by Miceál O’Hurley
New York – Siena Castellon (18), whose family originated from Swinford, Co. Mayo, has been named to the 2020 Class of the United Nations (UN) Young Leaders for Sustainable Development Goals. The 2020 class, some 17 young leaders from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Brazil, Senegal, China, Australia and other nations around the globe, represents the UN’s recognition of young changemakers who are leading efforts to combat the world’s most pressing issues and whose leadership is catalysing the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“As the UN marks its 75th anniversary during unprecedented times, the 2020 Young Leaders for the SDGs are a clear example of how young people are leading the way in shaping a more sustainable and inclusive future for all,” said Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. “Despite being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, young people around the world continue to demonstrate immense resilience, resourcefulness and leadership in finding innovative solutions to recover better and achieve the SDGs.”
Ms. Castellon joins the 2020 Class, all aged between 18 and 29 years old, representing diverse voices of young people from every region of the world. The UN Young Leaders are collectively responsible for activating millions of young people in support of the SDGs. This group will come together as a community to support efforts to engage young people in the realization of the SDGs both through strategic opportunities with the UN and through their existing initiatives, platforms and networks.
Diplomatic Editor Miceál O’Hurley, and Transition Year Intern Keavy Osborne from Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, had an opportunity to catch-up with Castellon who is studying at her home in London for a special Diplomat Ireland interview.
Siena, firstly, let us and everyone at Diplomat Ireland congratulate you on being recognised by the UN as a Young Leader. Ireland is very proud of you. Tell us, please, how did you come to be named to the 2020 class?
When I first learned about the Young Leaders for the SDGs initiative, I was excited about the initiative, but discouraged by the odds. The previous class had over 8,000 applicants apply for 17 places. However, it was mid-February, weeks into lockdown and given the state of the world, the decision didn’t feel so overreachingly ambitious. So, I applied. I’m still in disbelief that I was chosen. It goes to show that anything is possible.
What does it mean for you to be presented with this unique opportunity to advocate for the issues that concern you, namely neurodiversity, to a world-wide audience through the centre of world diplomacy at the UN?
It is a momentous opportunity to shine a spot light on neurodiversity. Given that 20% of the global population is neurodiverse, I’m surprised that more isn’t being done to bring this issue to the forefront. Being given the opportunity to advocate for neurodiversity acceptance and equality through the UN will allow me to reach a much larger audience and therefore, have a much great impact.
Tell me about neurodiversity. What is it and why is it important to you?
I believe that neurological differences (such as autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia) are natural variations in the human brain. Unfortunately, our society pathologizes these conditions and focuses on trying to cure them, instead of recognising that some of the greatest innovations have come from people who are neurodivergent.
I want to flip the narrative so that society stops viewing us as defective and starts to embrace and harness our many strengths and talents. With the right support, neurodivergent individuals have the potential to make huge contributions to society. It’s time that more companies and organisations start to recognise and harness our strengths and talents, because our creative approaches and ability to think outside the box are the key to technological advancement and progress.
Your passion for neurodiversity comes from a personal experience. How has dealing with autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxia and ADHD formed your world view and ideas?
Being neurodivergent has shaped who I am. It has given me strengths and advantages. However, I have also had to overcome many obstacles and challenges. Sadly, the greatest difficulties I have face have been due to societal prejudice and discrimination. I was bullied at school for most of my life. It was also a constant battle to get the support and services I needed to be able to flourish at school. These experiences motivated me to become a neurodiversity advocate so that future generations can have positive school experiences.
What led you to create your website, Quantum Leap?
After I was diagnosed with my various learning differences, I began searching online for information and resources that I could use to help me at school. I found that the information and resources were focused on supporting the parents of autistic children or parents of children with learning differences. There were no resources focused on helping us. So, when I was 13, I decided to create a website –www.QLMentoring.com – to provide simple and practical information, as well as tips and tricks on how to succeed in school, for children like me.
Earlier this year you published your first book, The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide. With almost 100 reviews, Amazon.com gives it a consistent 5-star Rating. Are you pleased with how it has been received and what do you hope to achieve by publishing it?
I am very pleased with how it has been received. As someone who is dyslexic, writing a book, yet alone writing one at the age of 16, is not something I would have imagined possible when I was in primary school.
I’m very pleased with how it has been received, especially since it was published on the week we went to lockdown, which meant all the publicity events had to be cancelled.
I wrote the book hoping to help autistic girls who may be struggling or feeling isolated and alone.
I found a profile of The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide on YouTube. What moved you to write it and did you did you find writing it cathartic process as so many authors do in sharing a personal journey?
