The prevalence of mental health issues and neurodevelopmental disorders in higher ed is so high, and the associated shame so great, that many students and even professors end up floundering, writes Scott B. Weingart, an autistic academic.

May 27, 2016

Once or twice a year, my parents and I huddled into my little windowless bathroom. Our ears were glued to the radio as we attempted to calm a terrified golden retriever and waited for the hurricane to pass. While our dog never liked it, I always appreciated the safety that the room provided. In fact, I would often lock myself in the bathroom after school, sitting on the covered toilet with the lights off and a towel bunched against the door, blocking light and sound from the rest of the house. The best moments were those nights in that bathroom when it got so dark my eyes never adjusted, so quiet that it seemed I could hear my own heartbeat.

Apparently this isn’t uncommon among those diagnosed on the autism spectrum, nor were many of the other traits and actions descriptive of my childhood. It feels complicated to say that publicly. I always resisted a self-diagnosis (despite the urging of some friends), and only was positively diagnosed by a professional much later in life.

Culturally speaking, autism is weird. Affluent white men, especially those in Silicon Valley, tend to valorize autism and are quick to identify themselves along its spectrum. For better or worse, autism is seen as an umbrella category for socially awkward people who like math, and it can be lobbed as an excuse justifying impolite behavior or as a banner under which people with those traits can gather as allies. Many people worry incorrect self-diagnoses make life more difficult for those who actually match the DSM-V diagnostic criteria, even if the association with modern tech leaders paints us in a positive light.

Admitting mental illness or neurodevelopmental disorder is dangerous, unless you're a middle-class white man diagnosed on the autism spectrum. If you're black and/or a woman, or if you have depression or anxiety, you may be deemed too unstable to work in a modern business or too dangerous to trust as a neighbor. But if you're well-adjusted white dude who scores low on the autism severity spectrum? Have a job at Google!

It's from this acknowledged position of privilege that I choose to come out, under my own name and from a non-tenure-track staff position at a major research university. According to several independent professional diagnoses over the course of my life, I am both autistic and ADHD. (Whether either or both of these actually constitute a “disorder” I leave to the reader.)

It is terrifying to admit this. I am afraid what employers who don't quite understand will think and whether doing this will screw with my future. Whether people will think that I must be a bad teacher because they assume I cannot relate to students or a bad scholar or department member because I cannot meet deadlines. But honestly, my stance is pretty much what Randall Munroe depicts here.

If it's scary for me -- a white man with the disorder that most people (improperly) associate with genius -- how scary is it for everyone else? How scary is it for those who are already marginalized in other ways, such as race and ethnicity, gender or social class? Most don’t say anything or only do so privately.

The prevalence of mental health issues in higher education is so high (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and the stigma associated with it is so great, that many students end up floundering with no academic mentors to whom they can turn for advice or support. That is why I am writing this essay. Maybe a struggling student will see it and feel safer around me, or maybe it will help tip the scales towards eliminating the stigma around mental health. In either case, there are a thousand ways in which academe is toxic. The more that we perpetuate this toxicity in the name of our careers, the more complicit we are in raising the walls of our own future jail. To quote the comic I linked to above, “Fuck That Shit.” I acknowledge that I am in a more privileged position to be able to act on this claim, but if enough of us act similarly, that privilege will no longer be required.

My decision to write this essay was precipitated by the CBS TV show Elementary. The show currently features a budding romance between two autism-spectrum characters, and watching it now makes me realize how much I wish I had seen it growing up. Things that have never made much sense might have been easier for me to understand. Maybe if I had seen more familiar faces going through similar difficulties, I would have sought help sooner.

So here I am, presenting my face to the world: I am an autistic academic. In a future essay, I will discuss how that shades my interactions with academe. I hope that outlining some of my experiences will help someone with similar experiences find comfort or will help others understand people like me a little better.



Scott B. Weingart (@scott_bot) is a historian of science, Carnegie Mellon University's digital humanities specialist and co-author of The Historian's Macroscope.


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