CYGNA: The Power of neurodiversity

Our 55th CYGNA meeting was our first transdisciplinary, open-to-all event and featured the SWAN project celebrating the unique strengths of neurodiversity in academia

Hot on the heels of our first CYGNA meeting of the year (CYGNA: Past, present, and future) came our first on-site event of the year at the University of Westminster. The organisers Christa Sathish (University of Westminster) and Clarice Santos (Middlesex University) did an absolutely stellar job. They provided us with a full-day event that was so immersive it felt much shorter, with many reluctant to leave a the end of the day.

It also featured two firsts in CYGNA history: CYGNA’s first transdisciplinary event and our first event open to all academics, showcasing the strength of positive, interdisciplinary collaborations. The event's transdisciplinary angle fits perfectly with the two organisers who both showcase transdisciplinary approaches in their own research and practice. It was also reflected in the SWAN project (see below) associated with this meeting.

Opening up the meeting

From the start of our CYGNA network, we have had regular discussions on whether to stay female-only; the answer has always been yes. However, we had also discussed the idea of organising a bigger event open to academics of all genders and those outside the network. As the topic of this meeting (neurodiversity) seemed to elicit such strong interest outside the CYGNA network, we decided to take the plunge and open up for this particular meeting (only). This was also faciliated by co-badging the meeting with the new initiative that we have recently established: the Positive Academia network.

The decision proved to be a success. The event was attended by over 35 academics from a wide variety of backgrounds (CYGNA members, under- and postgraduate students, PhD students, disability advisors, and study skills tutors), representing many universities (Brunel University, Durham University, Henley Business School, London School of Economics, ESCP Business School, Middlesex University, Oxford Brookes University, University College London, University of Portsmouth, University of Surrey, and of course the University of Westminster).

It was wonderful to see such a variety of participants united by a common interest. Some researched in the area of neurodiversity, others were university advisors, many had children who were neurodivergent, whereas yet others were neurodivergent themselves. There were also many who didn't know anything about the topic, but were keen to learn more. Although you really had to be there to get the full effect, this blogpost tries to capture some of the spirit of the day with plenty of pictures.

Before the start of the event

Christa and Clarice had done an amazing job in preparing the meeting. The table above shows one of the swans created in the SWAN project and the beautiful purple (our CYGNA colour) name tags. The size of the room (see below) was a bit daunting, as was the technology. Clarice and Christa can be seen below setting up the computer.

The Swan project

The meeting started with a short presentation about The SWAN project. This CYGNA project was led by Dr Christa Sathish and Dr Clarice Santos and funded by Dr Richard Berry, Head of School, School of Management and Marketing, at the University of Westminster. The two swans reflect CYGNA’s equal, inclusive, and collective identity, as well as the diversity of the network and its members. The first swan shows the logo/name that was collaboratively created by the CYGNA founding team. The second swan aims to portray diversity, transformation and change of the network.

In Christa's own words:

This SWAN project was dedicated to Anne-Wil Harzing’s long lasting efforts in crafting and cultivating an equal, diverse, inclusive, and positive academia. As the core founder of the CYGNA Women in Academia Network, now close to its tenth birthday, Anne-Wil has provided a safe and inclusive space for female academics across nations. This safe space has helped the many female academics who Anne-Wil mentors and supports.

Above, I am receiving the first swan against the background of a slide with pictures of the project. They show Jacqueline Leon Ribas, a biomedical PhD researcher who created the swans, and Roberto A. Lopato who is working at UoW's Fabrication Laboratory. Christa has organised a collaboration with the FabLab to allow Jacqueline to work on the swans when taking time off from her PhD experiments. Jacqueline saw it as an excellent opportunity for her to create a well-being balance during her stressful PhD time.

The Power of Neurodiversity

After the Swan project ceremony, Christa opened the day with a great presentation on The Power of Neurodiversity: a Positive Academia Approach. You can download her full presentation here. Although as a neurodivergent academic she is well aware of the challenges that may be encountered on a daily basis by neurodivergent academics and students, her presentation purposefully focused on the positives. The below slide is a wonderful example of this.

Christa discussed not only how universities can harnass the power of neurodiversity, but also how each of us as an individual can play a role in this process. This is also a key tenet of our #PositiveAcademia movement: every single one of us can take small actions every day to make academia a better place (see also: Using LinkedIn recommendations to support others). Her concluding slide (shown at the top of this post) formed a wonderfully positive message for all of use.

Workplace coaching in the context of neurodiversity

Our second presenter - Philippa Eddie - focused on coaching in the workplace in the context of neurodiversity, the topic of her PhD studies. It was a perfect complement to Christa's presentation and kept us asking questions well into to lunchtime.

Philippa's PhD topic is the coaching of ADHD adults in workplace contexts through a language lens. Evidence clearly supports the contribution of coaching to career success for neurodivergent individuals. However Philippa wants to explore in greater detail what the practice of workplace coaching for ADHDers actually looks like - the aim is to help specialist and generalist coaches working with ADHDers be even more effective. 


After a very tasty lunch, generously sponsored by the University of Westminster, it was time for some active co-creation. We were divided into two groups and were given either a verbal or a hands-on activity. Groups switched half-way during the session so that each of us had a chance to participate in both activities.

In the first group, we were asked to write down our reflections on a series of statements related to neurodiversity, which we then elaborated upon in a plenary session. We left for another room as the other group was laughing so much we couldn't hear our own voices. Below you can see Philippa and Claire with a collage of the first group.

In the second activity we really got our hands dirty by creating clay sculptures that reflected how we saw ourselves in academia and positioning them on the wheel of neurodiversity. We were then given the chance to explain our handywork. Below you can see Charles Dennis - who kept asking for more clay - explaining his wonderful sculpture.

Reduce friction: value neurodiversity

It was hard to draw participants away from the activities, but the organisers had one more presentation in store, this time by Claire Robertson, who gave us a very personal presentation that captured our attention even though it was rapidly getting dark outside. Her full slides can be downloaded here.

Reflecting on the prompts for continuous learning interactions inspired by family, friends, colleagues and students, Claire encouraged all attendees to reflect on how our perceptions of diversity are impacted by our own individually unique characteristics and experiences which have impacted us. Acknowledging that neurodiversity may not be diagnosed, and that provision and acceptance of support will vary, she encouraged attendees to explore the importance of disclosure – celebrating what makes us unique rather than masking our differences.

Claire's ideal is creation of an environment where individuals are committed to defining and acknowledging their own identities and outlining their needs to ensure 'We can enact the future we want now' (Audre Lorde, 1934-1992). She challenged us to consider how we would take our learning from the event forward, to help improve situations encountered for every person we work with and for in the future. This provided us with a perfect link to the final session (see below). 

Finally: creating the collage swan

After Claire's presentation, each participant was asked to write their reflections on neurodiversity on a little swan. These tiny swans were then attached to a bigger wooden swan (see The SWAN project). Interestingly, virtually all of the comments made were also applicable to the CYGNA network.

With the event drawing to a close, one of our CYGNA organizing team, Sylwia Ciuk, kindly took a picture of the co-conspiritors for the day (Claire, Clarice, Philippa, myself, Christa, and Jacqueline), with a wonderfully evocative quote by Audre Lorde in the background. A very nice way to end an inspiring day.


Christa shared the following resources that provide excellent background reading for those interested in learning more about the topic.

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