On Being Autistic In Academia

AutismIn this guest blog post, Stella S. (a pseudonym) shares her experiences as an autistic academic, and offers advice for other autistic scholars (and everyone else) on communication, networking, and navigating academia while being visibly different.

The Impact Of Being Autistic In Academia

I’m autistic.

There, I said it in an academic space for the first time and even though I am writing under a pseudonym, it feels good. I was diagnosed later in life, after I became a PhD researcher (which I still am). Just because it took longer for me to know does not mean that you should call me “high-functioning” or “mild” or any other word that is supposed to make you feel better about my autism. I only identify as “autistic,” thank you very much.

I don’t personally know anyone in academia who is openly autistic. Due to this, I find it hard sometimes to make sense of where I belong.

This made me want to write a little bit about some of the ways that academia makes me feel inadequate and how I am trying to mitigate this. I hope that that this may make some people more aware of the issues autistics face. I pass as a neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) and no one in my professional life knows about my autism. This has an effect on my well-being and my mental health, though. As I have started to make sense of my own narrative, I have often felt guilt over my autism. Being publicly autistic does not feel safe due to the amount of people who see it as an excuse or a trend. It is very difficult to consciously care for myself while also having to strain myself to do certain things because I cannot explain why it is causing me distress.

I feel that if more people knew about what it is like to be an autistic academic, they may take us into account. This may, in turn, make us feel more comfortable to be publicly autistic in academic spaces. You should note that autistics have widely different profiles in abilities, so I am not suggesting that my difficulties will be shared at large. Some of my difficulties will also be shared by neurotypicals: the difference between you and me, though, will be their amount, their intensity, and the impact they have.

For this particular entry I will talk specifically about communication, networking, and being visibly different. Although the advice I will suggest is based on my own experience, I am hoping that people of varying strengths and weaknesses, autistic or not, will find them helpful.

Communication

I thrive in clear communication. What I found upon entering the world of academia, though, is a lot of rubbish talk, politics talk, and talk that suggests power relations, to name but a few. I particularly struggle in face-to-face communication, and I may be slower to process what is being said.

My advice:

  • It is ok to ask for clarification in class, meetings, or talks. This may seem obvious, but it can be hard to feel free to ask questions when everyone around looks as though they are getting everything quickly, feeling the pressure to sound and look “clever” at all times.
  • If the situation allows it and you have everyone’s approval, recording a class or meeting may be an option. This will allow you to review what was being said later on, freeing your mind to listen and get involved, instead of having to listen, take notes, and get involved, which can get overwhelming.
  • If this is a meeting where things to do are being decided, you can ask that an email be sent around outlining what will happen next. If this is a meeting with your advisor, you can send an updated agenda at the end with basic notes and ask them to check.
  • Take your time to find out whom you can trust, as well as whom you may not be able to trust. While I find that the “cheerful” and “outgoing” student often seems to be a must (and I am very good at acting “cheerful” and “outgoing” myself), I have realized that people can manage to be this way while not giving away their trust. This is particularly important if you struggle to analyze who is “safe” and who is not.

What autism is not

Networking

Boy, isn’t networking so important in our work? At least that is what I keep hearing, seeing, and experiencing. Networking is extremely difficult for me. I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.

My advice:

  • Observe, observe, observe. Admittedly, I am still in the observation phase, but I am trying to find ways that people use to network so that I can imitate them. That said, not everyone’s style will suit you: don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are completely out of character either.
  • What I struggle with the most is finding how to start the conversation. Once it is going, I can manage a lot better. If you know someone at an academic event, follow their lead. There may also be opportunities for you to talk that will make people want to come and talk to you themselves, such as Q&As after talks and presentations. Otherwise, hovering around seated areas may be a way to include yourself in a conversation.
  • Ask people about their research. People love to talk about their research and this may be an easy way in.
  • Do not talk too much about yourself. Yes, people love an enthusiastic student, but if you’re anything like me, you may struggle with turn-taking in conversations. I find that taking deep breaths at regular intervals can help to give time for the other person to intervene and reply, if they wish to.
  • Twitter! I found that this is a great way for me to network and feel like I am doing something positive. It also makes it easier to connect with other disabled academics, who may not be otherwise visible to you. I still need a limit or I run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, but it works a lot better than face-to-face interactions.

