Month: April 2022

Dare to Dream

By Yamila García

Like many other people with ASD when I was a kid a was obsessed with science. Nothing captured my attention more than galaxies, astronauts, and space rockets. Another reason for people to see me as a “weird” girl, a girl who lives wrapped in fantasies and does not understand reality. Despite always being aware that I needed to adapt to society, I was never willing to give up my uniqueness. If I was going to fit in, I was going to do it on my own terms. 

I went to my middle-school library every day until I finished reading all the books they had on astronomy and astronautics. I kept painting galaxies and using space-themed binders all my school years through high school. As a teenager, when all my classmates had binders or backpacks with the images of their favorite singers, I had someone very special in mine that had nothing to do with singing. His name is Franklin Chang-Díaz. He was an astronaut and my idol for as long as I can remember. I had his pictures on my room’s wall, on my binders, articles of his work everywhere, and he was also the wallpaper on my computer for many years. I felt so proud and inspired by him being the first Hispanic astronaut. I read and learned a lot about his work which I found amazing, I followed his project of plasma propulsion for use in human flights to Mars. I knew he was born in Costa Rica, he made 7 spaceflights and he got his doctorate in applied plasma physics from MIT, but among so many things I knew, I missed a detail.

When I received my acceptance e-mail from UConn, I was at the Commencement ceremony of Three Rivers Community College, graduating with my associate’s degree in Computer Science. Of course, I could not be happier! Immediately after the ceremony, I got back home and opened all the links that were sent to me to learn more about my new university. Exploring the website, I found the “notable alumni” section. I think at this point you can guess what detail I missed and who I found there… Franklin Chang-Díaz received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at UConn and when I found out that I couldn’t stop crying. I was about to start studying at the same school as my lifelong idol. I cried for that dreamy and fanciful girl who should never have adapted too much to anything. I cried with gratitude because as much as one tries to fight against its essence, life (and hard work) always ends up putting things in their place. 

In the ITE building, there is a showcase with photos of outstanding alumni from the engineering school. When I feel a little down or overwhelmed, I go there, look at his picture and remind myself to let the fanciful girl in me continue to dream and be as weird as she wants to be. There was nothing wrong with me, the problem was those who did not dare to dream and did not want me to be myself. My “obsession” was just pointing me in the right direction.


The Future is Accessible

By Jess

I was diagnosed with autism at age 37, a year and a half after beginning my fourth attempt at a college education. It took me a while to unpack where autism fit into my education background. Like a lot of newly diagnosed autistic people, I not only had occasional doubts about the accuracy of the diagnosis, I had trouble admitting that I did, in fact, have a disability. 

“Some autistic people need accomodations, but if I used them I’d just be taking advantage of the system.” 

After two years of having unused accommodations in place “just in case,” reality hit. I was struggling through fluid dynamics and in total denial of my situation. We had passed the time of virtual and recorded lectures, and I would sit in a packed classroom feeling the physical presence of 100 other people, hearing the shuffle of papers, the squeaking of chairs, every small cough, every clicking of a pen or tap on a keyboard. The clack of a door opening unexpectedly scratched the inside of my skull. The murmur of a hushed conversation had the texture of radio static and felt like rough carpet scraping up against my skin. Even the lights were loud. My professor’s lectures would float around me in strings of words and tones that refused to shape themselves into cohesive ideas. 

The moment of clarity finally came during the first exam, when I stubbornly insisted that I could take it with the rest of the class instead of a dedicated quiet space. I was sitting in the back as far away from everyone as I could, but still close enough to hear the shuffling of papers of the young man sitting near me. It felt like sitting next to a squirrel trapped in a cardboard box. 

If you know any neurodivergents, you’re probably familiar with the concept of sensory overload. Human brains are designed to continuously and automatically sort information based on its utility, urgency, and novelty. You didn’t notice the color of the shoes of the woman that just walked past you. You don’t remember the name of the person you met 5 minutes ago. You might have looked at the painting in the hallway you just walked by in the doctor’s office, but can you recall the subject? This selective filtering of nonessential information is important to our daily existence. The yellow umbrella on your container of salt should not be taking up as much of your mental bandwidth as the fact that your sink is running and nearly full. 

