‘Outside the Screen’ is a podcast about research and policy developments concerning children’s interactions with screen-based content.
Szymon Olejarnik, a first-year Horizon CDT student, was interviewed by ‘Outside the Screen’ about his PhD research, which focuses on youth socialisation in a gaming context with a special focus on autism.
I was excited to attend the Summer Institute due to my interest in AI ethics from an African and feminist perspective. My current PhD research focuses on the potential affordances and challenges avatars pose to African women. As AI is now often implicated in the creation of digital images, I thought DISI was a great environment to share ideas and insight into how to conceptualise these challenges and opportunities.
The attendees were divided into two groups: Fellows and Storytellers. Fellows were mostly early career researchers from diverse fields, such as cognitive science, computer science, ethnography, and philosophy. The Storytellers were artists who created or told stories and had in their number an opera singer, a dancer, a weaver, a sci-fi author, a sound engineer and many others. The Storytellers brought spontaneity and life to what would surely have been a dreary three weeks with their creativity and their ability to spur unselfconscious expression in all the participants.
DISI 2023 began on a rainy evening, the first of several such rainy days, with an icebreaker designed to get Fellows and Storytellers to get to know each other. In the following days, we received a series of engaging lectures on topics as varied as brain evolution in foxes and dogs, extraterrestrial intelligence, psychosis and shared reality and the role of the arts in visualising conservation science. A typical summer school day had two ninety-minute lectures punctuated by two short recesses and a longer lunch break.
The lecture on Psychosis and Shared Reality was given by Professor Paul Fletcher, a Professor of Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge who had advised the development team of Hellblade, a multi-award-winning video game that vividly portrayed mental illness. This game put me in mind of several similar research projects ongoing at the CDT researching gaming and the mind. As a Nigerian, I reflected on the framing of psychosis and mental illness in my culture and the non-Western ways these ailments were treated and addressed. That first week, I was quite startled to find that two people I had spoken casually with at dinner and on my way to St Andrew’s were Faculty members. One of these was Dr. Zoe Sadokierski, an Associate Professor in Visual Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, who gave a riveting lecture on visualising the cultural dimensions of conservation science using participatory methods.
In that first week, we were informed that we would all be working on at least one project, two at the most (more unofficially), and there was a pitching session over the course of two afternoons. I pitched two projects: The first project was to explore the aspirations, fears and hopes of my fellow participants using the Story Completion method, a qualitative research method with roots in Psychology, in which a researcher elicits fictional narratives from their participants using a brief prompt called a stem. This method helps participants discuss sensitive, controversial subjects by constructing a story told from the point of view of a stranger.
Many of the stories were entertaining and wildly imaginative, but I was particularly struck by the recurring anxiety that in 2073, the beautiful city of St Andrews would be submerged due to rising water levels. This seemed to me a reflection of how attached we had all become to that historic city, how attachment to places and things can come to help us care more.
For my second project, I and two friends (pictured below) interviewed six of our fellow DISI attendees for a podcast titled A Primatologist, a Cognitive Scientist and a Philosopher Walk into a(n Intergalactic) Bar. The idea was to get artists and researchers to tell an ignorant but curious alien on a flying turtle planet called Edna about their work and the Earth. These interviews sparked amazingly unintended reflective conversations about the nature of life on earth, our relationship with nature and human values, such as honesty. On the final day, we put together an audio trailer for some of the most insightful parts of these conversations as our final presentation.
Prone to being critical, I often felt disconcerted by what I perceived as an absence of emphasis on ethics. Having worked in technology ethics and policy, I felt prodded to question the impact and source of a lot of what I heard. In a session on the invisibility of technology, I felt extremely disturbed by the idea that good technology should be invisible. In fact, I felt that invisibility, the sort of melding into perception described as embodiment by postphenomenology, spoke more to efficiency than “good”, bearing in mind use cases such as surveillance.
There were some heated conversations, too, like the one on eugenics and scientific ethics in research. The question was how members of the public were expected to trust scientists if scientists felt ethically compelled not to carry out certain types of research or to withhold sensitive findings obtained during their research.
And the session on questioning the decline in “high-risk, high-return research”, which seemed, unsurprisingly, focused on research within the sciences, led to comments on funding cuts for social sciences, arts and the humanities resulting from the characterisation of these fields as low-risk and low-return, causing me to reflect that, ironically, the precarity of the latter, qualified them more as tagged high-risk, at least, if not high-return.
