On a library visit in third grade, Piper Hawley discovered “The Way We Work,” a three-pound tome on the human body. They lugged it around for the rest of the year, staying in at recess to pore over its full-color illustrations. One section, on understanding the brain, sparked a passion in Hawley.
So as a high school sophomore, it was a no-brainer for Hawley to attend Neuroscience for Neurodiverse Learners (NNL), a program in which neurodiverse teens explore neuroscience disciplines, network, and learn self-advocacy in hopes of pursuing STEM studies in college. The program is run by the DO-IT Center, a non-profit based at the University of Washington that helps people with disabilities find success through technology and education. DO-IT stands for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology.
Neuroscience camp for neurodiverse teens
The NNL program’s highlight is a 10-day summer camp where participants learn from a slate of experts including Emmy Award-winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric Chudler, who serves as the NNL education director and executive director of the UW Center for Neurotechnology.
But if you ask Hawley about their most memorable experience at NNL, they don’t mention any of the headline activities or big names. Instead, they talk about a tiny moment – a breath, really.
“The whole day I had been performing and trying to be present. I was trying to put on this mask,” says Hawley, recalling a school day packed with meetings and online classes. That evening, NNL was hosting a virtual movie night, one of many events the program provides year-round. DO-IT staff were already online, welcoming students, and Hawley still remembers taking a huge breath of relief upon entering the online room.
A sense of safety
“When I logged in, I felt so safe. I felt like I was able to be myself. I was able to make mistakes in a way that I didn’t feel like I could make at school, or in other places where I’m showing up in a professional capacity.”
Tami Tidwell, NNL program coordinator, understands why that sense of relief felt so momentous.
“I think neurodivergence often is. . .” (here, Tidwell raises her fingers into air quotes), ‘hidden.’ This is a hidden disability, and so oftentimes people aren’t seen as having a disability. Piper falls into that category. I fall into that category. Having to pretend not to have a disability is sort of exhausting.”
Meeting like-minded peers
For the past four years, the program has annually accepted 25-30 teenagers to attend the camp free of charge thanks to a generous grant from the National Science Foundation.
“I think it’s the first time anyone’s going to be in a room with that many neurodivergent people at one time.” says Tidwell. “It’s a really powerful moment when you realize that this is my community, where whatever is me is good enough.”
According to the DO-IT manager and NNL project director Scott Bellman, NNL was designed specifically to support neurodiverse learners, where something “affects the way your brain processes information and the way you learn.” This can include students who have ADHD, Tourette’s, autism spectrum disorder, a learning disability such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia, or experience severe anxiety.
Bringing their whole selves
The program uses principles of Universal Design, where accessibility, flexibility, and inclusivity are prioritized. If an activity is held online, videos will be captioned. Or if dissecting a sheep’s brain isn’t a student’s jam, they can choose a small-group learning session instead. Staff are trained to be supportive and encourage students to bring their whole selves to the program.
“If you need to play with the fidget, fidget!” says Tidwell. “If you have Tourette’s syndrome and you need to have a tic, let it go. Just be you!”
Students also enjoy a hybrid format, with both in-person sessions at the University’s shiny Center for Neurotechnology as well as virtual sessions. “This has advantages for students with anxiety or who find lots of stimulation challenging,” says Bellman.
Attitude is everything
The program is designed so everyone can succeed, and that includes attitude. “We don’t talk much about what we can’t do,” Bellman says. “We focus on strengths.”
In one session, students learn how neurodiversity itself can be a strength. For example, how people with dyslexia are often better at three-dimensional thinking, and how in nature, neurodiversity is considered an evolutionary advantage. This is especially important given the program’s STEM focus. “In science, you need problem solvers who think differently, who think outside of the box,” says Bellman.
An important reframe
“I knew my brain worked differently from a very young age,” says Hawley. Learning how to self-advocate was a crucial skill. Hawley has a lightbulb moment when they learned about the social model of disability, which defines disability as a relationship between the person and the environment, rather than something intrinsic to the person.
“Unlike the medical model, which assumes the person who is disabled needs to adapt themselves to fit the environment, the social model says, ‘let’s adapt the environment to allow the person to access what they need,’” they explain. This perspective allowed Hawley to reframe how they saw themselves. “I have an impairment, so I need this to succeed, versus there’s something wrong with me.”
The right person for the job
In fact, Hawley grew so attuned to how educators could work with neurodivergent students that the DO-IT Center hired them as an NNL program assistant. They now mentor students, present on panels, and have even co-authored an abstract about NNL with Dr. Chudler. This November, they will travel with him to Washington, D.C. to present at a meeting for the Society for Neuroscience.
Hawley is now in college, planning, of course, to major in neuroscience.