Author: Syharat, Connie

Find Your Community

Multiracial athletic team putting hands together before a cheer.

By Yamila García

I recently heard someone say that the brain is a social organ. Just as other organs have more visible and easily identifiable physical needs, the brain needs to establish human connections in order to function properly. When, as social beings, we fail to engage in the social interactions that society seems to promote, our brains suffer the consequences.

Being neurodivergent makes it much harder to connect with others. If people are not used to interacting with individuals who are different from them, they tend to give up on their interactions with neurodivergent individuals. Many people may even think that we do not want to interact with them. However, that is far from the reality for many neurodivergent people. A lot of us simply struggle with initiating spontaneous conversations, understanding what is appropriate to say in certain situations, and grasping idioms and slang.

My journey of learning how to interact with people was not easy. There were many times when I wanted to give up. I felt like I just wasn’t cut out for it and that I shouldn’t even try. However, I always recognized the importance of human connections and understood that my comfort zone was not compatible with the growth and development I desired for my life. Connecting with others is one of the most challenging skills I had to learn and continue to learn. English is not my first language, and when I moved from my home country, it felt like I was starting from scratch and that all the progress I made in my native language was useless in this new language. It truly felt like starting over. However, I’ve always been aware that communication and interpersonal relationships are essential for life in society.

My experiences have shown me that friends, peers, and family give meaning and direction to life. They have been my primary support in some situations and my greatest motivation in others. Being part of a community, whether through volunteering, friendship, or family ties, fulfills not only the needs of the brain but also the needs of the heart in non-medical terms. Never isolate yourself. I know it’s not easy sometimes, especially when you feel different and no one seems to understand you. But there is always someone who will understand you. Seek out your community, your support group. Do not disconnect from the world because there will always be others who feel the same way you do.

An Open Door

Close-up image of an open door.

By Yamila García

Some changes are coming in my life, and having to adapt to something new is always a great challenge for me. I don’t usually get along with changes, but I recognize that they are necessary. I have talked before about being able to recognize when we need support, but I always find it difficult to put it into practice. I have this illogical idea that I “should” be able to handle everything. But no, I can’t, and that’s why this time I asked for help.

I will take a class in the summer simultaneous to those changes that I mentioned before. I know how those changes will affect me. I know I’m going to feel like I’m floating, without anything to hold on to, and that it’s going to take me a while to adjust. I know that this class is going to be a bigger challenge than it would be in times of stability. I contacted my professor, explained my difficulties in adapting to changes, mentioned that I usually take the first few weeks to adapt and end up missing the opportunity to learn, and expressed how uncertainty doesn’t help me adapt more easily.

I asked my professor for the class syllabus and any additional resources they could offer to help me prepare. My professor not only responded immediately but also showed extraordinary kindness and understanding. They sent me the syllabus and slides from previous semesters and expressed that even though they are not neurodivergent, they understand and strive to make their classes inclusive for everyone, regardless of their needs, abilities, and interests. Additionally, my professor offered to meet with me to discuss additional ways to support me in the class and showed their full and complete support.

I understand that professors like mine seek to understand, gather information, and make themselves available to help others, making their path easier. I know they do it consciously and with the intention to support, but even so, the impact they have on students is much greater than they can imagine. I have thought a lot about how this makes me feel, and I believe the best way to express it is that it feels like “an open door.” In many classes, I feel like I’m looking through a small window from the outside, trying to grasp something of what’s happening inside. But in this class, I already feel like I’m being invited to learn and that my presence is welcome. It feels as if my professor has truly opened the door for me and said, “Here is a place for you too. Here, you are not a nuisance or something that bothers me.” If there are professors who, without being neurodivergent, can demonstrate this sensitivity toward students who function differently, I believe that at this point, not being this way is simply a choice.

No One’s Path is Linear

A woman holds a walking stick as she prepares to walk through the desert.

By Yamila García

Over time we all learn how to handle some of our difficulties. Sometimes we do it so well that they are no longer so hard. Other times, those struggles continue to accompany us throughout our lives. Many of the difficulties we learn to handle also depend on the situations in which we find ourselves. Therefore, it is common to see them reappear. In specific situations in which various aspects of our lives are not in order, struggles that we thought we had under control reappear and are more difficult for us to handle. It’s not that we relapsed, it’s not that we took a step back or unlearned something. It is simply that we are human and we rely not only on our knowledge to function but also on our state of mind and general well-being. I know that ideal conditions rarely occur, but when I talk about complex situations, I am not referring to simple everyday difficulties, but to those moments where all the problems seem to come together at the same time in our lives. In those moments new needs appear.

