Solvegi Shmulsky, M.Ed. discusses directing Landmark College’s Center for Neurodiversity
(29 minutes) Solvegi Shmulsky, M.Ed. is a Psychology Professor at Landmark College. Landmark is exclusively for students who learn differently, including students with a learning disability (such as dyslexia), ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder. A fully accredited, not-for-profit institution, Landmark College offers bachelor’s and associate degrees, as well as a Bridge Experience, online dual enrollment courses for high school students, and summer programs to assist a wide range of high school and new or transferring college students with learning differences. Solvegi is also the director of the college’s Center for Neurodiversity, which aims to advance an understanding of the benefits of a neurodiverse society. The Center is fueled by the collective energy of educators, students, employers, researchers, and others who are invested in its mission.
For more on Landmark College: landmark.edu
For more on Landmark’s Center for Neurodiversity: landmark.edu/center-for-neurodiversity
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Introducing Solvegi Shmulsky, M.Ed. of Landmark College
DR HACKIE REITMAN (HR): Hi, I’m Dr. Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of “Exploring Different Brains”. And today we’re so honored to have coming with us all the way from Vermont, Solvegi Shmulsky. Solvegi welcome!
SOLVEGI SHMULSKY (SS): Thank you for having me Hackie. Nice to be here.
HR: You know, I’ve read so much about you online with all you do with neurodiversity and your whole approach to, to all the you do there at Landmark College and beyond. Why don’t you give yourself a proper introduction?
SS: Ok. Happy to do that. I’ve been a professor at Landmark college for over 20 years. Landmark exclusively serves students who learn differently. They might have a history of ADHD or dyslexia or Autism or another variation that has affected their learning. And they’re coming to a program that has additional support and understanding for people like them. And we’ve been around for 20 years, we’ve grown, we’ve added associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees and we’re still growing and still learning about serving neurodivergent students and that’s sort of what my job is. In addition to teaching psychology, I also direct the center for neurodiversity, which is an advocacy type organization within the school. It’s just in its nascent stages and our goal is to create a platform for neurodivergent voices to talk about their experiences. And students are a big you know group there who are interested in hearing what they have to say and finding more places for them to talk.
HR: How did you get interested in neurodiversity?
SS: Good question. When I was at US Amherst in the 90s, identity theory, social identity theory was really big and, you know, it was like this explosion of theoretical work about people from marginalized communities somehow dealing with the shame and the stigma that they received from society and turning it around into a positive identity through a lot of difficulty and pain, but by reaching out and finding others who are like them. And when I started working at Landmark there wasn’t much talk about that. And then in terms of people who have ADHD and dyslexia, and I don’t think the term “Neurodiversity” was even used very much then. So, it’s like the mid to late 90’s. And I used to wonder, “Here’s a marginalized group of people, where is their empowered group, where is that?”. And when I started to hear the term neurodiversity and investigated a little bit, I realized that in the autism community that was happening, and that’s how I became interested. I think I saw Judy singers work. Not when it came out but shortly after. I was very excited to see the parallel between neurodiversity and other forms of cultural diversity.
HR: What identity aspects do you feel have the greatest effect upon your students, when we talk about their identity?
SS: You mean, in terms of social identity?
SS: Yeah, I think that a lot of students come in and they want their LD to go away. I think they come in and they want to be like everybody else. They want to be able to make these problems disappear so that they’re accepted. And it might be less that way for autistic students because they might have felt a little bit more outside the norm for longer than some students with ADHD and dyslexia who you might only know this if you’re in school with them. And what I’ve seen from students is that they can over there years in college, go from rejecting that neurodivergent part of themselves, and wanting to erase it, to accepting it, being proud of it, talking about it very very openly, and demanding equal rights in society, and advocating for themselves. But they recognize that there’s a stigma and the natural thing to do when you have a stigmatized identity is to try to get away from the pain and sometimes, they do just want it to go away. But we hope by being around each other that they develop that strength as a community so that so that that’s not where they end up by the time, they leave us.
