Interviews Neurodiversity Podcasts

Irlen Syndrome and Inclusive Design with Chantal Gagnon of Socolo

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On today's episode, I'm talking with guest Chantal Gagnon about her experience with dyslexia and being diagnosed with Irlen syndrome in school, why she founded Socolo, her stationary company, and how hard it can be to unmask in the workplace. We're also covering Chantal's new initiative, World Unmasking Day on the 25th of May - stay tuned!

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🎧 Want to listen? This post is based off of Episode 47 of the Neurodiverging Podcast! Listen on Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts | Spotify | Youtube

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Show Notes:

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Transcript of Ep. 47: Irlen Syndrome and Inclusive Design with Chantal Gagnon of Socolo

(Intro and outro transcribed by Danielle Sullivan. Body transcribed much more capably by Justice Ross.)

SULLIVAN: Hello everybody, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging Podcast. I'm Danielle Sullivan and I'm your host. I am so happy to be here with you today. We have some really exciting stuff to talk about with our guest.

Become a Patreon Member Today

Before we get to that, I just want to say, first, thank you to all of my Patrons for supporting the Neurodiverging Podcast. I had some significant health issues this April, and your funding enabled me to still maintain this podcast, get the transcripts out, and I just can't tell you how much I appreciate it. If you would like to be a Patron and support this podcast by donating a small amount of money every month to support transcription, support my ability to keep doing this, to support the research, to keep Leo in kitty treats occasionally, you can go to Patreon.com/Neurodiverging and pledge a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars a month. You get tons of bonuses and also the pride of keeping this going! So, thank you to all of those who are currently patrons.

My children are home, so there may be noises in the background because it is almost summer here in Colorado, in terms of school. And so, you know, we persist on!

Announcement: Collaborative Families is a 6 week parenting class for neurodivergent families

The second thing I just want to mention is that, starting in July, we are debuting our neurodivergent collaborative parenting class , which is all about how to parent for neurodivergent families in a way that is democratic, that is collaborative, where you are working together on a team with your family and your kiddos. We'll have strategies in place to help you work with kids with pathological demand avoidance, oppositional defiance - these are all words that I don't love, the way that they're framed and medicalized and pathologized, but just so you know what I'm talking about I'm using them - autism, ADHD, other types of neurodivergences.

If you have kiddos who need different parenting approaches like my kiddos do, and you are having trouble, and you are committed to gentle parenting but just need help tweaking what the books are telling you and what these classes are telling you for your kiddos, this is a perfect opportunity for you. It is a six week program. It is designed specifically by me for neurodivergent families and you can be neurotypical if you have neurodivergent kiddos. It's for families with neurodivergence in them. And we'll be going through how to use collaborative parenting in a way that supports your kiddos, supports you, reduces yelling, reduces stress, reduces demands for everybody, and just makes everything easier.

So if you're interested in that, it's priced around 50 bucks a week for one-on-one access with me, it's a group coaching program so you have a cohort going through it with you. You get a lot of specialized information on what we're doing. I will put a link below. We're in pre-registration now so if you're interested have a look or if you know anyone who might be interested, have a look.

World Unmasking Day Announcement

world unmasking day neurodiverging danielle sullivanThe [third] thing I want to announce briefly is that on May 25th, a couple days after this podcast goes out, our guest and one of their colleagues has put together this amazing thing called World Unmasking Day, which I am so pleased to be participating in. We'll be talking about it more in the podcast, but please check out the links to World Unmasking Day. We would love it if you would participate!

The idea is basically that anybody with any kind of neurodiversity often is masking or kind of going undercover to appear more neurotypical. We do this for lots of reasons and that's a whole other topic, many of them are very good reasons. But for this day, World Unmasking Day on May 25th, we are encouraging folks who are comfortable and safe doing so to demonstrate what you're like without masking. The idea is to lift awareness and to encourage people to first recognize how many neurodivergent folks make up the population, second, that being neurodivergent is actually quite difficult in a neurotypical world and that we are working really hard to fit in, and maybe we shouldn't need to, right? Maybe we should be allowed to stim in public, to not always have the happy face, to not have to pretend to read when we're dyslexic, all these sorts of masking behaviors that we do, right?

So, please listen further for more information, but also please check out the links below for more about World Unmasking Day. If you participate on Instagram or anywhere, use the hashtag #worldunmaskingday, so we can all see it!

Introduction to Guest: Chantal Gagnon of Socolo

chantal gagnon socoloAlright, and now I would love to introduce our fantastic guest today. This is Chantal Gagnon and I took German and Latin, so I'm really sorry Chantal. Chantal is the founder of Socolo which is an inclusive stationary company that designs notebooks with consideration for people with neurodiversities and visual stress. Through Socolo, Chantal aims to normalize the use of color paper for adults as well as children, and help make workspaces more accommodating for the neurodiverse and light sensitive.