Neurodivergent brains do not often filter this information well. Everything is given equal attention. Everything makes it through. Your brain isn’t quite sure if the clacking of a pair of heels in the hallway is more or less important than the conversation you’re currently having with someone you desperately need to speak to, so it’s just going to focus on both.

For someone experiencing sensory overload, the world is everything all at once. 

We deal with this issue in different ways. Some of us wear headphones, some of us are comforted by pulling a hoodie over our heads. An entire mini-industry has popped up around offering us sound dampening ear plugs. Some of us remain centered with stimming, which can mean bouncing a leg, rocking back and forth, flapping or shaking hands, or what sounds like a verbal tic. 

The experience of school can be overwhelming, and before we even set foot in the classroom we’re already at a disadvantage. But, it’s 2022 and I’m hoping we’re past the time of needing to list off a cast of diagnosed and suspected neurodivergents to support the claim that we are no less able to learn and do the work as our neurotypical counterparts. 

A lot of neurotypicals bristle at the idea of these special treatments for disabled students. After all, you’ve had times when you couldn’t focus or couldn’t make it to class. Maybe you have trouble taking traditional tests even though you know the material. Or maybe you just have trouble understanding lectures. Why don’t you get these special accommodations?  Well… You should. 

Medical diagnoses for learning disabilities in the United States is tricky. The accommodations offered by most institutions and programs exist only for diagnosed medical conditions. And as long as we don’t all have equal access to medical care, those accommodations will be for the privileged. Even with medical insurance, the medical community has been slow to catch up to the research and many autistic people, particularly women, are being shut out of the diagnostic process. (Various reasons I’ve heard for discounting a woman’s suspicion that she may be autistic: She’s making eye contact, she’s living independently, she drove herself to the appointment, she’s an adult and only kids have it, or my favorite, she’s an adult and it only matters when you’re a child.) 

The process of accommodations has by necessity created a system of disability gatekeeping, with universities having to rely on medical evaluations and then making judgment calls on what accommodations are appropriate for those who are able to get them.  

Accommodations have been invaluable to improving access to education, but the future of accessibility will be in not needing to request it at all. 

In the past, strict adherence to schedule and in person attendance was a necessity of educating thousands of students at once in an efficient manner. The strict adherence to the schedules required by educational institutions became a measure of moral character and a socioeconomic litmus test. The limitations of 20th century education favored the young, unmarried, childless, able bodied and, obviously, the well-off. Today we’re no longer bound to in-person classrooms and the technology to record, caption, and broadcast lectures is so widely available that most of us carry the necessary hardware in our pockets. 

Most neurodivergents are largely in agreement in what could improve our educational experience. Flexible attendance policies. In person lecture options with captioned recordings. Clear and concise instructions. Quiet, private study spaces on campus. Professors that are familiar with the challenges of neurodivergent students. 

You may notice that these aren’t things that are unique to the needs of autistic students. And that’s kind of the point.

When the Hulk Won’t Come Out

By Aaron Picking

“Must be nice.”  These are the three magic words I hear the most when explaining on exam day why I wasn’t there.  As a matter of fact, it is not nice at all.  The Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD) isn’t a spa.  We don’t get handed a cup of our favorite coffee as we are personally escorted to the VIP section of the test taking area where soft Mozart is playing, and the scent of lavender soothes the mind.  However, it is Shangri-la to those of us who are affected by the noise of fifty others shuffling through papers during an exam.  There are also the gracious instructors who like to talk during the exams with corrections.  My name is Aaron, and I’m on the autism spectrum.  While it may seem like having the CSD is just common-sense accommodations in a university, or any educational setting, it is much more to that for people like me.  I’m thriving at a superficial level in my major because of the CSD.  It’s actually impressive considering the situation.

