Knowing Ourselves Better

By Yamila García

Despite having noticed at a young age that people perceived the world in a different way than I do, there were many things that I did not know. Every day of my life, when I leave my house in the morning, I feel like a sword pierces my head. It is a deep pain that makes me dizzy and doesn’t let me see for a few seconds. I always thought that this was how everyone feels when they leave their house and see the sunshine. Of course, I was wrong. Also, I thought that people drew in their minds everything they heard or read, but that was not the case either. However, I always did it with such a level of detail that I can remember the smells, sensations, and flavors of what I imagined. In fact, many times I have come across people I wanted to talk to because “I knew them” but in reality, I had imagined them when I read a book, or when someone told me a story. My imagination draws everything in great detail and I think that is why I always need to know more, to get well-structured information and clear instructions. I need to know what I am drawing. If I can’t draw it, it feels like I can’t see or hear. My mental drawings are like maps for me. I also thought that people react to texture like me, that even have dreamed of textures… I couldn’t see anything in my dreams, just felt the sensations from the textures. There are some that calm me, others that give me chills and goosebumps.

Many neurodivergent people have great sensory differences from neurotypical people. Little things that seem unimportant can affect us enormously. For better or for worse… That is why it is important to recognize these differences, accept them and work on them. Knowing ourselves better can often mean being able to use that sensory sensitivity to counteract difficulties. I know what textures calm me down, I know what music lowers my heart rate, and I know what smells take me back to happy moments… And that’s how I deal with the anxiety that so many other things cause me. Simply, I go through life facing the difficulties that come my way, taking advantage of what for some people is a failure. At first glance it may seem like it, but on many occasions, I have been able to use these features to my advantage. 

We have been told many times that we do not fit in, that we are “failed,” that we must adapt and that we must hide all those “flaws.” Don’t listen to them! Those are not “flaws,” they are simply a part of you that should be valued and understood. Never did any of these characteristics not give me something good. They just need a little acceptance and work to see how we can make them flourish as gifts.

Our Differences Are Our Greatest Treasure

By Yamila García

I know that at this time many people in the school feel that something is wrong with them. As I walk around campus, I always think about how many people are wondering why they have to be so different and can’t just fit in like everyone else. They would try to “camouflage,” learn to be like everyone, and hide every particularity that makes them rare or unacceptable to society. I know it because I lived many years of my life this way. Blaming myself for being different, and thinking that something was wrong with me. Although I learned to value these differences, I also learned with whom and when to share them, just to be able to fit in. 

In all these years that I spent not knowing the reason for my differences, I also lost the opportunity to work on them to enhance them. I feel that the passage of time and the struggle to fit in, made me lose some of these characteristics. Some were positive changes, but others were a great loss. I remember having a great ability to play with numbers and symbols in my head. I remembered very long series, and I made long equations without writing them, just drawing them in my mind. I was able to see connections in many more things than now and I could hyperfocus deeper and for much longer than now. I think I just thought that those things that I was obsessed with, kept me from having a normal social life. Perhaps I got a little angry and saw them as an obstacle. The truth is that I didn’t have the tools to see the potential in my differences and I regret that.

When I officially found out I was neurodivergent, I took a breath, forgave myself, and apologized too. I felt sorry for having blamed myself and for having thought at some point that my differences were problems instead of opportunities. From that moment on, everything made sense and things only got better. I have been trying to recover what I lost along the way trying to camouflage myself and I celebrate my differences. Knowing who you are is the best starting point and allows you to work from your own reality, enhance your strengths and understand your difficulties from a more tolerant perspective with yourself. I wish that all those who have ever felt like me, can have a prompt diagnosis and begin to celebrate their differences because they are our greatest treasure.

One card at a time

By Yamila García

When you are attentive, everything around you can teach you something. I was sitting next to a friend at an event when I saw her take a stack of cards that had been printed with the wrong date. She took a pen and started correcting them one by one. The stack of cards was so big that I thought she would just correct a few for the event attendees. I began to think how nervous it would make me to have to correct them all in the time that the event lasted. Also, I remembered the many times when my pile of pending tasks is large, and I drown in thoughts of fear of not being able to complete them. Then, I spend hours worrying, instead of trying. I watched as she kept correcting cards slowly and carefully, and I thought that she would never be able to correct all of them in such a short time. But she kept going slowly and steadily. I greatly admired her perseverance, and her ability not to get caught up in a hurry. I thought about whether she was aiming to finish them all or if she just kept on consistently without even thinking about having to finish them. How wonderful it would be to be able to have that perseverance and that calm when facing my tasks!