Chantal was diagnosed with dyslexia and Irlen syndrome at a young age and found the lack of support available to neurodivergent adults shocking when she left the education system. This fuels her passion to advocate for a more inclusive world for people of all ages. She often gives talks to universities and startups on the importance of inclusive design.

I have a huge passion for inclusive design despite my lack of visual design ability, and so when Chantal got in touch with me, I was really excited about that. But also, I hadn't personally ever heard of Irlen syndrome in the United States and looked it up and was like, I think this is really pertinent to a lot of neurodivergent people that I talk to on a day-to-day basis. So I really hope that this podcast will help some of you!

We are talking about Chantal's experience with dyslexia and being diagnosed with Irlen syndrome; why she founded Socolo, her stationary company, and why it's different than other ones; and why even little things like having colored paper available for adults, which she was having trouble finding, can make life so much easier for neurodivergent people. Then at the end, we're talking about Chantal's initiative with her colleague about World Unmasking Day on the 25th of May. And so I hope you'll listen to the end and find out more about that. Without further ado, here we go on to our interview  - enjoy!

SULLIVAN: Welcome to the podcast, Chantal, it's so nice to have you here! Thanks for joining me.

GAGNON: Thank you for having me.

SULLIVAN: I'm so glad you're here. When you got in touch with me, I was so excited, because I think what you're doing is so unique and so different than a lot of folks I've talked to in, kind of, the neurodiversity field. And you have this business that, like, really, practically offers a very unique support for a certain kind of neurodiverse individuals. So I'm just so excited to talk to you.

So I want to talk to you first, if it's ok, a little bit about you, so our listeners can start to get to know you. Can you just tell us a little bit about you and your background?

What's Chantal's background?

GAGNON: Yeah! So I grew up in Canada, and I was diagnosed when I was in roughly, like, grade 2. So I just lucked out, and I happened to have a teacher who had a disabled child and was able to kind of direct my mom in the right direction. The teacher wasn't exactly sure what was going on. My mom knew there was something going on. But she was able to kind of point my mom into, like, reading different books and different resources. And so, after that, I quickly got diagnosed with Irlen syndrome and dyslexia.

And then, when I was in about grade 6, I was finally able to go to a school that specialized in educating students with learning disabilities. And so for grade 6, grade 7, I managed to skip grade 8, and then for grade 9, I was in this very special, beautiful environment that really catered to any accommodation I really needed and, just, really supported me. And so, at that school, I was able to actually learn how to read; I read my first novel at the school. So that was always really exciting. And I actually got so confident that I actually felt like I could go to a regular high school after that.

And then I went off to university. And when I was in university, I kind of debated being an artist or a scientist. And it was just very clear that I couldn't keep up education-wise; post-secondary was just starting to get a bit too hard. So the science kind of went out the window, and I really focused on arts, because it was definitely more hands-on, and not so much memorizing and focusing on exams. 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so I ended up being a graphic designer and ended up getting my, like, dream job as a creative strategist, where my job was to think of ideas for companies all day long. And I'm such an idea generator that it was just, like, the best job for me. But again, I just couldn't really fit into an office environment. So I eventually left, did freelance graphic design for a bit. And then eventually, I kind of got fed up one day with not being able to find stationary that accommodated my needs.

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

GAGNON: And it kind of occurred to me, I was like, "I'm a graphic designer, I could actually do thisand, like, make it myself." And then that's how I started Socolo. And so my life's kind of gone a bit... I like to think that it's, like, gone full circle a bit, where now I have re-embraced the neurodiverse community a lot after feeling... I never felt rejected by the neurodiverse community, but I felt like, when I went into the workplace and university, that I wasn't really a part of it anymore; I didn't feel the community sense of it. So now I really feel like I'm, like, back in the community and just love it.

What is Irlen Syndrome and how has it affected your life?

SULLIVAN: I really, really want to talk about your business. Before we get into that more, can you talk a little bit about your experience with Irlen syndrome and kind of what it is and how it's affected you? Because I Googled it when you got in touch with me, but I don't think it's a term that's used very much in the States from what I could tell. And I was just interested in your perspective.

