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Neurodiversity: The Project

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The human brain is still a mystery. With billions of neurons messily arranged and connected differently in each brain, it is not surprising that people’s brains are wired in diverse ways. Our brain is responsible for our perception of the world, it regulates the senses, thoughts and feelings that produce a unique life experience for each of us. The average of these life experiences is what we would call “normality”. When someone’s brain wiring doesn’t allow them to undergo this “normality”, the world can be divergent.

This project is born out of the interest in understanding sensory divergences that exist among people on the autism spectrum and how these differences appear in the life of a person with a non-neurotypical brain. Its aim is to collect the experiences of people with autism and correlate them with scientific studies in way that opens new channels of inquiry into sensory diversity.

To achieve this goal, a research will be conducted in 3 phases:

  1. A phenomenological approach to understand from first person how it is to experience life with autism. The testimonies will be taken from two main sources: books written by authors diagnosed with ASD or people who are directly involved with them (e.g. relatives, caregivers, therapists) and descriptive interviews with people with autism who able to communicate verbally or in written form. This narrative will help to understand which daily-life functions are most affected, thus, why, from the sensory standpoint, autistic behavior diverges from typical.
  2. A secondary research will gather information from scientific publications in order to break down the different manifestations of autism. To understand the phenomenon from an integrative point of view, these explanations will be classified in different categories which will be detailed further below in this text: neurological, psychological and behavioral.
  3. Analysis of the correlations and differences found crossing the phenomenological information and the data from the scientific papers.

The manifestation categories selected for the research are:

Phenomenological: a direct description of specific situations or events, one at the time, as explained by the author or interviewed participant without any kind of interpretation. (For more information and resources about the phenomenological research I suggest visiting phenomenologyonline)

Neurological: has to do with everything that Neurology deals with, which after looking though definitions, Wikipedia mentions very precisely “all categories of conditions and disease involving the central and peripheral nervous system (and its subdivisions, the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system); including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue, such as muscle.” In short, manifestations of autism on a biological/physical level.

Psychological: this category is about what happens inside the mind. It is a common mistake to take mind and brain as synonyms, but mind refers subjective experience. For subjective experience we mean how an individual perceives, reacts, interprets, and understands its reality though cognition and emotion. This leads us to a division of psychological manifestations into two subcategories:

  • Cognitive: the processing and archive of information. The explanation Kendra Cherry gives of cognition is accurate enough: “mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. These processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception, and planning.” Manifestations of autism related to cognitions will be categorized under this division.
  • Emotional: the American Psychology Association glossary defines emotions as “a complex pattern of changes, including physiological arousal, feelings, cognitive processes, and behavioral reactions, made in response to a situation perceived to be personally significant.” For this research purposes, we will only take into this category the feelings perceived, due to the existence of other categories that are complementary to the full definition.

Behavioral: the neurological wiring and psychological experience will result in mechanisms that allow us to adapt to our environment, these mechanisms are translated into actions and sum of these actions are what it’s considered as behavior.

All this information will be published in an open format, either in the way of a database or a more complex website application available for anyone who is interested in knowing more about Autism or even other neurological conditions with similar manifestations.

In a second moment of this study, this framework will help to develop a model of autistic experience using immersive technologies such as virtual reality and 360 video. Sensory immersion is expected to increase empathy in the neurotypical population towards the people with Autism by making them live for a moment with the struggles and rewards of having a different brain. For a secondary objective, through gamification the person immersed can learn how to control the elements of the environment that can trigger an unpleasant event; for example, the participant will follow hints to experiment with the lightning, learning that certain types and intensities of light will affect his vision. After having experienced the virtual world participants will know which actions they could take to help someone going through a crisis and we hope it will make them truly want to help.

If the immersive application achieves its goal of increasing empathy we will be one step forward to accepting and celebrating differences in brain functioning, we already encourage diversity of culture, gender, and physical abilities, it is time to embrace neurodiversity and include people with different brains into the active society.

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Olga Velázquez

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