Being Visibly Different

Even though there are lots of friendly people around in academia, it can be difficult to be visibly different. Disclosure involves risks, and it puts you in a vulnerable position. Finding people you can trust with this information is not a given, as autism is so misunderstood. While I don’t feel I have been actively discriminated against, I know that I have missed certain opportunities because of the way I act and talk. On any given occasion, people may assume I am cold and unenthusiastic. At the other extreme, I may be seen as overenthusiastic, which can perceived just as badly. Imposter syndrome put aside, I also know that I can simply come across as “not quite having it together.”

My advice:

  • If you are not already doing so, I would suggest you start looking at the blogs of some autistic activists such as Autistic Hoya and Neurowonderful. There is acceptance and a sense of identity to be found by taking part in the autistic online community.
  • Take small steps. The day I attended a training day and used my usual self-soothing techniques throughout the training (this is called “stimming”) was a liberating day. This involved a “tangle,” an object that I was seemingly “playing” with, but actually helps me to stay focused. No one dared to ask what this was. I acted as though I belonged, like my tangle belonged. I owned it. I acted like it was normal. Because it is – for me.

Closing Comments

Being an autistic in academia isn’t easy. I read all the advice out there for students and feel as though much of it does not apply to me. Sometimes, after a long day of real life interaction, I feel as though everyone is so peppy and good, and I’m just a mess who needs to leave the room regularly for sensory reasons.

Fellow autistic academics – you’re here, though. You made it so far. You belong. Your autistic self also has a lot to offer. Your research probably links to your special interest. You’re driven. The networking and the interviewing and the need to be known (because you need to show that you are making an “impact”) can be overwhelming. But, remember that academia offers you so, so, so many opportunities to be cooped up in front of a computer focusing on what you love.

36 thoughts on “On Being Autistic In Academia

  1. Pingback: On Being Autistic In Academia | jhartogs

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. I’m another openly autistic academic (PhD student), and the struggle can be very intense. You summarised a whole lot of the difficulties that I’ve experienced, right there. It helps a lot to know I’m not alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Naomi. I am glad my post has resonated with you – I was worried about how it might be perceived by other autistics! Hope we can connect about our experience.

      Like

  3. Reblogged this on Ask an Aspergirl and commented:
    I almost never reblog things, but Stella has amazing advice for Autistic grad students such as myself. So much coping tech and normalizing –helps so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That looks like an interesting program. Would be interesting to hear from anyone who’s part of it!

      Like

  4. Thanks for this – I love the graph and the statement ‘I am not on the spectrum, I am the spectrum’. I am not ‘out’ but I am not in either. I do fear the judgement that being completely out would entail. I actually thing that at least half of my colleagues are on the spectrum too. Little professors grow up to be adult professors. At my uni students can get a ‘learning access plan’ where they do not have to disclose the condition but it set out what accommodations should be provided in the classroom.

    Like

    • Thanks Alison. I’m currently trying to navigate the whole idea of “not in but not out either” and trying to understand how I would like to deal with any disclosure I may end up doing. The idea of it being common knowledge fills me with anxiety but I would like to be able to disclose on a “per case” basis. The problem is that many people do not understand the concept of privacy and end up disclosing “for” others without realizing the impact it could have (e.g. by saying “I know a person who….” with identifying information sparkled in).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You are in a pseudonym because of Reasons and this was a great article. I just wanted to say I am an openly out Autistic academic who used to not be openly out…so I know the reasons and also how to keep your secret if you want to meet me and my other Autistic academic friends and therefore know others. You are not alone. I think the site will give you my email but if not, you can access it on the blog URL I’m leaving by clicking through. Love, Ib

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot Ibby, I will write to you! It would be really great to connect more with other academic autistics and social media has really helped me to realise there were others around!

