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Beyond ‘normal’

Alumni event aims to demystify neurodiversity

By Heidi Wicks

Andreae Callanan (MA’18) was always a straight-A kid, but she never felt smart.

After high school, she stalled before applying for university, watching cooking shows for a year after graduation instead.

“Eventually, a friend wrote me to say she was applying to McGill, and that I should go with her,” she said.

“So I did – I got in, graduated with a first class honours in English literature, I then did a second BA because I didn’t feel smart enough to do a master’s. I was winning awards for writing, was involved in literary projects that were written about in the papers, I was by every measure a success, but I lived in a state of constant bewilderment.”

She says she became so overwhelmed with academic life that she decided to take some time away from it all. She moved to Yellowknife.

“I returned to St. John’s three years later, as a single mother with so much student debt that I had to declare bankruptcy. I was just beating myself up because everybody had always told me how smart I was and what a promising future I had a head of me. I couldn’t figure out how I had managed to mess it up so badly.”

In the video below, President Timmons talks about how neurodiversity has been at the forefront of her research for the past four decades and how there is no such thing as a “normal” learner.

 

Although she describes her life until the age of 40 as, “a see-saw of high achievement and poor self-esteem, punctuated by these phases of total emotional and physical exhaustion,” Ms. Callanan has since gained a firm grasp on the way she learns and thrives.

That is likely in large part thanks to being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, then learning that she is autistic.

As a poet and scholar, Ms. Callanan has always been drawn to the theme of alienation.

Now, as a PhD student at Memorial and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation scholar, and with new insight on how her brain works, she is poised to help others who may be on their own journey to figure out how they best absorb knowledge.

Constructing confidence

On Tuesday, April 6, along with Jason Geary of Memorial’s Blundon Centre, Ms. Callanan will co-present Beyond Normal: Understanding Diversity.

With the recent movement to recognize and celebrate diversity in all aspects of life and work, it is time to consider the role of neurodiversity and empower those individuals whose brains absorb information in a unique way.

“During my undergrad and master’s, I wrote a lot about the theme of cultural alienation in contemporary poetry by writers of minoritized backgrounds,” said Ms. Callanan.

“So, ideas about finding one’s place in the world, about speech and silence, about strained communication and the struggle to make oneself understood were always at the forefront of my work. I’m not from a culturally marginalized background, but those themes always resonated so strongly with me.”

She now understands that she was trying to find a framework for the alienation she’d felt her whole life, as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world.

An educator for more than 20 years, Mr. Geary has been interested in – and worked to support – neurodiverse learners. His graduate work in the early 2000s focused on, among things, autism spectrum disorders and similar work related to neurodiversity – a term that hasn’t become popular until quite recently.

Jason Geary
Photo: Submitted

“Some might say that it still isn’t popular, which is why we are doing this session,” he said. “In addition to my work with those on the spectrum, I have also been engaged in work related to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which really attempts to acknowledge neurodiversity and human variability in an attempt to create learning environments that are more accessible for a larger population of students. These UDL principles can translate into the work world, too, to ensure we are creating and sustaining accessible work environments.”

Mr. Geary, who has two neurodiverse children with many strengths and challenges, is also a per course instructor in the Faculty of Education.

“I’ve taught a number of courses in the bachelor of education and bachelor of special education programs – a number of which introduce pre-service teachers to concepts related to neurodiversity, learner variability as well as concepts related to pedagogy (teaching practice) that can assist a variety of learners.”

This session will provide an introduction to neurodiversity and related concepts.  It will also highlight Ms. Callanan’s lived experience as a neurodivergent person in the workforce and in academia.

Register today!


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