GAGNON: Yeah, so Irlen syndrome goes by, like, several different names, there's Meares-Irlen syndrome, Irlen syndrome, visual stress. So, it's way more common than people actually think.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: So about 15 to 20% of adults tend to have it - Or, sorry, not "adults" [as in] everyone…

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: But in the neurodiverse community, like, about 50% of dyslexics have it, about 50% of even autistic people have it, so it's really a lot more prevalent within the neurodiverse community. And essentially what it is is, it's a perception processing disorder. And so, essentially, how it effects me is, in certain lighting environments I get really affected by it; it gives me these terrible, terrible headaches. When I was a child, it really manifested itself in, like, temper tantrums. And so I'd go to the mall with my mum, or even the grocery store, and I'd leave in, like, a horrible temper tantrum, and she would not be able to understand what went wrong.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And I would come home from school really frustrated. And so essentially, when I read, for me—it can look different for other people, but when I read on white paper with black letters on top, it looks like the letters are floating on top of the page. So it doesn't... There's a bit of this distraction because it doesn't look like it's attached to the white. And things kind of jiggle and move a bit. So as a child learning to read, that's really distracting. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And especially when you're really having to focus and trying to sound out a word, and everything around it starts moving around even more, it's just, yeah, it's just a little bit of a disaster. So I got tested, and essentially what they do is, you can get tested at opticians but you can also get tested with the Irlen syndrome association. And what they do is, like, it's like a regular eye test but with colors, and they figure out what's your perfect color. They get you to read. They have all these different tests to see where your reading improves. And for me, it was always this purple-y blue color, is what I got for the lens, but when it comes to paper, it's sort of, like, a coral-y, orange-y pink tone, which is kind of my ideal paper. 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And that is quite common, where your lenses will be different than the paper you like to use, and it tends to be on the opposite side of the color spectrum.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

GAGNON: (Laughs)

Irlen syndrome and sensory processing

SULLIVAN: That's so interesting. Because I was Googling it, and I was like, I've talked to a lot of folks on this podcast, and I have sensory processing challenges, just kind of generally in vision and auditory processing and in tactile touch processing. And I was looking at... I had never heard of Irlen syndrome before I got your message, and I was looking it up, and I was like, "Huh, this seems like a really important facet of the whole sensory processing issue for a lot of—" like, I'm autistic, so of course I was thinking for autistics, specifically, but for everybody who deals with sensory processing challenges. 

And in the US, it's just kind of lumped under this sensory processing disorder, and usually it's attached to autism or ADHD. I was like, "Wow, there's a whole 'nother— (Laughs) There's a whole 'nother diagnosis process and specific—" 

And I'm like, I know so many people who probably, from what they've described—you know, not to armchair diagnose people—but it's like, wow, I want to email all these people and say, "You should go check this out!" Because it just seems like such an important potential gap in how it's been understood in the States, anyway. So I just really appreciate you explaining your experience with it, because I bet a lot of folks are gonna listen to it and be like, "Oh! I need to go get my kiddo assessed for this." (Laughs)

GAGNON: Well, and the funny thing with Irlen syndrome is I find—and this is gonna sound so strange, but—when I've talked to quite a few parents about it, I see 2 reactions happen. Where one parent will be like wow, this is fantastic, and then another parent almost reacts to it as if it's, like, a gimmick? And I don't know how to kind of explain it other than that, but essentially, where it's like, "Well, does colored paper really help that much?" Or like, "Does, can sunglasses..." and they'll call them sunglasses, "can sunglasses really help that much?"

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Tinted lenses, yeah.

GAGNON: Right? And like, I mean, yeah, they are tinted lenses, yes, they look like sunglasses. So to me, you know, mixing up the terminology doesn't really offend me too much, but it does make a difference. And when you're a kid or an adult and you're in an office for 8 hours, if you can stop a headache from happening by 20% or, you know, for you to get it 2 hours later in tee day, that builds up so much over time.

SULLIVAN: It really does.

GAGNON: Right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so to me, you know, even if it just helps me by 20%, or by even more than that, right? Like, to me, it's so worth it. So I always think it's always worth giving it a go. I mean, always the cheaper option is to play around with colored paper at first, and then to go look for tinted lenses and things. But you'll even see kids, like, where they will be drawn to certain sunglass colors, and they'll love them and not want to take off the sunglasses, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah..

GAGNON: And so some kids naturally kind of know, and sort of attempt to fix the issue themselves without realizing. And it comes off as, like, a quirky thing that the kid does.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah!

GAGNON: But yeah, I really wish Irlen syndrome was known about a lot more since so many people with neurodiversities do actually have it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. The statistics that you mentioned are really high, and I'm totally with you on, if it's 20% more of your energy that you get back, or 20% more of your day that you are not feeling awful, that's a huge amount.

And I'm also just thinking, I feel like it was in one of Temple Grandin's books, like, 10 or 15 years ago, where she was talking about... You know, what are some basic things you can do to help autistic youth? And she was like, just go to the store and try on a bunch of sunglasses, and find the one that reduces light sensitivity for you. And thinking about what you're saying, now, I'm like, huh! Maybe there's another example of, you know, this kind of conflation of Irlen syndrome with autistic sensory processing disorder. That's really, really helpful. I think a lot of people are going to get a lot of value from hearing that from you, so thank you so much for sharing it with us.

What school accommodations helped most with Irlen syndrome?

