‘Modern Day X-Men’: Discussing the neurodiversity movement

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Guest speaker, Shawn Smith, spoke at the kickoff of the Neurodiversity Fall Discussion Series — a discussion to bring awareness to the neurodiverse community. Photo courtesy of UConn Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

On Friday, the University of Connecticut welcomed guest speaker Shawn Smith to the Neurodiversity Fall Discussion Series Kickoff, beginning the four-part series dedicated to discussing and celebrating neurodevelopmental differences. 

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is hosting these events to reframe the way people think about disability, as well as how neurodivergent people think about themselves. 

Neurodivergent, as opposed to neurotypical, is defined as having neurological development that is considered atypical.  

The neurodiversity movement is founded on the idea that differences such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism, among others, are part of the natural variation in the human population. It aims to challenge the idea that such disabilities are “deficits,” as they are commonly referred to in society. 

“Welcome to the world of the uniquely gifted,” Smith says, whenever a person reveals to him that they are neurodivergent.  

By embracing the strengths that often go overlooked by neurotypical people, Smith is encouraging the neurodiverse community to reassess how they view themselves and surround themselves with positivity. 

Smith is a certified counselor and psychotherapist, as well as founder and CEO of Don’t Dis My Ability.  

Smith himself is neurodivergent, and has been diagnosed with ADHD. He described how this has impacted him through his life, including strengths he has embraced and weaknesses he has learned to accommodate.  

When in school, he was told not to expect the same grades as other students, simply because of a diagnosis. He emphasized that having a different learning style does not mean that a person is incapable of learning, just that conventional methods of teaching may not work for them.  

He was able to move beyond this “one size fits all” approach that is prevalent in the education system. He is aware that, in terms of living with a disability, what works for him might not work for everyone else. 

“I don’t have the answers, I have perspectivE”

“I don’t have the answers, I have perspective,” Smith said.  

Throughout the discussion, this was his guiding principle when giving advice on how to best help those struggling with issues similar to those he has faced.  

Now, he has been able to use his neurodivergence to his advantage. His unique view of the world allows him to approach situations from a different angle. As a psychotherapist, his ability to strongly empathize with people is a skill he has put to good use, when it previously was something many people looked down on. 

“I really appreciate strategies and skills to reshape the way we approach life, especially academics,” Riya Venkateshwaran, a third-semester marketing major, said. “Not so much as organization or executive function, but more about shifting away from the non-neurotypical ‘manual’ to life — that many people grew up believing was the only way to do it … and making progress in creating our own manual.” 

Flyer for the Neurodiversity Series shows the schedule of future events. Click here to register. Photo courtesy of UConn Civil and Environmental Engineering Department.

With classes being online, this semester has been especially challenging for neurodiverse students. Often, time management and organization are areas of significant struggle, making discussions like this one more important now than ever before.  

“I think it’s essential to continue having resources and meetings such as the one today, because there aren’t a lot of discussions based on students with learning disabilities and neurodiversity,” Noah Baskin, a fifth-semester molecular and cellular biology major, said. “UConn has responded to many crises, but hasn’t responded to the crisis that students with learning disabilities are dealing with this semester. [W]hat has UConn done to help students…who are drowning right now?” 

Three more discussions like these will be held every other Friday. The upcoming topic is an ADHD roundtable. 

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