These needs that appear are are what we need to do to continue to function and go through the situation we are going through. They are a kind of temporary need, which we do not require all the time but which sometimes, given the difficulty of our current reality, become essential to be able to do what we should or want to do. And when these needs appear, many times they also come with a feeling of guilt. We blame ourselves for needing support we thought we didn’t need anymore, we shame ourselves for having to ask for help or not being able to do something we think we “should be able to.” However, this is part of our learning as well. It’s hard to recognize our limitations, I know, but much harder is to pretend we can do something when we really can’t, at least right now. Our value goes far beyond what we can do today, but we are also much more than the sum of the achievements and defeats achieved so far. We are not a mathematical formula and no one’s path is linear. It shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t make sense if it were. Ask for help when you are struggling. That won’t take away value or merit from your struggle and learning. You will still be as valuable as you are. We all need a push eventually.

The Power of Understanding

By Yamila García

Recently, I have been fortunate to experience the value of the support of others. I want to tell you about 2 particular situations that made me see how necessary it is for others to know about our needs as neurodivergents and also gave me hope about how everything can continue to improve.

The first situation occurred with someone I met a short time ago but who is also neurodivergent. From the moment we met we saw many similarities between us and I quickly felt comfortable with her. Over time we both told each other about our differences and it was clear why we understood each other. At one point, a somewhat overwhelming climate was generated in a place where we were, with a lot of noise and external stimuli. She, without me saying anything, realized that I felt overwhelmed and brought her phone closer to me with a texture strip on the back that she uses for soothing. Not only did this get me through the moment, but it made me feel so good to know that someone sees what’s going on and understands without having to explain. You have no idea how significant that was to me, since I grew up believing that we all perceived things the same way but that I was just weaker than the rest of the world. Seeing that someone was able to recognize an overload of stimuli in me felt like one of those tight hugs from the people you love the most.

The other situation occurred with someone I’ve known for a long time and who, despite having communicated my struggles to him, did not seem to really understand how that felt to me. Since he isn’t neurodivergent, I think it is difficult for him to associate external stimuli that are not harmful to him, with something that does me harm. However, this time, when someone was showing me something on his cell phone with a very high volume, I felt that someone was watching me. At that moment, he asked to lower the volume and I smiled. If you’re wondering why I didn’t ask him to turn the volume down, I wonder the same thing myself. I think maybe it’s the habit of masking and hiding anything so as not to expose my differences. Clearly, I do it without realizing it. Anyway, the point is that this person for the first time saw that I was struggling with something and linked it to the correct stimulus that was causing me to overload.

This was only possible thanks to education. We need to continue educating those close to us so that they can understand us. I don’t think there are people who like to make others feel uncomfortable (well maybe yes, but they won’t be the majority). The more we talk about how we perceive the world, the more situations like this we will have. Those who don’t see the world like us neurodivergents won’t understand if we don’t tell them. I know that sometimes it is not easy to speak, especially for fear of prejudice and for the habit of masking, but it is necessary and it can only benefit us in the long run.

We Are Enough!

A young man with black hair and light brown skin raises his hands in triumph over his laptop.

By Yamila García

After another long semester, we have reached the end. As we always do, we have survived many of those giant challenges we have encountered. So maybe this is a good time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished. We don’t always stop to look at what we have achieved, but how necessary it is! I think we should keep an inventory of challenges overcome and goals achieved as a way of reminding ourselves the next time we are faced with something, that we can overcome it too. It happens to me all the time that I forget what I have achieved. Every time I have to face a new challenge, fear and doubt invade me as if I were facing an obstacle for the first time. Many of them are even the same, and even so, I still doubt if I will be able to overcome them. I have already accumulated several years of experience doubting myself, and I believe that many do the same. That’s why I think it’s extremely important to be able to give ourselves credit for what we’ve done so far. Recognizing and valuing what we have managed to do gives us the strength to face new challenges and the certainty that with enough effort, we will be able to overcome what is coming. If only we could have those triumphs more present in our day-to-day lives, perhaps the burden would not be that heavy.

