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Oby: From the campus of Harvard Medical School, this is ThinkResearch, a podcast devoted to the stories behind clinical research. I'm Oby, your host.

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Isabel Castanho: Welcome to a very special takeover episode of ThinkResearch. My name is Isabel Castanho. I am a postdoctoral research fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, or BIDMC, and Harvard Medical School. I am also one of the core members at The MIND Project. And one of the co-founders of the Neurodiversity Project.

I am thrilled to be a guest host of today's episode, where I will be taking the reins through an exciting journey into the world of neurodiversity with my astonishing colleagues from The MIND Project, or as we call it sometimes, TMP. My colleagues will be taking the spotlight into the conversation around neurodiversity. I'm still learning about the wonders of neurodiversity myself, so let's embark on this adventure together, with curiosity and an open mind.

Joining us from The MIND Project, we have three incredible guests. First up, Dr. Walid Yassin, an expert in the field of neurodiversity. Welcome, Walid.

Walid Yassin: Thank you, Isabel. I'm delighted to be here.

Isabel Castanho: Next, we have the brilliant Dr. Georgios Ntolkeras, whose research has shed light on various aspects of neurodiversity. Welcome, Georgios.

Georgios Ntolkeras: Thank you, Isabel. It's a pleasure to be part of this discussion.

Isabel Castanho: And last but not least, we have the wonderful Anuksha Wickramasinghe, who is deeply involved in the social movement for neurodiversity. Welcome, Anuksha, and I'm so sorry if I mispronounced your name.

- Oh, that's all right. My name is actually Anuksha Wickramasinghe. But hi there, Isabel. I'm thrilled to be here and represent the social aspect of neurodiversity.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you for helping me with your name. I'm really sorry.

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: It's all good.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. Could you please briefly introduce yourselves? Let's maybe start with Anuksha.

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: For sure. My name is Anuksha, as I said earlier. I'm a senior at Harvard studying neuroscience. And I'm also the author of "ADHD Ventures," which is a 2022 reported opinion column in the Crimson. I'm also pretty involved in disability justice organizations on campus, like the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club and the Student Accessibility Advisory Group. I'm so excited to be here with you all today.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. We're very lucky to have you here, Anuksha. Geo, or Georgios, do you want to introduce yourself please?

Georgios Ntolkeras: Yeah, of course. So my name is Georgios. I am a medical resident in the field of child neurology and neurodevelopmental disorders. And I'm also an active researcher at the Fetal Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Boston Children's Hospital. And I've also been a core member of The MIND Project, or TMP. And I'm really delighted to be here.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. And finally, Walid?

Walid Yassin: Sure. I'm a researcher studying neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric conditions, especially focusing on schizophrenia and autism.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you all. OK, so let's lay the groundwork for today's journey. Neurodiversity-- neuro what? Fear not. Today's guests will help define it. Walid, could you please define neurodiversity for us?

Walid Yassin: Absolutely. Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes the natural diversity of neurological traits and conditions of human beings. There are neurological traits that are very common in the population. And those who diverge from those common traits typically identify as neurodivergent.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you, Walid. Anuksha, as someone that has been involved in the social movement for neurodiversity in the last few years and someone who identifies as neurodivergent, which Walid just mentioned-- and we will dig in into this word a little bit-- could you enlighten us about the movement's goals and the impact it is having?

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: Certainly. The social movement aims to challenge the stigma surrounding neurodivergent individuals and advocate for their rights and acceptance. It's about promoting inclusion and ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities, regardless of their neurological differences. We've been working on raising awareness and creating platforms for sharing personal experiences to foster empathy and understanding.

Isabel Castanho: Thanks. And you both mentioned the word neurodivergent. Anuksha, do you want to help those that may not be familiar with the concept understand this term neurodivergent? Some people even use the term neurodiverse. And I know that neurodivergent is accepted as more correct in this context where sometimes people use neurodiverse. How is neurodivergent defined, and how is it different to neurodiversity?

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: Yeah, certainly. So neurodivergent came from the word neurodiversity, actually. And that term, neurodiversity, was coined by Judy Singer, a sociologist. So as the term implies, and as Walid touched on, embraces the differences we have in the ways that our brains work. No two people are the same, really, after all. The variations in brain function and behavior are natural. It's part of human diversity.

Hence the term neurodiversity, neuro plus diversity. For me, personally, I've really appreciated the use of neurodivergent labels and the neurodivergent movement overall to help accept and understand the ways that my brain works. Neurodiverse is another one of those terms that are associated with neurodivergent and neurodiversity. And usually, it's used to often highlight the diversity amongst people who identify with neurodiversity broadly across the population.

Isabel Castanho: I loved how you put-- neurodiversity, neuro plus diversity.

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Like you said so brilliantly, no two people are the same. So thank you very much for clearing that out.

All right, team, let's now dive right into Neurodiversity Project. Walid, could you tell us about neurodiversity from the lens of The MIND Project.