Let me take you through the journey of a typical exam preparation.  I’m in class two weeks before exam day, and I’m answering questions, and talking to my peers about solutions to homework.  And, then, out of nowhere what happens is a complete system crash.  Now, this doesn’t happen every time.  It’s random.  Perhaps it’s the position of the moon, or mercury in the sky.  All of the lecture videos might as well be in Farsi.  I take notes, go over homework and quizzes, and also can’t remember even writing them.  For somebody like me with goals of going to graduate school, one test is a big deal.  Being on the autism spectrum, when we have a path, that train is at full speed.  This is now an existential crisis.  There is an Avengers film, Infinity War, where Bruce Banner cannot get the Hulk to take over.  Even in the direst of situations, the Hulk emphatically tells him no.  You can see it unfold here: .

The CSD allows me to deal with my experience in a healthy way.  I know what I am getting into when I go in there.  There is no backup.  There is no crying.  There is only peace and quiet.  I have sat in that room for an hour and a half without a single answer to a question put to paper.  It’s as if my mind has to feel sorry for me, like a bully on the playground, before allowing me to unlock the information.  There are even times when I think of an answer, only to have my hand write down something else.  Then, in that final half hour, the photographic memory comes out of nowhere, uncontrolled, and unbridled, forcing me to copy everything I see down before it’s gone.  Here’s the thing; I’ve participated in an REU in neuroscience, and will be participating in another REU for chemical engineering.  I’ve been able to keep my GPA high enough to keep my goals of graduate school realistic.  With the struggles that I remember taking exams, I can say with certainty that I would absolutely not be where I am without the CSD accommodations.  Imagine what the world would miss out on if students were not able to succeed on their own terms.  So, yes, in a way… it’s pretty nice.

Life Through Patterns

By Yamila García

The first time I visited Storrs was before starting the Fall semester in 2021. I arrived on Storrs Road, turned onto Horsebarn Hill Road, and parked in my assigned area. There is another sector that I am also allowed to use but I haven’t used it yet. Since day one, I have always taken the same route. I sit in the same places in my classes, eat the same food from the same place, drink the same coffee, read and study in the same building and at the same table. I do it that way not because I love it, but because it gives me a structure and that makes me feel safe. I don’t know what I need to be safe from, I just need that structure so when I have to deal with unexpected situations it doesn’t feel that bad. I guess if I have the rest under control, I can deal better with the “unexpected thing” that is happening. I don’t like to improvise, I always need to have a plan, a map, a way of doing things. If I don’t have that structure everything feels chaotic. Yet, I will be creating a map of that chaos…

It seems that this need for structure leads me to look for it anywhere. Predictably, I have always looked for patterns in everything. If I read something for the first time, before trying to understand what it says, I try to understand the structure of the text. If I am learning a new math topic, first I see exercises that have already been done and that is enough for me to understand the logic of the new topics. If I listen to music, I always separate in my mind the different sections that the song has. I try to find repetitions, connections, and logic in everything that comes my way. Finding patterns guides me through new things and helps me adapt more easily. It has also helped me understand how people communicate. In my native language, I didn’t communicate very well or understand slang when I was a teenager, but that ability to recognize patterns helped me learn how people communicate and be able to imitate them. This definitely helped me and I can say that the process was a success. Today no one would believe that I ever had a hard time communicating.

Doing things repetitively, obsessing over patterns, and looking for structure in everything are simply a way of adapting to the environment around us. That is my way, it is what works for me, it is similar to that of some people and very different from that of others. There are people who don’t stop talking because silence is uncomfortable for them, people looking to make friends with everyone because loneliness makes them uncomfortable, people filling their days with activities because they don’t want to feel useless or because being at home is not a good plan for them. But everyone has a way of coping with what is uncomfortable or difficult for them, even if they haven’t been paying attention and think they don’t do those things. We all deal with something and we have different ways of dealing with it. Just because our ways don’t look alike doesn’t mean we can’t understand each other.

