Manuel Diaz always knew he was different. Diagnosed with autism at 16, Diaz’s transition into college was marked by depression as he searched for a place where he could belong.
Last September, physics senior Díaz founded Texas Neurodiversity, a campus organization that promotes the idea that differences in brain functioning like autism, dyslexia and ADHD are natural diversities of the human brain, not illnesses. The organization is comprised of neurotypical students, whose brains function normally, and neurodivergent students, whose brains function differently. They offer self-improvement talks, guest speakers and public outings.
For Díaz, the roots of Texas Neurodiversity are personal.
“All my life, I behaved and felt so different from everyone around me,” Diaz said. “I isolated myself from the other kids at school because I was so afraid of the social rejection.”
Diaz said the confusion and frustration that comes with autism puts him in a stagnant position in society where he’s expected to conform to societal norms without being fully understood. Once college started, Diaz said things didn’t get easier. After experiencing excess sensory stimulation and becoming unresponsive in front of a peer during his junior year, Diaz said he was left rejected and broken, causing him to become depressed.
Assistant professor of education Nina Zuna, who studies autism, said although there is increased awareness of autism, there are still many issues facing individuals with autism that most people don’t recognize.
“It’s hard for individuals, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, in terms of transitioning to adulthood,” Zuna said.
Diaz said neurodivergent individuals are more vulnerable to poor mental health, but he found the solution to his depression in March, at a Students On The Spectrum support group offered by Services for Students with Disabilities.
“For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I belonged,” Diaz said. “I could show another autistic a song I liked and they would see what others didn’t normally see. All my life, I thought I was the only one that could see those things.”
Inspired by the sense of community, Diaz founded Texas Neurodiversity six months later for students with all types of neurocognition.
Biomedical engineering sophomore Kiran Zubair has been in Texas Neurodiversity since the beginning. She said the organization has given her the gift of self-acceptance. She said many autistic people identify themselves directly as such, rejecting terms like “person with autism” for “autistic.”
“I am neurodivergent, and I am autistic,” Zubair said. “By using language like ‘person with autism,’ you’re separating the autism from the person. And that’s not possible because autism isn’t just a layer you can take off of somebody. It’s embedded deep into my being, and if you try to separate that you’re not describing me accurately.”
She said that being autistic is a common thread that transcends race, culture and religion, uniting many of the students in the organization.
“[Someday] we’ll think of the disability rights movement in the same way that people think of the civil rights movement now,” Zubair said.
With the introduction of social events accommodating neurodivergent students, Díaz said he hopes neurodiversity will one day be interwoven into University traditions as an unquestioned standard. The mingling of neurotypicals and neurodivergent minds is one he longs to see and hopes to promote.
“Exposure to diversity makes people less likely to conform to narrow mindsets,” Díaz said. “It pushes people to think outside the box. To be brighter and more creative as individuals who can solve a wider variety of problems.”