Do you remember the first day you stepped foot in Storrs? So big, so unknown, how many buildings! How am I going to learn the locations of my classrooms?! When am I going to stop getting lost or taking the wrong bus? How many times on the first day of class did you look at the class syllabus in disbelief? How many other times do we look ahead and feel that the semester would carry the workload of 3 years? And today? All that is behind us. Today, many of us already feel that Storrs is our second home. We walk with confidence, without using the GPS on our cell phones. We know the bus drivers, we know the dining hall menus by heart, and everything is familiar to us. We have also passed a lot of classes and are getting closer to the main goal! So I propose, as a way to close another semester, that we celebrate ourselves! We have done many things, faced many fears, and grown a lot. Let’s give ourselves the credit we deserve, let’s stop thinking it’s not enough. We must understand that although we always tend to want more, what we have done is already a lot. We are enough, and our biggest challenge is to remember it next semester.

Enjoy the Summer!

Autism and Empathy: We Care

A profile of a human head with a swirling line that comes out and connects to a circular line inside of the profile of another human head.

By Yamila García

Being neurodivergent comes with many labels. Among them, and perhaps one of the most harmful for ASD (and what was formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome), is the supposed “lack of empathy” label. They say that we cannot understand the feelings of others, put ourselves in their shoes, or perceive other people’s emotions if they do not explicitly tell us how they feel. While there may be those who lack empathy on the spectrum, this characteristic is not tied to it specifically. Studies in this regard have been evolving and what was previously considered a characteristic of people with autism, today is understood as a characteristic of the person regardless of their condition as neurodivergent. I’ve been misunderstood, prejudged, underestimated, and rejected just for being different. I know how it feels and I don’t want that for anyone. Going through all this made me aware of other people’s struggles.

Every time I arrive at a place, in the typical scan that I do, it is very easy for me to identify who feels uncomfortable or disconnected from the environment. And I don’t think it’s about any special ability, just that since I was in that position so many times, I am aware that there are always those who feel uncomfortable, although we tend to think that we are the only ones. When I identify them, I always reach out and talk to them because the only time my social anxiety leaves me is when I feel I can be of help to others. I have met many people who experience the same thing and who, from their differences, can identify the struggles and difficulties of others without saying a word. Many have approached me when they saw me “out of place” or as if “I didn’t fit in.” I have approached many, too. Contrary to what many may think, we have feelings and we consider those of others. It may be that sometimes it is difficult for some of us to express our feelings in a certain way, or how much we can relate to the difficulties of others, but we do relate to others’ feelings and struggles. We care.

We Need to Stop Standardizing Ourselves

A group of red game pieces clustered in a group and one black game piece separate from the group, off to the right.

By Yamila García

“The different” always caught my attention. For as long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to the unconventional. I was different in many ways and if there was something I hadn’t noticed yet, people would point it out to me. I don’t know when being different became my emblem and from then on, I would always be on the side of what others rejected. It was a way to protect myself, to show that I chose to be different and that I didn’t care about fitting in. Of course, I didn’t choose it, it was how I was born, but that was my way of surviving life in a society that I didn’t understand at all. And on that path of making what was different my own, I learned a lot. I was filled with different points of view, I learned how others see life, and how others feel. I was surprised to see how people that others judged as weird had great abilities, wonderful personalities, and totally different ways of functioning. That’s how I realized that being different was not bad at all… I valued and embraced my differences and those of others. After all, what can we learn from someone who thinks and works just like us? There is no learning there.

We learn from the one who thinks differently, from the one who presents us with a look that we would not have thought of, we learn from the one who does things differently, be it because of his thought structure, his culture, or his personal history. The advances that we have seen in the history of the world have not arisen from the common and ordinary, but from those who dared to get out of the typical structures. Those who dared to do or think differently even if society required them to “fit in.” I think the best goal we can have as a society is to stop trying to standardize ourselves and realize that both personal and global progress comes from encouraging ourselves to do something different, something that will make us uncomfortable, that will challenge us, but that it’s going to open up real opportunities for all of us.

Adaptation and Exhaustion

watercolor painting of a figure falling through space, as if in a rain cloud

By Yamila García

Having to mask who we are and adapting to a world that is not designed for us requires so much energy that we often end up exhausted. Many times I have thought that more than living this feels like surviving. It is very frustrating that many things that are required of us as normal or habitual tasks or behaviors, mean such an effort. Having to adapt all the time is not something easy, much less something that is done of one’s own free will. It is something that we simply “have to do”, otherwise we would be excluded from society. If we want to succeed in whatever we do, have a job, friends, etc., “we have to adapt.” But what happens when we’ve been doing it for so long? On the one hand, it is true that we automate some of the strategies that we have used to adapt. We do them without thinking about it, often we don’t even remember if they are really our own features or were acquired to camouflage ourselves.

