Student Stories: Neurodiverse Learners and STEM Education

This website features stories from students who identify as “neurodiverse” and are pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers. We hope you enjoy learning about these students and their experiences, and in the process learn more about promoting the full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in STEM careers.

“The thing I appreciate most about my own thinking is the creativity involved. There’s this web of connection in my brain, and I think that leads to novel ways of putting things together.” - Anjelika, student

  • Alexis, who is pursuing animation at a technical institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of art and STEM.
  • Amanda talks about computer science and the experience of blindness in addition to her identity as a neurodiverse learner.
  • Anjelika was the first person in her family to go to college in the United States. She believes diversity among information technology professionals leads to better products for everyone.
  • Benjamin shares thoughts on navigating standardized testing, asking for what is needed, and how big wins in research can make the setbacks worthwhile.
  • Brianna shares her love of research, and how she’s using it to help meet the needs of groups who are traditionally under-served or misunderstood.
  • Dan explains the danger of getting caught up in first impressions. He goes on to share how the field of computing can help bring his ideas to life.
  • Matthew, who has dyslexia, was told by a teacher that he would never be able to read or write. He learned that he likes proving people wrong and has excelled in his pursuits.
  • Nicole asked herself one day, “What if I could start building things and making it possible for other people to have more access?”
  • Tiara, who is pursuing neuroscience and public health, reflects on navigating the public school system as a “twice exceptional” student.

This collection was edited by Scott Bellman and Ben Raker. Copyright 2023.

Alexis, Digital Art and Animation

Alexis headshot

I’ve been doing creative things all my life. Like most kids, I drew pictures. I remember doing a bunch of different kinds of crafts. I did a bit of baking and listened to lots of music. I played trombone and liked to sing. I think I was always meant to go into a creative field. It just took me a while to figure out which one.

One benefit of being autistic is that you remember stuff that you're interested in, and it repeats in your head. When I was younger, I’d be able to repeat the things I saw on the cartoons that I watched. Animation and humor had such a big influence on me. I know a lot of good lines from shows, and I can still make myself laugh anytime I want!

When I was a freshman in high school, I realized I wanted to do art for a living. The most stable way to do this seemed to be going into the animation industry. As I learned more about it, my interest grew and grew. Art and technology come together for me. With the field of animation that I'm going into, I see how the power of art with technology can influence people. Most kids were raised with cartoons teaching them things. I want to be a part of that. This field offers a means of expression, a way to teach others and offer ideas.

"Neurodiversity is just that the brain is structured and functions differently for different people. I know a lot of disorders can fall into that. My experience is that I just think differently. It kind of feels like an outside perspective. You think of things that most people don’t really think of. You connect things people don’t really connect.”
- Alexis

I’m a sophomore at the DigiPen Institute of Technology. The change from living at home and going to a small-town high school, to going to college in a bigger city and living with roommates and doing things myself—it was a big adjustment. I struggle with change sometimes, so it caused me a lot of anxiety.

I have trouble asking for help sometimes. And I'm such a perfectionist that going from being a salutatorian in high school to having to retake a class in college—I didn't think that was possible. Now I have a better understanding of what to do and I can fix the problems I encounter. I try my best to put 100 percent into everything I do, and I have a mindset that I want to get better. I like looking at the long term and doing what I can to get there. 

My goals drive me. My main goal in the future is to pitch my own cartoon—a whole show. I don't know where, but I want to do it. At the moment, the goal is to get a job in the animation industry and work my way toward my end goal. It will probably take years to get there. I just know I want to draw, and I want to be in animation. Art and technology can influence our lives in all sorts of ways! 

Amanda, Computer Science

Amanda headshot

I have problems getting people to understand my situation because they think that I’m blind and that’s it. They don't even know I'm on the autism spectrum, and I don't usually tell them, because they don't know how to make sense of that. I’m a graduate student at Texas A&M University, I’m doing research. and I also have a job testing products for Apple. 