But the summer school wasn’t all lectures; and there were numerous other activities, including zoo and botanical garden trips, aquarium visits, beach walks, forest bathing and salons. During one such salon, we witnessed rousing performances from the storytellers amongst us in dance, music, literature and other forms of art.
I also joined a late evening expedition to listen to bats, organised by Antoine, one of my co-podcast partners. There was something sacred about walking in the shoes of the bats that evening as we blindfolded ourselves and relied on our partners to lead us in the dark with only the sense of touch, stumbling, as a small river rushed past.
I think the process of actually speaking with my fellow attendees caused me to feel warm towards them and their research. I believe ethics is always subjective, and our predisposition and social contexts impact what we view as ethical. At DISI, I found that ethics can be a journey, as I discovered unethical twists in my perspective.
This thawing made me enjoy DISI more, even as I confirmed that I enjoy solitary, rarefied retreats. As the final day drew near, I felt quite connected to several people and had made a few friends, who I knew, like the rarefied air, I would miss.
The success of DISI is in no small part due to the effort of the admin team, Erica Cartmill, Jacob Foster, Kensy Cooperrider, and Amanda McAlpin-Costa. Our feedback was constantly solicited, and they were quite open about the changes from last year.
I had a secret motive for attending. My research’s central focus is no longer AI, and I felt very out of place not having something I thought was core to the theme. But a conversation with Sofiia Rappe, a postdoctoral Philosophy and Linguistics Fellow, led to the realisation that the ability and desire to shapeshift is itself a manifestation of intelligence – one modelled in many non-human animals, reflecting awareness and cognition about how one fits in and how one should or ought to navigate their physical and social environment.
My first summer school started with an invite via email. Despite my interest in the topic, my first thought was that robotics was not my area of expertise (coming from a social science background), so maybe I shouldn’t bother applying as I’d be out-of-my-depth. Although after some consideration, I thought it would create some great opportunities to meet new people from diverse backgrounds. So, I stopped worrying about my lack of knowledge in the area and just went for it; and I got a place!
The summer school was held digitally due to COVID-19 restrictions, which had both its benefits and pitfalls. On the first day, we were welcomed by Debra Fearnshaw and Professor Steve Benford, and were then given the opportunity to introduce ourselves. From this it was apparent that there was a wide variety of delegates from several universities, with a range of disciplines including social sciences, robotics, engineering and manufacturing. The first day mostly consisted of talks from experts about the challenges we face in connecting technology and the potential of co-robotics within the fields of agrirobotics, home and healthcare. The main task of the summer school was to create a cobot (collaborative robot) that could overcome some of the issues that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated. The issue that the group chose to address had to fall into one of the categories introduced on the first day: food production (agrirobotics), healthcare or home. Along with this challenge, more details were needed on function, technological components, and four key areas of the cobot design: ethics, communication, learning and safety. These aspects were introduced on the second day. After being split into groups at the end of the first day, I felt happy as my group had a range of experience and expertise between us, which I felt would bode well for the challenge as well as being beneficial for myself as I could learn something from everyone.
Similarly, the second day consisted mostly of talks, this time based on the four themes mentioned previously. The ethics discussion was interesting and included in-depth explanations around aspects to consider when reflecting upon the ethical consequences of our designs, such as privacy, law, security and personal ethics. An online activity followed the ethics talk but was soon interrupted by a technical glitch. Despite this, we were able to engage with alternative resources provided in order to reflect upon the ethics of our cobot design. This was useful both for our eventual design, as well as applying this to our own PhD research.
The other themes then followed, including a discussion around interaction and communication in technology. This was an insightful introduction to voice user interfaces and alike, and what the current research is focusing on in this field. While fascinating on its own, it was also useful in thinking about how to apply this to our cobot design, and which features may be useful or necessary for our cobot’s functionality. A talk on the third theme of learning was then delivered, including details about facial recognition and machine learning, and the applications of these in the field of robotics. Likewise, this was useful in reflecting upon how these features may be applicable in our design. Finally, the theme of safety was considered. This talk provided us with the knowledge and ability to consider safety aspects of our cobot, which was particularly apt when considering COVID safety implications too. Overall, the first two days were quite lengthy in terms of screen time (despite some breaks), and I found myself wilting slightly towards the end. However, I think we could all understand and sympathise in the difficulty of minimising screen time when there is a short space of time to complete all of the summer school activities.
