Masking is something that most students have been discussing only in the past year and half, but for a smaller group of Tufts students, it’s a term that has been on their mind for nearly their whole lives. For neurodiverse people, masking means trying to hide their disabilities and pass as neurotypical. This is just one of many additional considerations that neurodiverse students at Tufts contend with, from ensuring that they can take tests in the environments given to them to making friends who share their experiences.
To help create a sense of community and educate others about these challenges, junior Tait Smith created a group called Diverse Minds at the end of this past summer. Smith is the president of Diverse Minds, which has not yet been recognized as an official student organization. Members of Diverse Minds who spoke with the Daily have autism and ADHD, and the organization includes spaces for students with OCD, dyslexia and Tourette’s, among other disabilities.
People with the conditions mentioned, among others, often refer to themselves as neurodiverse. Others call themselves disabled, but neurodiverse and neurotypical have become the dominant terms in the modern context.
Smith was also motivated to form the club by a desire to counter ableism on campus, following some of his own negative experiences.
“Some students were treating me like I was some sort of oddity, something to be examined and questioned and understood under a microscope,” Smith said. “And I wasn’t a big fan of that.”
Smith said that he has self-diagnosed autism, which he discovered in the past year after reviewing old medical evaluations, in addition to diagnosed ADHD.
For sophomore Tessie Katz, the club’s treasurer, one of the starting points for educating other students about neurodiversity is simply understanding what it means.
“Lots of people don’t know about the term ‘neurodiversity,’” Katz said. “Instead of neurotypical, people will say [neurotypical people] are normal people. I kind of think that implies that one type of mind is better than the other.”
Smith plans for Diverse Minds’ educational efforts to work in two different directions.
“We want to be able to teach acceptance, and then we also want to educate on the different disorders,” Smith said. “And so when we meet people, we’re going to talk about ‘Oh, here’s how you can interact with autistic [people].’”
Smith continued to explain how Diverse Minds aims to teach about the challenges behind these disorders.
“Educating on that kind of acceptance of things like stimming, things such as eye contact, social cues, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, but also again, a lot of people don’t realize that there are certain disabilities or what is a part of autism, what is a part of ADHD, what is part of OCD, so educating people on what what these disabilities actually are, is an important step,” Smith said.
Stimming, which originates from the term self-simulation, is when neurodivergent people repeat an action or a variation of an action. Junior Chloe Malley, who is planning on joining Diverse Minds as it becomes more active, stims — in the form of twirling their pencil — to concentrate during class but has had other students ask them to stop.
Smith hopes that Diverse Minds will be able to combat instances like that by creating a more accepting environment for neurodiverse students, through speakers, social media initiatives, partnerships with the Tufts administration and tabling. One new idea that Smith hopes to implement is partnering with Tufts Dining in April, which is Autism Awareness Month.
“I would like to be able to work in the dining halls and maybe have … some cookies for people with the symbol for the neurodiversity movement to just get it out there,” Smith said. “I think people will pay attention. If they see a cookie that says neurodiversity with a neurodiversity symbol, then they’re gonna get intrigued.”
In addition to educating neurotypical students, Diverse Minds will also try to educate neurodiverse students about the resources available to them. This connects closely with Diverse Minds’ second main goal of building community,which both Malley and junior Violet McCabe, two members of the club, expressed particular excitement about.
“People tend to prefer that people that are different be isolated away,” said Malley. “Which leads to a lot of isolation … so I feel like having a space to talk with others that are similar or going through similar things … would be really empowering and would really help to create a community and a sense of connection that I think is really hard to get for neurodivergent people. It also, I think, would serve as a reassurance that just because we’re neurodivergent, doesn’t mean that we can’t succeed.”
McCabe said they’ve experienced difficulties with institutions within Tufts, including one negative experience with the Career Center. According to McCabe, after they told a career counselor that they were mentally disabled, the counselor responded by saying that they “probably [weren’t] smart enough” for their two majors — environmental engineering and computer science.
Differing from McCabe’s experience, Donna Esposito, interim executive director of the Career Center, described the Career Center as an equitable and unbiased space for all students. She responded to McCabe’s sentiment in an email to the Daily.
“We encourage students who have not had a positive experience with the Career Center to reach out to us so that we can address their concerns,” Esposito wrote.
Negative experiences, such as the judgement passed on McCabe at the Career Center, bring attention to the need for new safe spaces for neurodiverse students. Diverse Minds hopes to provide this guidance to younger neurodiverse students.
“I would have absolutely adored to have met an older disabled student at Tufts, an older student with accommodations, an older autistic student, any of that I would have absolutely loved, and [I] needed that support as a lowerclassmen,” McCabe, who has autism, said.
This sense of community and connection to others seems to be exactly what Diverse Minds is aiming for, with game nights, presentations on areas of interest from members and other fun social activities. Diverse Minds plans to create a center of inclusion and a safe space on campus.
“You don’t have to mask around these people … because you know that they get it,” McCabe said.