Limit Less: Daisy’s story
Daisy is currently pursuing a PhD in experimental physics at the University of Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute. Alongside her work, she founded Neurodivergent in STEM – a project that shares stories from neurodivergent people who work in science. She talked to us about what it’s like to be an autistic woman working in physics, and what the education sector and physics community can do to be more inclusive.
Our Limit Less campaign aims to challenge the barriers young people face in pursuing physics beyond the age of 16. What barriers or discouragement did you face at that point?
Thinking back, I think I was aware of gender stereotypes when it comes to girls doing physics. I certainly felt that I was perceived as odd because I wanted to study physics at university, and because it was my favourite subject. I was aware that physics was an unpopular subject among my peers, but this didn't really bother me too much, to be honest. I've never been one to follow the crowd.
What support was there at your school for neurodivergent students?
It was pretty much non-existent from what I knew as a student. There certainly wasn't anything that I was aware of to support students from neurominorities or any awareness on teachers' parts of how various conditions like autism and ADHD can present in girls. It wasn't until I went to university that I knew about any neurodiversity and disability support available – something which I now utilise frequently and which greatly supports my ability to function and thrive in physics!
Were your teachers generally supportive or unsupportive?
I'm very lucky that most of my teachers were supportive. I did have some issues in mathematics classes (that I now realise are related to behavioural differences because of being autistic) and I was forced to drop further mathematics at A-level which heavily knocked my confidence in physics too.
What made you persevere with physics?
More than anything, my interest in the subject kept me going. I didn’t think I was smart enough to pursue physics as a career, but I just couldn’t let go of the subject as I just find it so fascinating. Understanding the world around me and describing it using maths always made so much sense to me. I think I also wanted to prove to people – myself included – that I could study physics despite being a girl.
You were diagnosed with autism as an adult. Do you think an earlier diagnosis would have affected your school experience?
Yes. If I had been diagnosed as a child, I would have had appropriate support in place which I’m sure would have made my school experience easier. I had a lot of mental health problems at high school and knowing that I was autistic may have helped me understand myself better and prevent these from manifesting. Since my diagnosis, I’ve had reasonable adjustments put in place, like a smaller examination hall and access to a specialist mentor who helps me manage everyday life as a PhD student with autism. I’m sure if I’d had access to reasonable adjustments as a child, I would have more confidence in myself and my abilities as a physicist.
Research has indicated that women and girls tend to be diagnosed with autism later in life than men and boys. Do you think this contributed to your later diagnosis?
Yes, I think so. From what I understand, we don’t really know why but people who are socialised as girls tend to present autistic traits in different ways to the stereotypical autistic boy and as such our diagnostic assessments are skewed towards the latter. For example, we tend to do more masking and internalise things more. This means that many autistic people don’t even get picked up for diagnosis as they don’t know how autism can present in a different way.
Until a close family member was diagnosed and I did some research on autism, I hadn’t even considered that I might fit the diagnostic criteria. But when I had my diagnostic assessment, I clearly was autistic. I think that there is a lack of awareness around how autism can present differently in individuals and this means that many young people are not getting appropriate support at school age.
How do you think schools can be more supportive of neurodivergent students?
I think that awareness around neurodiversity is a good place to start. It would be great if teachers did awareness training so that they can learn how neurodivergent experiences differ and how they can support them. For example, using the SPELL framework when working with students with autism, ensuring that teachers use dyslexia-friendly fonts, and providing clear structure and lists which can support students with autism and ADHD.
Every neurodivergent person has individual challenges, as do all students, which involves support tailored to individual needs. Knowing how to make lessons accessible will benefit all students, not just those with disabilities. We also need to acknowledge how much of an asset neurodivergence can be when properly supported and nurtured. Many of the traits that make me a good scientist are probably a result of being autistic, so it’s not all about the challenges – neurodiversity comes with its strengths too!
Is there anything physics departments in particular could do?
I think when it comes to physics, some neurodivergent minds can really latch onto the subject. But in general, it’s just like any other subject and standard techniques for supporting neurodivergent students can be used in the physics classroom. It’s important that educators know that they may be teaching a neurodivergent student (or a few) even if it hasn’t been disclosed to them, or that person hasn’t been able to access diagnostic services.
Using a differentiated classroom approach to teaching can help with ensuring that each student is engaged with the content in a way that suits them. Neurodivergent people process the world and information in different ways to most of the population. You can help support this by using a mix of teaching styles and ensuring that things like laboratory sessions have supports in place for students struggling with sensory differences.
In your piece for Physics World, you discussed how the pandemic has shown the importance of assistive technologies for everyone, and has forced able-bodied people to learn from people with disabilities. How do you think education can benefit from more actively including the perspectives of people with disabilities?
I believe that inclusive pedagogy is important for improving education for everyone, not just disabled people. No two disabled people are the same, even if they have the same condition, but we all have a unique perspective on the world, especially when it comes to accessibility. I think that education can benefit from including some of our perspectives because it may in fact help everyone learn.
It also goes without saying that disabled people deserve access to a good education. We could be losing so many great minds early on in the pipeline just because their education isn’t supporting their accessibility needs.
What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in physics today?
Don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t suited to physics. Physics is such a fulfilling subject to study and if you’re curious about the world around you and like solving problems, you’d probably make a great physicist.