Coming Out Aspie: Breaking the Stigma on Neurodiversity

There’s labels. For as long as you can remember, others have been sticking words onto you to make sense of what is in front of them. Those you make uncomfortable in school call you weird, strange. You can’t play with them because of these. Others realize very quickly that you will do and believe anything they say, so the labels accumulate in the whispers, the giggles, and the pranks. Those who love you and want to comfort you call you unique, special, and precious. Teachers will one day come to use these words as well, but to them they’ll add genius, talented, one of a kind. These will pepper recommendation letters, open doors.

But they will also pepper your ego, an ego that you now hide behind so that the other labels don’t matter. The ego comes at a price though, and the weight of the world’s problems starts to lean into you:

“You’re going to cure cancer someday, or AIDS!” they yell, again with the best of intentions. Your school parades you in front of parents as an example of what their own children can become: National Merit Scholars, perfect score on the SAT, admissions to MIT and Duke, full scholarships…labels. Peers you rarely interact with give you one last one before you leave, and it comes with an expectation: Most Likely to Succeed. No pressure. Continue reading

Science March DC, Future of Research Teach-In

Thanks to Future of Research and some last-minute planning, I had the pleasure of leading a Teach-In at today’s March for Science DC, titled, “Challenges in Becoming a Scientist.” Despite the rain, the tent was packed with people ranging from the ages of around seven to seventy: some scientists, others not; all in support of science. While there will be an official write-up, I’d like to write some thoughts while the conversations of the day are fresh in my mind and the feeling of hope and solidarity awakened in my heart.

In what was a beautiful example of the marriage between the arts and sciences, banners with poems relating to science were placed in a tent for people to admire. I got permission to borrow the banner of this poem, “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” which I used to kickstart the session with the affirmation that anyone, including a one-year old curiously tugging at the tablecloth, can be considered a scientist and should be encouraged in that pursuit (perhaps to the chagrin of her poor mother, which I’m sure many of our own parents can remember well).

It seemed appropriate that the first question came from a small girl who expressed to me her concern over global warming and pollution, followed by another by a young boy who expressed his concern over the loss of wildlife due to hunting. Their bravery opened up the inquisitive, if somewhat shy or socially conscious minds, of the adults in the room, who quickly followed suit.

I mentioned a desire to hear everyone’s voices and concerns, and asked for a respect of the differing opinions shaped by our own limited and human experiences, for a recognition of the inherent human worth in everyone present.

I was incredibly grateful for the older man who bravely asked, “If I get two identical resumes, should I go with the diversity pick, just for diversity’s sake.” I say he was brave because we unfortunately live in a world that might have labeled him as ignorant or angrily responded YES! without considering his concerns and engaging. He was being a true scientist, asking a question that challenged his worldview, open to the data that might contradict him.

I challenged him to invite both candidates in for an interview, to recognize that rarely are two people as identical as their resumes might make them seem. I challenged him to take an implicit bias test online; to be aware of the quick, unconscious decisions his brain might be making to make two non-identical resumes seem identical. Another young man, a POC and recruiter at an engineering firm, challenged this man to ask what the stories behind the resumes were:

Did one person, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, disability, or religion, take out student loans, work part-time, or finish his degree in ten years instead of the traditional four due to circumstances outside their control? Does their struggle show a strong resilience to succeed where others would not, a perseverance to pass on to mentees through example?

Finally, I challenged the man to recognize that a diversity choice is not “just a diversity choice.” I asked him to look at the faculty in his university or place of work. If there is a prevalence of one gender, race, religion, ethnicity…etc, then bringing diversity inherently challenges outdated forms of thinking, brings innovation and creativity, and provides a real example of success and mentorship to those who might have a hard time finding those who will understand their own struggles.

When a sophomore in high school asked me what he should do to become a scientist, I didn’t tell him to pile on more AP’s, join more clubs, or rack up service hours. I told him to find people who he wanted to be like and ask them for mentorship and guidance. I told him he wouldn’t have the high school phase in his life again, and he should enjoy that, to do what he loves and love what he does.

We heard from people concerned about open access, and from graduate students concerned about a lack of mentorship in careers outside of academia. We heard from a graduate student worried she wasn’t involved enough in activism as a first-year. I encouraged her to focus on her project and her own health and mental well-being; to perhaps find one issue she was passionate about and get involved only to the extent it relaxed her, not stressed her more.

Among the voices, some expressed concern about bullying and harassment, this time not in academia or higher-ed, but at the K-12 level, remembering all too clearly curiosity and enthusiasm snuffed out or closeted by taunting peers and frustrated teachers. Another young girl confirmed there was a lack of encouragement in STEM at her school.

I reminded those in the audience, especially the young ones, that enthusiasm and curiosity did not make them weird, strange, or different. It made them unique, beautiful, and a gift to a human race that so desperately needs of that very enthusiasm and curiosity.

If you are the parent to one of these children, and they are in need of encouragement, role-models, or just a friend who will listen attentively to their monologues about citrus trees or grizzly bears and answer their questions patiently, I am more than happy to help with that, be it by Twitter, Facebook, or even Skype, and am sure others would too.

It was fitting too, that the young girl who opened the questions closed them by stating:

“I’m interested in all types of science. But when I grow up, I wanna be in science with the earth…animals…and humans! And I want to make sure we are all healthy, and strong, and all feel good.”

If that’s what the future looks like, you can certainly count me in.

In science solidarity,

Juan Pablo Ruiz