Guest writer: Embracing neurodiversity in science by Daisy Shearer

by | Oct 30, 2020 | Guest Writers | 2 comments

You will have probably noticed that the background of this blog post is a different colour to normal – it’s not your screen or a blip with the blog, it’s intentional. When Daisy sent over her blog post to me it had this soft purple-pink colour as the background, she apologised and said that she’d forgotten to change it back to white before sending to me. I asked her if I could use the same background for this blog post because it was a really simple way of demonstrating how simple changes can support neurodivergent people. Daisy explained that she finds it easier to read when the black text is on this coloured background, and that using different coloured backgrounds is a very common amongst neurodivergent people but different people find different colours work better. She recommended visiting this website to find out more about how coloured overlays or backgrounds can help support neurodivergent people in processing visual information.

This post is written by Daisy Shearer. Daisy is an experimental quantum physicist currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute in the UK. Her research focuses on semiconductor spintronics for quantum technology applications. When she’s not in the lab, she spends time communicating science on Instagram @notesfromthephysicslab, Twitter @QuantumDaisy and her blog. She is a PhD student contributor for Physics World magazine and writes for Massive Science. You can find out more about Daisy’s research, writing, and other outreach activities on her website.

For those of us whose neurology differs from the ‘norm’, it can be difficult to find space in science as we often work in unconventional ways. By embracing neurodiversity and listening to the stories of neurodivergent scientists, I believe we can find ways to better support atypical neurotypes and tap into our unique and often outside-the-box thinking. In fact, it’s thought that many pioneering scientists like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton may have been neurodivergent.

So, what exactly is neurodiversity? Neurodiversity views neurological conditions as simply a difference in brain functioning rather than a disease or disorder that needs to be cured. Although it has its origins in the autistic community, the neurodiversity paradigm includes other neurological variations such as ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Like many autistic women, I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood (I was 21). This is because autism tends to present differently in women and girls, and it is more common for us to unconsciously ‘camouflage’ our autistic traits through mimicry. Three years later I’m still processing my diagnosis, but I do feel that identifying the specific neurological differences that I have was a turning point in my life and my scientific career. Before I knew I was autistic, I spent many hours of introspection trying to work out why I behaved the way I did and tried to work out how other people managed to not get overwhelmed by the sensory inputs around them. I would get so angry and frustrated at myself because of my inability to cope with things. Turns out I just process things in a certain way, and that does not mean that I am broken or flawed.

Daisy using sensory aids while working in an open plan office.

I disclosed my autism to my PhD supervisor a few months into my PhD. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if he would treat me differently if he didn’t know about my disability, but I do think disclosing was the right decision. To do this, I worked with my specialist mentor on an email outlining the main ways that being autistic impacts me personally and what he can do to support me. This included things like ‘I sometimes find processing oral instructions difficult. If possible, I would prefer written instructions, and for oral instructions I would benefit from a pause between points to fully process the information.’ and ‘It is extremely difficult for me to attend meetings that have not been pre-arranged. It would be helpful if even informal meetings could be pre-booked through email.’ Since then, we have adapted our working practices to support both of us as we do sometimes need to compromise.

Adapting to accommodate for different ways of working can be challenging for those who are used to a certain way of doing things. It’s also important to remember that neurodivergent conditions impact people in unique ways, so it’s best to take everything on an individual basis. Neurodivergent people are often perfectly suited for science but can only thrive when supported sufficiently. This is one of the main reasons why I started talking about my own experiences as an autistic scientist online. I think that through raising awareness around neurodiversity and highlighting the experiences of neurodivergent scientists, we might see cultural change in science towards more accessible and inclusive teaching and working practices.

At the beginning of this year, I started a visibility campaign called ‘neurodivergent in STEM’ which aims to share a wide variety of stories from neurodivergent people in STEM fields. We want to share examples of how we can be supported in science and beyond as well as highlight both the strengths and challenges of neurodiverse conditions. It’s also important to me that people recognise the ways in which we are all similar. Having a differently wired brain doesn’t make people like me inferior or superior to neurotypical people. At the end of the day we’re all humans. I don’t think it’s productive segregating people into lots of different groups, but it is important to ensure that we’re supporting everyone as best we can and not discriminating for or against people just because of a certain identity they happen to have.

Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I would be if I wasn’t autistic, but my neurotype is so integral to who I am that I don’t think I can even start to imagine what I might be like if I wasn’t autistic. My intense interest in quantum physics, my attention to detail, and my ability to pick up on patterns are all traits that lend themselves to being a good scientist. Having said that, there is much more to me than ‘that autistic person’. At the end of the day I’m primarily an experimental quantum physicist. I want my work to speak for itself and with the right support, I think that I can become the kind of scientist I aspire to be.

Daisy with a 15T magnet during visit to High Field Magnet Laboratory (HFML) for measurements.