I work on the things that I feel I have to work on. Right now, a lot of STEM subjects just aren't accessible. I hear a lot about encouraging more disabled people to be in STEM, but problems that I face are not solved. I'm trying to make it easier for the next group.

I’ve been completely blind since birth. Two of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in school have been uses of graphics and images in math. For blind people, you can't just have a drawing up on a screen, and descriptions only go so far. In math, there’s the problem of equations. If you have an x squared, you have a tiny “2” above an x. The trouble is representing that linearly in Braille and writing one symbol after another. The user has to read character by character these often really long equations.

I came back to grad school with the hope of using new technology to solve some of these problems. I'm in the process of acquiring expensive tactile tools called Graphiti displays with 2,400 pins that can move up and down to various heights to form tactile images. You can draw with them, you can play games on them, you can feel all kinds of graphics. These displays would allow me to see things I've never seen before and experience engineering concepts in new ways. I want to communicate with people better. I want to understand what they're talking about better. I just don't have access to enough of what's being displayed on a computer. My goal is basically a blind Renaissance, when there are enough people with these technologies that give them abilities they've never had, to perceive things they couldn’t using speech and Braille. Interesting things will happen, and blind people will be able to do more. 

“I just think of it as brains functioning differently. Also, I think of inputs being different. For me, not having visual experience since birth is going to rewire things. So that creates neurodiversity as well.”
- Amanda

My other interest is that I’ve discovered that virtual events can accidentally improve accessibility. They certainly did in my case. Rather than having to go to a physical place and have all the related challenges, I can just join a Zoom session. This has made it possible for me to do more work because I'm not spending so much time traveling and recovering from the in-person experience. My dissertation may be about this.

I wasn't expecting to go to grad school. If school hadn't gone virtual, I would have said, no way. In college, I was using all my energy getting to and from class, dealing with cars and people, and also doing the schoolwork that took me longer than everyone else. 

When I go into a classroom full of people, I hear noise, most of it indecipherable because there are too many voices at once, and I don't see anybody, so I don’t recognize people. Other people don't generally talk to me, because they don't have a reason to, and because I don't make eye contact. 

Luckily, my job is remote. I’m part of the “living on” team, and we do remote accessibility testing of Apple products. We live on the devices and don't have to be in an office. It’s part-time, do it at your own pace. Most of the time I'm just doing stuff with their hardware and software and reporting the problems that I find.

I have a husband who loves me and helps me every day. We think almost with one brain. And he makes amazing whole-food and plant-based food that keeps me functioning. He also makes sure that the home is nice and clean and quiet. I find that I'm much happier and more fulfilled and more functional at home because I can think more about real problems like how to get as many tactile displays into the hands of as many blind people as possible and how to make engineering concepts accessible.

I’m lucky. I have a house. I have a job. I have a partner that I want to be with. I have a quiet life that's not too stressful and that’s really enjoyable, and my work is meaningful because some of the problems that I find, nobody else ever has to deal with. 

Anjelika, Computer Science & Engineering and Comparative Literature

I emigrated from the Philippines when I was nine. I grew up in Brooklyn and went to school in Manhattan for middle and high school. Then I went to college in Ithaca, New York, at Cornell. I'm the first person in my family to go to college in the United States—my parents went to school in the Philippines.

At High School in New York City, we were required to take computer science. At one point, another student in the class was confused about something, and I explained it. At the end of the class, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “You’re really good at this.” Later, he suggested I continue studying computer science. And that was that.

I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was a senior in college. Until then I was trundling along with no accommodations—no official ones, at least. I also have visual processing issues with reading that I didn't know about until I was in a four-thousand-level math class and a four-thousand-level computer science class where the symbols are very esoteric. I got stuck a lot, thinking, “How do I deal with the fact that I can’t read symbols anymore? How did I even do it thus far?”

One thing I’m proud of is that I went on leave from college and then came back. There was a mix of physical and mental health reasons to why I went on leave. Honestly, the fact that I didn’t drop out is a huge accomplishment. Sometimes it was tempting to never go back. And I was really scared about coming back. Then we sorted it out. I ended up with an internship through Oracle; the internship really helped me feel more back on my feet going back to school. I'm proud that I made it this far and kept going even though I wanted to give up so badly. 