Ending Neurodiversity Stigma
HR: What does Landmark College do to promote this feeling that you know, “Let’s get rid of the stigma, let’s move forward together?”. What are some of the, and you have the center for neurodiversity there and it’s a very, you know, rewarding place there. Tell me some of the aspects of it?
SS: Yeah. Well this spring, I taught a course called neurodiversity narratives and it was an identity course. And one of the unique things about this course is that all of the content was from neurodivergent people. I didn’t have anything in there. No videos, no readings, if they weren’t written by someone who was neurodivergent themselves. And so, the students came in and they saw speakers and they had content by people like themselves talking about what it meant to be person in the world with this identity. And my hope was that it created a sense of community beyond the walls of the college. And students then wrote their own comments on topics like, able-ism, and inclusion, and intersectionality, and those are going to get posted on the website. So, that was an attempt to try to connect students up to the wider neurodiversity world. So, we try to do that. The center for neurodiversity does that as well by having students go to panels. And we had a couple lined up for the spring, but they got canceled unfortunately. But what we try to do is figure out is there a conference somewhere, a neurodiversity conference, and would they like to hear from college students about their experience and then we’ll pull a panel together, prepare them and bring them in. And I tell you, those sorts of events are always received really well. It seems like people want to hear directly from someone rather than someone like me talking about it.
HR: I came across a very interesting comment recently that — that with all that’s going on in social media, these parents, “if they’re really concerned, why don’t they ask an autistic adult who’s already been there, where their kid was?” And I just found that very refreshing and very interesting from that.
SS: Yeah, you know, it’s kind of cool when students have gone out to speak to audiences. And there was a group of us who went, I think it was 4 students last spring. They went to an organization in Northern Vermont called “Vermont Learning and Support Initiative”. And this organization is a group of agency heads and social workers and educators up in the northern part of the state. They wanted to know how neurodiversity and mental health are connected. So, they invited me up and I brought my entourage of students and the students were wonderful. They were really very able to talk about this topic and by describing their own experience it made it very palpable and moving. And you could see you know somewhere almost tearing up in the audience and I wasn’t surprised that they were impactful, the student speakers, but what I was surprised about is that the students didn’t recognize until afterwards that what they had to say would be valued because I think with neurodiversity, you know, they’ve been through world of doctors and diagnosis and someone else always knows more than them, Someone else always knows more about ADHD than them, or about autism, and so they were kind of surprised that they were experts, and that what they had to say was so valuable to this group.
Teaching the Neurodiverse
SS: I’ll speak from my experiential knowledge, not from textbook knowledge.
SS: The people who I’ve met on the spectrum, I think I’m going to feel are a little offbeat socially. They might not do the thing that I expect them to do socially. They seem to, so I’m stereotyping here, but again, from my experience, they seem to take their role as students very very seriously and are very earnest about it. And the students I’ve had who have ADHD seem to have been able to develop some of them again, not everybody, they’ve been able to develop some social skills that might compensate for some of the weaknesses that their executive function challenges bring about, so they can be a little bit more persuasive a little bit less earnest sometimes.
HR: Yeah, party people! [Laughs]
SS: Yeah, they can be sometimes, I mean, you know, everybody’s different and I can be wrong, I don’t actually, we have files with diagnosis at our college but I don’t look at them and they actually, we don’t look at them, people who work with students don’t look at them, unless there’s, you know, an advisor who’s running into a very difficult challenge with a student and they need a little more insight about what you know doctors have found in the past. So, my observations are stereotypes.
HR: Yeah. If you’ve met one Aspie, you’ve met one Aspie and so forth, I think that’s so interesting. I remember a scene that I depicted in the movie “The Square Root of 2” which was inspired by a true story, but it was this, this one particular scene was inspired by a sit-down I had with one of the professors. These are all well-intentioned rules that are a little, they could be a little funky, you know, so the professor was allowed to know the accommodation that the individual needed. You need 10% more time to do your test. You might need a quiet area. You might need a note taker, but they weren’t allowed to be given the label. They weren’t allowed to be given why and I just found that so interesting. It’s almost like tying your hands behind your back a little bit with a “Let’s play guess”, how I can best serve this student. What are your thoughts on that?