Time passed, and before the event was even over, she had finished correcting all of them. When I saw her from the beginning with that giant stack of cards, I didn’t think she would make it at such a slow pace. However, with her patience and tenacity, she did. She not only did that, but she also inspired me! I went home with great motivation to try to replicate what I had learned from her. I imagined myself sitting in front of my computer, starting with a small task, as if it were a card that I was going to correct, then another task, and thus completing my stack of cards without even noticing it. In order for you to understand how important what I witnessed was to me, you would need to know what the process of completing the same task would be like for me. First, I would choke thinking about the number of cards, then I would probably think about the time I would have, I would divide the number of cards by the time available to know how much I would be able to spend fixing each card, and then finally I would take some time to doubt which would be the best way to do the task, or which would be the best pen to use. Meanwhile, my anxiety would increase more and more, and I would start correcting the cards at an exaggeratedly fast pace. I would feel overwhelmed. I would stop, and I would continue to doubt whether or not I would be able to complete the task… I think at this point you get what I’m trying to say. So, even if we don’t complete the stack of cards, it’s better to have completed some instead of none. Same for homework, chores, work, and everything we have to face in life. Let’s keep moving, slowly but steadily, let’s just sit down and do it, and then let’s see how far we get. Thank you dear friend for this teaching.

Neurodiversity in Media – “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”

By Evelyn Allen

A large portion of how we think tends to sprout from what content we consume as children, and so having positive messages in shows aimed at younger audiences is important for us to learn our morals and how we should treat others. One show that I grew up with was the cartoon “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” which was just like any other children’s cartoon with bright colors, cute characters, as well as every episode ending with a lesson about friendship that the main character learned through interactions with her friends. This show was a huge part of my childhood and taught me what I know about selflessness, diversity, and acceptance of other’s faults.

While it seems a little childish to be looking at a kid’s show for this topic of neurodiversity which is ever so real and impacts people of all ages, what this show does differently is integrate the message not just that friendship is magic, as the title suggests, but also that friendship and teamwork is composed of more than just one type of person. In fact, many of the problems that the characters run into is being so polar opposite in ways of thinking and being, and in the end this conflict is resolved–not by changing one’s ways to be more like the other, but by coming to a mutual understanding of how their differences complement each other and how they can pick up where the other leaves off.

The show is about a pony named Twilight Sparkle, who is an intelligent but reclusive individual who puts no import in making friends. Her journey involves meeting and befriending all different types of ponies that she has a serious conflicting personality with and coming to terms with that. The first pony she meets is Pinkie Pie, a loud and boisterous character who makes it her duty to know everyone in town and be best friends with them. She is very much her polar opposite. Next she meets Applejack, a farm pony who is hardworking and outgoing, taking in others as family, which is foreign to Twilight, as she grew up in the city rather than the country. After that there’s Fluttershy, a shy character who is just afraid to even speak. There are more characters, that seem to highlight Twilight’s faults.

I phrase it this way because each character seems to have something that our main character does not. Throughout the show, as they become closer friends, Twilight learns how to be a better friend, but never has to be someone she isn’t. She doesn’t have to pretend to be like her friends because where she falls off in some areas, her friends pick up. Therefore there isn’t a total reliance on one’s self, but on the closeness of others. There are clear differences between all of the characters, but these differences are not seen as an obstacle, but a strength, and even are necessary to function.

There is one episode in particular that really focuses on this idea, which is also one of my favorite episodes. Twilight and her friends are called to a village in the middle of nowhere, where everyone lives peacefully... except it’s almost eerie how similar they are. Each pony is exactly the same, with the same haircut, same defining mark that would normally highlight one’s strength, same faded colors. The leader of this colony believes that in sameness, there is no conflict, and no struggle. However to the outsiders, who know how their differences make them stronger, this is a strange idea. While there is no conflict, there is also no room to improve or innovate or make connections, and with no sadness comes no happiness. While in the village, the main characters have an argument, but quickly resolve it because in conflict, there comes a solution and an understanding.

