Author: Syharat, Connie

Proud of the Person I Am

Profile of a person with long hair outlined against a sunset.

By Yamila García

Before coming to the US, I tried to do several things in many stages of my life and none of them worked out. I was frustrated but somehow accepted that my life was going to be like that. I never stopped trying though. However, when I came here, things changed. I had some tough moments, of course. But everything I was trying turned out well, and that made me scared. I was too used to dealing with adversity but never learned to deal with any kind of success. The fact that everything I was doing was going well scared me a lot, not because I was afraid that things would “go back to normal,” but because I just didn’t know how to go through it or even enjoy it.

I have wondered so many times why this happened and if the place had something to do with it. It was even funny to see how things never worked out for me. I contemplated several possible reasons, including being in survival mode or simply having fewer distractions. However, time went by and most of those options stopped making sense in my current reality. So, it was then that I realized that the only thing I had here that I never had in my country was my diagnosis as neurodivergent. I always felt different, I always knew that my differences with others went beyond the differences that are acceptable for society. However, I never had a full understanding of who I was or how and why I worked the way I did.

My journey in this country has been full of learning. I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to prioritize myself and my needs, how to better handle my struggles, and how to enhance my abilities, but most importantly, I learned how to respect my essence. I don’t force myself to do things that harm me anymore. Yes, I challenge myself as a way to keep learning and growing, but I am kind to myself. This is why I can finally say that I am proud of the person I am. Needless to say, I couldn’t have gotten to this point without knowing who I really am. Obviously, I’ve been neurodivergent my whole life but, as I didn’t know it, I was expecting myself to act as if I wasn’t. As a consequence, for years my focus and energy have been put into trying to act “normal” or do what others do, while it should have been put into whatever I was trying to do at the moment. I’m still learning how to change the focus from masking to what really matters, and so far I’ve only seen improvements in my life.

The Space Between

Black and white image of a maze, with spaces in between the walls.

By Yamila García

A few days ago, I was registering for a new service that I wanted to access when something happened that left me wondering. The person who was registering me told me that I must access the website to complete the registration process. He told me the website, and I understood while he was saying it, but as soon as he stopped and I had to enter it on my cellphone, I couldn’t remember it. So I asked him to please repeat it to me, and while he said it, I repeated it in my head. But again, as soon as he finished saying it, I couldn’t manage to write it on my cellphone. I tried one more time, and while he said it, I simultaneously completed the sentence in my head. But once again, it was as if I were looking for something in my memory that I knew was there, and that I repeated 1 second ago, but could not access that space at the moment. The person who was with me at that moment helped me to complete the process because that could have been an endless conversation.

This has happened to me many times. I know that if I give it a minute, maybe I will be able to access it. But at the moment, I end up requiring some assistance. There is somehow a “space” between the moment in which I received information verbally and the moment in which I can use that information. I cannot access it unless I withdraw from the situation and think about it alone, without any social interaction. This happens with lectures at school too, and with regular conversations, although I learned what to say and how to act to pretend I’m following the conversation, so people don’t realize it. So this makes me think about why it is assumed that oral communication is preferred or most effective for everyone. How difficult would it be to have something written with basic instructions such as web pages, phone numbers, addresses, etc.?

Likewise, at school many times those of us who have these auditory processing difficulties find it difficult to take advantage of the lectures. The classrooms are usually very large, there are many background noises and visual stimuli that, in addition to these problems, make it even more difficult for us to concentrate on what we are listening to. However, it would help us a lot to have the recordings of the classes, or the professors’ notes at least to be able to cover what we miss at the moment. That’s why I truly appreciate the professors who see beyond their own reality and provide videos, notes, and more, recognizing that not all of us learn in the same way.

Math Without Numbers

An irridenscent soap bubble floats in front of a background of green bushes.

By Yamila García

My silence may seem empty, but it’s full of questions. My mom always says that when I started asking “Why?” I never stopped. There’s been a barrier between what I think and what I can say my whole life, and that makes me seem like a very different person from who I actually am. I always have questions, but very few times I am able to put them into words. I try to understand the reason for these barriers, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that I am aware that I communicate differently from the majority. Whether it’s with the choice of words I use, the intonation, or the content of what I say. In addition, I also know that I see things that others do not see and that things which are obvious to others I do not see.