You talked a little bit about how school and your ability to do the higher level school was affected by dyslexia and Irlen syndrome, but were there any specific things that you had trouble with? And I'm asking more for parents that might have kiddos like you were. Are there patterns of things that you struggled with in school, or accommodations that you had access to that helped? Or things that would have helped, that maybe you didn't get?

GAGNON: Just to give people perspective, I’m 30 years old, so I went to school quite a long time ago; I'm sure things have changed since then. But one of the things that really was challenging is the underfunding that schools get. So, I did find that accommodations could sometimes be first-come, first-serve.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: I think that has changed a little bit.

When I went to the learning disabled school, when I had an exam, I had a physical person sit beside me and read the exam to me, and I would have a physical person to scribe for me. That was so helpful and so freeing compared to... Back in the day, we had, like, tapes? So [compared] to, then, having your exam on a tape. (Laughs) So to have an actual person be able to sit there and read it to you is amazing. And I think, as well, for me, to have it... I really hope that nowadays they do it on MP3s and allow students to be able to adjust the speed of the reader.

SULLIVAN: Oh gosh, yeah.

GAGNON: Yeah. Because, you know - I listen to Audible all the time, and for me, easily double speed.

SULLIVAN: Yep, me too! I'm one of them.

GAGNON: Most books. 

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

GAGNON: Yeah! Right? And so if we're skilled with that, if that's a way that we can speed ourselves up, then that should be given to us, meanwhile than have it to play at whatever speed the reader is at. Because sometimes you get a reader that's really slow.

SULLIVAN: Really slow.

GAGNON: (Laughs) Like, really slow.

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) Yeah.

GAGNON: And it's painful to sit through a really long exam and do that. And you know that this person who's reading it is eating into your time to process and answer the questions. 

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

School accommodations versus work accommodations 

GAGNON: So I think, being able to adjust your speed. But the biggest thing I... Ok, so, the one thing I wish, that I think the school system failed me at, is I think accommodations to help children learn to read and pass school is great, but we also need to think of: What are accommodations that we can give the students that they will also get in the workplace?

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

GAGNON: Because there doesn't seem to be an overlap. Like, a ton of the accommodations that I got as a child, you do not get the minute you go to work.

SULLIVAN: Yeah! Yeah.

GAGNON: Or if you go to university sometimes, right? And so I think that there needs to be this conversation between, like, the government who kind of controls the accommodations that are in the workplace, and the government that controls education. And they need to have a chat and say, like, ok, what are the accommodations that will overlap? Because no one's given me extra time for anything as an adult, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: Which helped me so much on exams, and I don't want that taken away from me, but... I need accommodations that also help me as an adult, and to be taught how to ask for accommodations as an adult.

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

GAGNON: So, for example, in high school, when I went... So I went from this beautiful, learning disability friendly school to, all of the sudden, high school, where the learning disability department was literally the size of the janitor's closet. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so, you know, and things coming first-come, first-serve, and when you ask teachers for accommodations, you kind of knew that you were a pain in the butt. And so you kind of had to be like, (Shrinks head and shoulders inward, tiny voice) "Oh, excuse me, miss, please, if it's not too much trouble," you know. "Oh, blah-blah." You had to, like, almost make yourself small, in order to ask for accommodations. Meanwhile, as an adult, the number 1 thing I learned—and it took me way too long to learn this—is to stop asking. And saying "this is what I need," and to not ask for it. And to be like, "Yeah, no problem, I will do that for you, I will just need this, this, this, and this."

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm. Yeah.

GAGNON: Right? And so it comes from a place of confidence and power, and this needs to be taught at such a young age. And, like, that practice of being able to... not "assert yourself," but... maybe that's the word. 

SULLIVAN: Yeah! But assert yourself because you deserve those things, because they should just be part and parcel of what you're given in a basic respect kind of way, right?

GAGNON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: [Rather] than you're asking for extra or you're getting more than somebody else is, right?

GAGNON: Yeah, exactly.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Thank you so much, that's... I think I basically just agree with everything you said. I work a lot on helping folks set boundaries and assert themselves as adults, because I completely agree that, in school, a lot of us are taught to be small. Especially if you're a woman or woman-presenting person or [have] grown up that way. We are taught to be small, and we're not always supported, or even respected, when we make ourselves big and say "I need this"—even though that's what you're gonna have to do as an adult, and at work, and when you're parenting other kids you're gonna have to be able to say "I need this for my child, I need this for myself."

So I think that a lot of... I really love seeing schools and local programming that is now dedicated to helping youth become more assertive and be willing to say what they need. And to understand what they need, because that's a piece of it too, is that you don't know what you need until you figure out how to make things work. So, like, that development of youth and young adults to be able to assert is so important. And you're right, it's not something we get in school at all. So I think that's such a good point. 

GAGNON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. 

What is Socolo and why is colored paper so important?