“The thing I appreciate most about my own thinking is the creativity involved. There’s this web of connection in my brain, and I think that leads to novel ways of putting things together.”
- Anjelika

I basically have an entire village of people helping me through. My primary advisor helps me with study skills and executive function. I also have a disability services counselor who manages the official accommodations that I have for classes and helps me process some of the feelings I have. I also have mobility issues, so I meet with the transportation coordinator, and we plan out my rides. I found a therapist that works with me too. Then my friends, many of whom have graduated, support me from a little bit farther away physically.

One of the reasons that I have persisted—and a reason others have given to encourage me—is that having people in tech fields with different perspectives like mine makes it so that technology is made for a wider variety of people. If technology is designed only by a particular demographic, then it is only going to serve a particular demographic, even when there is the best of intentions. It’s important to have a lot of voices in order to give power to the same demographics as the people who will need to use the technology. 

The most recent stage of life for me was really hard, and I'm still going. The thing that is most important for me to remember and maybe for other people to take away is: It can be OK. I often emphasize receiving support, but I tend to underemphasize the amount of work that I put in. My story is driven by this lucky confluence of me being able to put in the work and having people support me. That pushes me continually forward. 

Benjamin, Computer Science

Ben headshot

Growing up, I had a high school that didn’t really know how to accommodate—and the frustrations of this eventually led me to dropping out. In the years since, I’ve been able to redirect frustration toward something constructive. I got my GED, and I went back and spent a couple of years at a community college doing physics and math and other coursework. I transferred to Purdue University and was able to join a group working on combining machine learning and distributed systems with visualization. I got my bachelor’s in computer science and used that to jump to NYU, where I did my master’s in Computer Science.

One of my frustrations with school was all the standardized testing. It doesn’t necessarily map up with individuals’ unique abilities. For example, with my ADD, a multiple-choice, standardized calculus test was definitely not the way for me to do well. I did better in classes that were smaller and where the teacher went through my work. A difficulty more related to my hearing was that, as an undergrad, I started out using a CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) service, which is like real-time captioning. The people who perform those services are not necessarily people initiated into the specialized field that you’re learning about, so it’s really hard to translate in real time.

Another challenge of navigating my education was deciding whether or not I could be upfront and say, “‘These are the things I need” and communicate with people about problems—and still have their respect at the end of the day. You see a subtle reaction when you start talking about accommodations with certain people. Some people are thrilled to try to equalize the field, and others are like, “This is unfair for everybody else.” So it definitely enters into the equation as to whether or not you’re willing to show your cards. You don’t want to work with people who aren’t willing to meet you halfway, but you’re also pruning your possibilities if you say you’re not going to deal with those people. In a perfect, equalized world, nobody would have to make that trade-off. And over the years I got more comfortable with being upfront and finding people I could trust to ask, “Hey, what did that guy say?” or “I missed that, can you give me a summary?”

“Neurodiversity to me is really just about bringing together a bunch of people who have minds that work differently. … I think it’s important to bring together different people—not necessarily just neurodiverse people—and put them together in a room and say, ‘OK, how do we solve problems?’”
- Benjamin

I’m currently working on machine learning and graphics research and development. Ever since I realized that doing research on building new cool things is a real career possibility, that has been a guiding principle. Basically, I’m looking at how to apply machine learning to visual effects (VFX) to make it easier for VFX artists to make things in a natural, intuitive way.

I also collaborated on starting a business, a lab spinoff from NYU with technology that we were working on there. We tried the business for a couple of years, and it didn’t work out. It’s partly the nature of startups, but the pandemic was really the X-factor that changed everything. What we were trying to do [involved people working in the same space] using augmented/virtual reality. Then the pandemic happened and nobody was in the same room anymore. 

I may do another startup, but one thing that came out of the experience is that I’m much more interested in the science part of it than I am the business side of it. As we were ending it, it was very clear that academic work and research is more important to me.