The pile of questions in my head continues to grow with the passing of the years. It mutates, nourishes me with new perspectives, and pushes me to answer several by myself to satisfy my curiosity. In that search, I found a surprise that gave rise to a new (or perhaps very old) passion: Philosophy. My questions were never just based on a result or a simple explanation. I always wanted to know the essence of everything. Watching someone do something not only made me curious to know “why is this person doing this?” but also made me feel the need to know: Why do they think this way? How did they grow? In what values would they have developed to think or act in this way? How does this fact influence the life of this person? And those of those around them? My questions are deep. They not only try to understand how the people around me work but also those in the rest of the world and even existence itself. They aim to analyze and understand everything, almost like an unconscious attempt to do philosophy. I have done this since I was little; my mind never shuts up, and when I discovered what philosophy was all about, I was dazzled! I felt like it was a kind of math without numbers, and that feels like magic for me!

It’s crazy to think that I’ve been trying to avoid the humanities since I was “aware” that letters and history were not my thing. I’ve missed out on a lot of things by pigeonholing myself into the stereotype that many thought of me. I don’t have the power to change what others think of me. However, changing the way I see and talk to myself is something I can and should do. Now I know that there is a lot that I can discover, enjoy, and learn by doing so.

Embracing Challenge

A light-skinned person stands in a room with a box over their head.

By Yamila García

Before coming to the United States, I had never moved in my life. The impact of such a change on me was immense. Moving to another hemisphere, with a different language and such a distinct culture, was a shock. I know that for many, it would be the same, but I also realize that my way of perceiving the world made it even more intense than it might be for others. Not only logical aspects, like adapting to the new language or customs, affected me, but everything sensory. The scents of different seasons (especially fall), the smells of greenery, the flavors of unfamiliar food, and attempting to comprehend the background voices unsuccessfully tormented me daily for a long time, leading to many hours-long headaches.

Many times, I simply wished to hide in a hole and stop feeling everything that overwhelmed me. I clung to the items I had brought from my country in an attempt to endure everything that this significant change was causing me. However, it was this very process that brought the most significant learning to my life. Chaos and crises demand action and oblige us to adapt in some way or another. It can be painful, overwhelming, and frustrating, but when we get out of it, makes us stronger individuals. We are enriched by the battles we fought and conquered, once again overcoming one of the most profound fears that several neurodivergent individuals face: change.

Sticking to a routine serves as a lifeline to alleviate some discomfort from our lives, but discomfort often leads to learning and growth. I’m not suggesting that we should all live in discomfort each day or merely endure whatever comes our way. What I mean is that when something is inevitable, we might approach the challenge with greater appreciation. Acknowledging that it won’t be easy but can significantly contribute to our personal growth. Embracing challenges permits us to dedicate 100% of our efforts to overcome them. On the other hand, when we resist the inevitable, our minds expend excessive energy fighting it, and the fear of confronting it becomes more overwhelming than the actual task itself.

Instructions on Repeat

A young woman with long, wavy brown hair sits in front of a laptop with a hand on her forehead and an irritated look on her face.

By Yamila García

When a professor asks me something in class, I usually say, “I don’t know.” But the truth is, I don’t remember at the moment, maybe because I panic when I have to talk in front of many people, and so my brain is busy trying to speak properly and not sound too weird. I want to get out of the “situation” as soon as possible. Saying “I don’t know” is like an ostrich hiding its head in the ground. I do my best in my classes to participate in class and lab activities, but when I am asked to work on something that was explained just a few minutes before, I can’t do it. I don’t process things that fast in the classroom, and that is mostly because of the many stimuli I receive in the classroom. I hear all the noises at the same level, so I notice how my focus is interrupted by my classmates commenting on something, passing pages on their manuals, typing, people walking in the hallways, etc.

However, I remember a lot of things when I listen to someone speak, but in a more neurodivergent-friendly environment. I even used to record myself reading because I memorized more easily by listening than by reading. I like reading, but if it is not something I can visualize or draw in my mind while I read it, I get lost so quickly. I can keep going through the text, maybe, but I have no idea of what what I’m reading means. That is why many times when I have to work on exercises from school that have very long instructions, I find it really hard to even start them because I am unable to read the whole thing. I read the first sentence, move to the next one, and I ask myself: what was the previous sentence about? And then go back to the first one and could repeat this for hours. I say the words in my mind but do not connect their meanings somehow. I can “read,” and do it out loud, and still don’t get any idea of what I read. On the contrary, when I read a story, I paint all the descriptions in my mind with so much detail that feels like a movie, and that makes focusing so much easier.

I never heard of simplified instructions as an accommodation, but I could make good use of them. There is no way that knowing how hard it is for me to focus on long texts (no descriptive texts) they expect me to work on a simple exercise but give me 3 pages of instructions including the history of a certain number or symbol, and more irrelevant (to me) information that we do not really need to be able to demonstrate that we know what we have to know. Giving the possibility of choosing between simplified or detailed instructions could improve how many people work at school.

Texture and Sensation

Bubbles and ripples within an ocean wave.