Can we move into Socolo? Because I'm so excited for... and you've talked about it a little bit. So you started this business partially founded out of your needs as somebody with dyslexia and somebody with Iren syndrome, and exactly how you described, with the color being really important in how you are able to perceive language, and to read. So, can you tell us a little bit about your business, and what you do, and how it plays into your background?

GAGNON: Yeah! So, essentially, like... Ok, so what I've made isn't new, so I'm not gonna pretend like it is. One of the things I found most helpful is having colored paper. And I did find that, when I went into the workplace, oftentimes when I'd be writing on colored paper, one, it was like, nearly impossible to find colored paper notebooks that were designed for... not children learning how to read and write. You know, and those notebooks have a place, and I'm really glad for it, but they tend to be of cheaper quality, they tend to be very throw-away and not designed for longevity, and they're just not practical for -

SULLIVAN: Adults.

GAGNON: - an adult who needs to write, you know, multiple pages, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: So all that I could find was, like, a pad of paper that had lines on it, but it was one of those pads where you could just, like, tear away at the top.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: So, and, you know, being dyslexic, like, we are prone to be a bit messy and disorganized. (Laughs) So it just, it didn't work for me, I needed pages that would stay in a book. And I just found, like, my boss didn't quite like it, I always got a bit of side-eye. It was always seen as childish and just not professional.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so, when I could find a notebook, I found that I could never find the color that was right for me, but also, I could never... It was always a company that would have it for a season, and then it would disappear. And so, like, my needs aren't a trend; I need them all year round. So yeah, I just got really frustrated being like, I'm 30 years old, why can I not... Well, at the time, I was, like, 28. But I was like, "Why can I not find a notebook that works for me?"

SULLIVAN: Mm-hm.

GAGNON: So I started developing it. And essentially, I knew I wanted to create a notebook that had the most overlap possible, right? So, because I know lots of people with neurodiversities have Irlen syndrome or visual stress, I knew colored paper, absolutely. Like, white paper needs to go. 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: There's enough of that out there. And so colored paper was in. And so then, I just started researching. And so, I make all of the lines monochromatic, so if the page is pink, you'll have dark pink lines on it. I make the lines as thin as possible, as the printer will let me. And the reason why I do this is so, when you write on the page, the letters don't look like they're connecting so much. And so they're kind of treated more as a guide rather than, like, here is a hard line and something visual.

So that helps. I've also went with, like, really thick paper. So part of the issue with colored paper is, it's a bit, like, transparent. 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so you have to go quite thick in order to make it not ghost. My paper is at 120 GSM when most notebooks are around 100, 90 GSM. So, like, definitely a bit thicker.

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

GAGNON: And my goal with the whole design was, when a neurodivergent person goes into a workplace or, like, university with this notebook, I want a neurotypical person to come up to them and be like, "Wow, that's a really beautiful notebook, where did you get it?" not "Why are you writing on colored paper?" 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: Right? And so it was all this comfort and— You know, neurotypical people are more than welcome to buy my notebooks, I would love it.

SULLIVAN: (Laughs) Of course!

GAGNON: Right? But definitely, everything's designed for a neurodivergent mind. And so I started with dyslexia and Irlen syndrome because that's what I had, and I just sort of figured, "Well, if no one buys them, then at least I have, like, a lifetime supply of notebooks."

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

GAGNON: But I'm now working on notebooks for the autism community and, as well, for ADHD. And I plan to just keep on expanding as much as possible. So whenever anyone reaches out to me with an idea, or saying something that they with was made or something that they find, that they had as a kid, that doesn't work for them as an adult anymore but they kind of need something similar, I take note of all of that. So if anyone wants to reach out and has ideas, I am more than happy to have them. And I will try to make them, right?

SULLIVAN: That's fantastic, thanks so much! So your products are used in the workplace a lot, because that's a place where folks don't always have access to accommodations they need, and the colored paper can really help. Are there other accommodations or changes that you'd like to see in workplaces or in schools that would offer more support for people like you with Irlen syndrome or dyslexia, or other neurodivergences or disabilities? That was a broad question, but let me know what you think.

How could workplaces support dyslexics better?

GAGNON: Yeah, so. One of the areas that I struggled with the most in the workplace is, like, workplace politics, right? And so with Irlen syndrome, one of the best things you can do for a person with Irlen syndrome is to ask them—and someone who's dyslexic; actually, anyone who's neurodiverse—like, where in the office is a good place for you to sit? Right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: Because oftentimes, sitting near—especially, I feel, with dyslexia—sitting near a busy hallway or, like, a conference door, you know, where people are coming in and out a lot... I can't hear my own thoughts, right? But with Irlen syndrome, I actually needed to sit near a window. A place where hopefully I can have blinds, so I can control the light of it, but also so I don't have fluorescent lighting right above my head.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

GAGNON: Or for the office to be willing to take away the fluorescent lighting above my head. But the window is, like, my dream spot. You know, I'm very lucky that sunlight doesn't affect me too, too badly. I mean, if it was a really, really bright, sunny side of the office, you know, that would be a problem.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: But you know, like, the north side of the office would be great!

