Feb. 7, 2024

For those in the neurodiversity movement the key to systems change is solidarity: researcher

A conversation with neurodiversity advocate and researcher Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, PhD
Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, a white woman with bright red hair, is wearing a purple embroidered shirt and smiling inside the Taylor Insitute for Teaching and Learning
Kristen Gillespie-Lynch is a neurodiversity advocate and researcher who recently spoke at the Taylor Institute. Elyse Bouvier

The term 'neurodiversity' has become common language — from social media videos to post-secondary conversations around inclusion, the neurodiversity movement is seemingly everywhere. But what does it mean and how does this impact students and staff at institutions like the University of Calgary?

In fall 2023, Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, PhD, spoke at The Power of Neurodiversity in the Workplace: A Dialogue, an event hosted by the Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Initiative for Neurodiverse Students at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, in partnership with The Sinneave Family Foundation.

In collaboration with UCalgary alum Dr. TC Waismann, EdD, Gillespie-Lynch, who is a professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center (CUNY), discussed ways staff can support neurodivergent students in WIL.

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch standing behind a podium inside the Taylor Institute. She is gesturing with her hands as she speaks.

Kristen Gillespie-Lynch presents at the Taylor Institute in November 2023.

Elyse Bouvier

Defining neurodiversity

Gillespie-Lynch uses Neuroqueer author Nick Walker's perspective as a way to define neurodiversity and the movement itself. While neurodiversity includes all brains, the neurodiversity movement points out the ways in which autistic and neurodivergent people are marginalized in systemic ways or neurodivergent.

The neurodiversity paradigm according to Walker is "the step between 'our brains are different' and valuing those differences and enacting them in the neurodiversity movement," she says.

In a forthcoming study that Gillespie-Lynch is an advising author on, Dr. Patrick Dwyer, PhD, and a team of researchers found that autistic people who were more supportive of the neurodiversity movement had greater acceptance of the term 'disability.' But among non-autistic supporters of the neurodiversity movement there was less agreement about the term. Their team attributed this pattern to autistic people taking ownership of disabling parts of a diagnosis in order to advocate for needed supports and systems change.

Neurodiversity light

For Gillespie-Lynch and many others in the neurodiversity movement, there's always a risk of 'neurodiversity lite’ — focusing on the many valuable strengths of neurodivergent individuals while minimizing the very real challenges they may face, both in systemic barriers and internally. 

"I think it's a challenge for some people to embrace the fact that it's multifaceted. It's not just one thing, and focusing just on strengths leaves some people out. A lot of neurodivergent people don't embrace their diagnosis," says Gillespie-Lynch. "And neurodiversity has to recognize that we're complicated."

The umbrella of neurodiversity includes everyone, including those who may not embrace neurodivergence or disability. The term 'neurodivergent' may change in the future, says Gillespie-Lynch. Many in the movement embrace 'neurominority' to recognize the ways neurodivergent individuals experience marginalization.

Prioritizing participatory approaches

There's a saying that came out of the disability movement that is also central to the neurodiversity movement: 'Nothing about us without us.'

The spread of the neurodiversity movement has contributed to an increase in participatory approaches to systems change in post-secondary education and autism research more generally. 

"It's an idea that's time has come," Gillespie-Lynch says. 

"The idea the autistic and neurodivergent people should be collaborators in the supports that are developed — it's got ahold of the field. It's reshaping things in really fundamental and exciting ways."

Gillespie-Lynch recognizes that participatory approaches require one of the most valuable resources on any post-secondary campus — time. 

"Participatory approaches are really, really time consuming. If you want everyone to be able to weigh in on something, you often have to develop things sooner, which is hard to do. And if you're a professor, you've got like a billion different responsibilities. So the time aspect of participatory work, it's really hard," she says.

But the rewards and value of including neurodivergent voices far outweigh the challenges. Gillespie-Lynch emphasizes that learning goes both ways. There is so much that educators can learn from the wealth of knowledge that students' have, including a deep understanding of the systems that they are in, that faculty and staff can't understand in the same way.

In regards to WIL, Gillespie-Lynch says that engaging in learning with partners off campus is important, too. 

"Employers are really interested in these types of dialogues. It's so important to provide spaces for them to engage and learn and share what they know. You have to learn from everyone."

The key is solidarity

Above all, Gillespie-Lynch says that connecting people within and across institutions is how to achieve systems change. 

"The reality is that solidarity has to be built within an institution and across institutions. There are really exciting practices happening in lots of different places. So finding ways to connect people who are doing related things is really important."

And those connections to each other make it safe for pressure to be put on the systems that need change — change that often challenges the structures within post-secondary institutions. 

"The key to systems change is solidarity, understanding what the terms are and building shared values."

In partnership with the Sinneave Family Foundation, the Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) Initiative for Neurodiverse Students takes a systems-level approach to enhancing inclusion and accessibility in WIL programs, positioning neurodivergent students to thrive in WIL and beyond. The initiative will support co-op, internship, practicum and field placement programs for students, in partnership with students with lived experience with neurodiversity, teams supporting WIL across campus, and community and industry partners who mentor and host UCalgary students.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.