On the final day, we split into our teams to create our cobot. This day was personally my favourite part of the summer school, as it was fantastic to work with such a variety of people who all brought different skills to the group. Together, we developed a cobot design and went through the themes from the previous day, ensuring we met the design brief and covered all bases. Probably the biggest challenge was keeping it simple, as we had so many ideas between us. Despite our abundance of ideas, we were strict with ourselves as a group to focus and keep the design simplistic. Additionally, the five-minute presentation time meant that we had to keep our design simple yet effective. We then presented our home assistant cobot, Squishy. Squishy was an inflatable, soft cobot designed to assist carers in lifting patients who were bed-bound (as occupational injuries are a significant problem within the care industry). Squishy’s soft design enabled comfort for the patient being lifted, while the modular design provided a cost-effective solution and the possibility of added-extras if necessary. Along with this, Squishy was beneficial in that it consisted of wipe-clean surfaces to enable effective cleaning in light of COVID-19, as well as aiding social distancing by reducing the need for carer-patient contact. Other features of Squishy included machine-learned skeletal tracking and thermal cameras to aid safe functionality, and minimal personal data collection to maintain ethical standards. After the presentations and following questions, the judges deliberated. Results were in…my team were the winners! While I was happy to have won with my team, the most fruitful part of the experience for me was meeting and learning from others who had different backgrounds, perceptions and ideas.
Overall, I felt the summer school was well-organised and a fantastic opportunity to work with new people from diverse backgrounds, and I was very glad to be a part of it. I’m also pleased I overcame the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ feeling of not believing I would know enough or have enough experience to be a valuable delegate in the summer school. So, my advice to all students would be: don’t underestimate what you can contribute, don’t overthink it, and just go for it; you might end up winning!
My internship at Capital One started mid-November 2021 and ended mid-May 2022. Capital One is a credit card company originally situated in the US with two branches located within the UK in Nottingham and London specifically. I interned at the Nottingham branch over a period of 6 months, on a part-time basis.
The company has several departments and units. I was placed within the Data Science team which forms part of the wider Data group within the organisation. There are three main sections within the Data Science team namely Acquisition, Customer Management and the Bureau team. The Acquisition team concentrates on building models to score new credit card applicants. The Customer Management team focuses on managing and monitoring the behaviour of all existing credit card customers and credit line extensions and the Bureau team manages all data and information exchanged between credit bureaus and Capital One. For my daily work, I was placed within the Customer Management team and collaborated on two related projects- (Onescore2 and Challenger Model).
Onescore2 project involved creating machine learning models to manage the behaviour of existing credit card customers. I worked together with my manager to build models to predict customers likely to default on their cards over a defined period of time. We used R (a statistical programming software) as the main tool for the project. The specific activities assigned to me on the project involved creating the R program files for executing the models, monitoring the progress of the models’ execution, collecting and interpreting model results, and updating the GitHub repository with project outputs. The previous knowledge and skills acquired from the Data Modelling and Analysis course in year two of my PhD helped me understand the technical details involved in the analysis and to carry out my assigned duties effectively on the project.
The second part of this project is the Challenger Model project and it involved building different models in Python to compare their performance with Onescore2. The project was an exploratory study of different conventional models in predicting the likelihood of default. The Challenger Model project serves as a baseline to compare with results from my PhD work, which potentially could form part of my PhD thesis. As this phase of the project is linked to my PhD work, I benefitted from the guidance and input of my supervisor. While working on the Challenger Models, I held periodic meetings with my manager, supervisors and other members of the Data Science team where I presented on progress and discussed possible directions for the project. I also took part in weekly stand-up sessions where all associates within the Data Science team shared updates on ongoing projects.
Looking back on my internship, overall the experience has been insightful, an exciting journey and a time of personal development. I have grown and evolved in several areas in terms of interpersonal and professional skills.
Upon arrival in the first week of the internship, my manager was deliberate to arrange informal meetings and chat sessions with other members of the Data science team. These introductions and chats exposed me to a range of people in various roles and at different levels of leadership in the team. It helped to quickly integrate into the team to create new connections and meet new people. Despite being naturally reserved, I enjoyed the conversations much as everyone was friendly. I was encouraged to step out of my shell to interact with more people. During my interactions, I seized the opportunity to ask all the lingering questions I had on the topic of credit scoring which is also at the heart of my PhD research. Each person was friendly and particularly eager to answer all my questions and chat about the work they do.