SULLIVAN: Yeah!

GAGNON: A north-facing window. So, yeah. For me, as an intern, I was working for this office that was really progressive. They were this tech company, and had really great workplace culture, and I was like, "Wow, this is gonna be like working at a mini Google." (Both laugh) Right? And they were great on so many fronts, but one thing was, like, office politics really got in the way. And so, when I was there, they gave me this beautiful window desk. And I thought it was because they were accommodating me, but it turns out that was the only desk that they had available, because they were in the middle of moving offices. And someone got really upset about it. And so I was there for about a month, and finally someone spoke up, got really upset, and apparently it was, like, a big deal.

SULLIVAN: Wow.

GAGNON: And how dare an intern sit near a window. And so they ended up moving me to a lunch table.

SULLIVAN: Huh!

GAGNON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: That sucks! I'm so sorry.

GAGNON: So, like, you know? And as an intern, you're kind of... like, you feel really lucky to get that job, and especially as a neurodiverse intern, it was really hard for me to get a job, or to get interviews.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

GAGNON: I had a spelling mistake on my resume for so long. And, like, both of my parents, English is not their first language. I didn't really have enough people that were fantastic spellers to edit my resume, and so for like 6 months I was giving out resumes that had a spelling mistake on it and not getting callbacks, not realizing it was because I made 1, literally 1 spelling mistake.

SULLIVAN: Yes. Yeah.

GAGNON: Right? And it's just, it's rude and heartbreaking. And so you're kind of in this position where you're just like, "Okay," like, "I'll do anything to get this job. So I'll let all my accommodations go for the 3 months," even though I told the office what I need. And they were upset that I was wearing my (Air quotes) "sunglasses" inside; wearing a hat's not completely socially acceptable. And you know, like, I'm not saying that to ignore social norms is ok, so you know, when I would meet someone, of course, hat and glasses come off, I shake their hands. I do think people being able to see my whole face is quite important. But then, yeah! Sunglasses come back on at some point, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah! Yeah!

GAGNON: Or like, my tinted lenses. And so that was a really hard thing for people to understand and get around because of, simply, office politics. Like, it wasn't even that my manager had an issue with me sitting near windows. [It was] other people in the office that made a huge fuss about it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: Luckily they moved to a new location where, like, every seat was a window seat; it was fantastic.

SULLIVAN: Oh my gosh.

GAGNON: But yeah, so. And then another thing is, when you're an intern, you know, every interview, I would disclose, I have dyslexia, I have Irlen syndrome, this is sort of what I need, these are areas that I struggle with, these are areas that I'm really good at. Because I think it's always good to lead with both. And yeah, and so I would get an internship, but then you're an intern. So they think you're gonna be there for three months, they can see you as cheap labor, and so they don't really want to accommodate you.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And so I would sit there and really struggle through the 3 months, and really just, like, put my head down like yeah, ok, whatever I need to do to get this job, I'll just do it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And then you'd get the job, and you'd bring up, "Guess what, I still need accommodations!"

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And, you know, and the conversation would be like, "Well, you didn't need it for the last 3 months, so why do you need it now?" So all the sudden you're in a position where you have to really prove to them that you need accommodations, when you shouldn't have to prove it, and they really should have been accommodating me as an intern. Right? And these are things that I legally have rights to, but all of the sudden I'm in this very vulnerable position, where... And again, I'm invested in the job, right? Like, I've worked so hard for 3 months that, you know, it's sort of like, "Well, how much do I push?" And I know that there's gonna be a spelling mistake on my resume, so, like, when am I gonna get my next job interview?

So then, you know, you're stuck in this really vulnerable position. So I think workplace culture, and creating a workplace that is based on inclusivity, is so much better and stronger. Like, I almost... I'm all for accommodations, but I think we need to teach businesses, and universities and places of work, that accommodations benefit everyone; it's not just for the single person that needs it. Right?

SULLIVAN: Yes.

GAGNON: This is why I preach so much about inclusive design and just inclusivity overall because, if we can create a really inclusive world where I don't even have to ask for accommodations, I'm not stuck in these vulnerable positions, where... 

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: Right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I think your story really demonstrates, well, a couple of things, but first, just the power differential of a disabled person coming into the workplace. Even if you're not straight out of school, right, even if you have some experience, needing to be able to prove that you can do the thing, and then having people not trust you or believe you when you say "No, I need these accommodations." But also, your point about the spelling error on your resume—I think that's a really good example of how much ableism has sunk itself into our society in some ways, right?

