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Student Spotlight: H.B. Fach Discusses Neurodiversity and Information Sciences

Featured student: H.B. Fach

Location: Lavergne, Tennessee

Career Background: I’ve been in libraries in one form or another since 2008, ever since I started part-time at Lavergne Public Library. I went to Nashville Public Library after that, and then the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Currently I’m with HCA Healthcare in their Knowledge Management division.

Why information sciences?

I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but a lot of state and federal government jobs aren’t known for a lot of advancement or growth, which I why I chose to leave. I wanted an opportunity to spread my wings a little bit more and apply what I’ve learned. My current supervisor was willing to give me a chance and hire me before I graduated. I’ve had 10ish years of library service and the reason I delayed getting my MSIS, in part, was that I was not diagnosed as autistic until 2011.

I was hesitant to go into a master’s program because I did not do exceptionally well in undergraduate school. My executive function was out of sync and I was struggling because I wasn’t asking for modifications that I needed, that I didn’t even know that I needed.

I applied to and got accepted into really good undergraduate schools and everyone assumed that, because I was doing well academically, that I couldn’t possibly be struggling or need  extra support. I didn’t know, for example, that I could ask for accommodations like dimmer lighting or a diminished or no-noise environment, or wearing my special tinted lenses.

I earned my undergraduate degree  in liberal arts from Middle Tennessee State University. I started out wanting to major in astrophysics and become an engineer, but I flamed out pretty spectacularly my freshman year. Distance education didn’t exist when I was an undergrad and I was sitting in bright classrooms; I wasn’t a nice person back then. I was forced to do this while working full-time and it was a nightmare.

At that time, I associated neurodiversity with perhaps people who couldn’t hold a job full time – I was quite ignorant back then. But we’re still learning a lot more about neurodivergence and what it looks like. The paradigms that we use for diagnosing neurodivergence is that it skews towards males and not females or nonbinary people, so it often goes undiagnosed. Women and transwomen are conditioned to mask and present, so we develop these coping mechanisms early on in our lives and a lot of diagnosticians miss the mark when they’re looking for neurodivergence. We don’t behave in the stereotypical ways that medical professionals read about in textbooks.

After I was diagnosed, I could look at what had essentially become a lost decade for me in terms of academic development and career department and say, I’m getting a fresh start with this, and there’s support mechanisms in place.

How has your experience been at SIS?

I’m able to focus when I do distance education or work from home, and it’s been terrific. I can just study and work and I have everything at my house set up for my sensory needs.

Even in the last 5-10 years there have been a million different little accommodations put into place that make my life, and I’m sure a lot of other people’s lives, easier. The more you know, the better you can get. When I first started reading about neurodivergence in 2005-2006, I didn’t initially think that it was something that could affect me because there were stories of people so severely affected they may never be able to drive a car, work, or even go out in public. So I was thinking, OK, that’s interesting, so how could that affect me? But again, I was ignorant.

What has your experience in the program been like?

I really feel like a lot has happened in my life since I started. I’m doing a lot more research on how neurodiversity affects me at work and school, but I’ve had excellent support within the SIS program itself. I’ve had a wonderful advisor and my professors have been extremely understanding and supportive, and I’ve met a lot of interesting folks in the classes themselves. I feel I have a much better toolkit now to do the kinds of things that I want, and when I first started, I really had no idea but now I do.

Dr. Fleming-May is my advisor and she’s been great; I think our personalities mesh well. It’s just so funny because I haven’t had the same professor twice, and the different personalities have been helpful in terms of my learning. All of them have been knowledgeable about the subject material and it’s great to have that variety of life experiences, as with the diversity of people in the classes themselves.

What type of career do you think you’ll pursue when you graduate?

I started the program in 2017, I’ll be finishing in December. I’d been working in libraries since 2008 in one form or another and I realized that, unless I wanted to be an associate my whole life, I needed to get my degree. I started studying metadata and cataloging because that’s where I’ve been most comfortable; I’m strictly a back-of-house person in libraries. With my neurodiversity and own personal inclination, that’s where I’m happiest.

Then I started the program and I realized there’s so many areas of study that I could go into that I didn’t even know existed. I had made my peace with a career of being a public librarian, but then there was so much more I didn’t know I could do with information sciences that now I’m not quite sure what I want to do. You go to a buffet and it all looks good and you want to try everything, but it won’t all fit on your plate, and that’s exactly how I feel.

One of my mentors has a master’s in social work and is a consulting advisor for neurodiversity in the workforce, and I have considered applying both my research knowledge and personal experience to help people with neurodiverse diagnoses in schools and workforces get IEPs and accommodations—I feel there’s a market and a need for that.

I find that neurodiversity is proportionally over-represented in libraries. I consider the information sciences piece the Swiss army knife of degrees—we may not have all the knowledge, but we have access to obtaining all the knowledge that we need to do the job. I could go to libraries, school districts, workplaces… and give these little Swiss army knife/toolkit presentations and say, there’s a huge number of resources at your disposal and here’s who you’re overlooking.

There’s a huge neurodiversity tidal wave coming in years to come. COVID accelerated what we already needed in terms of accommodation: working from home, distance education, and social distancing. Social distancing has been hell for some people, but it’s been great for me. I haven’t had to hug anybody in over a year.

What would you say to schools or employers in regards to supporting neurodiverse people?

I just want to be able to convey that being neurodiverse doesn’t have to be seen as a limitation, and in a lot of ways it’s a gift because, in my experience we tend to notice little details others overlooked. If you plug into our special interests, a lot of us have extremely passionate interests, and we will take off.

I think so many times in education we use a one-size fits all approach, and that’s geared more towards neurotypicals. As we begin to understand how thought processes and personality types work, we can basically re-engineer the systems to work for everybody. We need to have representation for everyone.

If we have mentors and employers who are neurodiverse, then the people coming up in the system can say, that’s someone who I can be like, and who is like me. We need different types of thinking if we’re going to progress and survive as a species, and neurodiversity doesn’t have to be shameful or seen as a burden, or even a dysfunction. It’s a different style of thinking that gives us different strengths and abilities.