Walid Yassin: So the Neurodiversity Project that we have initiated for our community here at Harvard is really-- or essentially about acceptance, inclusion, belonging, education, awareness, understanding, and celebration of the variations of the human mind. It was born from the belief that neurological differences should be celebrated and embraced. In addition, we saw that there was a need for such a project at Harvard. And we were more than happy to launch it.

Isabel Castanho: Thank you. And I'm also a member, so I know that one of the many initiatives from the Neurodiversity Project is the Neurodiversity Affinity Group. Anuksha, I would like now to ask you if you could tell us what the Neurodiversity Affinity Group is all about, and how people can join, even.

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: Definitely. As a research assistant for TMP, along with Isabel, we've been working on a really fantastic project, which is the Neurodiversity Affinity Group. The Neurodiversity Affinity Group was formed to create a safe space where individuals could connect, support each other, and promote a more inclusive environment for neurodivergent individuals. It's all about fostering a sense of community and understanding.

I know for myself, personally, through a lot of my experiences at Harvard, I've really felt like I was the only one going through it, or that there weren't really that many other neurodivergent individuals or people who were interested in learning about neurodiversity at Harvard. But that is so far from the case. And Isabel and I have been working really hard to foster that community amongst all of us because we're all here, even if we haven't been connected previously.

Isabel Castanho: Yeah, and I must add that it's been so gratifying to have people thank us for building that sense of community.

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That's the goal, is to make sure that people feel connected and supported. So it's been really gratifying to do all of this.

Let's now talk research. Walid, what exciting developments have been uncovered in the realm of neurodiversity recently? And how are these more recent concepts changing research?

Walid Yassin: That's a great question. So part of my research focuses on making the diagnoses in psychiatry more objective by using biomarkers to distinguish between different mental health conditions. Now, the more we evaluate these biomarkers, the more overlap we see between different conditions, and the typically developing population as well.

Now, the project that I wanted to highlight is one that comes from the National Institute of Mental Health initiative that was led by Dr. Tom Insel, called RDoC, or Research Domain Criteria, which is very much in alignment with the concept of neurodiversity and how we define it in The MIND Project because it really takes into consideration this continuum or overlap between different conditions. I truly believe that RDoC is a neurodiversity-embracing concept. And it has certainly changed the way we do research in the field.

Isabel Castanho: That's fascinating. And I know if people Google-- we don't have time to go deep into the project, but it's really easy to find if people Google the Research Domain Criteria. And maybe we can add a few links on the footnotes for this episode if people want to learn more.

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So let's shift gears a bit. Georgios, how do clinical practices factor into the neurodiversity movement?

Georgios Ntolkeras: That's a great question. So Isabel, clinical aspects play a vital role in supporting neurodivergent individuals. We're working towards promoting accessible and compassionate care that addresses the specific needs of each person. So neurodiversity-informed clinical practices help break away from traditional one-size-fits-all approach. And they provide tailored support and intervention that empowers individuals to thrive and reach their best potential. Because let's not forget that neurodiversity does not only include high functioning individuals, but also those with higher medical needs.

Isabel Castanho: Yeah, and I can imagine challenges here as well. So what challenges are there to integrate these new perspectives into the clinic to help patients and their families? What so long has been seen from a perspective of pathology and now is changing towards simply a difference?

Georgios Ntolkeras: That's a very good point. So over the past few years, there has been increased awareness in the medical field but also in society regarding neurodiversity. And this is a very relevant topic of discussion in daily clinical practice. It has been great seeing more resources available for patients in need, although getting enough resources for all the families remains a challenge. And making those resources more accessible for our patients is something that would be beneficial for them but also for their families as a system, who can be challenged when one part of the system is facing specific challenges in life.

Isabel Castanho: What about at an institutional level? And when I say institution, people are part of schools, universities, companies. What are some actionable steps that institutions and organizations can take to create more inclusive spaces for neurodivergent individuals? Walid, do you want to answer this one?

Walid Yassin: That's another question that I really like because it gives us the opportunity to talk about the different things we've done through The MIND Project. So this is actually something that we have been able to achieve, in part through funding that we received recently from the Cultural Lab Innovation Fund, or CLIF, part of the Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Some of our aims in this project include reaching out to our neurodivergent community and learning about their needs and work with the appropriate Harvard entities to recommend steps in order to meet those needs, as well as to create educational material for the greater Harvard community in collaboration with the appropriate Harvard offices, to create awareness in the Harvard-wide community and social media about neurodiversity, to highlight the strength of the neurodivergent community, to communicate evidence-based information to HR concerning recruitment, and undergraduate and graduate schools about attracting students who identify as neurodivergent.

Isabel Castanho: So a lot of what I'm hearing you say, if I could summarize, and you can tell if you agree with me, it's a lot about listening to the community and understanding what their needs and expectations are and how we can make it better. It's a lot of listening. Am I right?