Check Out Your Local “Human Library”

By Yamila Garcia

Last Saturday was World Autism Day. I wanted to write about it but I didn’t really know what is it about, so I started reading about it and I found out many things are going on this day. There are talks, walks, people wearing something blue, and posters with pictures of puzzles everywhere. They talk about promoting inclusion, raising awareness, recognizing abilities, and not stigmatizing. It all sounds interesting, but I wonder who participates in these activities? I found that most of the participants are family and friends of people on the spectrum. Precisely, I do not believe that these people are the main target of the awareness activities. I think this is why so many people still don’t know what ASD is all about. Since I was diagnosed I have asked myself many times whether or not I should share it with others. I had very mixed reactions to sharing it with a few people. Some reacted with concern, fear, and rejection. Others with acceptance and ease that comes from knowing another person on the spectrum or being on the spectrum themselves. I wish we could sensitize the first group, which has nothing to do with the spectrum but probably will come across more people like me and will continue without knowing what it is, and therefore, how to act or work with us.

It is known that we fear what we do not know. So, what can we do so that what we are is not unknown to others? Well, I guess we can share, occupy spaces, get closer and invite them to get to know us as we are. I think an amazing way to do this is the Human Library. If you haven’t heard of this project before, its goal is “to promote inclusion and diversity by challenging stereotypes and discrimination.” The “books” are people who have experienced some kind of discrimination and who lend their time to talk about their experiences. The idea of not judging a book by its cover takes a deeper meaning when getting to know people and stories you wouldn’t know otherwise. How much easier it would be to understand others if we were encouraged to get to know them and not expect uniform behaviors and thoughts. Getting to know people who are different not only opens the doors to others so that they can show you who they are, but it will also leave you learning. After all, who learns by surrounding themselves with people who do and think the same as themselves? I invite you to approach whoever you think is most different from you and see what happens. I am sure that you will be surprised to realize that some of those “differences” that you saw on the cover are not differences and how enriching the exchange is.


Following Your Own Path

By Yamila Garcia

I do not believe that our stories are already written, but I do believe that we come into the world with a series of gifts and abilities that deserve to be taken advantage of. Then, you choose whether you use them or not. In my life I have had both experiences – doing what I “should” do, and doing what I want to do. Of course, the results (and processes) have been very different. I know that we don’t always have the opportunity to choose, or sometimes that’s what we think. At school I find myself surrounded by younger people, mostly. When I hear them talking and debating what is “the best career,” considering job opportunities, future income, growth possibilities, etc., I want to tell them that the best career is one where you can be happy! It never matters what you do, but how you do it. I wish someone had told me this sooner.

When I was studying accounting in Argentina I tried very hard, but it was never enough. I feel like it’s comparable to asking a fish to climb a tree. That was not my natural environment, my skills were useless there. I could always pass the class, I could do a decent job, but no matter how hard I worked, I was never really proud of my work or happy to finish. I just felt relieved to get the classes out of my way and not have to study them anymore. There was no pride in what I was doing, just the mistaken certainty of doing what I considered “safe” and responsible at that moment. I wish I had known that the best path was the one that would allow me to use my skills to overcome obstacles. I also wish I had known that happiness does not depend just on effort, but on being on the right path.

While studying at UConn, I work, take care of my house, and drive the equivalent of a part-time job to get to school. I sleep very little, I’m always tired, I complete homework at the last minute, and I study what I can because I don’t get to study everything. Still, I was never happier in my life and I never felt like I was doing as well as I am now. Every morning I wake up exhausted, but I smile because just doing what I’m doing gives me pride and happiness. The only way to do something in the best possible way for you is for that “something” to be part of your own path. This is the path of what you are passionate about, what makes you curious, what gives you the strength to face whatever comes your way, and where you can use your skills. Following one’s vocation is the most important thing to be happy and to be able to take full advantage of your abilities. Nothing can go wrong this way. Or well, yes, many things can go wrong but if you are on the right path, you will have enough motivation to face and overcome anything.