Kai Syng Tan: Unreasonable Adjustments


What follows is Kai Syng Tan’s script for ‘Unreasonable Adjustments’ – one woman’s account of the compromises she has to make to fit the non-ADHD world – edited from two previous shows, both performance-lectures. This script and associated slideshow, was created for Disability Arts Online. Here, you can read the script and advance the slideshow side by side. A few slides have been inserted as way-markers. The slideshow is available to download here, and to view on Issuu below.

I Run and Run, Let Out an Earth Shattering Roar, and Turn into a Giant Octopussy and Other Tales of UNREASONABLE ADJUSTMENTS

Watercolour painting of a dead cat

Wes, fed up. iPad drawing, text. Variable size. Kai Syng Tan 2018


I am fed up. I’m literally up to here. I’m full, swelling, with fury, and I’ll be spelling it out for you why. However, I’ll be watching my language. So while I really am seething teething, like this, I’ll do it with a smile, keep it civilised. My beef is that all my life I’ve had to make un-reasonable adjustments. I’ve been substantially disadvantaged when doing my job – of living and being, because I’m having to play by neuro-normative rules, drawn up probably by someone called Norman/Norma, to look, sound, think, act, smell, taste normal, to ‘pass’ as ‘straight’.

DWP Screenshot with annotations

Unreasonable Adjustments that Kai has to make to pass as ‘normal’. Digital image. Variable size. Kai Syng Tan 2018.

The truth is, unlike Norman/Norma, I’m not one to sit in the office. In fact I cannot stay still. I’m always running about, restless, breathless…

Who has heard of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD? Who knows someone with ADHD? Who thinks it doesn’t exist, that it’s down to poor parenting, invented by ‘big pharma’ and so on? Who thinks that we are all ‘a bit ADHD’ today – easily distracted and always on the go? Aren’t our mind always wandering off?

Kai Syng Tan running in the street

Warning: No Running. Sit and Stay in Your Place. Digital image. Variable size. Kai Syng Tan 2018.

The latter has some truth in it. As Professor of Psychiatry Philip Asherson states, ADHD is the extreme and impairing tail of a continuum. In other words, it’s not about whether you are inattentive, impulsive, hyperactive or not, but the extent to which you’re affected negatively, for it to qualify as a disorder, and, I will add, positively. That is to say, even Norman/Norma sit on the spectrum, although they’re probably at the other end to where I am. If I’m standing here, Norman/Norma is probably across the river, perhaps inside an ivory tower like Westminster, or Mars. That is wonderful. A world in which every body and mind is the same is a boring, colourless one. The issue is when people ignore or punish the Non-Normans and Non-Norma-s. Thus, today, I will be running through four compromises I’ve had to make, in order to fit the non-ADHD world.  I’ve drawn up an Excel spreadsheet.

Who likes spreadsheets? Who excels in excel?


Actually, I’ve lied. I don’t have a spreadsheet. In fact, I’m Excel illiterate. I consider spreadsheets ab-normal, a barrier for my work and life (and art is my occupation and pre-occupation). For a start, the word ‘spreadsheet’ spreads fury in me. I spread marmite on my toast to go with my cup of tea. Very dry, cold champagne is my cup of tea. I’ve also been known to spread joy on a daily basis, such as by distributing my badges and telling people all about art and ADHD, whether they like it or not. The rise and spread of the spreadsheet is inversely proportional to the level of my joy.  I cannot think inside the box – any box. And those cells… Is it a coincidence that the word ‘cell’ is synonymous with prison?

Check out my curve … … but look at those lines…grids… rows… and boxes…

Spreadsheet with graph

Hyperbola / hyperbole. Digital image. Variable dimensions. Kai Syng Tan 2018.

Actually, this slide is fake. It’s photoshopped. I didn’t use a spreadsheet to create this.

Spreedsheet and graph next to each other

Hyperbola / hyperbole de-composed. Digital image. Variable dimensions. Kai Syng Tan 2018.

Since we’ve got the momentum and groove going, let’s turn to forms. What about forms? Where should we begin? Funding bodies tell us: we champion creativity! Innovation! Experimentation!… Yet, they insist on the tyranny of logic and linearity as the only way to go about doing things. This is a blatant ignorance of the fact that ADHD and reading disability commonly co-occur. This ignores the fact that ADHD and reading disability commonly co-occur. In one study, as many as 15% of people with ADHD also have dyslexia. In fact, the arts, dyslexia and ADHD seem inextricably linked.

