‘When I enjoy something, like making art, I’m capable of a hyper focus’

When artist, consultant and researcher Kai was diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, it raised a gazillion questions. 'What is this exactly I wondered?'

When artist, consultant and researcher Kai Syng Tan was diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, it did not, as you often hear, “help all the puzzle pieces fall into place”. Instead, for this London-based artist it raised a gazillion questions. “What is this exactly, I wondered?”

ADHD in adults

She approached Philip Asherson, Professor of Molecular Psychiatry at King’s College London (one of England’s top universities) and an expert in ADHD in adults, with those questions. “I asked him if I could talk to him about ADHD. But I also said: ‘I want to use my art to talk about it. For me making art is a way to get to understand myself better, more effective than talking. What do you think about that?’”

The psychiatrist thought it was an interesting proposal. Asherson was doing a study of the wandering mind at the time and thought that could be an interesting angle for collaboration. “People with ADHD have a intensively wandering mind,” says Kai. “They can talk to someone, for example, while at the same time their mind is wandering off and thinking, ‘what shall I have for breakfast tomorrow’?”

ADHD and mind wandering

Their collaboration has resulted in an exhibition, workshops and performances traveling through England that weaves together science and art: #MagicCarpet: We sat on a mat and had a chat and made maps. It explores ADHD and mind wandering, and asks: When does the wandering of the mind cross the line and become excessive and ‘abnormal’?

Kai created a gigantic colourful carpet with a fantastical design. It is a snapshot of Kai’s hyperactive mind. Visitors can sit down on the carpet, start conversations and make drawings of their wandering mind. Movies are shown as well as lectures and performances. “One particularly beautiful outcome of this project is that the exhibition is experienced as a safe space by many neurodivergent visitors. At one of the exhibitions, a participant approached me and said: ‘When I was sitting on the carpet there, I was surrounded by other neurodivergent people. For a moment I didn’t feel different. The carpet felt like a safe home’.”

Artist in residence

The artist received financial support from Arts Council England for her Magic Carpet project. The council supports work made by disabled artists. This enabled Kai to become an artist in residence at the Department of Social, Genetic & Developmental Psychiatry at King’s College London, where Philip Asherson works.

During this residency she was no longer working among other artists, but among psychiatrists and psychologists who are researching the brain and mind. “What I wanted to find out was: how do scientists and researchers look at ADHD and neurodiversity? I went to lectures, attended conferences on neurodiversity and various classes.”

‘I thought: just persevere until you get it done’

Before Kai received her diagnosis three years ago, she had never suspected she had ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. “Of course, I sometimes had trouble writing texts. For example, I found it very difficult to write my dissertation. I had to read a lot of books, and type reams and reams of text. But I heard colleagues around me also saying that it was so difficult. So I thought: just persevere until you get it done.”

And that’s also what she did in her childhood, growing up in the tropical island nation of Singapore. “The education system in Singapore is very intense. To get the required high marks, I studied non-stop. I had no social life and slept very little. Every day I spent ages rewriting the notes I’d made in class. You often read about girls with autism learning to camouflage their condition. I think I was doing that too. Singapore is a very conformist society. Being different than the others was the last thing anyone wants.”

Creative people

She ended up at an art academy in London, in part thanks to her parents. “They always encouraged me to express my creativity. They are very creative people themselves. My father didn’t have the opportunity to go to school because of the war. But afterwards he taught himself to read and write and even became a writer. My mother also didn’t complete high school, but she also expressed herself creatively.”

“When I was a child my mother often entered me into drawing competitions. I have a whole cupboard filled with trophies at home. Although my parents were poor – my father worked three jobs – my two brothers and I were all allowed to take piano lessons. My parents never thought excellent grades at school were the most important thing in life.”

‘When I enjoy something, like making art, I’m capable of a hyper focus’

“What has changed in my life because of my diagnosis? I’ve started giving myself permission to ask for help. For the #MagicCarpet project, for example, I have been able to get help by assembling my own team. When I enjoy something, like making art, I’m capable of a hyper focus. I eat and sleep very little then, and feel very driven. But my work also involves things that have nothing to do with creativity, like applying for funds. I don’t enjoy that part and when I have to write fund applications I have the opposite of hyper focus.”

“As a child I never told anyone about my difficulties studying. Very little was known about learning difficulties in Singapore in those days. My parents and my teachers didn’t have a clue that studying was such a struggle for me. After my diagnosis, I told my parents about my ADHD as well. In many ways it is like coming out of the closet.

‘There’s a group of people who even say there’s no such thing as ADHD’

“ADHD is a controversial diagnosis. There’s a group of people who even say there’s no such thing as ADHD. But for my parents it doesn’t change much anyway – I’m still the same Kai I’ve always been to them.”