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Neurodiversity in conservation with Lewis Smith

Lewis Smith (pronouns: he/him) is in his fourth year of wildlife conservation at the University of Kent, England, president of the Conservation Society there and was recently diagnosed with ADHD which has been a big part of his journey through this space. Lewis shares his experiences with us today as well as the importance of accommodating and embracing neurodiversity within the wildlife conservation field.

Neurodiversity in conservation with Lewis Smith | #itsawildlife

LEWIS’S JOURNEY

Starting out a career in wildlife conservation is no clear path, and as Lewis shares:

“I didn’t exactly have my wildlife hat on from the get go… and I think it speaks true to sort of who I am as a person and especially with my ADHD and the difficulties that sort of come with it, I’ve never really been clear in what I wanted.”

Lewis grew up loving nature, and spending time outdoors on walks with his Mum. Like so many teenagers, Lewis fell out of love with nature in a way as new interests and priorities arose towards the end of school. Not being a science-y person, Lewis didn’t even consider biology for his a-levels and it fell off the radar.

Lewis applied for psychology at university, changed to English literature and within a week of that had switched again to media studies. It wasn’t until he was doing a media assignment six-months into the course, that Lewis rediscovered wildlife conservation and made the final swap to that.

“I was so relieved when I realized this was what I wanted to do… I do think that there is a huge amount of pressure on young people to finish school and know exactly what they want to do, to force them to choose a career path and stick with it into the workplace.”

Lewis is a firm advocate for pushing aside that pressure and following your own path!

“There’s a huge amount of pressure placed on people but you gotta take steps that are right for you – if you wanna change course, take a gap year, do an apprenticeship, take time off – do it!”

From his experiences, Lewis is a firm believer that nature is an important cure both consciously and subconsciously for the stresses and pressures generated by the society we live in. He explains:

“Spending time in nature is so helpful, it’s a place to reflect and be mindful, and a place where I can be my full self”

As Lewis shares, this is especially helpful for neurodivergent people.

NEURODIVERSITY IN CONSERVATION

There are so many benefits for people on the spectrum of neurodiversity to connect with and spend time in nature, especially those who experience difficulties connecting with the social world that is built around us.

“Interestingly, I feel like I gave met more people who are neurodivergent in conservation than I have my entire life. I find there’s so many people out there with ADHD or maybe autism who don’t necessarily find a place within society but do within nature.”

“For me, being in nature involves letting go of the pressures of society and I think that’s one of the best things for someone who’s neurodivergent, you know, society really isn’t built for people like that – and it’s immensely difficult. So, nature is an outlet, it’s euphoric being able to let loose – be yourself and appreciate what’s around you!”

Lewis has ADHD or attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder, although many people who have ADHD agree this isn’t really the best way of terming it because it’s much more convoluted than that. As Lewis describes it, with ADHD, your brain works differently – in constant motion and it’s difficulty to hold attention and stay organized both physically and internally.

Although it was challenging for Lewis prior to his diagnosis and continues to be a challenge to manage his ADHD, he has come to feel content with it and accept it as part of his identity:

“A lot of people say ADHD is a sort of superpower and it is in a way, because we view the world in such a different light to that of neurotypical people.”

“Society tends to shine a negative limelight on neuro divergent disorders and it’s problematic because these are people who could come up with the next world-saving idea”

Lewis is all about thinking outside the box to solve these global issues for nature and believes neurodivergent people are a critical and often missing part of this picture currently.

And with climate change and global biodiversity loss reaching critical levels, the world has never needed out-of-the-box thinking more than it does now. So, with this in mind, how can we help neurodivergent people to feel comfortable and welcome within the wildlife conservation space?

BEING MORE INCLUSIVE

Three big barriers to accommodating neurodivergent people include:

  • High amounts of pressure on decisions and commitments,
  • Strict time limits and deadlines
  • Heavy reliance on exams and written work for accreditation and recognition in the space

Reducing pressure and extending timelines are a good place to start being more inclusive around daily tasks. And with many roles in wildlife conservation being largely practical and field-based, it might not make sense for all roles to have such a heavy reliance on higher-education in the selection criteria. Lewis also suggests broader reform within the education system to increase and improve the services available for diagnosing and supporting neurodivergent people. Especially with some

And while these things might seem like they need to come from the top down, when examining our attitudes we can often find areas where we can give more help, or remove more pressure or be more inclusive, especially of people who aren’t necessarily well-represented in the wildlife space.

“While many of these things are more general, in conservation specifically, I mean, it’s about making sure have the awareness and acceptance of it, and it’s creating a space where people who love nature want to get involved and can feel welcome.”

“And that extends beyond just being neuro divergent to all groups – making a space safe for people of color, for the LGBTQ+ community, for neuro divergent people, for women.”

And Lewis’s biggest piece of advice for all people who love nature and are interested in working in wildlife conservation? It’s simple, he says:

“Just be yourself”

KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Lewis? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation or follow his adventures on Instagram @wildlewf.

What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!

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