So my goal is to keep doing research in some form. Whether that‘s with a Ph.D. or doing startups, I want to keep doing something new. … It’s kind of weird for me to say I’m an outside-the-box thinker, but that’s what other people would likely say about me. I think one of my strengths is bringing a different perspective to the table.

I would say that I’ve had more failures than successes in the grand scheme of things, but all you really need is one or two big wins to offset all the losses. I’m thinking a lot about this stuff now because I have a family and a little girl. I ask myself, “How do I mentor her?” I also ask, “What would the 16-year-old me need to hear?” Maybe this: Take frustration and do something useful with it. Find a problem and fix it.

Brianna, Computer Science and Engineering

My current academic/career path is getting my Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering. I want to stay in academia and become a professor, mentoring students and conducting my research. I love research because it allows me to use my experiences and my computer science knowledge to help populations that are less understood. I have struggled for a while, and I want to help people who now face the same obstacles I did. 

I have rare traits that are not as likely to be seen in computer science, such as being an African American woman with ADHD and bipolar disorder. It is scary to be on the rare side of things in a field dominated by neurotypical white men. Still, I understand the importance of students seeing someone in the field who is similar to them. 

There are a lot of strengths and benefits of neurodiverse thinkers. These are people who tend to question societal standards. Questioning societal norms helps to bring research to new populations, create new status quos, and eventually end up helping other people to learn about things they have not experienced themselves. People encourage students to always “think outside of the box.” I think it’s fair to say that neurodiverse thinkers sometimes don’t see the box in the first place. 

I wish people understood the impact of my abilities without labeling me as my ability. I also wish professors and teachers went through training on how to work with and help neurodiverse thinkers. Sometimes it’s tough for me to go to class. I can’t comprehend quickly without being distracted by everyone else in the class too, so I tend to watch the lectures online. As a person with bipolar disorder, I go back and forth between manic and depressive states. When I’m manic, I’ll turn in assignments early. When I am depressed, sometimes I cannot concentrate long enough to turn an assignment in on time. 

“Neurodiversity is when you have a set of people who all think, feel, and act differently compared to society's standards. Sadly, people who do not fit in tend to not be successful in going through society's direct path. When I say society's standards, I mean specific policies set at higher levels such as academic curriculum, how students are taught, community and cultural stigmas, and the standardized milestone paths expected out of students.”
- Brianna

I have dealt with emotion-regulation problems for years and just assumed it was a symptom of ADHD. It was only recently that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. That was a huge thing for me to learn to accept and navigate because a new disorder means new self-management. I am still learning how to help and take care of myself.

The moment I knew I was on track and could finally see myself having the ability to reach my dreams was when I got into graduate school. I definitely do not look the best on paper, meaning I don’t have the highest GPA or a number of publications. When I got accepted into graduate school, though, I just felt for the first time that the possibilities were endless for what I wanted to achieve in this lifetime. I was ecstatic and euphoric to have the opportunity to be a part of a Ph.D. program with the opportunity to do research I was passionate about. 

Honestly, if I could do anything in the world, I would choose to be a professor in academia. It is probably not the standard answer for many students, but that truly is my passion. I always knew I wanted to help people. Being a professor will allow me to teach students, mentor undergraduates, advise graduate students, and still complete research within accessibility, where my passion lies. 

I think my perspective can be influential for younger kids who face similar challenges at a young age. It is vital for them to see someone who looks like them complete the goals they imagine or have a sense of what is possible for them. I think there is enormous strength in neurodiverse children being able to see and hear from adults similar to them to promote agency in their own skills.

Dan, Computer Science

Computers have been around for a very short time relative to all of human history. In that short span of time, we’ve advanced greatly. That’s what I find interesting: If I’m in computers, then that is how I can help advance society—through my ideas.

What I like is solving problems, and I want to try to solve problems with computing. I’m interested in a lot of areas. I like computers in anything. Computers in medicine. Computers in physics. I had this idea about computers in agriculture: We have hydroponic farming, and I wonder if one day we should we make fully automatic farms. I also like robotics, as long as the robotics have a purpose.