By Yamila García

My perception of the world differs greatly from that of neurotypicals. While textures are irrelevant to many people, they are of the utmost importance to me. Certain textures help me connect with the present moment, focus on my activities, or even provide comfort. On the other hand, certain textures can stress me out, make me nervous, or even cause me pain. I experience textures with my entire body and mind, almost as if I become a part of them.

Many external stimuli can radically change how I feel. One of them, perhaps the most relevant for me, is water. Whether from a pool or from the ocean, for me water is comfort and peace. The water does not make sudden movements, loud and changing sounds, or sudden changes in temperature. It doesn’t introduce any additional external stimuli. Instead, it remains quiet, and peaceful, and allows me to flow with it. In the water, I can let my heart rate slow down, free my mind from worries, discomforts, and pains. It feels like being in a shelter where I have complete control of the situation, and nothing can disturb me.

However, there are other stimuli from different textures that cause me pain and overwhelm. The sound of a nail clipper, someone touching rough wood, many types of wool, the rubbing of clothing labels, and even Styrofoam cause me great discomfort. They upset me, hurt me, and sometimes make me want to escape the situation as quickly as possible. Some textures make my skin crawl, cause pain in my teeth, and make my eyes fill with tears, similar to the sensation of eating something highly acidic. Many of these textures also give me an electric feeling throughout my body, and they do not let me function normally. I have learned how to hide it, but I cannot make these textures feel comfortable to me.

Many neurodivergent individuals perceive the world in vastly different ways from others. This has nothing to do with seeking attention, justifying our actions, or being spoiled. However, our needs are often misunderstood. Our bodies and minds simply process stimuli in different ways, making some experiences more pleasant and others more uncomfortable. We don’t all have to feel or think the same in order to empathize with each other. It’s not necessary for everyone to fully understand how someone else perceives the world. However, we can all ask one another how to accommodate and support each other, or how to avoid causing discomfort.

Changing the Exam Environment

A woman holding a pen while writing formulas on graph paper in a notebook.

By Yamila García

Every time I take a test, I sit down, look at the sheet, and I don’t recognize anything I read. Although I have studied a lot and know the subject very well, as soon as I look at the sheet, everything I studied seems to have been erased. I know it sounds scary; maybe at some point many years ago I could have been nervous about this situation, but not now. Yes, it worries me a little at first, but as soon as I remember that I always work like this, I am sure that I will start to remember. If I still feel anxious about it, I repeat to myself: “It’s coming, it’s coming,” and simply try to rewrite my test questions or the data that they include in the statements.

After so many years as a student, I know that everything I studied will start to come to me after a while. Sometimes I start to remember slowly, but other times everything comes like an avalanche, remembering many things at the same time and at great speed. In the latter case, I tend to write down everything that comes to my mind in a rough draft. Sometimes everything comes so fast that I can confuse things. Once that burst stops, I start working with the notes I made, and it all makes more sense now. The exam becomes doable this way.

As you can imagine, that takes up part of the time I have to do my exam. Sometimes it has taken me up to 1 hour or even more… And it’s hard to keep calm because even if I repeat to myself that this always happens and that “it’s coming,” I start to wonder: “What if it doesn’t this time?” Actually, it has never happened to me that I didn’t remember anything. Always, sooner or later, the information reaches me, and I am able to do my exams. The thing is, in order to have extra time and a quiet place to do my exams, I need to request accommodations. Otherwise, I could not carry out this process in a reduced time and in a shared space with constant noise and movement. Although I am grateful to be able to have accommodations, I wonder how we could have regular exams more accommodating. Maybe some folding panels and some noise-canceling earmuffs available in the classroom could help more people than just the ones with an official diagnosis. I know many people struggle with the same and could take advantage of a more accommodating environment too.

When and Why I Mask

A pair of blue shoes peek out from underneath a multi-colored umbrella.

By Yamila García

As someone who discovered being neurodivergent not too long ago, I continue to analyze and discover myself. Through this process, I have gained a deeper understanding of how I unconsciously mask many of my differences. I’ve also noticed that this behavior varies depending on the person I’m interacting with. One aspect I consistently mask is my avoidance of making eye contact. I’ve realized that when I force myself to do so, I blink more frequently, and this only happens with people who are unaware of my neurodivergence. However, when someone is aware and accepting of it, I feel more at ease, allowing myself not to make direct eye contact or occasionally break it to regulate my feelings. Besides, I have also noticed that in the first case, I mask and wish not to, whereas, in the latter, I don’t need to mask, but sometimes I try to make eye contact as a sign of appreciation for the person’s openness and understanding, knowing that it’s often considered a way to show respect.

