Bestselling, award-winning author. UN Young Leader for the SDGs. Founder of Neurodiversity Celebration Week. And now student at Stanford University. Siena Castellon has rather a lot going on! We spoke to the global neurodiversity advocate about challenging stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences, and the importance of harnessing the strengths of the neurodivergent community.
How did you come up with the idea for Neurodiversity Celebration Week?
I launched Neurodiversity Celebration Week when I was 16 out of frustration with the way neurodivergent students were viewed and treated at school. My original goal was to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes about neurological differences in schools and educate classroom teachers on how to identify and support their neurodivergent students. I wanted to create a more balanced view that didn’t just portray these differences as deficits and shortcomings. I felt it was important to also highlight the strengths, talents and abilities that come from thinking differently.
What have been your biggest successes so far?
I am particularly proud that Neurodiversity Celebration Week has been so widely embraced. Although Neurodiversity Celebration Week was initially focused on changing the neurodiversity narrative in schools, last year I expanded it to also include businesses, government agencies and charities. I think it has been welcomed across so many sectors because organisations have awakened to the benefits of having a diverse workforce and tapping into neurodivergent talent and unique skill sets that have historically been overlooked and underutilised. There are currently over 2,000 schools and 60 universities and more than 1.2 million students taking part. There are also hundreds of events being planned across the globe.
What have been your biggest challenges?
One of the biggest challenges has been to build, fund and run the campaign entirely on my own while also being a high school student. In order to balance both roles, I have often had to work 18-hour days and have made huge sacrifices in terms of leading a normal teenage life.
Another challenge is that some neurodiversity charities and organisations can be quite territorial and unwilling to collaborate with campaigns that they view as competing with them. I find this frustrating because I firmly believe that we are stronger together and that the only way we are going to achieve neurodiversity acceptance, equality and inclusion is by collaborating and supporting each other.
The education system is set up in a way that favours neurotypical people. What can the education system do to be more inclusive of everyone’s differing learning needs?
Fundamentally there needs to be a change in mindset. Currently, the education system ignores the needs of 20% of all students. We are treated as burdens and students with behavioural problems. Firstly, classroom teachers need to be trained to identify and support their neurodivergent students. Secondly, schools need to recognise that punishing children for having learning differences is discriminatory and counterproductive. For example, instead of punishing a child for having ADHD by placing them in isolation or suspending them, schools need to empower the child by providing the child with strategies to help manage their hyperactivity.
What impact has Neurodiversity Celebration Week had on the way educational institutions and organisations approach neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity Celebration Week has played a role in flipping the narrative so that schools and organisations are beginning to recognise the strengths, talents and abilities of people who think differently. My biggest hope is that Neurodiversity Celebration Week helps to bring about acceptance, tolerance, and understanding of people who are different.
Do you find that people in your daily life have more understanding of neurological differences?
In terms of the general public, I think a lot more education is needed. Unfortunately, most people still rely on stereotypes and misconceptions about neurological differences. For example, I am still told that I don’t look autistic or that I can’t be autistic because I’m a girl. We have a long way to go before neurodiversity is understood and embraced by our society. This is why I’m so passionate about ensuring that Neurodiversity Celebration Week continues to challenge these prejudices and barriers to equality and inclusion.
What quick steps can organisations take to better cater for neurodiverse employees?
It’s essential that organisations tailor support to individuals who are neurodivergent. Different people (whether neurodivergent or neurotypical) have different working styles. Some may need clear, multistep instructions once. Some may need frequent reminders. Others may be able to break large tasks into smaller multi-step tasks themselves. Whereas others may feel overwhelmed by a large task and may need it broken into smaller sub-tasks. In order to better cater for their neurodivergent employees, organisations need to identify how each works best, how they best understand assignments, and adapt their management style accordingly. A person-centric management style that adapts to accommodate the particular talents and challenges of the individual ensures each employee’s strengths are harnessed, and benefits everyone. If each of us plays a part in designing workplaces that cater to different impairments, disabilities and conditions, we will make workplaces better for everybody.
What are your future plans for Neurodiversity Celebration Week?
Since I recently moved to California to study at Stanford University, I knew I couldn’t dedicate as much time to expanding and running Neurodiversity Celebration Week. To ensure that Neurodiversity Celebration Week didn’t suffer, I recently entered into a partnership with Lexxic. I now have a team of likeminded neurodiversity professionals who share my vision and who are supporting me. We are currently in the process of updating our website and resources. We have also been working hard to create 24 free events for parents, teachers and businesses for Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2022.
In terms of future plans, Lexxic and I have lots of ideas for expanding Neurodiversity Celebration Week in the near future. So please stay tuned.