These messages just from this episode are so important to recognize. Just because people are all forced to be the same, so that no one feels jealous of anyone else, or if we level the playing field by quelling achievement, that doesn’t create progress or solutions. It only holds us back. Struggle is what molds us. Individuality is what brings us together. And when you look at the world around you, there are so many different people with so many different ways of thinking and being and yet they are still there around you and you can reach out to them and coexist and they are still making it in the world, no matter how success is measured.

I chose this show because it really is one of my favorites, but it also has taught me so much about how my differences don’t make me a bad person, they don’t make me a failure in the system around me, they are just the parts of me that will interact with others and in turn will make us both better people. I like to think of it as gears in a watch, or a big Rube Goldberg machine, where we will
progress, but we have to play off of our differences and work together to do so.


Black and White Thinking

By Yamila García

I have the tendency to think in extremes. “Black and white thinking,” as they call it. That is why when I don’t like something, I typically don’t like anything related to it and it blocks me completely. I totally lose interest and find it impossible to focus on it. It has happened to me several times, with people, activities, classes, etc… The last time it happened was during a recent semester and it was really challenging to pass the class. It was a class that I liked. It was a subject that I would typically enjoy. But I didn’t get to adapt to my professor and from there everything went uphill (it was a really hard climb). Not being able to adapt to my professor sometimes means that I am not able to follow my professor, adapt to their class format, or focus on the class for different reasons. It is never a quick transition, from one moment to the next, but more progressive, until I cross the door of the blockade, and there is no turning back.

When this semester started, I felt that I was on my way to that door in one of my classes. I couldn’t understand my professor and my first few weeks of learning were blank (just like my first quiz). I panicked of course but always proactively. I contacted my professor. I explained that I was not understanding and we talked about what I needed to understand. In the next class, I was very surprised to see that my professor had humbly taken my comments to make his class more understandable to me. I’m a fan of my professor now. Yes, “black and white” thinking again. It felt so good to be heard! Look how easy it is to close that door and make the semester something less overwhelming for people like me. I know I was not the only one in that class with the same difficulties.

I just want to say thank you to all the professors who listen to their students and allow themselves to grow from criticism because those are the ones that become unforgettable for us students. Not only do they teach us academic concepts but they also teach us by example, showing that we can always learn from everyone. Thank you for listening and not letting us through that door. You can’t even imagine the relief your flexibility gives us.


The Worst is Over!

By Yamila García

A new semester has started and at each beginning, I always tell myself: “You are going to feel overwhelmed. You are going to think that it is impossible and that you cannot adapt to so many changes together. But this has happened many times before and it was never true.” The beginnings are not easy, because, in reality, they are changes. But we need them to move forward and achieve our goals and dreams.

As a neurodivergent person, I perceive routine changes as catastrophes that turn my world upside down. It’s been three weeks since the semester started and I finally feel like I’m coming out of the adjustment so I can start learning. My starting point is this. Three weeks later than many of my classmates is when I can finally sit in a class, listen and really understand what my professors explain. Previously, it was just noise, other distractions, and discomfort. I even turned in the first quiz of a class blank. None of the previous weeks were to learn the most important concepts of the class, as everyone else does. For me, those weeks were just to get used to the new buildings, the new chairs, the new voices of the teachers, and the recurring noises and the lights of the classroom. I know that my adaptation process requires these adjustments and that it takes me a few weeks, and I know that many of us, neurodivergent or not, go through the first weeks of school as if we were embarking on a journey without a map or GPS.

At the beginning of every semester, I think about how simple it would be to help us shorten this adaptation time. What would particularly help me would be to have in advance the complete syllabus of all the classes with the schedule of exams and assignments, knowing what apps or websites we are going to use, videos of the professors introducing themselves, early access to Husky CT, and any extra tools that we’ll use during the semester. It’s not that I don’t want to make an effort to adapt. The issue is that adapting takes so much energy that it doesn’t allow me to learn while I adapt. We have accommodations during the semester. Why don’t we have them before we start? Why assume that we all have the same starting point? There are many more “new” things each semester that present a challenge for those of us who struggle with changes and new routines. However, once we manage to adapt we can run like everyone else. We are all going to get through this semester and whatever comes after. We just have to be patient with ourselves, accept the time it takes to adapt and understand that our time to speed up comes a little later. Happy Fall semester everyone! The worst is over!