      Like

  6. I am an openly autistic person who teaches at a University in England. I enjoyed reading your article, it’s nice to see others find it all as difficult as I do. I will be saving the link to this article to share with the person who does my appraisals at work.

    Like

    • Thank you DJ! It feels really good knowing there are successful autistic academics who have been able to disclose. I hope the sharing of this article will help others understand us.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve struggled in school my whole life, I’ve had so many failed attempts at post high school education it is depressing and up until the last year never understood why. They’d try to diagnose me with bipolar or bpd etc but nothing felt right. Until this last year I finally found a therapist who saw, and have been diagnosed with hfa. I’m 34, and in many ways it’s liberating to finally look back at my past and my present and have real answers, but in many other ways I feel more lost now than ever. What now….. I have answers but they don’t make me feel any less stuck in a bubble surrounded by people who are either in denial I have hfa, who don’t understand, who ignore it like the elephant in the room fortunately I do have a husband who tries to be supportive and works hard to support both of us but he can’t understand what I’m going through, but now it’s just another reminder I have no real support in this beyond my therapist who is paid to. I want a diploma so bad, but I just don’t know how to move forward with this.

    Like

    • I think “what now” is a question many of us diagnosed in adulthood can relate to. I would really advise you to connect with other autistics on the internet, if you can. It has helped me to understand myself tremendously.

      Universities do have things in place for us. It would be worth researching this for any university you might be interested in applying to, and try to find an environment that would be supportive of your needs and the accommodations you may need.

      I wish you good luck!

      Like

      • Thanks, I have this one voice in my head that keeps trying to tell myself that it’s all a dream and that I don’t have it, but I know that it’s because of all the preceoneived notions that surround Autism. I didn’t even know it was something that could go undiganosed for so long, I had a preconceived notion that it was like some weird biological chronic something or other that had to be diganoised at birth or early childhood. The first few weeks after my diagnosis I kept thinking maybe the therapist and psych had it wrong, no one had seen it before, I’d been to tons of other therapists and psychs, why didn’t my family notice, teachers, anyone. It’s nice to know that I’m not some weird enigma being diagnosed as an adult 🙂

        Like

  8. The first time I disclosed, as a graduate student, the professor responded with a hostile outburst and said he didn’t want to hear anything about it.

    At the Office for Students with Disabilities, I said that I’d like to be put in touch with other autistic students. The “Disability Specialist” said, oh, they don’t like to socialize.

    When I saw the Social Worker at the Student Health Center and said I had difficulty keeping track of deadlines and maintaining a schedule she said to go out and buy myself a calendar.

    The counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services said she had an autistic step-child so she knew all about “splinter skills.”

    The Graduate Student Advisor said, your biggest problem will probably be people not believing you.

    At OSD they said to work out primary accommodations individually and informally with the professor. The professor insisted on recognizing only what was stated in my accommodation letter (which was essentially less than nothing).

    At OSD I made clear my need for help and support with aspects of daily living. I was neither pointed toward any entities or organizations that might be able to help, nor informed that none existed.

    The central fact of my experience in graduate school is/was abusive professional misconduct by a professor starting right at the beginning of my first quarter in the program. But when the Graduate Student Advisor asked if I wanted him on my MA committee and I answered with a simple “no,” she responded (in an angry tone of voice) that she didn’t know what had happened between me and him and didn’t want to know, but I could not afford to burn any more bridges with professors in the department and that I should go have a talk with him; it’s an easy thing to do.

    My student evaluations contained numerous falsehoods, for example “[he] missed several classes” (I hadn’t) for one seminar, and for another that I “had miss[ed] the meeting where [I] was scheduled to present” (in fact I was present and made my presentation as scheduled).

