April 19, 2024

Schulich Connects panel focuses on inclusivity through tech for neurodiverse people

UCalgary event opens up sometimes-complex issues to the general public during Neurodiversity Celebration Week
Panelist seated behind table listening to each other speak
From left: Diwakar Krishnamurthy, Lloyd Summers, Carly McMorris, Jennifer Williamson Samantha Lafleur

Engineering technology has a lot to offer the neurodiverse community. That’s why the Schulich School of Engineering (SSE) hosted a breakfast panel discussion in late March to discuss this ever-evolving topic. 

Members of a four-person panel discussed neurodiversity, how to create safe places for neurodiverse people at work and school, and how technology can assist in inclusion and comfort for neurodiverse people.

Panellists included Jennifer Williamson, BSc’20, a graduate student with the Department of Psychology; Dr. Carly McMorris, BA’06, PhD, an associate professor with the Werklund School of Education; and Lloyd Summers, co-founder and CTO of Red Iron Labs, a creative technology company. The moderator for the event was Dr. Diwakar Krishnamurthy, PhD, a professor with the Schulich School of Engineering.

McMorris, a member of the Owerko Centre in the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, said technology could completely change the social game for neurodiverse children and youth. 

One of the things that we're realizing is that technology can be really helpful to help foster inclusivity,” said McMorris in an interview. “And so autistic or neurodivergent youth might find spaces online or other ways to really connect and be social with other folks who are also neurodivergent. 

“They might also utilize technology to communicate or to engage with other neurodivergent folks who struggle socially when being in front of a person. Technology might be really impactful in terms of how they interact socially.” 

Williamson, who is on the autism spectrum, cited video chats as an example of increasing accessibility: enabling captions can help neurodiverse people process information easier, while the ability to turn off one’s camera or log out to take a quick break allows neurodiverse folks to calm themselves if overstimulated.

“A big thing technology can do is enable different learning styles and opportunities,” said Williamson. 

Summers, for his part, highlighted the importance of businesses to pave the way for potential future neurodivergent employees to succeed, as well as engaging hiring and educational organizations to understand the many benefits it can bring to their business. His company, which works with virtual reality (VR), is trying to find ways to educate employers and empower neurodiverse people through VR. 

“It's just a really exciting time,” Summers said. “We're limited by our creativity, not by the technology. And so, as we get ideas and want to try things and can do things, the technology can do it now. And I think that's where it really empowers different people. And I think that's a huge, a huge win for us right now.”  

Krishnamurthy, who is in the department of Electrical and Software Engineering, is currently working with VR to help non-speaking autistic adults and children communicate their inner thoughts and desires. 

I think just giving children a lot more options on different ways to communicate is going to be hugely empowering because, when we work with autistic folks as part of our research, we routinely encounter individuals who have been misunderstood their entire life and because of that, they're being denied an education and other social and economic opportunities,” he says. 

Creating tools to give non-speaking autistic children a voice will set them up to be more appropriately educated for their ability and not be limited by communication barriers, he adds.

All four say events like Schulich Connects are important to inform the public and break down stigma on topics such as neurodiversity.

I'm just really glad that we can talk about kind of these EDI-style (equity, diversity and inclusion) topics, like the importance of inclusion and neurodiversity affirmation, and then kind of defining neurodiversity and educating people that maybe don't have that background,” says Williamson. 

Williamson adds that research related to how engineering tech can improve access is often in academic papers locked behind paywalls or too technical for the general public to understand, so events like this make such research more accessible.

Schulich Connects is sponsored by TD Insurance. To register for the next Schulich Connects event, visit the web page.

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At UCalgary, we’re taking the lead in transforming child health. Join us May 8 for our second event in the Creating Tomorrow series where we will explore the relationships, partnerships and people involved in improving child health and wellness in Canada. Register now

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