SS: Well, you know, it’s difficult because as you probably know giving your field, diagnosis is an art and a science, and there are biases and diagnosticians, sometimes people get diagnosis because they’re after certain accommodations or certain supports, so, you know, a person in their diagnosis, there isn’t a hard-and-fast link there, always necessarily. I certainly think diagnostic labels do give you some information. They can tell you where to start looking, but and this is again my bias from working with students, I really focus on what they’re presenting and I have in my mind some archetypes, and they might not be attached to a label. But I’m like okay, executive function, you’re having trouble activating and doing your work without someone reminding you, maybe you have autism and maybe you have ADHD and maybe you’re just under a lot of stress, but I see the problem as activation and then I have some ideas about how to help with that. Someone who’s maybe being too brusque in a class setting, and putting off their classmates, so, maybe I decide, okay, I’ll give a little bit more direction on how to engage in group work and class and maybe layout particular roles. Like someone’s going to be the timekeeper, and someone’s going to write the ideas down and someone’s going to report back. Everybody has a job. And that sort of strategies based on someone not engaging, but it could be helpful for everybody whether they have autism maybe they do or maybe they don’t, maybe they just are having a cruddy day. So, I guess we’re a little more focused on things that we see, phenomenon, and what to do about that. And a lot of times they are linked back to the diagnosis but not always.
Dealing With Labels
HR: It’s interesting cause it’s such a double edged sword all the way and one time, I had the head of one of the big autism organizations, really came down hard on me because I showed a PowerPoint slide with a video from a documentary where I said; I think labels are a lousy way to describe a human being. Oh, I took all kinds of heat there. “Well, how are you going to get any funding? How are you going to get grants? How are you going to do this and that?”
SS: Well, if we can circle back to the identity question, I have had a lot of students over the years who have gotten diagnosed kind of late in life and they’ve reported to me that it can be really empowering to them because if they’ve been struggling up until they’re 25 say, or 22 or whatever, and they don’t have a label then they think they’re just a bad apple sometimes and the label can sometimes explain it. Like, all right I’m not just a bad character, but there are these you know my brain is different and these are some things I tend to do and there’s other people like me and there’s a name for it and I have had a lot of students tell that to me that it’s been a relief to hear that. Because then they don’t hold as much of it to themselves.
HR: Yes, and I find in another example of how the females get the short end of the stick. They get diagnosed much later and one of the autism activists who used to be on our board who I interviewed Becca Lory Hector. She didn’t get diagnosed till her 30’s and up until that time she was been told she was bipolar, she was this, she was that, she was on different medications. And she was so relieved in her 30s to learn this, you know.
Self-Knowledge and Self-Advocacy
HR: And I’m interested in the whatever kind of brain you have is in giving you tools so you can get along, you know, kind of thing. And I remember I was interviewing Becca Lory, I asked her what her favorite job was, because her history with jobs were, she’s high functioning autistic, her history was, she would, you know, she’d last a few weeks and then, she’d blow up, you know. And I said well, “What was the best job you’ve ever had?” And she says, “The best job I ever had was a bartender.” and I said, “I’m really surprised by that”, because you know, the socialization and this and that, she goes, “No hackie, you don’t understand. There’s this giant wooden island between you and the customer, so if guys start hitting on your anything, you say I got to serve a customer down the other end, it was great I was protected”, So I said, “What happened?”. “So, what do you think happened I did such a good job they promoted me to manager, I lasted two weeks, I was gone.”
SS: So, she needed to find her niche.
HR: Yes, Yes. As we all do.
SS: We can talk a lot about tools that are helpful for people to have but I think that self-knowledge and self-advocacy are huge, especially if you’re neurodivergent, because it is going to be narrower fit where you’re really going to thrive and, so being able to understand what those settings are that are good for you and then being able to ask for what you need and explain to people your behavior sometimes is so valuable and so important.