    Despite this all taking place in a field where there is a great deal of talk about human difference and diversity, emancipatory projects, structural violence, oppression, and the like, the language used was thoroughly the language of pathology: “[he] diagnosed himself as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome”… “We hope that he] will continue to seek professional help to help him understand this condition”… “We have expressed our willingness to accommodate to his condition, but…”… “a clear plan for managing his condition”… “he hoped that this diagnosis would enable him to understand his difficulties and to identify possible strategies for overcoming them”… “The department understands that [he] has had serious health problems during the past year… [including] his Asperger’s syndrome”… “The larger problem appears to be his difficulty in overcoming the disability he has identified. [He] was hopeful that he could get some tutoring to help his adapt to the limitations his disability imposes.”

    Most obnoxiously: “The department urges [him] to continue to seek help for his disability…” (I spent hundreds of hours looking for help, finding none from any quarter) and “Our faculty has made significant efforts to accommodate his special needs, as determined by OSD” and “We are deeply concerned for [him].”

    Like

    • It sounds like you’ve had such a hard time. I am sorry that you encountered such difficult situations. If I understood correctly you are still in grad school, well done for sticking with it despite people misunderstanding so much! I find it interesting also that in fields where people *should* understand us and have all the *theoretical* understanding, somehow they’re not walking the walk. This is something I witness every day as well.

      Like

  9. I am an openly autistic academic, and eccentrically open about. I won’t say I have never had problems, because I have, but then nothing is served by pretending not to be autistic.it is not as if anybody with access to the internet cannot find out.

    Like

    • In my case it would be difficult for someone to find out. If they dug enough they may have reasonable doubt, but no confirmation.

      I think that if we are sure to be understood then yes, pretending not to be autistic serves nothing. However, in my current situation, pretending not to be autistic ensures my safety, which is no small thing.

      Like

  10. Hi Stella, thanks for sharing your thoughts and to others who have also commented. I am a mother of an adult son who was diagnosed with ASD at four years old – at that time, I was deemed to be over-reacting, there was nothing significantly different in his interactions with others, and we ended up at a guidance clinic primarily to ensure he was not ‘at risk.’ The last specialist appointment we had, my husband said ‘this is it, it won’t help.’ It did – the specialist diagnosed ASD and we ended up with a great deal of support throughout his primary and high school years. We understand the challenges he has faced – after school, he went into the military, and now in civilian life.

    What does this have to do with academia? I am a former academic and I think this has helped in understanding students and colleagues who face the same challenges my son has. In his case, navigating social situations, reading faces, taking statements literally, has caused much anxiety. That said, just an observation, and it has to do with the academic environment itself. In times past, academics (particularly in some disciplines) were often described as having autistic traits and this was perceived as okay, almost an expectation. I am wondering now whether the corporate university, with its extreme focus on collaboration, endorsement of extroverts and networking, has changed what was once a relatively ‘safe’ environment for those with ASD, and this has added to the stressors of being autistic?

    I live outside the US, where autism is becoming an accepted diagnosis but preconceptions still exist. I really do feel that it’s time we talked about adults with ASD as a ‘normal’ group within society who may experience events differently and may need adjustments.

    Like

    • The first and most important thing is acceptance, to be considered as an equal, an academic peer, not some sub species of humanity who has only been let in out of political correctness to make up the statistics. There are a lot of arrogant academics who don’t just have a resentment of autistics but any minority who muddies the walls of the Ivory tower.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. What you talk about is something I have definitely thought before! I think as more emphasis is put on “networking”, “must work with others”, “be a team” etc has definitely changed the face of academia for us autistics. I certainly had a certain expectation of what academia may be like that was quickly shattered when I realized the extra things I was “supposed” to be doing.