And this is, like, ableism and also to some degree educational expectations, like how you're expected to show society that you're good enough is by doing things like spelling right, or knowing how to do a resume, or wearing your sunglasses not indoors. Right? Like you said, social norms are important to some extent—they bond us, they create ways that we can all communicate together—but when you exclude folks based on just social norms alone, like a spelling error or wearing sunglasses, then, to some degree, it can be ableist, because there are lots of reasons people have spelling errors not only related to education level or ADHD or dyslexia. But also, you're losing all the talents and all the abilities of these people based on kind of a silly thing, like them wearing sunglasses indoors or 1 word being misspelled. Like, that word being misspelled isn't your whole person and everything that you can add to the society and the community, right?

So those judgments based on little things are just so harmful to society as a whole. Again, to you, as an individual, obviously, very much so. But also, to your point about accommodations helping everyone and inclusivity helping everybody. Like, you are missing out on so much talent and ability because you're making judgments based on spelling on the resume, and, like, for autistic people, eye contact in the interview. That kind of stuff. So I really appreciate you sharing that with us, because I think it's just so demonstrative of so many of the issues that so many of us are struggling with in day-to-day trying to get work, and trying to make a living and make a community here.

Yeah.

GAGNON: Right. 

LinkedIn's 'Dyslexic Thinking' skill

Ok so, LinkedIn has now added Dyslexic Thinking as a skill set, and I have such mixed feelings about this.

SULLIVAN: I haven't heard of this!

GAGNON: Yeah, so this is a pretty new thing. In the UK it was shouted about quite a bit, because right now we have a politician that's really fighting to have everyone tested for dyslexia and to really get people tested while they're within the education system. But yeah, so Dyslexic Thinking is now a skill on LinkedIn. And I think, like, when people talk about the strengths of all these different neurodiversities, right, they want the strengths.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: And they love it! But. They don't think about all of the other things that come with that, right? And it's like, if you hire me as a creative to have my beautiful 3D thinking, and my creative problem-solving, and the way that I can generate ideas like this (Snaps fingers) and just never seem to run out, right? You love that part about me, and that's why you're hiring me. ...Then allow me to have the spelling mistakes!

SULLIVAN: Yeah! You have to have both!

GAGNON: You know, like, "It comes with it!" Right, like, one doesn't come without the other. And what a lot of people don't realize, also, about dyslexia, is that it affects my speech so much, and it affects people's speech so much. I did a quick Google search the other day on dyslexia and seeing what came up, and everywhere, it's like, "reading and writing disorder," like, "reading and writing disability," and that's the first line on all of the Google things. And nowhere does it say on the first line that it's an information processing disorder. Right? And so, yeah, it affects reading and writing, but it also affects speech; it affects so many different aspects. One office that I worked at, they loved my ideas, and they loved my creativity, but they hated when I was in front of a client, because it was a high-pressure, stressful situation, then, yeah, my words would get jumbled. I would often flip sentences without even realizing it.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: I never realized how much dyslexia actually affects my speech until I started getting on social media and filming myself more. (Laughs)

SULLIVAN: Yes. 

GAGNON: Right?

SULLIVAN: I understand that, as a podcaster. (Laughs) Yeah!

GAGNON: It's just I don't pick it up! Yeah! And so you know I think there needs to be more education on the diversity of different neurodiversities. But also, like... you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want... 

Yes, hire neurodivergent people, and I really encourage people: Hire them. They are fantastic people, they bring so much to an office space. But you gotta be okay with them being neurodiverse!

SULLIVAN: Right. We are still, in fact, neurodivergent! I completely agree with you! And that's one of my sort of ongoing pushes, at least with communication, is that—and again, I mostly work with autistic folks, so—autistic communication is different, in many ways, than neurotypical communication, and that's good. There are benefits to both kinds. But it's not just that autistics should have to learn neurotypical norms, it's that neurotypicals should have to learn our norms, too, because they're good at different things. And I think that needs to be sort of widened out to, "All kinds of communication need to be welcome in an inclusive space." And even if we're not the most articulate sometimes—and I know I get really inarticulate when I get excited, I also flip words, I lose English very quickly when I'm tired and I just can't come up with the word I mean, and there's a lot of, like, this hand motion kind of stuff (Pantomimes moving things around as if trying to find words in the air)—

GAGNON: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: And I think that's just part of the neurodivergent— Part and parcel! And, you know, some neurotypicals do it too, but it's seen as kind of a cute, weird thing that they do, as opposed to just a norm. But we do it every day.

And so, I completely agree with you, I'm just, like, taking what you said and rephrasing it, because I'm like, "Yes!" I think that, if you want to work with us, we bring so much to the table, we have so many talents. But you have to take our quote-unquote "weaknesses" too, or the ways that we're different from you as a neurotypical. Right? Because if you want all of our strengths... like, we're people. We are complex, we are holistic, you know, people with lots and lots of traits. And all of those traits are not always going to be to the neurotypical norms. So that's such an important point, I'm so glad you brought that up.

