Understanding neurodiversity and finding strength in inclusion with Anima Nair

14 February 2024
Chaithra MJ Written by Chaithra MJ
Chaithra MJ

Chaithra MJ

Chaithra is a freelance content writer with a love for existentialism. She is passionate about...

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We’re all connected, you know? We’re all part of this big universe; if something goes wrong for one person, it can affect another. So, why should I worry about my son being left out or not having enough opportunities? He’ll find his place under the sun, too.”

Anima Nair wears many hats, from writer to neurodiversity advocate to parent. As a Director at NeuroGifted, she is dedicated to promoting neuro-inclusive practices in the corporate world. Her main goal is to create inclusive and supportive environments for people with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia by implementing well-planned processes, policies, and spaces.

Understanding neurodiversity and finding strength in inclusion with Anima Nair

In our conversation with Anima, we discussed her experiences as a parent raising a child with autism, the challenges of parenting, and the importance of creating inclusive environments.

What motivated you to become the director of NeuroGifted? Can you take us through the journey?

I experimented with various specialized schools for my son Pranav, but none seemed to be the right fit. It became clear that he had a unique way of understanding things, and I struggled to connect with him in a way that truly resonated with his intelligence. He’s a very smart kid, but I felt almost like I was speaking a different language because of a gap in understanding.

I just wanted to bridge the gap for kids who, like my son, didn’t thrive in traditional academic settings. After attending various schools and realizing that no one was addressing this issue, I co-founded an NGO called Sense Kaleidoscopes in 2013. Our goal was to provide a supportive environment for youngsters who had been told they weren’t good enough by creating a space for them. We did this through art. Art has a calming effect on the senses; it soothes sensory overwhelm.

Pranav was into art for a decade. In the last 2-3 years, I noticed that he was really stressed out and not finding peace in his art. When I spoke candidly with him, he admitted that he no longer wanted to pursue art. That actually got me thinking.

I started talking to different people, and that’s when I met Joel, the founder of NeuroGifted, an autistic individual with ADHD. His perspectives on neurodivergent adults completely shifted my thinking. I shifted to a strength-based narrative about this.  

I wanted to help people like my son take charge of their lives. I wanted to focus on true inclusion in the workplace.

So, I shifted from working with NGOs to working with corporates, from working with young people to working with fully independent adults, helping them make their own decisions and take control of their lives.

How did NeuroGifted change your perspectives? Was there any shift? 

NeuroGifted honestly shifted my mindset from a deficit model to a strengths-based model.

Understanding neurodiversity and finding strength in inclusion with Anima Nair

I met a lot of incredibly talented neurodivergent people, and it really gave me hope. Talking to them made me realize they felt stifled and controlled by  their parents. And I thought, if Pranav can express himself so clearly, he’s probably resenting me for controlling his life instead of letting him decide. That made me rethink things. 

At some point, you just forget to take a breath. And your own anxiety ends up affecting your child so much that it unravels everything you’ve been trying to accomplish all these years. Realizing that adults with autism or ADHD or other disorders can still have a really good shot at living a fulfilling life shifted how I approached my son and interacted with him.

A lot of change is happening, especially in how we understand neurodiversity. I believe it starts with empathy and humility. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers and being open to my child guiding me has been really beneficial. I think it also gave me the ability to think outside the box; I see problem-solving skills that I never recognized before.

By changing how I look at my son, I’ve noticed a positive impact on him. It’s also made me aware of the biases and ableism that can hold us back from being inclusive in our thoughts, words, and actions.

What have been some of the most significant challenges you’ve faced as a parent in this journey? 

It has been tough. My son was this adorable, super energetic little guy who would run around, sing songs, and read books with me. But no one believed there was anything different about him. Even my family and friends didn’t offer the basic level of support I expected. As he got older, his sister would be invited to places but not him and even my closest friends would talk over his head as if he wasn’t there. It hurt to see him constantly being overlooked like that over the years.

Back when he was diagnosed, there wasn’t much awareness or understanding about his condition. Even the schools knew he was different, but they couldn’t help him. If something went wrong, they blamed him; if he did well, they took the credit. It’s not fair because he couldn’t stand up for himself. 