Arts departments in institutes of higher education report as many as 30% of students as dyslexic; people with dyslexia are over-represented in, and often excel at, jobs in art and design. It is even proposed that the incidence and intensity of visualisation is greater in ADHD individuals than in so-called ‘neuro-typicals’ and even dyslexics. ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia are examples of neurodevelopmental conditions that present cognitive challenges affecting planning, movements, reading, spelling, writing, processing, memory and sequencing.

As they are of a continuum, they are not that uncommon, and a few public figures have ‘outed’ themselves of their conditions. This includes Richard Branson and dyslexia, Daniel Radcliffe and dyspraxia, Chris Packham and Aspergers, Rory Bremner and ADHD, ADHD, Michael Phelps, and his swimming medals. Then, there is Kai and her monkey mind.

Cartoon of pink pony and monkey

Gibbon Mind Donkey Will. iPad, marker pen. 420X594 mm. Kai Syng Tan 2017.

It takes me three hours to write a paragraph, another few hours to unpack, re-map words, to grasp what it is that each application form is looking for. To fill in boxes, lines, cells, you must re-interpret, re-think, re-write. And I haven’t talked about the thirty or so ideas running around my head at any one time, which demand editing, chucking off, chunking together, sharpening, blunting, punching into shape. Be innovative! Re-imagine the world! Be full of character, they cry – just no more than fifteen hundred characters for each box, please. And do tick our box. Make sure you fit, that you are fit for our system. Didn’t you know that we can pay for someone to help you with the process and outsource your problems? It’s stated clearly on page 378, line 2364 of one of the 9899 pdfs. We’ll send you the links. Would we adjust how we work? No. Why should we? Since you’ve gotten this far in the instructions – and in life – you can’t be that disabled. You don’t look disabled. You aren’t disabled enough, anyway. Don’t like our thinking? Then don’t ask for our money.

Marker pen illustration of a face

MW (Mind Wandering). Marker pen. 148 x 210 mm. Philip Asherson 2017.

That said, there have been forms that were dead easy to fill up. Like those that measure ADHD. How often do I have difficulty getting things in order? Forever. What about remembering appointments? Well I’ve now got a sophisticated system going on with a mixture of post-it notes on walls, pieces of ripped toilet paper on the corkboards and scribbles on my palm. Do I procrastinate? Let me come back to you later.

Philip and his team came up with one which uses mind wandering as a framework for adult ADHD. Do I have difficulty controlling my thoughts? Do I find it hard to switch off? Do I have two or more different thoughts at the same time? Absolutely.  I approached Philip two years ago when told that I have ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia – because I aced in these forms. Hitting 3 out of 4 quadrants, this was the holy trinity. Triple jackpot.

Thinking I was sad with the diagnosis, a colleague said: ‘onwards and upwards.’ My dyspraxic response was, ‘great, but which way is that?’ I needed to know more about ADHD. I cold-called Philip. Always the maximalist – especially when over-excited – I sent an introductory email – of 600 words.


That is when friends tell me: Tone down! You’re too aggressive! Where’s your British reserve? Well, I’m reserving it until Teresa May gives me a British passport. Philip has talked about how the first ‘D’ in ADHD shouldn’t be ‘deficit’ but ‘dis-regulation’, because it’s about not having enough attention for things that bore us, but also too much, that is, hyper attention, over-focus on things that interest us. Then, there’s the lack of inhibition and being determined. At least in my email I used paragraphs and bullet points. I even signed off with ‘don’t worry, I’m not a criminal’, and ended with a smiley face – measured and civilised. 15 minutes on, Philip replied, with 3 lines. Feeling encouraged, I fired off another 30 ideas. I also visited the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, located at Memory Lane. Yes, really.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Hinder, fake dating app

Hinder: the disobedient dating app. Digital image. Variable dimensions. Kai Syng Tan 2018 (from an idea first conceived in 2015).

Who uses Tinder? Don’t be shy… We won’t tell your partner.  Well I do… It’s rubbish. You should try Hinder. It’s way more classy. I know because I designed it. It’s my dating app, and it dis-obeys you.

