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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Disabled in Grad School: Autism Month

Things graduate students and schools should understand about autism. 

By

April 19, 2018
 
 

Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

April is an important month in the world of autism. According to the UN, it's Autism Awareness month. To organizations like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Autism Women's Network, and others run by actual autistic people, it's Autism Acceptance month. (Thanks Paula!) For me, like many other autistic people, it’s that month I’ve wanted to be over since... mid-March. However, if I hide under a rock for the entire month of April, I wont get any say in the kind of awareness that gets spread about me!

So, here I am, telling you all what I, as an autistic graduate student, would like you to know about autism.

Being visibly autistic is not, in fact, an emergency. In a university environment, I have had professors or administrators become very concerned when I rocked, flapped, didn't make eye contact, needed to type instead of talk, or even just disclosed that I'm autistic. A friend of mine got into trouble because a rock climbing teacher saw her flap her hand. That sort of reaction doesn’t help anyone, especially once you consider that we might be doing the characteristically and visibly autistic thing in order to be more able to work on our actual priorities, like classwork or research.

Talking about specific needs is helpful. Terms like "high functioning" aren't. Calling someone "high functioning" will lead to missing some of their needs. Calling someone "low functioning" will lead to missing some of their abilities. It's best to drop the ineffective shorthand and talk about whatever needs abilities are relevant at the moment. If you mean that someone needs to type to communicate some or all of the time, say that. If you mean that someone is able to live alone with the proper support, say that. If you mean that someone needs help getting food, say that.

Autism-related needs vary between people. One size does not fit all. Letting me work from home is actually a great idea, because I have more control over my environment. Some of us will need to work in the library, the lab, or some other consistent but structured location. I need a meal plan, because keeping myself fed is an issue when I have to cook for myself. It’s either that or consistently go acquire ready-made food without one. Other autistic people need to eat anywhere except the dining hall, because they can't eat the provided food, they can't deal with the noise and crowds, or both. Rather than assuming you know, "what autistic students need," ask us what we need. You can suggest some of the supports you've heard can be good for us, but be prepared for us to let you know what doesn't work.

Our needs and abilities vary between environments and over time. One size may not fit one. My ability to cook varies between needing three or more attempts to make myself tea in a kitchen that has a hot water spigot (no kettle required) and being able to make a three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate whipped cream frosting from scratch. My ability to feed myself varies between staring in confusion at the items on the buffet table at my dining hall, trying to remember how to serve myself, and making the aforementioned cake. My ability to speak varies between none and winning a class debate I hadn't prepared for by explaining on the fly why my opponents evidence supported my argument, not his. These abilities don't necessarily vary together, either. I once scored "Advanced" on a test of Chinese speaking proficiency while completely non-speaking in English.

This means our productivity is likely to vary over time. If it's taking me three tries to make tea, that's time I'm not spending on research. It could also be a sign that I'm having trouble concentrating, which isn't good for doing research. (Unless I'm wandering away from the attempt at making tea to scribble down "quick" ideas related to my research that then take so long my tea gets cold and over-steeped. That's just bad for keeping hydrated.) Over the course of a semester, this is likely to average out. Over the course of the week or two between meetings for research projects, it might not. This is especially true if I have multiple ongoing projects and have hyper-focused on one of them for the last week.

Meeting our needs is critical. Sometimes, our needs and abilities will vary for as-yet-unknown reasons or for reasons outside our control. Other times, speech will be gone and I'll stare in confusion at a pile of sandwiches in my dining hall, and there will have been a clearly avoidable cause for this. If I'm expected to work in an environment with construction or with lights where I can see the flickering, my abilities are very likely to take a dive. I don't actually care if my speech gives out, because I have access to other communication options. I do care if I have trouble understanding what to do with the food in front of me. Among other things, I'm not productive when I'm hungry!

[Image courtesy of Dr. Melanie Yergeau, used with permission.]

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