I did things very differently from most parents I’ve met. I didn’t push my child academically when he was struggling although it  took me years to realize that traditional education isn’t the only path.

Equip your child functionally, but there’s no need to  push hard and risk causing breakdowns, anxiety, and stress. There are countless possibilities out there. 

In some sense, this is a neurotypical world, and we probably don’t understand much about neurodivergence yet. What advice would you give educators and parents of children on the neurodiversity spectrum? 

In an ideal world, people would be able to recognize neurodivergent conditions in children. They would not  blame a child for struggling with subjects like math and don’t use hurtful words like ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. 

There are a lot of text-to-speech programs out there that can help dyslexic kids with reading. Teachers should be open-minded and consider talking to other teachers to find out what the child is good at. Maybe they’re great at social sciences, drawing, or sports.

If a child is struggling in one area, teachers should try different approaches instead of assuming a child is incapable.

We can explore different ways to capture the interest and engagement of children because that’s what matters for learning, right? 

For instance, we can make content more accessible. We can use universal design principles in schools and workspaces to make them feel more inclusive.

If more educators are trained in a holistic  approach, they can better cater to the diverse needs of students in their classrooms. 

When it comes to parents, they need to let go of what they think they know and be open to breaking traditions and forgetting conventions. Spend time observing your child, see what brings them joy, and follow their interests. 

My son told me he’s not into art; he wants to be a barista. He’s interning at a cafe and is excited about making coffee. When he comes home, he excitedly talks about how many coffees he made and how many customers he served. It’s motivating to see him so eager to go back every day. Feeling heard and accepted boosts anyone’s confidence, but for neurodivergent individuals who haven’t had that freedom and have always been told what not to do, it’s even more encouraging.

What are the main misconceptions when it comes to neurodiversity? 

The main issue is that people assume neurodivergent individuals have low IQs and are not as capable as neurotypicals. There’s a lot of ableism present in interactions with neurodivergent individuals, especially in the workplace. For example, if they take a few extra seconds to answer a question, they’re immediately seen as slow because our society values quickness. This leads to assumptions about their intelligence and abilities based on societal norms like making eye contact.

Neurodivergent people might struggle with certain things because their senses can get overwhelmed. Sometimes, they take a while to respond because they’re processing information or dealing with a noisy environment. They might not pick up on gestures like others do – for example, some autistic individuals don’t understand body language, but those with ADHD or dyslexia might. Not all neurodivergent people are the same.

How can we, as a society, change narratives that focus on weaknesses rather than strengths, especially in the context of neurodiversity?

I think it will take some time, but if we start early and raise awareness, especially in schools, that’s where the most impact can be made. If there’s increased awareness from an early age in school, people will start making better choices in college and the workplace. 

Many parents I know are hesitant to take their young children out in public, feeling embarrassed and worried about how others perceive them. If a child is autistic, it can affect the family’s social life, making events like weddings challenging. 

We should start teaching children about diversity and inclusion early so they don’t develop prejudices or ableism. We should have open conversations and normalize differences in behavior. We can help kids understand and accept others who may act differently for various reasons. If we instill these values in children from a young age, they will see uniqueness as normal and not judge those different from them.

With approximately 20% of individuals being neurodivergent and a significant portion of neurotypical individuals exhibiting neurodivergent traits, organizations must invest in training and awareness. For example, bright lights, loud noises, and uncomfortable temperatures can make it challenging for people with autism to work effectively. Provide natural lighting, noise-absorbing dividers and carpets, and a designated quiet room to help them manage sensory distractions and thrive in the workplace. We have to speak the language of businesses and show them that embracing diversity makes good business sense.

Is there a particular philosophy or message you live by in your professional and personal life?

I believe human beings have it in them to be better. My son taught me that showing genuine care and love for others gives you strength to deal with your own problems. Focusing only on your own issues means missing out on the chance to help someone else, appreciate what you have, and make positive societal changes. 

I love Ramana Maharshi’s writings. Once, a disciple asked Ramana Maharshi – “You’ve taught us how to treat ourselves, but how do we treat others?”

Ramana Maharshi said – “There are no others.” Imbibing is the basis for inclusion. There is no other. 

For more on neurodiversity, find out about this father and son’s inspiring journey.

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