Apart from the Data Science team, I had the chance to speak with other associates in other departments of the company and that experience was reassuring and enhanced my confidence at the workplace. I got first-hand experience in mixing with different people from different backgrounds in an office setting and learning to blend with them. The conversations in the first couple of weeks opened up my understanding more on the details of credit scoring and credit cards. I got more understanding of how the different teams work together to make credit cards available to people and how customers are managed and credit lines extended. I had the opportunity to join major meetings and to hear updates on projects being worked on within the different departments of the organisation. This also gave me a wider view of other aspects of the business. I was able to connect how the theory of credit scoring I had read in books and research articles played out practically in the real world through this experience.
During my internship, I worked both from home and the office. Every week during the first few months, I worked three days at home and two days in the office. I found commuting to work on time a discipline to develop as this was my very first time working outside of industry. Although challenging initially but got easier with time. The regular catch-ups and progress updates with managers and my supervisor were sometimes strenuous and nerve-wracking, however, it trained my communication and presentation skills.
The work culture in Capital One challenges associates to give their best on the job but at the same time encourages relaxation and places such high priority on wellbeing. Unlike other work environments, I was surprised to find several fitness and relaxation points like the gym, tennis and pool table strategically placed in the Capital One building to support associates. In addition, during my internship, the company observed a day of fun activities for its associates every quarter of the year just to have a break from work. This shaped my perceptions about the working environment.
Capital One is the industry partner for my PhD and I was privileged to have access to their data for my PhD work. Through my connections with the team members, I was able to easily recruit participants for my first PhD study which I believe would have been difficult otherwise without the internship. Overall, I enjoyed the internship and the experience has been beneficial not only for my PhD but for my personal development.
Experiences of an Early(ish) Adopter in the Algarve
post by Charlotte Lenton ( 2020 cohort)
The Algarve is a tourist destination located on the south coast of Portugal which is incredibly popular with tourists from across Europe including the UK. The area is famous for the guaranteed sunshine, sandy beaches, and welcoming hospitality. According to Statista (2023) the region received almost 4.8 million tourists in 2022, close to pre-pandemic figures. Popular resort areas include Albufeira, Lagoa, Carvoeiro, and Vilamoura. The latter is the place I am currently calling home for the next couple of months – Picture of the villa I have ended up in below (long story with a lot of complications and incredibly stressful moments involving several accommodation providers letting us down but it turned out well in the end bagging a massive villa with pool!).
I have visited the Algarve many times with my family whilst growing up and it was actually the first abroad destination I travelled to on holiday with my husband over ten years ago. It’s safe to say that the destination has a special place in my heart. But due to the pandemic and our finances being used to renovate our house for the past couple of years, my university exchange visit would be my first time back in the Algarve for almost seven years!
Those of you that know my PhD research area will know that I am most interested in exploring the impact that the digital tourism environment has on tourist mobility, accessibility, and experience for people who do not or are not able to use digital technology for whatever reason. I believe that being a ‘late adopter’ of technology is an ever-changing and evolving factor of people’s lives as we all make decisions about what technology we want to use, why we use it, and also why we choose not to use it sometimes. This will depend on the technology of course, someone might want to use a smartphone application to help them to travel by train if they are a frequent user of the railways. Likewise, they might also decide they do not want to have a digital ticket on their smartphone when travelling by plane as they are concerned the battery might run flat and feel more ‘secure’ with a printed version of the boarding pass. So, you can see how the extent to which an individual is a late or early adopter of technology can vary a lot between different technologies, the travel situation, and their personal circumstances. I consider myself to be on the early adopter side of the spectrum for most things like smartphones, but also a late adopter of many other innovations that I am more sceptical of.
There’s also a lot of research available that has explored destinations in terms of their ability, willingness, and innovativeness to adopt and use new technologies (see Buhalis and Deimezi, 2004; Spencer et al., 2012; Collado-Agudo et al., 2023) . This isn’t my research area as I am more interested in individual passengers and tourists, but nevertheless it is an interesting topic. Again, the technologies adopted at destinations vary between countries, regions, and businesses. Generally, lots of destinations in Europe have adopted technologies such as card and contactless payments as this has been widely available for a number of years. I raise this point as this has been an area of considerable challenge for me since arriving in the Algarve a couple of weeks ago.
