Zahra Husein Spotlight: 'Nothing About Us Without Us' - Illuminating the Autistic Experience

Posted on Thursday, May 16th, 2024

Zahra Husien

Zahra's academic journey resonates with passion and resolve. Beginning her undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph, she now charts a course toward a Master's in Applied Social Psychology, driven by a singular goal: to illuminate the Autistic experience. Guided by the powerful ethos of "nothing about us, without us," her interests in qualitative methods, neurodevelopmental disabilities, critical disability scholarship, and mental "health" or mad studies converge to weave a rich tapestry of understanding. 

What is your program and area of research?   

I am a second year MA student in the Applied Social Psychology program. My main area of research is qualitative work on Autistic people’s experiences. I am conducting an autoethnography of Autistic camouflaging and working under the supervisor of Dr. Jeffery Yen on this project. Camouflaging or “masking” is when Autistic people change their behaviour to hide their Autistic identity in order to avoid ableism or discrimination.  

What do you wish your colleagues/friends/family knew about your work?    

As an Autistic person myself, I want people to understand Autism as an identity to be proud of. I also want to create space for viewing Autism as a social identity similar to gender or ethnic identity rather than just a diagnostic category. Most importantly, I want people to know that Autism is not a disease that needs to be cured. Autism is a neurological difference, and as Autistic people, we need support and appreciation to thrive. To work towards this goal, I chose to use autoethnography as a method because it allows me to share pieces of my own story that I hope will resonate with other Autistics so we can work on greater acceptance of ourselves and building a stronger community. 

How would you explain your discipline and/or research to someone who wasn't in your program?     

My research explores how Autistic people try to fit in or appear “normal” by masking in the face of stigmatizing narratives that describe Autistic people as abnormal. Masking can be uncomfortable and exhausting to perform. It can lead to feeling burnt out, lonely, and even delayed accommodations. By asking people about their experiences with masking we can shed light on people’s reasons for masking and ultimately work towards finding a solution that allows Autistic people to express themselves authentically.  

Have you learned/discovered anything that has surprised you since beginning your studies/this initiative at Guelph? If so, what?    

 The University of Guelph has taught me the value of qualitative research. Quantitative methods dominate the field of Psychology however, they are limited in capturing the deeper nuances and complexities of people’s experiences.  

I have also learned how many qualitative methods are focused specifically on critiquing existing power structures such as societal ableism. They do this through giving voice back to marginalized groups and explicitly challenging knowledge we may take for granted. Overall, Guelph has given me more tools to approach pressing issues in the Autism community.  

What is your proudest accomplishment?   

I have presented in two symposiums at the Canadian Psychological Association convention. My most recent presentation was titled “Autoethnography as an approach to studying Autistic experiences” and was an examination of how autoethnography can be utilized as an alternative approach to studying the Autistic experience, specifically Autistic camouflaging. Autoethnographies draw on the researcher’s experience to analyze connections between being Autistic and the broader social, cultural, and political contexts with respect to camouflaging.  

What drives you?    

“however far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself—ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography” (Nietzsche, 1994, p. 238). 

I had an old supervisor tell me a lot of research in Psychology ends up being “me”search. So, what drives me is both my personal experiences and my passion for the neurodiversity movement which promotes acceptance and appreciation for neurological differences such as ADHD and Autism.  

Is there a fun or interesting fact about yourself that you’d like to share? 

Many Autistic people have special interests. These interests are usually something they are very passionate and/or knowledgeable about. One of my special interests is tropical plant taxonomy. My favourite plant at the moment is the thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum (because it’s fun to say!).  

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