      Like

  11. Pingback: Markierungen 03/20/2015 - Snippets

  12. There is a fair amount of advice out there aimed at undergraduate autistic students, but I have not encountered anything for post grad and doctoral students. There is a whole different category of social minefield to negotiate there. That being said, I do think there are some aspects of the academic community that are attractive to autistic people who are so minded to go there, and I think there are a lot more undeclared autistics than are open about it, not to mention some who are in outright denial.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes many aspects definitely appeal to me which is why I am still glad I am in that environment. I have been in a more “regular” work environment before and I was definitely worse off.

      Like

  13. Another Autistic academic here, and I know of more, too.
    I’m a grad student in math and I also do disability studies stuff. I don’t use my full legal name online when I’m out, because Reasons, so I understand the pseudonym thing some.

    aspierhetor (. ) com- writing and rhetoric

    mmonjejr (. ) com – something in the writing/English area, also writes own fiction

    stimstammersandwinks (. ) blogspot (. ) com/- grad student, disability studies

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alyssa, thanks a lot for commenting. You are part of the blogs I follow, thanks for the extra links which I did not know!

      I’ve definitely found out about more academics thanks to this post – and also met some online between the moment I wrote this and the moment it was published. It feels good to be less alone.

      Like

  14. Thank you, thank you so much for this. I’m here too, a PhD student, and I’ve been having a tough time with myself lately, especially after a particularly crushing microaggression from someone I really respect. Thanks for reminding me that there are more like me and struggling with the same things, which helps me fight through that feeling of unbelonging.

    Like

  15. Pingback: Ser autista en la Academia | El Demonio Blanco de la tetera verde

  16. Pingback: Counting Selves via Crows | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

  17. I haven’t been diagnosed or anything. But I’m here anonymously to tell you that I am pretty certain I am autistic and it’s been a recent realisation. I hate to be someone who has self diagnosed and is proclaiming it as fact, so I won’t say a complete ‘yes, I am’ at the moment. I am hoping to go into musical academia. I know I am going to struggle outside the academy, in the world of work, for these two or so years I have to work to save for a masters and PhD. This is the reason I don’t want to get try to get diagnosed *yet*. I also live away from home, and suffer from anxiety which I am working to overcome but in flare ups of my anxiety, what I think might be autism has a party in my brain and seems to try to wreck everything (I know it’s NOT just anxiety because of the fact I do and say certain things/am a certain way/feel different and unable to make friends with general people on my course/enjoy fleeting friendships, receiving bursts of happiness from having deep conversations with strangers on trains (people think this is abnormal) and so on when I am not anxious and I can’t stop it or help it. I am overly enthusiastic about lots of things others lack interest in. I wear weird clothing/dress alternatively to express myself, and cannot imagine stopping doing that for the world of work, though I feel I have to :/ I am frightened by the prospect of letting obsessions go.

    I am turning two of my biggest obsessions into a dissertation and project – positive steps…but I feel so frightened about those being finished…and then having to go into the world of work 😦

    Sorry for the ramble…I am just so scared. Everything’s very real and close to being true in terms of being out of institutions of learning for a while. I feel sometimes like a really, really can’t.

    Like

  18. I a an out Autistic academic if you need support in coming out . The more we come out the easier we make it for everyone after us

    Like

  19. Hi Stella. I know you a little from Twitter. Thank you for writing this – I remembered this article and sought it out specifically today, as I’m currently at a conference and although I’m doing ok, it’s the end of the second day (1 more to go!) and I’m starting to come apart juuust a little. This especially resonates like whoa, and is reassuring too:

    ‘I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.’

    I’m sorry that you’ve had this experience too, but also mega grateful to you for sharing! You’ve made 1 anxious/autistic PhD student alone in their hotel room while everyone else is at conference dinner feel a whole lot better about that fact.

    Like

  20. I am openly Autistic- Dr Kathleen Levinstein- University of Michigan/Flint_ i am struggling with no peers and with the amoral environment of academia

    Like

Comments are closed.