Supporting Neurodivergent Individuals at Landmark
HR: That is such a good point. That’s, you know, you really hit the nail on the head with that. Tell us how Landmark College itself adapts to support the individual no matter what their diagnosis is?
SS: Okay. We have a long history of being very individual focused. So, our mindset I think as a culture is in meeting a student in trying to understand what’s up with them, rather than pigeonholing them into something, so I think it’s part of our culture that we think on that level. From a practical standpoint we’re pretty small and we have a high hands-on model like they’re a lot of professionals per student. I’m not sure exactly what the ratio is, and it depends on if you count administrators or not, which I don’t think you should count, but however you slice it there are a lot of us per student, so we have time, we have time to talk with students. And so, we have an individual focus as part of our culture we have a lot of time to talk to students. We try to stay up to date on learning theory, cognitive psychology.
So, were sort of following that those trends as they unfold and we also are big proponents of Universal Design for Learning so we have the ethos of when a student comes in to learn, it’s our responsibility to create an environment that they’re going to be successful in. Every students different so the environment should have a lot of possibility in it for someone coming in so they should be able to get material in a lot of different ways, maybe they get it from a textbook, maybe they get it from an online video, maybe they get it from a lecture. They should be able to show in a bunch of different ways. Maybe it’s a paper or a test, or maybe it’s a different kind of presentation project, or maybe it’s something that they create that shows what they know. So, we try to use Universal Design for Learning principles in our teaching as a way to pre-set the environments so different people can be successful there. So we’re not trying to race and retrofit something for someone who has a challenge we’re trying to set it up in the beginning so they’ll be, they’ll be fine.
HR: Well, what a sane way to do it. Must say, It’s great. Wish the whole world did it like that.
Including Self-Advocates in Research
HR: Now, you’ve written some articles with Ken Gobbo?
HR: Well, Ken Gobbo, he’s a character too. Tell us about some of your work with Ken?
SS: Ken and I have written together for over 20 years and we have mostly focused on kind of the psychology of neurodiversity, I guess, broadly speaking. So we’ve looks at explanatory style in students who have ADHD, we’ve looked at identity in autistic students, we’ve looked at executive function in autistic students but I have to say, I have things to apologize for in my research career and that is, I came to it from the perspective of; I’m the researcher, and I’m going to look at this group and I’m going study them and I’m going to say something of value about them and get it published. But what I never did was to really try to include the community in the research process from the beginning. Including, you know, having focus groups to figure out what the question should even be and what the instruments should be and what the implications were of what we were looking at. So, I have been very influenced by the neurodiversity appeal to include people from the community in these decisions about research and that’s something I’m committed into doing in the future, but I don’t have experience yet. I look forward to growing and changing.
HR: (Laughs.) What a novel idea to keep growing and changing.
SS: And here’s a good example; I’ve read something and I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to give you the exact citation for it. But it was an internet study about factors related to suicidal ideation in neurodivergent people that came out a couple summers ago and when I read the lit review, the author’s talked about how they included neurodiverse people in there in a board to help them come up with the questionnaire items and the neurodiverse people said you have to have something in there about camouflaging. So, it was basically a questionnaire, people take it online, check off various things, I do this, I do that, I agree with this, I agree with that and then how suicidal have they been. And then the researchers then connected them up to see if they could find any trends, anything that predicted suicidal ideation. And the autistic advisory groups said camouflaging is real problem. Camouflaging is when we mask our autistic symptoms, so that we can get along in your neurotypical world, so that people won’t treat us badly and it takes a lot out of us. We can learn how to do it, but it’s tiring and then we get burned out and can’t deal and our mental health suffers. So, the researchers created some camouflaging items for this survey and low and behold what they found out after doing the research is that camouflaging is a very significant, statistically significant variable that predicted suicidal ideation. So, they found a real connection between this phenomenon and what they’re interested in, mental health and if they didn’t have this group, I don’t know how they would’ve even known to put it on there.