GAGNON: Thank you.

Learn more about Chantal Gagnon and Socolo

SULLIVAN: Well, thanks so much for everything today, Chantal. Can you tell us where listeners can learn more about you, and Socolo, and everything you do, so that they can go find some of your amazing stuff after they get off this podcast?

GAGNON: Yeah, of course! Easiest way is our website— Well, sorry. It's just me. My website. Socolo—

SULLIVAN: I do that too.

GAGNON: I keep on saying "we" to try to make it sound bigger, but I realized I need to stop doing that, because it is just me. And it's hard.

SULLIVAN: I do it too! Because I'm like "Neurodiverging," "us!" and it's like no, it's just me. I'm, it's just me here. So. You're not alone in that!

GAGNON: Thank you. So, yeah, so Socolo.co.uk, it's spelled S-O-C-O-L-O. And, yeah, you can find me also on Instagram and Tiktok; both of the handles are the same, so it's @so.co.lo, so that's kind of the best way to find me. I have a little extra bit, do you mind? 

SULLIVAN: No! Not at all.

GAGNON: You can always cut it.

SULLIVAN: Please tell us all the things. Tell us all the things.

World Unmasking Day

GAGNON: So, in the UK, there was some things that were happening in the politics, and it just became very, very clear that so many people didn't understand what dyslexia was and that dyslexia, like... Masking in dyslexia tends to be called "stealth dyslexia," but essentially...

So, Socolo and this influencer called Girls With Dyslexia, we've paired up and we've decided to declare May 25th Unmasking Day. So we're asking everyone with all neurodiversities to unmask for a day, and we're trying to create awareness in workplaces, and schools, and basically everywhere, how much we actually try to fit in, and how much the world needs to accommodate us a little bit more and be a little bit more inclusive of [us]. So, people can participate as little or as much as they're comfortable with. So, for example, I'm not gonna spell-check my emails for that day -

SULLIVAN: Yay! (Claps)

GAGNON: - because it's too exhausting. And I'm excited to have a day off from it!

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

GAGNON: So yeah, this was actually inspired by a comment that I got on one of my videos on how exhausting emailing actually is, and how, when people say people who leave grammatical and spelling mistakes in emails are lazy, and I was like, well, I spell-checked that email for, like, over an hour, so I don't think I'm lazy.

SULLIVAN: There's no such thing as lazy.

GAGNON: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: It's just not a thing, I'm sorry neurotypical people, it's not a thing.

GAGNON: It doesn't exist.

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for sharing that. Is there, if you can, send me a link, I'll put it in the show notes, folks. So Chantal's information on her website and everything will be in the show notes too, so please check that out, but also, send me information on the Unmasking Day so we can get people to participate, that sounds amazing.

GAGNON: Yeah, please join in! We're asking anyone, tag us, we'll send them photos and things to have. So, yeah, please join. We've come up with this quite quickly, so we have about a month to get our ducks in a row, but.

SULLIVAN: To get it moving! Get it moving.

GAGNON: Yeah!

SULLIVAN: But we can do it. That's awesome! Well thanks so much for joining us today, and for being so sharing with your experience and educating so many people about these really important topics. I'm so excited for folks to hear this, and I really appreciate you being here.

GAGNON: Thank you so much for having me. I've had so much fun, and it's been such a pleasure to get to know you more.

SULLIVAN: Yay! Thank you.

Conclusion:

SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for joining me and Chantal on the Neurodiverging Podcast today. I hope that you learned something. I hope it was of value to you. If it was, please go ahead and check out patreon.com/neurodiverging and become a member and get all the good behind the scenes resources.

Also, please check out Chantal's website. Links are [above] but it's Socolo.co.uk and it is fantastic stuff she has there. Also, Im putting links [above] to World Unmasking Day. I hope you will come and at least see what we've got going on, even if you are not able to participate yourself. It is a big ask for some people and certainly not everybody is able to be out with their neurodivergence, which is unfortunate but true. And I honor that, and so does Chantal. But if it is something you're interested in participating or at least in supporting, please go check out those links. It's going to be really great! I'm really excited, honestly, frankly, really really excited to see how different people, neurodivergent people unmask because obviously it's something we talk a lot about with autism, and it's something we talk a lot about with dyslexia, but I only have a couple of neurodivergences, certainly not all of them myself, so I'm honestly really excited to see what I learn from how other people are masking day to day, and just what they're going through. I think it's a great opportunity to learn more about the human condition and that's what I'm here for.

So anyway, I hope you'll go check those out. Thank you again to my patrons for supporting this episode of Neurodiverging and I will see you in the next one. And please remember, we are all in this together.

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