One of the most positive experiences I’ve had during school was when I was doing a competition related to software development. I had to develop an app with educational or social value, and mine was this program that takes the data from bike accidents and filters it to a form that’s useful. I got into the top five in the competition. I thought that was a pretty good sign; I had done something that was worth considering.

My biggest challenge in school is that people really get hung up on first impressions. And for me, sometimes first impressions are not good. I may say things that are interpreted the wrong way. I also take a little bit longer to process certain requests or I may have follow-up questions on things that for other kids is implied.

I was diagnosed with a form of autism spectrum disorder. I think more literally than a lot of people do. A lot of times when I hear expressions I don’t know, I always go to the literal definition first. Sometimes people use figurative speech. And sarcasm is a particular difficulty. Also, sometimes I laugh at things that people think are inappropriate and not funny—because I see a different way how they are funny or I see humor in a different way. 

“Neurodiversity just means that there’s a group of many people who think differently. There are always many things you can draw from a situation; there are many ways you can think about how something works. I think it’s important to have a large quantity of people who think differently; otherwise, we’ll just have a bunch of people who think things work the same way. If we have the same kinds of people in the group, nothing is going to progress. Meanwhile, if you have a group of different thinkers, maybe they’ll all think of something new.”
- Dan

I find it hard to start conversations with new people. You have to forget your fears or toss them aside. For example, if you have a bad conversation, so what? You move on. That’s how it works. So you have to think about things as, “What have I got to lose?” And if you have nothing to lose, then why wouldn’t you do it? That’s pretty much the mentality that gave me the confidence to try talking more to people.

My education in technology sciences gives me knowledge to use in the future. Adept problem-solving while I’m in school—that’s something that will be necessary in the future so I can solve problems at work. My dream job is probably to be a software developer, because it gives you opportunities to solve a lot of problems.

I think that my perspective could be a benefit to a company or organization. Sometimes when neurotypical people see something, they have a tendency to look at it with biases. As a person who has a form of autism, I like to look at things very literally. I think that’s important because if you look at things the way they are, that’s very beneficial.

Matthew, Public Policy & Criminology

I grew up with dyslexia, and I still have dyslexia. As a kid, I was told I was not going to learn to read or write. And then I learned to read and write because I spent the time, and I got some outside help from a teacher who believed I could learn. Now I’m in college on a full ride for tuition with a scholarship based on academics and leadership. 

That’s a big jump. I’m making it sound like it was a lot easier than it actually was. 
I was told I wasn’t going to be able to learn. So, I started to try more and more, because I like proving people wrong. They unknowingly set me on the right course.

Seeking self-improvement is definitely a thing for me. I don’t like it when people don’t try things, because it feels like they’re wasting their full potential. Trying to improve yourself is the best thing you can do. I like the old quote of “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I just see it as taking those opportunities and trying things to see what you’re going to learn, because you’re going to learn something.

I’ve probably signed up for 18 different things and done all of them at the same time. During my first year in high school, I noticed that there was an outside extracurricular activity where I could actually help build a plane, so I did that.  Each year I’ve signed up for programs to see what I want to do with my life. Last year it was scuba diving. The year before that it was sailing. The year before that it was something else—”teen police,” the “Police Explorers” program. Putting myself out there is basically what I’ve been doing my entire life. 

“I define diversity more as a fact of not like how people look and more of the fact of ideals. I see more of a diversity of what you want to achieve. The diversity of disabilities, I see more as challenges that need to be overcome, on a personal or outside-help level rather than anything debilitating, so it’s much more of a challenge to overcome and then that shows the personal integrity of the individual.”
- Matthew

When I went to college, I had a ton of academic interests. My focus, when I started, was criminology. Then I got into public policy and public service, with a focus in criminology, so I could expand the degree a little bit more. I wanted to be a police officer, and I realized if I want to understand what I’m going to enforce, I should probably know the process behind it and the laws themselves so that I can implement them correctly and fairly. I also wanted to do marine biology, park services, and sociology as minors. I realized that that would be far too much.

