advertising field. Every piece of art we do, whether illustrating, designing, or creating ideas, is a form of self-expression.

With years of heading creative departments across agencies, I have met various talents and trained them to master the art of mining insights, ideating, innovating, and the beauty of craftsmanship. I enjoy working with young minds and even taught creative writing at a university, but the challenge of mental health disorders affecting creatives hit me unprepared. More and more creatives are getting diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and quit the industry. They feel alone in their disabilities, intimidated, and unable to cope with the workload and the criticisms. So, I wanted to understand and help, but I wasn’t educated enough to understand the implications of these disorders.

Then, I met my 14-year-old nephew, who was diagnosed with PDD NOS (pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified). PDD, along with Asperger's syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, is classified as an autism spectrum disorder. This boy amazed me.

His mother showed me his never-been-posted TikTok videos that were uniquely shot and edited. For a boy who hardly speaks, he expressed himself by making stories with crazy angles and editing shots perfectly in sync with the beats of the music. Then, he started designing digital games. A chef running around catching pizzas may seem simple, but watching him create, play, and explain the game impressed me. When I asked his mum about his plans after school, sadly, she told me this is her biggest worry. The reality is that neurodivergent creatives have yet to have a clear future. 

This jumpstarted my research on the autism spectrum. I went back to school to take up courses on neurodiversity and study it in-depth.

Studies show that there is a relationship between autistic traits and creativity. Psychologists from the University of East Anglia discovered that people with high autistic traits produced fewer ideas when asked to create solutions to a problem—this is known as 'divergent thinking.' However, the ideas they create were more original and unique. This was the first study to find a link between autistic traits and the creative thinking process.

The co-author of the study, Dr. Martin Doherty, from UEA's School of Psychology, said,  "People with high autistic traits could be said to have less quantity but greater quality of creative ideas.

One day, I contacted different colleges and organisations that taught multimedia and visual arts courses and enrolled some neurodivergent students. I partnered with them and launched a post-graduate training camp that comes across as a safe space for mentally disabled creatives. We had one objective: to assess their creativity. What if we can discover extraordinary talents, train their creative skills, and provide career possibilities?

And this is how The Misfits Camp was born. It’s a safe place to bring together creatively inclined neurodivergent adults to train and prepare them for the working world. I invited some big-hearted people, including a digital expert, a top psychiatrist, a mom of two autistic children, and an art graduate with a brother on the spectrum and together we created individualised creative programs for assessing talent and honing skills to enable them to hold a job in the creative industry successfully.

It has been over six months since I started working with neurodivergent creatives. They are all in their mid-twenties, high-performing, and diagnosed with Asperger’s, PPD NOS/autism, and ADHD.

This is my journey of “thinking different to create different” with them. 

Unbelievable focus

The first thing I noticed with neurodivergent talent was the intense focus on assigned tasks. While one ensures the job is finished before the day ends, another focuses on perfecting details. Our digital head gave one of the creatives an online visual test with two levels and told me no one had been able to pass the second level with a perfect score. Our divergent creative breezed through the two levels with zero mistakes in just a few minutes. I watched him and saw how he put 100% attention on the screen—entirely focusing on one slide after another. They are disciplined to a point where it’s almost like they assign time when to be distracted and when to focus.

An eye and a mind for detail

Observing one of them write about a topic, he started typing away. Without checking Google, he produced five pages of perfectly descriptive paragraphs in less than an hour. It was like watching ChatGPT in a human form. Another takes his photos and creates films wonderfully with natural lighting. His eye for detail and lighting is out of this world. And yet another can draw storyboards in a very anime style—influenced by his love for manga comic books. We also wanted them to study and master online tools such as Photoshop, Canva, Procreate, and editing suites for their projects. I was surprised at the learning speed as they confidently used these immediately. At some point, they even pointed out some shortcuts I wasn’t aware of.

Ideation is not impossible

When I started writing the curriculum for the creative assessment, I stressed on visual and motor skills and wanted to test their abilities to illustrate, create art, and lay out. In the ad agencies, you can imagine them as future visualisers and graphic artists. However, I wanted to see if they could come up with ideas. Ideas that can solve problems, a lovely story with twists and turns, or fresh unpredictability for a brand. We showed them the best ideas that have won in global shows and explained why these were big with the target audience. So, we decided to test their ideation capability to prove that Dr. Martin Doherty's statement was accurate. One of the exercises I gave them was to imagine certain products, considering their brand equities, to take on different forms. They went wild.

Someone imagined Tide brand as a deodorant, the Jollibee Chicken Joy drumstick as a candle, and an Oreo as a yoyo (Oreoyo); it was just the beginning of something magical. Indeed, their minds are differently and uniquely wired. I believe the ad world needs more of these fresh, funny, crazy ideas to shake things up.

Kindness and zero toxicity

Let’s face it: adland can get toxic, given the stress of impossible deadlines and demanding managers. Criticism is far from constructive, and discrimination happens at all levels. I’ve witnessed behaviors that contribute to anxiety attacks. But working with neurodivergent creatives ‘rebooted’ me to bring back that childlike wonder, opening my eyes to pure, fresh, creative fun. Kindness in actions and words rules. This is my newfound joy, my therapy.

The industry needs to press the refresh button on how we do things, interact with each other, and conduct business for overall mental wellness. A good working environment inspires more powerful creative ideas.

Be different and make a difference

The reality is that advertising is defined by the world of sameness. Nobody has ever been comfortable being the square peg in the round hole. People try to carve out the ‘edge’ to fit the hole. But the edge is what makes being different beautiful. The more we discover and celebrate these ‘edges,’ the more we accept and include them in our lives. As the famous neurodivergent author Temple Grandin said, “Different, not less.”

Today, with the threat of AI taking over our creative jobs and the lack of talent due to mental health, we all need to value diversity in creativity.  Maybe it’s time for more companies to seriously realise their DEI goals by embracing the possibility of hiring creatives with disabilities, mental or physical. Every company's priority should be providing opportunities to more diverse minds and giving meaningful accommodations approved by experts for them to succeed.

For 34 years, I have trained and worked with various creative people, creating purpose-driven initiative work. This year, there is a different kind of goal to achieve for creativity’s sake. In this little way, it’s time to help provide a brighter future for all creative minds. Quoting one of my divergent creatives, he said, “Finally, I found my tribe.”

Merlee Jayme is the chairmom and founder of The Misfits Camp.

Campaign Asia

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