When I am at home or travelling domestically within the UK, I hardly ever use cash nowadays. In fact, I find myself asking businesses if they accept cash as many places like restaurants, bars, and cafes only accept contactless or card payments. This move to a cashless society seems to have picked up pace since the pandemic in the UK. Admittedly, since the pandemic, I haven’t actually travelled outside of the UK until now, but I assumed (wrongly) that other countries in Europe were also following suit with fewer establishments accepting cash. In preparation for my travel, I took out a fee-free credit card and a new bank account which would also allow me to use the debit card abroad without incurring any fees. In my naivety, I thought that 100 euros in cash would be more than enough to see me through eight weeks abroad as ‘everywhere takes card nowadays’…. I wonder how many other British tourists have the same mindset as me in this regard?!
Upon arriving in the Algarve, I realised that I had made a terrible mistake in not bringing more cash with me as I encountered a number of places that only accept cash within the first few days. In addition to bars and cafes that only accept cash, there were also cash-only car parking machines! Coming from a country where several councils are moving their parking charges to ‘app only’ payments I couldn’t believe that the car parking machines here did not even accept contactless card payments.
A few days later it was time for my first visit to the Universidade do Algarve for a tour, to see my office, and have lunch with some colleagues. As my bag was heavy, I decided to leave it in my office and just take my phone with me… after all I have Apple Pay on my phone so why on earth would I need my purse?! (You see where I am going with this!) On arrival at the university canteen, I ordered the chicken dish for lunch with the help of my lovely Portuguese colleagues to translate this for me! When we got to the till to pay, I noticed that everyone else was inserting their bank card into the machine and realised that the machine was not contactless. Luckily my colleague and friend Professor Dora paid for my lunch as I explained that I was intending to use Apple Pay. This was not the end of the card payment saga for me at the university though… A couple of days later I attended an event which was followed by a self-paying lunch in the much fancier university restaurant. I made sure that I had my purse with me on this occasion so I could pay using my credit or debit card. On presenting myself at the till to pay for my food the staff member looked at my credit card, and told me it was a foreign card so was not accepted by the university so I would have to pay cash. I tried to reason with her by saying that it would be accepted as it would pay in Euros, it was a Mastercard, etc. but she was having none of it. So, for now, at least, it appears that I will need to pay in cash for my meals at the university too.
I guess my point here is surely I cannot be alone in my approach with assuming that European popular tourist destinations, like the Algarve, would be as keen to move to a cashless society as the UK. I am not saying that I agree with the UK moving to a cashless society, as I do think this will have negative consequences for many people including those whom my research focuses on giving voice to. But as a tourist who is so used to using contactless cards and Apple Pay in UK daily life, I wonder how many other Brits are caught out by this and end up using cash points (ATMs) with appalling exchange rates to get by when abroad. Maybe the tourists who are later adopters of this sort of thing would in fact be better prepared for travelling to the Algarve as they may prefer to use cash, who knows?! In any case, I am lucky that my parents are coming out to visit me this weekend, so I have asked them to exchange more cash at home where there’s a decent exchange rate and bring it out to me!
In November 2022 I was accepted to present my PhD plans at Mindtrek’s Doctoral Consortium in Tampere, Finland. With the exception of one prior conference, until this point, I had only presented to academics and peers within the CDT, so I was delighted to be given this opportunity. Mindtrek is an international technology conference held every year in collaboration with Tampere University. With its strong focus on human-computer interaction and future technology, I was eager to immerse myself in all that the conference had to offer during this stage of my development as an early career researcher. In what follows I reflect on my experience of attending a doctoral consortium for the first time, offering key takeaways for PhD students looking to attend similar events in the future.
The event was brought to my awareness when I came across a post in the CDT impact group written by one of our Horizon alumni, Velvet Spors. Velvet offered a great deal of insight about the benefits of attending such an event. Reflecting on this moment I feel grateful to be part of the CDT community with access to an abundant network of researchers and alumni. I would strongly advise talking to PhD students/alumni in similar areas to see what kinds of events and conferences they recommend. I’m very glad to have established a connection with Velvet before attending Mindtrek.
