I was asked to write an essay about the intersection of neurodiversity and the occult — specifically, to explore why so many neurodivergent people take comfort in and embrace the various forms of magic that make up what we call “the occult”. If you’d like to commission me to write an essay on a subject of your choice there’s a place where you can do that
There’s a lot to say about this subject, so buckle up!
A Note on “Woo” and The Occult
This essay is going to talk about occult practice as a serious thing that a lot of neurodivergent people have been engaging with. If your gut reaction to that is to roll your eyes and dismiss all of this as nonsense I’d like to ask you for a favor — can you take a second and reflect on whether or not you trust me, based on the other essays and content you’ve seen on this website? If so, trust me on this one.
I’m not asking you to believe in anything supernatural — I’m asking you to be open to the idea that there is value in occult practice even if its underlying ontology is make-believe.
Maybe you’ll still disagree with me, but I hope the arguments I lay out here are at least novel enough for you to consider them.
Structure, Order and Rules
On the surface a lot of neurodivergent people are drawn to systems of order. Whether this is an intrinsic aspect of neurodivergent thinking or a coping mechanism for living in a world that so frequently doesn’t seem to make any sense is a question that needs to be researched — but what we do know is that autistic people in particular seem to crave structure and order. We like rules, and we like the complexity that emerges from rules.
Occult systems from Tarot to Ouiji to ancient esoteric alchemical rituals to saying a creature’s name three times to make it appear — these are all sets of rules. If you do this, you’ll experience that. Order. Equivalences. Transformations. It’s a system, and our brains love systems.
But the occult offers more than just an interesting taxonomy of related ideas. After all, the appeal of the occult eclipses the appeal of museums or legal precedent or merely large structured processes — though of course plenty of autistic people are super into all of those things as well.
So what it is about the occult that gives it this particular appeal to the neurodivergent mind? Why, more than other system-oriented hobbies, does occult practice seem to offer more to us?
The Occult as Accommodation
I suspect a part of it is that the occult experience is one of articulating and expressing ineffable abstract truths. It’s weighing the relations between constituent parts and coming to conclusions for which there are no words. Does this sound familiar? It’s also how so many neurodivergent people engage with reality; there are no words for the kinds of thoughts or ideas we often have, and we have to resort to metaphors or abstract descriptions in order to articulate what we mean.
Then we discover the occult and we realize that people have been doing exactly that for a very long time.
Alchemy is about turning lead into gold, right? Well, sort of; it’s also about describing the process of human growth and capturing things like false epiphany and unhelpful relation as a part of the process. It gives its adherents a way to talk about this process and a way to relate to their own progress along some dimension of growth.
Tarot is about telling the future, right? Eh, in a way, I guess; it’s about exploring possibility spaces with a series of abstract prompts and relationships between concepts that help the practitioner filter reality into a manageable state. Absolutely you can get insight about the future this way, and it comes from allowing yourself to ask yourself the right questions. This is really powerful for people who are often overwhelmed by too many thoughts or perspectives at once, a common enough trait among the neurodivergent.
Summoning rituals are about making contact with entities on some other plane of existence and binding them to do our bidding, or so some people would have you believe. (I may be one of them?) But there’s also a lens through which summoning is about manifesting and naming a specific kind of energy which can then be used to inform our own actions. This is a great trick for overcoming executive dysfunction and for manifesting desired changes to reality — you summon entities because you need their help.
Herbs are for brewing magic potions whose effects can be powerful and beyond anything modern medicine claims to be able to do — a good witch brews her potions with equal parts herb and narrative, and that narrative is a crucial part of certain kinds of healing.
Everywhere you look within occult practice you find disability and accommodation. There’s a whole lens through which occult practice is what disability studies used to look like, right? This is where the weirdos went who didn’t fit into normal society.
There’s another important way that the occult experience and the neurodivergent experience overlap: people engaging with either will rapidly come to understand that reality is a subjective construct.
Now, that’s a bold claim, so let’s unpack what I mean a little bit. Obviously there’s a whole universe of material reality that we seem to be situated in. I can trip on a rock and the existence of that rock is not up for debate, right? It’s definitely “real” — so what do I mean when I say that reality is a subjective construct?
I mean that there’s a layer of “reality” that exists in our awareness. If you’re not aware of something then in a very real way it’s simply not “real” to you, even though it exists. To be “real” to you is to be a part of the model you have of “reality”. That rock I tripped on wasn’t “real” to me until I tripped, at which point it “became real” in this sense.
I think it’s really important and healthy to define “reality” in this way, because it allows us to explain that neurodivergent people and neurotypical people frequently inhabit parallel but separate “realities”. Put simply we pay attention to different things, notice different things, care about different things, are distracted by different things, etc enough that our lists of “things that are real” can diverge pretty heavily.
When you’re neurotypical your reality looks mostly like every other neurotypical person’s reality. You can reassure each other that there’s only one valid way to see the world, one valid objective reality — there’s not. There’s only a shared perspective that you have with other NT people.
Neurodivergent people, on the other hand, spend their whole lives managing the cognitive dissonance that comes from experiencing one reality while slowly realizing that everyone around them is experiencing a different reality, and further that though the neurodivergent person has often learned to accept the validity of the neurotypical reality the reverse is rarely true; people want there to be one objective reality, and they jump through a lot of hoops to maintain the illusion that such a thing exists.
What’s this got to do with the occult? Magic is at its core about manipulating reality, about changing which reality you live in. It does this through applied attention to subjectively experienced truths — your observations and your stories become “real” to you through almost a form of self-hypnosis, which is what cognition really is on some level anyway.
Both the neurodivergent experience and the occult experience require the individual to understand and accept a reality that diverges from the collective neurotypical “objective” reality, and requires the individual to be comfortable holding that complexity.
I suspect this is part of the reason why so many neurodivergent people get into the occult — because there’s something almost intrinsically occult about existing as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world anyway.
Ultimately there’s a lot of wisdom in realizing that the words “spirit” and “story” are synonymous. The self is a story we tell ourselves about who we are. The larger our narrative vocabulary the more complex a story we can tell.
When we’re limited to words like “crazy” or “behaviorally challenged” or “paranoid” or “lazy” then there’s a limit to the stories we can tell about ourselves; neurodivergent people have historically lacked the vocabulary to tell meaningful and grace-filled stories about our own experiences.
The occult is a powerful tool for us because finally it gives us new vocabulary, new language and concepts, along which to group our experiences. Often we can find stories in occult practice that fit us better than the stories our society wants to tell about us, whether that’s through identifying as a changeling or embracing witchcraft.
Magicians and Neurodivergents both spend a lot of time negotiating with the nature of reality; that so many neurodivergent people would opt to explore occult practice is, I suspect, a testament to the fact that the occult is a source of accommodation that’s grounded in a neurodivergent-friendly ontology and enables us to tell richer stories about ourselves and our realities.