The Anti-Personal Narrative

By Robert

My first thought writing a post for this blog was, “why in the world would I do what I am worst at?” All my teachers in high school knew how awful I was at writing personal narratives. I could write a ten-page research paper on the fall of Rome or some random geopolitical conflict, but God forbid writing anything about myself. The minute I see instructions for a paper containing the words ‘Personal Narrative’, my internal reaction is to hold back the screams I wish to immediately hurl at the professor that assigned me such work.

What I didn’t realize at the time I was banging my head against the wall trying to complete such assignments back in high school, was how many of my neurodivergent peers had feelings like mine. We could debate for hours the semantics of a computer programming language or the political intentions of Putin for invading Ukraine, but the minute the subject
turns personal experiences our minds go blank. Trying to explain ourselves is an exercise in
futility, mostly accomplished in-person by blank stares and in-writing by looking at a blank
Word document for hours thinking of a single thing to write. It is ironic we cannot articulate our feelings considering how unique most of our stories in life are. Although many of us had non-traditional lives and educational experiences, explaining those things to others is as difficult as climbing Mount Everest. So, if you ever have the opportunity to talk to, or end up on a first date with one of us, don’t feel too bad if you get no response when you ask the question: “What about you?” Push hard for answers, it’s just who we are.


Hyperfixations and Special Interests

By A.R.

An integral part of the human experience is having interests – I doubt anybody can dispute that. We develop interests and fixations almost as soon as we’re born and they develop as we grow. However, just like plenty of other things internally and externally, interests and hobbies can come on a lot stronger for those who are neurodivergent.

What is a Hyperfixation?

Hyperfixations are interests that are usually short-term and highly intense. These are commonly associated with ADHD, but anyone can experience hyperfixations. While they can bring a person a lot of joy, they have the potential to overpower basic needs if they get too intense. There are times when people who are hyperfixating can simply forget to eat, use the restroom, sleep, or otherwise take care of themselves. Typically, these interests appear just one at a time as there’s simply not room for more than one. Hyperfixations can come and go and some have even said that their interests have returned to them years after they initially fixated on them.

What is a Special Interest?

Special interests are quite similar to hyperfixations but are considered much more long-term. The intensity of special interests as well as the number varies depending on the person. According to a study done via an online forum for autistic adults, the average amount of special interests that each person reported having was eight (Grove, et al.) Special interests are commonly associated with autism, but again are not necessarily exclusive. These interests can be a subject, an activity, a certain object, a certain food, et cetera. Special interests are not the same as an obsession in OCD where the person feels anxious if they don’t participate in whatever activity they are fixated on.

What Effects Can They Have?

The positive or negative effects of special interests and hyperfixations have been debated for a long time. Some studies say that they impair functioning and communication, while others say they encourage communication and boost confidence. This is really down to personal belief and situation – for myself, I believe it only impairs communication if others refuse to adapt to alternative forms or topics of communication. According to others and in my own experience, special interests and hyperfixations have the potential to provide comfort for those who experience them. They can also encourage social interaction, enthusiasm, and motivation. Interests tend to reflect cognitive strengths – therefore, focusing on these strengths provides an excellent opportunity to boost confidence.

Importance in Engineering and Technology

Neurodivergent people have a great amount of skills to offer the field of science and technology. For example, people with autism often have a higher interest in “systemizable” domains – things like political systems, languages, belief systems, technology, computers, and tons of other areas. This offers a great opportunity for people with these passions to pursue these interests through innovation in STEM. Autistic people also tend to have more specific interests than neurotypical people. This creates an opportunity to develop a high amount of expertise in a specialized area, paving the way for highly skilled engineers, researchers, and more.

References:

Jordan, Chloe Jennifer, and Catherine L Caldwell-Harris. “Understanding differences in
neurotypical and autism spectrum special interests through Internet forums.” Intellectual and
developmental disabilities vol. 50,5 (2012): 391-402. doi:10.1352/1934-9556-50.5.391

Grove, R., Hoekstra, R.A., Wierda, M. and Begeer, S. (2018), Special interests and
subjective wellbeing in autistic adults. Autism Research, 11: 766-775.
https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1931

“Finding Strength in Special Interests: A New Way to Frame Autism.” NYU Steinhardt,
New York University, 4 Dec. 2020,
https://speech.steinhardt.nyu.edu/blog/special-interests-strength-based-approach/.