The conference lasted a total of three days and was set up as a hybrid event, though I was fortunate enough to attend in person. For the doctoral consortium itself, we were asked to deliver a 10-minute presentation followed by a 10-minute discussion with four panel experts. Trying to explain your PhD in 10 minutes or less is always a challenge (especially when it’s a 2-minute flash presentation on Industry Day), but it is a skill that is so important to develop for effectively communicating and ‘selling’ your research to others. Reflecting on this experience I realised the importance of prioritising what you talk about, placing emphasis on why the contribution is important, and illustrating what other people might gain from your work.
The depth of the feedback I received from the doctoral consortium exceeded my expectations and each panel expert had a different angle of the PhD to comment on. I ultimately learned the importance of saying what’s out of scope for the PhD and being ok with not knowing the answer to a question, especially in the very early stages when you are still ironing out the specifics of your project. The doctoral consortium panel provided extensive suggestions for where I could take my research based on their expertise. I think the exposure you have to go through in the early stages can be quite daunting but also necessary for your development as a researcher. It’s helpful to think that everyone on the panel started somewhere and probably had a similar experience at their first doctoral consortium/conference.
The following days comprised the main part of Mindtrek’s academic conference where I came across many exciting tracks relevant to my PhD topic. The tracks I found particularly interesting were “Understanding and Designing for the Socio-Technical” and “Fictional, Speculative, and Critical Futures”. The focus of my PhD was still very much open at this point, and I felt inspired by many of the talks in these tracks. As part of the Horizon CDT program, we are encouraged to take awareness of upcoming, novel, and creative methods given the interdisciplinary nature of the training centre. The Mindtrek conference was ultimately a perfect opportunity to expose myself to a range of creative methods and to broaden my horizons in this way. Networking events were held in the evenings after conference hours which provided a more relaxed environment to speak with researchers and panellists. I always find it helpful to ask PhD students in the later stages of their doctorate, and even those with many years of experience after their PhD, what they wish they’d done earlier on.
The event enriched my career as a researcher in a multitude of ways. As well as developing my presentation skills further, I learned how to effectively communicate my project to an audience outside of the CDT. I was encouraged to think about the impact my PhD might have afterwards, and how I might engage with key stakeholders. For example, how might I disseminate my recommendations in a way that would make the most impact? It’s easy to get caught up in the theory of a PhD but recognising the real-world impact you can achieve is essential.
To sum up, I would highly recommend attending a doctoral consortium to anyone in the early stages of their PhD. I ultimately learned the importance of keeping an open mind in the early days and accepting that your project may change a lot from your original plan. You also need to have the exposure to be guided in the right direction. It may feel challenging to take this step but expanding your comfort zone is necessary for growth.
Working as an autistic autism researcher can sometimes be a lonely and distressing experience. Daily contact with academic literature that consolidates pathologising or stigmatising beliefs and constructs can be traumatising. Luckily there is a growing community of autistic autism researchers who, although widely dispersed geographically, come together through digital technology and virtual spaces to offer peer support and collaborate in academic writing and work that counter such narratives with alternatives, grounded in our self-knowledge and awareness. This digital network of neurodivergent researchers, activists and thinkers has also crystalised into the academic disciplines of neurodiversity studies and critical autism studies, containing both scholarship and activism in equal measures.
An attempt to formalise the concept of neurodivergence within a typology in which those who are neurodivergent fall outside of societal norms and those who did not are neurotypical, when societal norms are fluid and ambiguous at the best of times.
The reduction of all other types of neurodivergence (such as different learning abilities and styles, tourettes or other atypical mental and neurological experiences) beyond those of autism or ADHD within the category of “other”, essentially disregarding the original principle of neurodiversity as encompassing the entirety of human experience; a very standard reductionist psychiatric/diagnostic approach to this vast diversity.
Crediting of the term ‘neurodiversity’ to Judy Singer (an academic who was the first to use this in scholarship), when it had in fact been used online by autistic activists up to five years previously in the early nineteen-nineties.
The collaborative writing process within a neurodivergent research group can be complex, with much consideration given to the different sensory or communication needs of each individual as well as the ongoing stress they may be experiencing at any time. Often there are occurrences that would be considered rude or inappropriate, such as abruptly leaving a meeting with no explanation, were they to occur in an equivalent neurotypical workspace. Our team of writers and advisors included those who had a range of neurodivergent differences; autism, ADHD, dyslexia and mental health challenges, so as much time went into managing these with compassion and understanding toward one another as the actual writing itself. Although conflicting needs can cause frustration and difficulty, the shared experience of stigma and ignorance from others that neurodivergent people hold together is a strong foundation to work from to overcome them.