Swiping right for someone who is like you, or who would like you, or who thinks and acts like you is so last century, or pre-summer 2016. Hinder is all about getting out of your comfort zone to meet people outside of your professional, social, political, cultural norms to challenge yourself and the other person, to engineer new conversations in a creative, positive way, I call ‘productive antagonisms’. My diagnosis brought questions not clarity. Not one to take things lying down, and as a compulsive seeker of novelty, I wanted to learn why my brain is considered ab-normal, how notions of normality are constructed. Art is my process of interrogation and dialogue. Since last September I have been wandering into the minds of psychiatrists. I’m attending seminars, allowing exotic concepts, and methodologies to blow my mind, as well as participating in clinical trials.

A major output is a tapestry art installation, which explores mind wandering. Everyone daydreams and gets distracted.  There are artistic traditions that celebrate restlessness. At the same time, Philip is pioneering research on how excessive mind wandering is key to adult ADHD. The tapestry is where art and psychiatry collide – and create sparks. Which is why it’s also a carpet – for Philip and I to sit on and chat.

We invite others to join us: colleagues from our respective fields, the anti-ADHD brigade, service users and, in particular, Norman slash Norma, because speaking only to the converted is boring. Amazing as I am, I’m not on tinder to find a male version of myself. Can you imagine? it’s already tiring being me. Since words, are overrated, we also make drawings. Thus, the ‘magic’ that my project aims for is not to seek or provide answers, but to open up a physical, critical and creative space to interrogate ourselves about how we think about our body and mind, and that of others who are different to ours. To clash. To be amused, bemused. To learn, un-learn. To wonder. To wander. To travel where we wouldn’t have, alone, or if I wasn’t brash and gatecrashed into Philip’s world.

Group of people sitting on a carpet

With executive committee members of UK Adult ADHD Network (UKAAN) including Professor Philip Asherson (UKAAN President and #MagicCarpet mentor, seated at the centre at the back row) and Professor Gísli Guðjónsson CBE seated in the centre front, a forensic psychologist whose expert testimony overturned the convictions of Birmingham Six and Guildford Four.

People holding colourful tapestry

#MagicCarpet with artists at Submit To Love, at Headway East London, a charity for people affected by brain injury. Photograph by Michelle Carlile 2018.

Man photographs tapestry with phone

I Run and Run, Let Out An Earth Shattering Roar, and Turn Into A Giant Octopussy (2.9mX 1.45m) exhibited at the Unlimited Festival, Southbank Centre. Photograph by Studio Maba for #MagicCarpet by Kai Syng Tan 2018.


We have our disciplinary, sectorial and cultural conventions and norms. Those in psychiatry are hard for an outsider/newcomer from the arts. There are concepts and approaches I cannot start to grasp – and a lot of science and mathematics. Yet, when you go on Tinder, or Hinder, there must be the willingness to not know, to venture, to play,  to feel vulnerable, to see what happens. My colleagues from psychiatry have been open to my invitation to chat. For me, that’s a swipe right – a match, a promising start. None of them seem interested in trying to fix me. I have also learnt that the timing is good. There is growing interest to study the upsides and other under-researched areas of ADHD. Researchers are relating ADHD with giftedness and creativity. There are non-medical interventions such as exercise and mindfulness.

Over the years I’ve worked with members from different species, but I have discovered that Philip is one great sport. Also having been working with creative people with ADHD like Rory Bremner, Philip has been open to the experimental nature of the project with a level of genuine interest and curiosity. Understanding that ADHD involves interactions between genetics, the environment, and social factors has opened up insights — and questions for me as an artist, researcher, woman and person.

Did being born one month premature increase my chance of ADHD, and explain my disruptiveness, such that my parents wanted to give me away (but see how well-adjusted I’ve learnt to appear now)? My artistic practice has been about the restless body and mind in a world in flux. I’ve moved across cities, art forms, within and beyond the art world and the academy. Yet, is this insatiability/hunger/gluttony due to the under-active reward system in my brain? Or is my refusal to stay fixed my form of protest to the claustrophobia felt while growing up in a tiny tropical paradise?

Handwriting on paper

Getting a Fix / Getting Fixed. Marker pen, pens. 210 × 297 mm. Kai Syng Tan 2018


I have also learnt, to my surprise, that colleagues from the arts sector have reservations about joining the same table or carpet. Perhaps this comes from the rejection of the medical model of health and tradition of anti-psychiatry in the arts, which I myself identified with when younger. With age, however, comes thicker skin. I’ve nothing to lose… and I’m bloody curious. When moving across borders, slipping through crevices trespassing boundaries, language and rules shift, become problematic, questioned and questionable by those from other industries and worlds. A community’s ‘gold standard’ or unbreakable truth becomes another’s poison.

