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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
Stella S. is a pseudonym.
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