I still don’t know what I want to do as a career and what I want to do with my life in general, but the best thing I’ve learned is to give things a try. I’m thinking that after college I’m probably going to join the army. I want to do it because I want to thank the country that I’m in and try to help people, and pay it forward, in the best way I can. The next reason is much more selfish: There aren’t a lot of jobs that pay you to go jump out of airplanes and work out and get personal experience with education and survival training and all that. There are also personal values that everyone always talks about: self-discipline, respect for others, and all those traits that people need to get—I’d like to get those instilled even further.

If I could do anything, it’d be the same thing I’m doing now. I want to set myself up for future tasks, and that’s what college is all about—setting yourself up for your future. Honestly some of the best things I’ve learned over the years are being more comfortable in your own skin and finding out who you are. So I’m interested in just doing what I’m doing now: seeing my limits, academically and physically, trying to find that full potential.

Nicole, Computer Science

Nicole headshot

I love my work! I get to do really cool stuff and solve interesting problems, and I also feel like I get to do work that is aligned with my values. I want to make the world a better and more accessible place, and I feel really fortunate that I have a job where I get to do that. I'm a software engineer. I work on one of the accessibility teams for Microsoft Windows, coding different things to help increase accessibility in the Windows ecosystem.

I have dysgraphia, which is a learning disability that affects my ability to do handwriting and write in a legible, fast, nonpainful way. I also have challenges around spatial processing, but they're less diagnosable. One of the big things that helped me in school was getting extra time on tests, and I typed a lot of tests instead of having to hand-write. 

I didn't get diagnosed with disabilities until I was around 17. There was a period of time when I was younger—I think probably early elementary school—where I really struggled in school, not because I wasn't capable, but because I didn't know how to take what the teacher was telling me and put it in my brain in a way that made sense.

I spent a decent amount of time when I first started getting accommodations thinking I was getting an unfair advantage. That's the narrative you're taught, when really, it doesn't make sense. Accommodations, all they're doing is saying, “We have this world that is not built to fit everyone—what can we do to make it a better fit for more people?”

When I started college, I wanted to study neuroscience—partially because of my own experience being a person with disabilities. I went through most of my college career learning about brains and being very happy. Then the summer before my senior year, I took a computer science (CS) class, thinking I was going to hate it. Within two weeks, I’d rearranged my entire fall schedule to take the next CS course in the series. I started exploring a lot more computer science and getting really excited about it. The more I was doing it, the more I was realizing how much accessible technology has helped me to be able to succeed in school. I was like, “What if I could start building things and making it possible for other people to have more access?”

“The way I think of neurodiversity is that your brain just doesn't work the exact same as the prescribed brain that we decide everyone must have because it's what our society is built around. You think about the world in a different way; you interact with the world in a different way; you see things differently. And sometimes because of that, it means that you can end up on a different page than people who are not neurodivergent. Their brain just works one way, and your brain does not.”
- Nicole

When I decided to shift what I was doing from neuroscience to computer science, it was a really scary thing. I feel really proud of myself that I spent the time to think about, analyze, evaluate, and make the best decision for me. Ultimately, I wanted to see how I could take CS knowledge and use it for good. I was fortunate enough to enter the CS program as a postbaccalaureate student. When I got the opportunity to take a fifth-year master's program, I added it on. I love teaching, and I know that at some point I might decide I want to teach full-time. If you have a master's degree in CS, you can teach at a decent number of colleges. My school had a really amazing opportunity for me to be able to do that—to teach and cover my grad-school tuition so I could actually afford it.

I think having learning disabilities and having school not be easy for me in the beginning meant that, when I was teaching, it was easier to say, “OK, I need to explain things in different ways.” And I think that also shows up in my job: When I'm working with people, I can say, “OK, let me change this explanation around.” I think my experience with being neurodivergent and having disabilities built a lot of empathy. What I would say to neurotypical people is just to have a lot of empathy and understanding that everyone's experience isn’t the same as yours. 

