Laura Seymour runs the exciting and innovative Neurodiversity at Oxford project with her colleague Professor Siân Grønlie, who initially came up with the idea. Here, Laura shares the successes of the project and talks about some of her own experiences as an autistic member of staff, and how that has shaped her work.
As Laura explains, “the aim of our project is to empower neurodivergent people at Oxford, celebrate neurodiverse creativity and achievement, and foster a neurodiverse community”. The project has involved a fantastic range of events, including an art exhibition and talk with the artist Mahlia Amatina, a film screening, a talk from the poet Joanne Limburg, as well as mentor training and career skills training for neurodivergent people. “It's been wonderful to meet so many amazing neurodivergent staff and students at Oxford through our project and to hear about their talents and celebrate their own projects!”
The final events planned for the project are a performance of the dyslexia gameshow Melonade from G&T Theatre, and talks by author Kala Allen Omeiza and Shakespeare expert and dramaturg Avi Mendelson.
The project has been funded by the University’s Diversity Fund, enabling all events to be free to attend and for the artists, speakers and performers to be paid. The funding has also helped to make the events more accessible, through live streaming for example: “This is extremely important because financial difficulties disproportionately affect members of our community for all sorts of interrelated reasons.” Laura is also grateful for the excellent support provided by Joel Casey with running the project and invaluable advice from Alvin Leung on measuring success.
Laura currently has a part-time, fixed term teaching contract at St Anne’s College, where she teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. She particularly enjoys delving into the St Anne's archives with the students and looking at early modern books with them - “there are some genuinely hilarious doodles in one of the seventeenth century Bibles” - and helping them work on their Shakespeare portfolios: “Because they can write on any topic they like for these portfolios I get to learn about their passions and interests.”
Like many academics, Laura has been employed on a series of short-term contracts. Since completing her PhD in Shakespeare studies in 2015, she has lectured at Bath Spa University, Royal Holloway, and Birkbeck University of London, often supporting herself with non-academic jobs like waitressing, translating (“not the interesting literary kind!”) and copywriting. Laura’s research focuses on neurodiversity in Renaissance literature: “I'm grateful to have some research grants from the English Faculty that fund visits to Renaissance archives and a wonderful Research Assistant.” One of her career highlights was writing a book about cognition in early modern English and Spanish literature, and another was getting a contract for the book she is currently writing, Shakespeare and Neurodiversity, which is about teaching Shakespeare in an inclusive way.
Job precarity is an ongoing challenge that is exacerbated for neurodivergent people. To help address this, Laura is now taking a slightly different direction in her career, as she is training to be a counsellor, although she would like to combine this with academic work in some way.
Laura feels that her personal experiences have given her compassion and empathy for the difficulties that students can face at university. “I did well academically, but experienced many difficulties at university, mainly around mental health, and spent a period in hospital. Everyone's experience is unique, but my life experience taught me that in general university life isn't always rosy and helped me to be receptive to others' troubles.”
As an autistic person, Laura experiences day-to-day challenges at work – in particular, “worrying about living up to neurotypical perceptions of what intelligence and collegiality look like.” Laura recounts an awkward situation during a meeting she was chairing last year: “An attendee asked me to summarise the main points of the meeting and I couldn't - my working memory doesn't work in this way, and everyone was making their points verbally which takes me a while to understand. I was kicking myself!”
“Forcing myself to be neurotypically collegial makes me feel exhausted and fake. Attending dinners and social events isn't very important to me, and if you see me eating lunch alone in college - do not approach!” The strategy that helps Laura is “remaining secure in who I am, explaining to others who care to learn about it how I am different from them and staying curious about how they are different from me, and finding my own ways of connecting with people.” Laura highlights how valuable the support from colleagues can be for neurodivergent staff: “My English colleagues at St Anne's help me because they don't assume that I can't do something just because I'm autistic; they ask me to organise things and join in with things - and they ask me what I need so I can do it well.”
Outside of work, Laura enjoys “running, bat detecting, growing plants, watching a solid 1-2 hours of TV every night, and spending time with my wife.”