Thinking Differently: Physics Student Promotes Neurodiversity at UT Austin

I was interviewed by Juan S Lozano from the College of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Here is a link to the interview in both English and Spanish:

En español / In Spanish

I was also featured in this article: 12 Ways Our Students Owned 2016

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Undergraduate Manuel Díaz advocates for neurodiversity – widening acceptance of neurological differences, ranging from autism to dyslexia to Tourette’s syndrome.

A senior in physics, Diaz recently co-authored an astrophysics paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. And, diagnosed with autism at the age of 16, he also founded the student organization Texas Neurodiversity and Neurodivergencia Latina, a blog that brings the neurodiversity message to Spanish-speaking audiences.

We asked him about his advocacy work and experiences at UT Austin.

What does neurodiversity advocacy mean, and why are you passionate about it?

Neurodiversity advocacy means that I promote a paradigm shift from the dominant viewpoint in the world that Nick Walker calls the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm. The pathology paradigm basically says that there is such a thing as “normal” or a “normal range” in which human brains should function. If you don’t fall into what is categorized as “normal,” then you have some kind of disorder.

By shifting to the neurodiversity paradigm, you no longer believe that there is a correct or “normal” way for brains to function. In college … I found myself trying to pass as neurotypical and failing. By seeing things through the lens of the neurodiversity paradigm, I accepted myself …that there is nothing wrong with me. I want to help others make that same realization.

What interests you about physics?

The complexity of it all, the mysterious nature of nature — this is what attracted me to physics.

My best friend and I (she is also autistic) figured out when we first started talking that we share something in common. We both see things in logical ways, yet at the same time we have something we started calling the “other half.” It is the part of us that notices patterns and connections. Those patterns and connections evoke very intense emotions… it is like a mental state of childlike wonder and innocence where everything is magical and perfectly fits together like the pieces of a puzzle.

The works of people like the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose hint that there are others that have this “other half.” The mathematician and Fields Medalist Michael Atiyah seems to refer to it as an “imaginative state of mind.” …not everyone can see it [but] it has helped me overcome everything that has come my way. And basically it is what allows me to see physics for what it really is: the study of the beauty of the universe.

How has your experience with autism and neurodiversity advocacy work impacted your experience at UT Austin as a physics major?

It’s created a much richer experience for me. I interact with people about topics that are not physics related, so it has allowed me to meet students from different majors and helps me better understand different perspectives… Many of my advocacy skills such as explaining neurodiversity-related concepts have made me better at explaining physics. Also founding the student organization Texas Neurodiversity at UT and being its president has driven me to learn how to be a leader, and in doing so I think it has enhanced both my public speaking skills and my ability to motivate myself when it comes to physics.

Why do you think it is important to translate neurodiversity advocacy work to Spanish?

Being neurodivergent can look a bit different across cultures and individual circumstances, and that should be something we take into account. Latinx culture has a very strong stigma towards neurodivergences, and mostly it is thought best to just ignore them. (Editor’s note: Latinx is a gender-neutral alternative to Latino.) The fact that there is almost nothing out there about the neurodiversity movement in Spanish was one of my biggest motivators for starting my blog Neurodivergencia Latina.… I think having material in Spanish out there could make a huge difference in the lives of neurodivergent Latinx individuals, so that they can accept themselves and be accepted by their families.

What are some of the biggest misperceptions that the general public has about autistic people and people with other differences in brain function?

I think some of the biggest misperceptions are the many stereotypes …. They think that we don’t want to socialize, that we lack the ability to adopt a different perspective from our own, or that we lack emotions as if we were cold, logical calculating robots. These were actually the types of misperceptions that I myself had that made me think I could not be autistic.

Another huge misconception is that we are incompetent. This is the way many people see my non-speaking autistic friends. This is why in the autistic community we have a saying, “always presume competence.”

And I think another big misperception comes from the media portraying neurodivergent individuals as dangerous, which is extremely problematic considering that statistically, we are more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violence and criminal acts.

I think the number one misperception is that many of us are suffering because of our neurodivergence. In reality, any suffering is usually due to how society marginalizes and stigmatizes us.

What are your plans for after college?

I want to work as a theoretical physicist in academia. Specifically, my research interest lies in the incompatibility of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Many people say their interests lie in quantizing gravity to solve this problem. … I will continue writing my own blog posts and translating the work of other advocates into Spanish. I hope to be a popularizer of science like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I will also try to change the way people look at autism, KCS (kinetic cognitive style, i.e. ADHD), and other neurocognitive variants, [because] I think it is time for popularizers of science to talk about the neurodiversity paradigm. And in the future, I hope to write some books on physics and on neurodiversity.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Image of my interview on the news of the Department of Physics website.

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