I assumed I wouldn't get an accessibility job in tech until I had at least three to five years of experience. But I was fortunate enough to intern at Microsoft before graduating—and to get a return offer. They wanted to help me find somewhere I'd be happy, and they were willing to give me a spot on an accessibility team. After that, I worked on finishing up my degree and starting my job at Microsoft. 

I want to keep making accessibility better for people, and beyond that I could maybe see myself doing some teaching and some things on the side. Right now I'm enjoying for the first time in my life not worrying too much about the plan. I love what I'm doing, and I'm going to keep doing it. If things change, I can reevaluate, but I’m in a position to do cool things that make a difference in the world, which is not an easy thing to find.

Tiara, Neuroscience and Public Health and Labor Studies (minor)

Tiara headshot

I have always been deeply fascinated by understanding the human condition and using that knowledge to promote social justice. The way neuroscience bridges the gap between something as intangible as the mind and as physical and concrete as the human brain has always intrigued me. At the same time, I have always been invested in promoting justice for those whose minds work differently, in part because I was made acutely aware of how differently my mind worked compared to other people’s minds. 

According to the field of educational psychology, I am categorized as “Twice Exceptional”—that is, I’m classified as “Intellectually Gifted” and diagnosed with a neurodiverse condition (ADHD). This made navigating the public-school system especially challenging. In 3rd through 5th grade, I was in pullout classes and accelerated math. In 6th grade, I participated in an accelerated math curriculum at the University of Minnesota. When my family moved, my new district in Washington State would not allow me to enroll in gifted classes, and I found the system was unequipped for my educational needs. Eventually my parents and I decided that I should apply to the Robinson Center for Young Scholars. This allowed me to skip high school and go straight to the University of Washington after a year of intense college-level curriculum. I have deeply mixed feelings about educational tracking, “giftedness,” and acceleration, but for me, early entry was the right option.

“Neurodiversity to me represents a paradigm shift. By thinking about neurodevelopmental conditions as differences to understand, rather than diseases that must be eradicated, neurodiversity allows us to identify and deconstruct what may be exclusive or inefficient and build a world that’s better for everyone. It encourages us to expand our idea of what it means to be “normal” and what our society could look like if we could accommodate diverse ways of thinking and doing.”
- Tiara

Just because a student appears high-achieving doesn’t mean they don’t struggle or need support. What people don’t see is the incredible effort it takes for me to do things they think are effortless. On the outside, I seem to interact with other people the same way anyone does, but that has come from years of observation and making mental flowcharts for how I am supposed to talk. People who might appear high-achieving and “fine” externally can still be dealing with a lot. Acknowledging and heeding their concerns rather than dismissing them can be really important in making folks feel heard and understood.

The biggest moment for me [in college] was presenting on the work of the student group I co-founded and led, Huskies for Neurodiversity, to our funding body. When I presented our progress, I realized we had met or surpassed all our goals. The most touching comment to hear was that neurodivergent members of the funding committee were inspired by our work and valued our contributions to promoting visibility for neurodivergent students on campus. 

My education at UW has made me realize just how much is out there, and with such a vast world with so many topics to explore, I feel a sense of wonder and curiosity at all the possibilities. Lofty goals feel within reach, and having the experiences and connections with others who are invested in the same ideas I am, or passionate about the same causes, gives me hope for the future.

I think studying neuroscience can foster greater empathy for individuals whose brains operate differently. Neuroscience helps us understand aspects of the human condition that are often so hard to grasp in a concrete sense. The use of neuroscientific techniques has made a huge contribution to the acknowledgement of mental health differences as a real phenomenon instead of a personality defect.

I have studied to hopefully enter the medical field. However, I would like to explore more about how people live around the world and the various kinds of jobs that would be best suited not only for what I want to do, but what would help me maintain my health and well-being as a neurodivergent person. Whatever I do, I want to continue teaching and mentoring and affirming people as they are.