On the other hand, sometimes we just lose motivation and energy. It’s not nice to spend your whole life “adapting” or “adjusting” who you are in order to just live. Sometimes you just don’t want to do it anymore, you feel tired, unmotivated, and even angry because such simple things are so difficult for you. Sometimes you don’t want to deal with it anymore. You just want to lock yourself in your safe place and only come out when everyone has gone to sleep. I really wish that one day people would know how difficult it is to live like this and how easily they could lighten the weight. I think if they really knew what it felt like, they would do a lot more to create friendlier environments for neurodivergents. I’ve been in environments that one might think were specially designed to harm neurodivergents. I don’t think that’s the intention at all. But, I do believe that there is a complete ignorance of neurodiversity. How do we let them know? How do we get them interested in including us? How can we show them our skills by communicating in a way that we feel comfortable with but they understand?

This was not a happy post, because there will always be frustrations along the way. And while we can handle a lot, we don’t have to be able to handle everything. Having overcome so much, many times we make the mistake of thinking that we have to be able to handle what is coming too. Give yourself a break, you have done much more than you would have thought possible.

Discovering Our Own Abilities

Asian American woman looks at her laptop while wearing headphones. She is seated in front of a window and a cityscape.

By Yamila García

Sounds can cause real chaos in my mind. Especially when it comes to more than 2 or 3 simultaneous sounds (even more if they are unknown). I can’t just focus on one and ignore the others. That’s why I don’t understand what people are saying when they talk to me in places with various noises. It’s not that I can’t hear. I can… but I hear everything together on the same volume level, so the sounds of the voice that speaks to me mix with those of someone else’s voice speaking a few meters away, plus the sound of birds and cars going, and more. It is not comfortable or easy to deal with this. Many times when I can’t hear, I just nod and pretend to listen. But like everything in this life, it also has its good part. Being so sensitive to sounds and vibrations allows me to use music to my advantage. For many years, I have used classical music as a tool to help me channel my emotions and reform the sensations that were affecting me every day. 

I put my headphones on and I can feel myself melting into the music, to the point that it guides my heart rate. I use it to reduce my anxiety, to feel motivated and empowered, and to make decisions. Being so sensitive to sounds, vibrations, and rhythm doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Although this sensitivity has a side that causes us difficulties, it also has many positive things. Not only can I control many of my emotions through sounds, but I tend to hear things before others. I can remember many voices and sounds, and I retrieve memories just by hearing the slightest sound. For many years I also thought that everyone heard like me. That’s why I never took my sensitivity as a problem and maybe that was what allowed me to learn to use it to my advantage. I think that many times, the pressure exerted by society to standardize the way we work makes us lose the opportunity to discover our own abilities. Let’s get rid of the message that if you don’t work like most, you’re wrong. Maybe no one is wrong… 

The Harm of Labeling

By Yamila García

I wonder why of all the labels that we neurodivergents get, none of them are positive. How come some of our difficulties have become so well known, but so much is unknown about our abilities? There is much talk about not putting labels or getting carried away by stereotypes, but little is taught to put an end to this. I would hope that a neurodivergent person could be seen as someone who has the ability to think, process information and solve problems in a different way than the majority. After all, this is the reality of who we are. Our brains just work differently. And it is not that we have difficulties adapting, it is rather that the world is designed for the neurotypical majority. 

I’m not saying that we should be labeled by certain abilities instead of difficulties, either. I just wonder why the negative labels are all we hear about, when we not only have difficulties but also abilities. Could it be that the struggle of those who are different is seen as a great weakness while the struggles of neurotypical people are seen as something normal? Some neurodivergents have the ability to hyperfocus, so why are those who cannot focus like this labeled “people with hyperfocus deficit?” Other neurodivergents have the ability to spot patterns easily, but we don’t label those who can’t as “pattern blind.” We may be a minority, but shouldn’t our abilities be recognized for the value of having a different perspective? I don’t think anyone should be identified and labeled for their difficulties. Being labeled by our struggles does nothing more than put up a barrier that prevents the rest of society from knowing us and getting rich from the exchange. 

When there is a problem that many cannot solve, people always look for someone who thinks differently. If this is so, why as a society do we continue to seek standardization on a day-to-day basis? I remember working with people who valued my ability to think differently and solve problems in ways that none of them thought of. They didn’t know I was neurodivergent because back then I didn’t know either. But what if they did? Would I have even had the chance to work there? Would they have taken me as seriously as they did when they didn’t know? There is harmful packaging covering our abilities and today, it is all that many can see of us.