Additionally, the neurodivergent status of several contributors is not known publically outside of our research community (individuals holding prominent or senior academic positions would still experience discrimination were they to publically disclose). Others who worked on the response are publically known as autistic clinicians who have to be seen to not be challenging their professional status quo too much. This risk is such, that meeting recordings that included such individuals were transcribed and then deleted to avoid exposure of them to harm, professionally or personally.
We worked virtually using email, and shared documents for writing, commenting and editing, together with the occasional face-to-face video call. These styles of working have of course become much more prevalent since the Covid pandemic, however, their benefits to neurodiverse writing groups extend beyond the convenience of meeting without travel.
Neurodivergent communication preferences span many media and dimensions beyond that of written language. One of our group creates TikTok content incorporating signing for the deaf ADHD/autistic community, opening up lived experiences such as these to others who might be excluded because of intersectional disabilities. There was much lively debate about the inclusion of graphically based examples of neurodiversity and how far we would be able to challenge the publication boundaries of a very traditional medical journal such as the British Journal of Psychiatry and still be considered credible. On this occasion, an alternative format such as this was deemed to be too far to be included. Our work shows how different social and communication styles implicit in neurodiverse/neurodivergent groups demonstrate the value they can add to the democratisation of academic knowledge through variable dissemination, both from within the academy to the outside and from the outside in, via the insider/outsider perspective we hold and express through our output, whatever form it takes.
Overall, the process of containing the very different perspectives and styles within even a small neurodivergent group such as ours can be a challenge in and of itself, ensuring that they are all included in enough substance whilst still creating a coherent narrative. Nick and I worked on this refinement and translation process, with the agreement and ‘member checking’ of the wider team. This is how I came to receive the second author attribution in the writing process.
The first challenge we faced was the rejection of the paper’s original format as that of analysis, instead being considered as a commentary, with a word count and citation limit of half of what we had submitted. We decided as a group to reformat the original writing, to ensure a timely response to the original article with a commitment to submitting an expanded version at a later date. Upon resubmission, we received thoughtful reviewer feedback which improved the overall quality and style of the paper. These included challenges to “better capture the nuance and undoubted controversy in the field of biomedical vs social paradigms of neurodiversity and disability” which we managed successfully, whilst remaining within the wordcount and inclusive of the many different frames of neurodivergent reference included in our authorial group.
The final submission was well received by the BJP, whose editors and reviewers thanked us for our thoughtful and considerate responses both to their comments and the original paper. Although we were disappointed to have to shorten our original writing there was a commitment between a smaller group of those who contributed to further our thinking in a later piece, alongside others who produce and curate digital content for social media to adapt what we had created to make it suitable for audiences in these different contexts. We felt that this would be the best approach overall. In coming together we were able to express and explore a range of different ways of thinking, expressing and depicting our ideas. All are valid and worthy of use, however, the delineated nature of certain specialities like academic publishing means that, unfortunately, certain ways of being and communicating are still valued above others. We hope our work, as neurodivergent academics, will champion a breaking down of these barriers of in/validation between different styles and types of communication, along with greater acceptance of neurodivergent ways of being and knowing.
As an autistic PhD student, the benefits and opportunities gained at Postgraduate Summer Schools are of course the same for me as everyone else. As an autistic person though, the travel, overwhelming venues and intense social interaction can make attendance often challenging and sometimes impossible. The chance to participate in the two-day online ‘Fundamentals of Qualitative Research’, part of the wider 20th Annual Qualitative Research Summer Intensive, which was delivered digitally was a chance to attend a summer school avoiding the associated difficulties I have because of my neurodivergence.
The classes were led by Johnny Saldana across both days; a highly experienced qualitative methods researcher and author, with content adapted from his book ‘Qualitative Research Analyzing Life. Prior to registering for the summer intensive class, I discussed the course with my supervision team, sharing its outcomes along with the background and professional experience of Johnny. Specific points of connection to my own work were Johnny’s focus on arts-based methods, an area of research which had emerged as relevant to my academic disciplines, positionality and aspirations.