Colleagues from the arts tell me that like ‘illness’ and ‘abnormality’, which are the norm in psychiatry, don’t sit well with them. And, as playwright Kaite O’Reilly, states, ‘what is normal for you isn’t normal for me’. Then, there was a dyslexic designer who rejects the social model of disability, as well as my invitation to join my panel, because they ‘don’t want to sit next to “disabled people”’, as they do not consider dyslexia a disability.  This is interesting.

We’d acknowledged that we share the same goal, which is to fight the unreasonable ways of the ignorant. And yes, we have different frameworks. What I cannot understand is how they reject the opportunity to have a discussion about this, in public. Isn’t it when we have different frameworks, when things rub up against one another, when things aren’t just us versus them, black and white, but 50, 500 shades of greys and aren’t mutually exclusive, allowing messy overlaps blurred thresholds and inherent contradictions —  isn’t that when new questions can be born, and when magic can happen – and when antagonisms can become productive? And every body wants to sit with me — except them. Now I’m deeply offended.

Digital drawing of a cat with tentacles

Detail from drawing for I Run and Run… iPad. Dimensions variable. Kai Syng Tan 2017.


Thus, I have made a decision. From now on, I will be a runny, leaky, octopussilly, ill-disciplined inter-species roaming the interstices of life as an un-reasonable, ill-fitting, mal-adjusted kaimera, a walking, running zoo, an untamed safari of mind wandering beasts, scampering, smiley faced, restless, breathless, in the spaghetti junction of disciplines, ideas, ideologies, practices, un-fixed un-fixable, with multiple tentacles of inconsistent, lengths, viscosity, elasticity levels of interest.

Some are blunt, broad, others sharp, piercing but all porous, non-bullet-proof, with-out magic bullets, dipping into conflicting schools of thought, flitting back and forth 30, no, 300, 43,000 ideas, spreading out,  infiltrating into different parameters, running into other species, opening up zones of contact and conflict, inviting others to wander and wade in, engineering conversations collisions, encouraging awkwardness, play, trial, error.  This is illness as methodology. That ADHD is contested and has bad press — even within the medical community – and is marked by inconsistency and dis-regulation, makes it a fit starting point, enabling a promiscuous collaging of distinct frameworks, teasing out new questions and insights, interrogating the boundaries between ‘normality’ and ‘abnormality’ – and this is the research statement of my project that Philip had helped me to articulate a year ago.


My ill-disciplined art also has multiple, entry points purposes functions including in or for health.  As the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing Report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing published in Summer 2017 argues,  the arts can help keep us well meet major challenges
including those facing mental health. and save money.  Through case studies, it evidences how creativity can stimulate imagination and reflection encourage dialogue guide conversations, and enable
access to a range of emotions – including anguish, crisis and pain – which are still preferable to being sedated. Australia, Cuba and Nordic countries are already using the arts to help influence policy and enable people to take a more active role in their own health.

Woman with beach ball

Production shot from Declaration by Art with Heart. Photograph by Sam Riley (2017).

If we can consider genres and frameworks like ‘creative health’ or ‘disability arts’, what could we get out of ‘neuro-diverse art’? When I put this forward to colleagues at an event at the Art Workers’ Guild, one responded that ‘neuro-diverse art’ is about ‘looking at the world in different ways’, which is ‘healthy’ — and ‘makes the rest of us re-examine ours’. Another states that the term seems ‘as unlimited in its possibilities as art itself’ — but ‘with the added element of surprise – that which is ‘not typical’. And for Jo Verrent, Senior Producer of Unlimited, ‘people get shown the world afresh’ when an artist ‘makes work that is true to themselves’.