SS: It’s really important.
HR: Big, that’s big.
SS: Yeah, and so much of, this is a double-edged sword, so much of what we try to do, I think as educators is teach people how to camouflage in a way. Here’s how you can act and present yourselves so that others will accept you and then I think you know, that’s a moral dilemma. (Laughs.)
HR: That is, that’s very profound.
SS: Something that an intern told me once, she said that there was, she’s a very, a student on the spectrum, very out about it, and she used a lot of strategies that she learned over time to be able to deal with EF and to, you know, to be able to engage socially in a way that others expected and received well, and she said the problem was that the better you get at it, the less people believe that you have the thing, and the more people think you’re a faker and then the more they want to pull the support away. So, she said it’s like this difficult space where you might try, she would describe herself as trying really hard, getting great grades then looking amazing and then people question her very profile. And she said it’s hard not to internalize that so she would doubt it herself and I think that self-doubt is pretty endemic in this group of students in my experience based on things I’ve heard them say and, so I think that places like your organization where people are taught keep neurodivergent, people are talking and they’re being featured, and things that raise the profile of the community is so important to try to counteract some of that self-doubt, and say this really is real, and other people really share these traits, and you don’t let the doubters, and haters get you down. So, that’s one thing I wanted to say.
HR: And that’s a very important thing, because it’s not like you’re an amputee or you’re in a wheelchair, you’re walking around, you’re in many cases smarter than the average bear in many ways. And, yeah, that’s a big problem. It’s the ultimate catch-22, you know, that’s, that’s really what it is.
Advice for Parents
HR: What’s the biggest advice you would have for parents regarding how they can neurodivergent kid growing up?
SS: Yeah, I guess I would, I’ll think about it as a mom. I have two kids, and sure I want them to do well in school and, you know, not have a lot of strain in their life that’s beyond developmentally appropriate. But what I really want us for them to feel like they’ve got their people. To feel like they have a group who can just let it all hang out with, they’re accepted, and this group can allow them to relieve stress and make them feel like they’re part of humanity and make them feel like a valued person. And so, I guess would say to parents, “Help your child find that group, if there is one, because that’s what I would want for my own kids”. I think. I mean certainly getting support, you know, I don’t know, everybody has a different experience in terms of their school district and what kind of supports are there and I’m sure, I know that some parents have to spend their entire, you know, child’s education advocating very strongly for support and I, that is all extremely important, but I guess I think about wanting a person to feel well-adjusted and good about who they are and I think there’s no better way to do that, then to feel like you’ve got a few friends around you who accept you.
HR: Well, there’s no doubt in all the studies have been done any which way, strong social relationships trump’s a lot of other things that we harold as being important and, you know, that’s, that’s a role what you just mentioned that sports can do if you’re lucky enough to find the right sport with the right group of people, you know, and but that’s tough. That can be very tough with of all the peer group pressure and everything.
SS: Some of my folks, you know, that students at Landmark really like hanging out with each other and they want to be together, but some of them also have come from places where there wasn’t a neurodivergent group, and so they have online friendships. And some of them are quite attached to these online friendships where they go and play a game together in a world that they’ve made and they have avatars who have been friends for years, I’m serious. So even if you don’t live in a place where you can find a group, they’re might be other ways to connect.
Final Words on the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College
HR: What is the main concept behind the Center for Neurodiversity at Landmark College?
SS: Nothing about us without us. People who have ADHD, autism, dyslexia and other variations should be the ones telling their stories and telling the rest of the world what their life is like. They’re the experts.
HR: How can people learn more about you and your work as the Director of the center for neurodiversity at Landmark College and more about what you do?
SS: They could check out the college’s website and then the center for neurodiversity website is on there. I think my e-mail is on there and I always answer inquiries from folks. I would be happy to talk to anyone about what we do.
HR: Well, Solvegi, it’s been a pleasure to have you here at Different Brains. Thank you so much for being with us here again.
SS: Thank you for having me. It’s been wonderful talking with you.