The fundamentals class was advertised as being suitable for beginners, to gain a wider understanding of qualitative methods, as well as a refresher for more experienced academics who also wanted to develop skills and experience in teaching qualitative enquiry in the context of their practice. These different aspects of the course and its convener made it applicable to my current PhD research stage. As I am writing my year one progression review document, I am required to complete a methods and methodology statement. Despite engaging with different texts, I felt I lacked confidence and knowledge in this area because I had yet not been able to find a taught course relevant to what I was interested in. The fundamentals course offered the chance to evaluate the conclusions I had reached about which methods I hoped to use, learn more about how to develop a research study design that included them and justify the choices I had made, or not, in my progression review.
Having started my PhD journey six months into the pandemic I have engaged with numerous and varied platforms, formats and degrees of success in the delivery of study materials. One of my earliest memories within the Horizon CDT lockdown offering was that of a teams call where the sound simply would not be made to work, despite a number of experienced computer science professors in attendance. Since then there has been a running CDT joke of how many computer scientists it takes to make a video conference work. At the time the answer was more than we had available.
The content, technical and personal delivery of the fundamentals course was flawless. Johnny used a mix of slides and verbal delivery supplemented with short video and sound bytes from popular films and television series. The latter inclusion was especially welcomed, breaking up what might have been, at times, dry study matter with humour and wit, as well as making the learning accessible via its presentation through popular culture characters and plots. Johnny was supported by a number of participant facilitators who organised breakout rooms, read data examples and prompted questions and comments that appeared in the chat function. This avoided breaking the flow of the course and ensured excellent timekeeping. Anyone considering a digitally delivered course would do well to research the provider and their experience in digital conferences and study. It is very easy, with the whole internet available on a second tab to become distracted whilst learning remotely. I am pleased to say this was not something I struggled with; a testimony to the smooth delivery and technical capabilities of the support and administration teams as much as Johnny’s obvious expertise in and enjoyment of qualitative research.
A balance was struck between delivered materials and practical exercises throughout the course. Over the two days, there were several chances to practise the skills being taught. These included a multi-stage data analysis exercise together with individual and collaborative autoethnographic writing in small breakout rooms to enhance understanding of how key assertions are constructed from coding and thematic analysis. This connected the theory being taught with practical applications, essential in embedding learning. It also enabled the chance to consider how each person might want to adapt what they did, with input from Johnny in real-time.
Overall, the fundamental course was one of the better, if not the best, multiple-participant online learning experiences I have had to date. I have gained insight into best practices in the delivery of higher-level learning through digital formats as well as how to present to and engage with students and audiences digitally. These additional indirect benefits were not explicitly stated in the course objectives, however, my attendance developed my academic ‘soft skills’ of presentation, course design and delivery alongside my knowledge in the discipline of qualitative research. Seeking and being aware of additional value such as this in different learning contexts has been invaluable in my professional development whilst undertaking my PhD.
As I have hoped to demonstrate, my personal preference for attending virtual conferences and classes extends beyond my accessibility needs is well justified. I have found that the virtual opening up of such events makes opportunities to meet, learn from and engage with people from a wider variety of cultures, backgrounds and professional career levels much greater. The Covid-19 pandemic necessitated moving events online. Many have chosen to remain so, either running parallel in-person/digital tracks, the opportunity to watch live streams or developing new types of hybrid attendance. This general trend towards different ways of participation is exciting and relevant to my research subject as well as my professional development. I am exploring how digital communities of female perceived autistic people can find collective meaning together through digital communities of interest situated in digital spaces like Facebook, Reddit, Discord Servers and digital messenger apps. The strategies developed organically within these contexts might inform the creation of more effective digital learning and academic community building, and vice versa.
For anyone interested in accessing academic communities of interest I would highly recommend exploring such platforms and asking for recommendations for suitable groups within professional networks. If nothing is available perhaps think about setting one up yourself. This style of academic connecting and networking is increasingly encouraged and recognised, within the framework of social media platforms as a valuable place to connect with other scholars, as well as seek participants. Johnny Saldana, in the fundamentals course, encouraged participants towards this type of professional relationship forming, as did the convener of another course on autoethnography as a research method that I attended online earlier in the year.
The worth of digital communities as places to seek diverse academic study, publishing and conference presentation opportunities can no longer be denied. I would encourage academics at all levels of their career to utilise these if they have not already done so.