While we are at it, can we think about the ‘art of ADHD’ or #ADHDart? What could that be? What could art do, do in, do for, and/or do with ADHD? Art therapy aside, how about considering ADHD as a subject matter in theatre, painting, music and so on, as well as ADHD as a creative impulse or strategy? What could this #ADHD art reveal or say about ADHD? Could we consider the upsides of ADHD? And if disabled women are made to feel invisible, women with invisible disabilities are doubly invisible. Isn’t it, thus, time to highlight ADHD in women as a hidden problem – and a hidden resource? Women
important in this discussion because we are hitherto under-researched
and under-diagnosed in ADHD,as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) 2018 guidelines also suggests, as well as in autism. Shouldn’t we thus consider how creativity relates to women with ADHD, and how this stimulates imagination, guide conversations and complicate dominant discourses? I’m not proposing a glamorisation or caricaturisation of ADHD. Even for people who are deemed ‘high functioning’ ADHD is often a tricky monkey. Yet, there’s more than one side to any story – and the emphasis only on deficits
seems a missed opportunity. Art could not only make visual and give form to hidden differences, but, with its propensity for ambiguity and play, make neuro-diverse conditions, more visible, that is, more seen, more heard, more talked about, and not only spoken ill of. As artist Dolly Sen elegantly puts it, ‘fuck reasonable. I aim to be beautifully, awe-inspiringly, audaciously, powerfully, ecstatically unreasonable’.

Two women lying on ground

Plotting to change the world while horizontal with Raquel Meseguer, Arnolfini, UK (2018).

My effort joins in existing work of other ecstatically unreasonable colleagues. other creative
women with neurodevelopmental conditions and hidden disabilities. They include: Art with Heart, a queer-led theatre group which explores ADHD,  and Unlimited artists like Aby Watson, Anna Berry and Raquel Meseguer. (When we last met, Raquel and I were lying down at Arnolfini in Bristol. Laid flat and horizontal, we plotted plans to undermine the dominant mode of the verticality, linearity and erection). Last but not least, there’s the audaciously powerful work of Jess Thom aka Touretteshero.


I’m running out of time, so I shan’t bore you, or me, any more. After all, as a publisher tell me in their reply to a book proposal of mine, my work is ‘too niche’ — meaning the concerns of a 3-tiered sandwich like me (female, yellow, with my holy trinity of disabilities) is too marmite and not ‘universal’ enough. Now my proposal is a salaciously succulent sex memoir slash exposé about the art world slash butchery manual, because I was seeing a chef whom I met on Tinder. Surely such juicy tentacles of flesh juxtaposed with blood, Octopussies and sticky revelations would be the cup of tea of Norman slash Norma?

Digital drawing packed with text

Detail from new set of drawings first began in December 2017 for new publication. iPad drawing, dimensions variable. Kai Syng Tan 2017.

Thank you very much indeed.

Declaration is on tour. This year, Art With Heart has partnered with the ADHD Foundation and ADHD Solutions to deliver ADHD Awareness Training in Leicester, London and York.

Catch #MagicCarpet at two locations in London now: Visit the Bush House Arcade along the Strand to see and touch the tapestry, and visit the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre to make drawings of your mind and earn a badge.

group of people chatting

Audiences after the performance-lecture of Unreasonable Adjustments at the Unlimited Festival, Southbank Centre, on 6 September 2018. Photograph by Studio Maba for #MagicCarpet by Kai Syng Tan 2018.

The first performance of Unreasonable Adjustments was showcased on 6 September 2018 at the Southbank Centre as part of Unlimited Festival, and part of exhibition of #MagicCarpet. See gallery and information here, and review on Disability Arts Online. The second run was at the 5th European Network Hyperkinetic Disorders EUNETHYDIS (p22) at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 23 September 2018. See gallery and information here, and commentary here by ADHD Institute. In the live versions, the spoken text was precisely timed with the 200 or so slides.

Woman standing on stage

Unreasonable Adjustments as it was premiered at the Unlimited Festival, Southbank Centre, on 6 September 2018. Photograph by Studio Maba for #MagicCarpet by Kai Syng Tan 2018.

Unreasonable Adjustment is an output of #MagicCarpet, a 1.5 year Unlimited commission funded by Arts Council England and supported by King’s College London. Thus far, #MagicCarpet has taken part in 15 exhibitions and workshops, 2 solo shows, 3 residences, 13 conferences/seminars/presentations, appeared in 5 publications, 2 art catalogues and 24 citations on radio, newspapers and the internet, as well as 6 films. In 2018 it was awarded the National Coordination Centre for Public Engagement NCCPE Images Competition Award for ’Culture Change’. Kai mentored by Professor of Psychiatry Philip Asherson of the world-leading Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre. #MagicCarpet’s arts production manager is Alessandra Cianetti.