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Alexa Lebr贸n-Cruz '22

Lebr贸n-Cruz is the lead author on an article that looks at essentialist Beliefs and neurodivergent identification
"While the literature primarily focuses on how dominant group members use essentialist beliefs to oppress others, there is a pocket of research looking at how subordinated group members used essentialist beliefs as a tool for empowerment."

"While the literature primarily focuses on how dominant group members use essentialist beliefs to oppress others, there is a pocket of research looking at how subordinated group members used essentialist beliefs as a tool for empowerment."

,鈥 an article by Alexa Lebr贸n-Cruz 鈥22 and Assistant Professor of Psychology Ariana Orvell was published in the November Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General.

鈥淓ssentialism is the belief that members of categories share an innate, underlying 鈥榚ssence鈥.  Having these beliefs about members of social categories (e.g., gender, race) has been associated with negative outcomes like stereotyping, discrimination, and prejudice. But minority group members can sometimes use essentialist beliefs to validate their identities,鈥 explain the authors in the article.

In their research, Lebr贸n-Cruz and Orvell focused on people who identify as "neurodivergent"鈥攊ndividuals whose brains function differently from what is considered 鈥榯ypical鈥 (such as those with Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, etc.). 

Lebr贸n-Cruz began the research with Orvell as an undergrad and continued to work on it as lead author after graduating magna cum laude with honors in psychology.

In the below Q&A Lebr贸n-Cruz talks about the research, the opportunities she had as an undergrad at 今日吃瓜, and what she鈥檚 been up to since graduating.

What can you tell us about the research?

This article arose from my senior thesis in psychology. I was interested in studying the label 鈥渘eurodivergent;鈥 self-labeling as neurodivergent coincides with the beliefs that your brain exists on a natural spectrum of brains. I was interested in how people who use the label might use it to accept the differences they are often born with.

Dr. Orvell directed me to the topic of essentialism, which is a long-studied concept in psychology that looks at people鈥檚 beliefs around whether members of a category share an innate 鈥渆ssence.鈥

While the literature primarily focuses on how dominant group members use essentialist beliefs to oppress others, there is a pocket of research looking at how subordinated group members use essentialist beliefs as a tool for empowerment. With Dr. Orvell鈥檚 help, we arrived at the more specific question, 鈥淒o neurodivergent individuals 鈥渆ssentialize鈥 this part of their identity, and does this predict positive outcomes?鈥 When we started, Dr. Orvell told my thesis group that as a lab, we would design solid, sound research studies that would have the potential to be published. I was very inspired by her talk and took the goal of authorship very seriously.

How did you test your hypothesis?

Based on my own experience and the literature, I predicted that having essentialist beliefs about being neurodivergent would be associated with believing you could accomplish your goals and overcome obstacles鈥攖hat is, self-efficacy. I expected this to be particularly true for people who identified more strongly as neurodivergent. I would meet weekly with my lab to brainstorm my study鈥檚 design and would receive constructive input from Dr. Orvell and my lab mates. We also worked out the plan for recruitment. I was confident that we鈥檇 find our target population on online forums on Reddit or Facebook related to neurodiversity, but I was uncertain of how long it would take to recruit enough people. Our expectations were blown out of the water, and we recorded over 600 responses for our survey in only a matter of days!

Based on our analysis, we found that having essentialist beliefs about being neurodivergent was associated with higher self-efficacy. And, this relationship was stronger for those who more strongly identified as neurodivergent

What are your big takeaways from the research and why do you think it鈥檚 important?

The major reason I wanted to pursue this question was because of how the label 鈥渘eurodivergent鈥 is sometimes invalidated by parents and clinicians. I believe it is helpful, and I also wanted to conduct this research because, although there is a lot of research asking people in the lives of those with psychological disorders about that person鈥檚 impact (e.g., how stressful is it to have a child with autism?)鈥 we don鈥檛 often ask the people with those disorders about their personal experiences. It was also important to me for this project to ask neurodivergent-identifying people directly about their thoughts. 

Similarly, we know from researching what others think about people with psychological disorders (and disability in general) that they are often negatively stereotyped. For example, ADHD people may be stereotyped as 鈥渓azy鈥, even though they have issues with executive functioning and can have difficulties organizing and initiating tasks. Neurodivergent people are, therefore, labeled as incompetent, inept, and unable to be successful. I wanted self-efficacy to be the primary outcome of the study because it has to do with beliefs about what you can accomplish. If calling yourself neurodivergent and viewing your neurodiversity as an essential part of your identity makes you more confident in your ability to achieve goals, then this could be one way to combat prescriptions of failure. Obviously, this speaks to a larger, systemic issue (i.e., why as a society do we give up on neurodivergent people, even directly telling them they can鈥檛 do anything/are worthless?). Although our findings are correlational, it gives me hope that the neurodivergent label could potentially be a helpful thing, rather than harmful.  

What did you learn about the research process through this experience?

I continued to work on the project even after graduating, because I have always wanted to be an author, and to publish something important. 

Writing for a peer-reviewed psychology journal was pretty intense but doable. For example, after we received our first round of reviews, the editor at JEP:G suggested we condense our manuscript into a brief report format, which forced us to assess how to present our research in a condensed, focused way. I also learned that as part of the review process, you have the opportunity to recommend experts in the field to give feedback on your manuscript. It was daunting to imagine people who were experts in this area commenting on my work. It was so gratifying to receive constructive and positive feedback from them.

I鈥檝e also presented this research at two conferences, and Dr. Orvell and I wrote a blog post about it. It鈥檚 amazing to be able to share this research with others. Overall, this was a great learning experience and something I feel very proud of.

Other than this research, what have you been doing since you graduated?

Since graduating, I was accepted to an Autism Research Fellowship at Yale. I am now doing neurology research at Penn (as a research assistant) in order to be closer to family, especially my brother with autism. My goal is to pursue higher education and continue working with neurodivergent individuals, both in a therapeutic and research capacity.

What advice do you have for current students interested in doing research?

Start thinking about what interests you, look for opportunities and resources everywhere, and then go for it. If you don't know where to start, you can ask professors in your department whether any opportunities are available. In my case, I knew I was interested in using research as a tool for advocacy and improving communities. During my junior year, BMC's psychology department had sent out a listing for a research position through Drexel that aligned with my interests, and I was ultimately hired to work for two different labs! I worked with them during the school year, and was even able to continue into the summer thanks to BMC's Summer Science program. I am eternally grateful to BMC for helping to jumpstart my career.



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