A movement brings community, visibility to neurodiversity at Cornell

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This article was originally written by Caitlyn Hayes in the Cornell Chronicle on April 10, 2023.

For her master’s project in archeology at Cornell, Carol Anne Barsody M.A. ’23 assembled and led a large interdisciplinary team of researchers to investigate and solve the mystery of a mummified bird that had been kept in Cornell’s archives for decades, a project which required speaking and collaborating with dozens of specialists from across departments and from outside Cornell.

Many of those specialists would likely be surprised, Barsody says, to learn that she is autistic.

Barsody has worked hard to hone communication and collaboration skills that did not always come naturally. She’s also found crucial support at Cornell through the Autism Social Group, run by Neurodiversty @ Cornell, a campus-wide initiative founded in 2021 that aims to support neurodivergent students and employees.

She joined the group when a transition from being a full-time employee at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art to a full-time student made her uncertain of her role in her classes.

“Right from the beginning, the group gave me the ability to combat a lot of the feelings I’d been having, and it gave me a group of people I felt comfortable with,” Barsody says. “I honestly think it’s only because of this group that I was able to flourish in my program.”

Barsody is one of many students and staff who are finding support, community, visibility and a voice through Neurodiversity @ Cornell. The initiative hosts weekly and biweekly online community meetings for students and staff, monthly discussion sessions, visiting speakers and special events, including programming for Neurodiversity Celebration Week, March 13-17. Canvas courses for neurodivergent students, staff and faculty offer resources and access to support.

The communities welcome anyone who wants to know more about neurodivergence and especially those with a non-typical neurotype, including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning differences, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, anxiety and more, says Neurodiversity @ Cornell founder Florencia Ardón, study skills lecturer and neurodivergent student support program manager in the Learning Strategies Center.

“The number of students and staff who need support is likely way too much for one program,” says Ardón, who has invited partners from across the university to join a steering committee for the group. “We really wanted to include constituents from different areas of campus, to create something cohesive that can permeate the campus culture.”

In addition to creating community, the group aims to increase understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity on campus.

“People have a lot of misconceptions about what neurodiversity is and those misperceptions can lead to systemic exclusion,” says Becca McCabe, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering who serves as the student representative on the steering committee and president of a forthcoming student organization, Student Neurodiversity Alliance at Cornell. “Many people may not even know that they fall under this umbrella – they may be undiagnosed and not have the words to articulate their needs. That makes it even more important to be inclusive and to promote, organize and advocate for that inclusion.”

More than a diagnosis

Neurodivergent students and staff offer unique and diverse contributions to the campus community, Ardón says. Pete Caforio, an IT security and infrastructure engineer, is a master problem solver, finding creative solutions efficiently and solving many problems previously deemed unsolvable. Nicole André, a research technician in Glenn Simmons Jr.’s lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine, says she has a heightened sensitivity to sight and sound, can spot patterns easily and can achieve a hyperfocus that yields creative insights.

Barsody says that navigating an educational system tailored to neurotypical brains has made her more resilient. “If there’s something I’m having an issue with, even if it’s not something related to my neurodivergence, it gives me the strength to work through it,” she says. “It really helps me as a researcher, because I continuously look for an answer instead of giving up.”

Many in the neurodivergent community are able to inhabit a space outside social constructs, says Sierra Hicks, a doctoral student in systems engineering. Hicks identifies as nonbinary and pansexual; as an executive board member of Qgrads, the LGBTQIA+ graduate student association, they are exploring mutual structures of support for queer, neurodivergent students.

“People have a lot of misconceptions about what neurodiversity is and those misperceptions can lead to systemic exclusion.”

Becca McCabe, doctoral student in mechanical engineering

“The social rules have always been blurred for me,” they say. “I really enjoy that about myself – it never really made sense why I should abide within these lines and try to act a certain way.”

But misconceptions about neurodiversity, as well as its invisibility, can lead to isolation, especially when many neurodivergent students and staff can “mask” a range of traits – forcing themselves to maintain eye contact, or suppressing the impulse to rock, move, or make noises, for example. Masking makes it easier for neurodivergent students and staff to avoid prejudice but is also exhausting and exacerbates invisibility, heightening the need for a safe community space.

“Coming into this community is a huge weight off my shoulders,” Hicks says. “You need spaces where you don’t feel like there was a manufacturing error in making you all the time, where you can behave differently and have some freedom. When someone starts unmasking and really being themselves, it’s just a domino effect on everyone, and we all feel a lot better.”

Ardón says many undiagnosed attendees have recognized themselves in others through the programming and have subsequently sought and received diagnoses, giving them self-understanding and resources that can change their lives and help them succeed.

“The most valuable part of this group, for me, is the idea of effectively conquering challenges together,” said Caforio. “I see my role in part as introducing people to university resources they didn’t know existed, that are there for them, that I’ve used very effectively and successfully in my career. I find that very rewarding.”

A movement

Beyond creating community for students and staff, Neurodiversity @ Cornell wants to broadly increase understanding, acceptance and support of neurodiversity on campus.

“It’s really a movement Flor and the Neurodiversity @ Cornell ambassadors have started,” says Chris Casler-Gonçalves, a lifelong advocate for inclusive education and assistant director of Diversity Programs in Engineering. “We have these amazing students coming to us, but we need to build these communities and support systems so we’re ready to receive them and help them to be as successful as they can be.”

Ardón, who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and participates in the neurodivergent employee community, works with partners from around the university to present to departments, student groups, advisors – anyone who asks – about how to make their work more inclusive for neurodivergent communities. A target audience for this message is faculty; even small changes in the way they present information can make a big difference for neurodivergent students, she says. She advocates for Universal Design for Learning, an approach that encourages faculty to present information and assess learning in multiple ways.

“Instructionally, the kinds of supports that neurodivergent students really benefit from, everybody benefits from,” Casler-Gonçalves says. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

To shed more light on their experiences, Neurodiversity Ambassadors often present with Ardón and others and have informally signed on to be more open and vocal about their neurotypes.

That increased visibility is having a ripple effect. After André disclosed her neurotype in public for the first time on a panel for Neurodiversity Celebration Week, an acquaintance revealed that she, too, struggles with aspects of her own neurodivergence.

“It was the first time she knew what my identities were, and I think that was empowering to her as well. She was able to come forward,” André says. “The more we feel comfortable and the more we feel we won’t be shunned, that people won’t think we’re not good enough or smart enough, then the less energy we can spend on masking, and the more we can focus on doing what we love.”

Find resources and information about groups and events on the Neurodiversity @ Cornell website.