Simons, Annaliese. “The Neurotypical’s Guide to Being Neurodivergent.” EBHS Bear
Hub, 28 May 2021,
https://ebhsbearhub.org/4400/showcase/the-neurotypicals-guide-to-being-neurodivergent/.


I Know What Works for Me

By Yamila García

I really wish we could have options at school. The class I thought was going to be the easiest one, became the hardest one. Not because of its content, but because of the rigid structure that did not allow me to find a way to learn it properly.

There are times when professors catch my attention easily and are very organized. Those always became the easier classes, even if the content is the hardest. For example, in one class, I started attending lectures with the professor, but since they explained a little too fast for me, I got lost many times and had to watch the lectures again after class. Recording classes is definitely one way professors can help us. But that is not all. They also can post videos of another professor explaining the same topics. I think that shows an acknowledgement that we all learn in different ways. And in one class, it turned out, I understood that teacher much better. So, I stopped attending lectures and my performance got better since I was using my time more efficiently and could study more. The professor never took attendance, never tried to convince us to learn in any specific way. They understood that we are all adults and have our own ways.

On the other hand, some of my previous professors have not been flexible at all. Other professors often don’t record classes, don’t have alternative material, take attendance (that isn’t even graded for participation), and make us fill out  a form explaining the reasons for absence. I have even received an email after missing 2 classes in a row. In one class, the moment I noticed that the professor’s classes weren’t working for me, I didn’t want to tell them. I didn’t mean to be hurtful or rude. So, I did what I was supposed to do. I attended classes anyway and that wasn’t the best decision. If I had to do it again, I would tell my professor that the classes were not working for me and that I would prefer to use the little time I have learning the content in some other way. Maybe going to the tutorial center, with videos I could find online, just from the book, etc. It is just that some professors are not open to “other ways.” I wouldn’t say the professor’s teaching methods weren’t right, they are just not what works for me.

When things like that happen, I get stuck.  It is as if I cannot see good there. I don’t feel comfortable, so, I don’t like the class (even though it is something I would like in another situation), I don’t like the building, and I don’t like anything related to it. I feel so limited, I feel that I can’t do anything that could help me feel better about it. If I had possibilities, things would feel different, of course. In one class, with all the stress it caused me — with all the discomfort, pressure, and frustration I ended up with got a huge amount of stress that is affecting my health now.

I wish we could have options. I know there will always be difficulties, and nothing will ever be perfect, but there are practices that make things simpler. Programs and classes that present their complete schedule from the beginning of the semester, have a consistent methodology, offer different materials, recorded classes, etc. I don’t know if they do it consciously or if being organized is their standard operating procedure, but even if they don’t know it, they help us a lot that way.


Trying to adapt

By Yamila García

If I had to compare this semester with the previous one (my first semester at UConn), I would say that it feels as if I lived each semester being a different person. My first semester, like most of my “first experiences” on anything, was not great. I was just glad I passed my classes because I couldn’t expect more than that while trying to adapt to every new thing in this new place for me. Everything was new and so uncomfortable and frustrating. I even feel proud of myself for passing the classes in such discomfort! This semester, the second one here, was quite different. I had less uncertainty and of course, that helped a lot. My grades are better, I know where to go, where to find a quiet place to stop my mind, what food to eat, where to charge my electronic devices, different ways to get to different places, etc. I know that needing a whole semester to adapt seems like a long time, but that is what I needed and that is ok because it doesn’t matter how much time I need, but to get there and feel that things are not strange anymore.

Every time I have to break my routine and start building a new one, it is as if my true self hides and won’t appear until I have a new routine and the discomfort is gone. It happens with new people, new places, even new food! It seems like two different personalities, but it is just me exploring, getting used to things, finding that structure to support me, and when that happens my true self leaves the cave and can go out feeling safer. As I mentioned in previous posts, I am not sure what I am safer from, but I don’t need to know it. I just need to continue adapting to my environment and every change that happens. The semester is almost over and new things are coming again. One would think that after so much time I should get used to facing changes and new things, but it never happened. What does happen is that each stage passed, despite not taking away the discomfort of the next challenge, does give me the certainty that I am going to overcome it too.