Walid Yassin: Absolutely, absolutely. So the first step in this was meant to be listening because, first, we want to understand the structure of our community in order to be able to help in any way we can.

Isabel Castanho: Anuksha, as a student on that side of the process, is there anything that you would like to add?

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: For sure. I think that, as a student, and also identifying as neurodivergent myself, I'm definitely not the only one who fits into that identity. And there are a lot of different things I've heard from students, and even from myself, things that I've wanted to happen. I think as Walid and you highlighted, Isabel, listening is the first step.

And I think part of that, too, or like with listening comes also inclusion and representation, which are very much part of the thing that TMP has been doing, and part of what I would love to see for institutions, including Harvard or just institutions across the board. For one, that could be increased neurodivergent accessibility, whether that be better sensory-friendly environments or subtitles or just listening to students' needs and how that can make a learning experience or just any environment more inclusive and one that they can be a part of. I think another thing that would be really nice is like, with the increased community that we're promoting, just seeing more representation of people with neurodivergent experiences just out there doing things, whether that be having advisors who are neurodivergent or seeing students who are neurodivergent being at places like Harvard and succeeding and doing well too.

Because I think, oftentimes, narratives surrounding conditions that may all under the neurodiversity umbrella are ones that we hear a lot about the struggles of those experiences, and those are very valid struggles. But there's also-- at least for me personally, I can say, that I take a lot of pride in my neurodivergent identity, and it's very part of who I am. And with that comes along with the successes and pride that I have in myself. Overall, just making sure that neurodiversity is just a lot more well understood on campus and that it really has a place and is one that is appreciated and embraced.

Isabel Castanho: Yeah, very well said. I think you touched on a very, very important point, which is representation. And every time I also think about asking the struggles, what are the needs, that's another hugely important point, which is seeing the successes, so learning also from the successes, listening on that part. Thank you so much. That was very enlightening.

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As we come close to the end of today's journey into the world of neurodiversity, I'd love to leave our listeners with a sense of hope and inspiration. Each of you has brought so much insights and passion to this conversation. I could really feel it. But I'm obviously biased because I work with you on this project, so I know that is definitely true. So let me ask you all, what's one uplifting message or piece of advice you would like to share with our audience about embracing your diversity and creating a more inclusive world? Maybe I'll start with Georgios.

Georgios Ntolkeras: We should, I guess, strive all towards a more inclusive world and advocate for one another. As a physician, I love supporting families as they face those challenges and working with them on overcoming them. It would be impossible for one person to navigate this path alone, and it's very inspiring seeing people being more and more motivated to advocate for a more inclusive world.

Isabel Castanho: Mm, brilliant, very inspiring. Walid?

Walid Yassin: Yeah, that was really great to hear, Geo. To me, it seems that more people are interested in learning about neurodiversity and are more mindful and considerate of others' differences. I think this is a really big step forward.

Isabel Castanho: Mm, agreed. And finally, Anuksha?

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: I'd like everyone, especially those who are neurodivergent or think they may be neurodivergent, to know that you're not alone in your experiences. No matter how isolating it may feel at times, you're really not alone. And there are lots of other people who may identify with some of your experiences or, at the very least, want to help and learn and support.

We are here. And as Geo and Walid said, we're making substantial progress to make the world more accessible and inclusive for everyone. And I'm excited to see the work that we are doing, along with lots of other groups across the world and across disability justice, continue to make progress for neurodiversity and neurodiversity advocacy.

Isabel Castanho: Absolutely, that's right. And one thing-- especially Walid has mentioned this before-- but we're not working alone. And that's been a great part of this project as well. From the beginning, we've had a lot of love, really, from across different offices and different people joining in and wanting to support neurodiversity at Harvard, so just a shout-out to everyone that has been involved and supporting us.

OK, so these were really incredible insights from all our guests today. Thank you, Dr. Yassin, Dr. Ntolkeras, and Anuksha for joining us and shedding light on the wonders of neurodiversity. It's been a true pleasure chatting with you today.

Walid Yassin: Thank you.

Georgios Ntolkeras: Thank you.

Anuksha Wickramasinghe: Thank you so much, Isabel.

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Isabel Castanho: And to the listeners, thank you for tuning in to this special takeover episode of ThinkResearch podcast. We hope this journey has sparked your curiosity and encouraged you to embrace neurodiversity in its all beautiful forms. Remember, the world is brighter when we appreciate and celebrate differences.

Be sure to check out the Neurodiversity Project at The MIND Project website for more information and ways to get involved, including the Neurodiversity Affinity Group. Go to themindproject.us/neurodiversity to learn more. I say goodbye by encouraging you to stay curious and stay kind. Until next time.

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Oby: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate us on iTunes and help us spread the word about the amazing research taking place across the Harvard community and beyond. We are always looking to connect and collaborate with the research community and would like to hear from you. Please feel free to email us at onlineeducation.catalyst.harvard.edu to inquire about being a guest on the podcast.