When I was diagnosed as being autistic, I struggled to find any informative and any practical books about autism in girls. Most of the books were written for autistic boys and were written by adults. Since there were no books specifically written for autistic teen girls I decided to write one. My book – The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic – addresses many of the issues that are unique to autistic girls and contains the type of information and advice I wish I could have benefitted from when I was growing up. But more importantly, I wanted to write an uplifting and empowering book that encouraged autistic girls to embrace who they are.
In some ways it was cathartic, in others, writing it highlighted how far we still have to go in terms of society’s understanding and support of the autistic community, as well as gender equality. There is still a huge gender imbalance in the way that autism is diagnosed, understood and supported. Since girls and women tend to display autism differently than boys and men do, we are still significantly underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed and misunderstood. For example, I am often told that I look “normal.” I also have people question whether I am autistic. These comments and assumptions are based on societal misperceptions of what autism is and what it looks like. I hope that my book helps to broaden people’s definition of autism and to change people’s perceptions so that autistic girls get the support and understanding that they need in order to reach their potential.
Being recognised by the UN’s diplomatic community is an incredible honour. You have received several other awards. What do you experience and feel when learning that you are being honoured?
It is rewarding to be recognised for my advocacy. But to me, the greatest reward happens outside the limelight. I frequently receive emails from autistic girls thanking me for helping them to feel less isolated or alone or from parents letting me know that reading my book has given them insight into how to better understand and support their autistic daughter. I am always touched when people share their experiences with me.
Who are some of the people who inspired you most and why?
I am inspired by people who walk to a different beat and who have defied prejudices and barriers to change the world. Our society places a lot of importance on fitting in and being conventional. But the greatest change and the biggest ideas have come from people who defy societal norms and expectations. Some of the people I admire include: Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama.
There is a nice clip of you receiving a trophy at the European Diversity Awards. With limited opportunities for public appearances and presentations during the Covid-19 pandemic how are you using social media in your messaging and outreach?
The pandemic has forced me to explore platforms I may otherwise have avoided. Since lockdown, I have adapted my advocacy in that I am taking part in more podcasts, and virtual panels and speaker presentations. Ironically, now that virtual events are the norm, my world has become a lot bigger. Since lockdown, I’ve given presentations in Australia, California and Africa.
You have become somewhat of an international celebrity. There aren’t a lot of Irish youth, or youth anywhere for that matter, who can boast of being featured on Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego – Fearless Kids Around the World. How do you leverage celebrity and has it changed you?
In many ways, I’m the least likely person to have come to prominence. I have always shied way from the limelight and from bringing attention to myself. I was the kid who disappeared into the background and that people often forgot was there. I am still that person. It’s just that when I feel passionate about something, like I do about my neurodiversity advocacy, I feel compelled to do everything I can to amplify my message, even if this takes me outside my comfort zone and causes me discomfort.
As a UN Young Leader you are expected to reach out to the global community, change people’s minds and lead people to new solutions. Is there anything about being a diplomat that you find appealing and might you consider it as a career?
To be honest, as someone who is autistic, the idea of being a career diplomat is daunting. Autism is fundamentally a communication and social interaction disorder, which would make the social intricacies involved in being a diplomat extremely challenging for me. Having said that, the idea of being able to change people’s prejudices and misconceptions about people who are autistic greatly appeals to me.
Diplomats use their positions, personal relationships, communications skills and other means to change people’s minds and perceptions on critical issues. Are there any diplomats who have encouraged you or given you advice as to how to best go about using the UN Young Leaders programme for your personal diplomacy for neuro-diversity issues?
No. I don’t actually know any diplomats. To any diplomats reading this interview, I welcome your guidance and advice.
Are you planning any outreach your here in Ireland or have any plans to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other diplomats in Ireland to get your message out?
My Neurodiversity Celebration Week is a global campaign. Over half a million students from nearly 900 schools around the world are taking part. I hope that many more Irish schools take part.
In terms of working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other Irish diplomats, I would love to. I welcome any advice on how to approach them.
Siena, it was a great pleasure for us to be able to talk to you about being a member of the 2020 UN Young Leaders class and get your perspective on the many issues you are addressing. Our publisher, Michael Mulcahy, has asked me to communicate to you a standing invitation to collaborate on your personal diplomacy for neuro-diversity when you next visit Ireland. We are certain the diplomatic corps would warmly receive you when you next visit Dublin. Thank you for the interview and we at Diplomat Ireland wish you all the very best.
Thank you so much for your warm welcome. I hope that one day in the near future, when it is safe to do so, that I will be able to meet you and the diplomatic corps in Ireland in person. In the meantime, I look forward to collaborating with you.