I’ve noticed that when I don’t fully comprehend what others are saying, I tend to assume a shy and quiet role. Not because that’s truly who I am, but because it’s easier to justify my minimal interaction in such situations. I have heightened sensitivity, and how I communicate often depends almost entirely on the person I’m engaging with. It’s as if I absorb their energy completely. When the other person is calm, understanding, and respectful, I find it much easier to communicate harmoniously. Conversely, if the person comes across as egocentric, arrogant, or pushy, it becomes almost impossible for me to interact effectively. In these instances, my body responds physically, making it difficult to breathe, and I experience a strong urge to escape the situation, leading to an increased heart rate.

Masking is not a conscious choice; it’s a learned behavior that I adopted unconsciously to avoid drawing attention to myself. Perhaps my unconscious thought process was that it’s better to blend in rather than reveal my many differences and face scrutiny. I’m still trying to understand my motivations. What I do know is that becoming aware of when and why I mask helps me better understand myself and empowers me to decide whether I want to continue doing it or not. I’m not saying it’s as simple as pressing a button and turning off this protection mechanism that I’ve created for myself, but I believe that self-awareness is a valuable tool in determining who we want to be, when, and with whom we choose to be that way.

Learning Through Patterns

Photo of a tile floor with hexagonal tiles of different patterns of white, gray, and black.

By Yamila García

My ability to recognize patterns allows me to learn in a very different way from most people. Typically, in the classes I have taken, particularly those with a practical component alongside theory, the topics are presented orally, sometimes with accompanying slides displaying formulas or graphs. Then, students are assigned practical exercises. However, I am unable to immediately complete these exercises since I don’t process auditory information automatically. I require time to contemplate the material, and most importantly, I need visual demonstrations in order to identify the logical connections on my own. This is how I learn.

As my eyes wander, scanning the visuals without any apparent order, I search for similarities, connections, and logical patterns. Thus, I get a deeper understanding within seconds, as opposed to spending hours listening to an oral explanation. This learning approach proves highly effective in subjects such as mathematics, chemistry, and physics, as long as the necessary conditions are met. If, on the other hand, I am only provided with an oral explanation without step-by-step guidance, it becomes nearly impossible for me to learn. Additionally, classes in which nothing is logical or deducible are extremely challenging for me. Subjects like history or literature have always presented difficulties for me since there is nothing to deduce, and I must solely rely on the oral explanation.

Based on my unique learning experiences, I wish I could choose how I learn. I believe it is crucial not only to study subjects aligned with our passions but also to learn in the most efficient way for each individual. I am aware that there are others like me, but there are also individuals who learn better through oral theoretical explanations or demonstrations of concepts in laboratory experiments. Considering the limitations of traditional classroom settings, I have consistently felt that I haven’t been able to fully leverage my abilities. Consequently, my performance has often been mediocre. Unfortunately, some people label neurodivergent individuals as disabled, when in reality the incapable is the system that does not know how to take advantage of our abilities.

Soothing Spaces

Photo of a child hiding underneath pillows on a couch.

By Yamila García

When I was little and felt overwhelmed, I would crawl under my desk into a tiny square space. That allowed me to reconnect with myself. I would go in there to watch my favorite cartoons, and gradually I would regain touch with reality. I would calm down and feel ready to resume whatever I was doing before seeking comfort in my little square sanctuary. I’m not sure when I started doing this, but I knew it made me feel safe. Even back then, without knowing I had autism, I instinctively sought ways to alleviate my struggles. I also engaged in soothing behaviors since I was a baby, but I hid them even though there was nothing wrong with them. I simply noticed that others weren’t doing them. One of these behaviors was rubbing a cloth, while another was scratching grooved textures.

Through my childhood experiences, I learned that I needed control. I require things that are familiar and predictable… I need either a small space that I can analyze with the naked eye, a few people to read the expressions of when I speak, the flavors of my food not mixing, etc. Although during my childhood and adolescence, I often believed that others perceived the world like me but were stronger, with time I came to understand that I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The way I perceive the world is very different from how neurotypicals do.

I have encountered people whose expressions revealed an urgent need for what comforts them. I can recognize it because I have experienced it many times myself. That longing to reconnect brings about discomfort and despair. It also evokes embarrassment because it is not easy to accept that you need something as seemingly trivial as a piece of cloth or a fidget toy, a small hiding place, or a particular scent to regain your footing and continue on your way normally. The world may tell you it’s stupid but if, for you, it is necessary, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Neurodivergent individuals are unique, and thus, we have different methods of processing our emotions. These methods must be acknowledged and shared; otherwise, the world will never be prepared for true inclusion. Do not hide anymore, open up to your friends and family about how you soothe and calm yourself. The more they understand, the better equipped they’ll be to comprehend your needs and support you when necessary.