When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

When and How to Talk to your Research Advisor about Asperger’s

Whether in academia or not, you will almost always have a superior, mentor, manager, or advisor of some sort to work under. In most cases you are under no obligation to become close with this person, but in some settings you would be wise to become friends as well as coworkers. This is particularly true in academia, where your research will more than likely take place under the umbrella of a laboratory, and you will need to work very closely with your lab-mates.

The head of a research lab at a university or research institute is often called the “Principal Investigator” or PI. The lab typically caries the name of this person (e.g. Smith Lab). Under the PI, depending on lab size and funding, are one or more Post-Doctoral Research Fellows, graduate students pursuing doctorates and master’s degrees, and sometimes undergraduate staff or volunteers and/or full-time technicians. Depending on where you fit into this hierarchy, you may report to a technician, the grad student or post-doc in charge of your project, or possibly the PI themselves. In each case, there may come a time when you need to discuss your Asperger’s with your superior.

First, you need to determine whether this conversation is necessary or advisable at all. For short-term positions like seasonal fieldwork or situations where you report to a lab manager or graduate student, you might not have to bring it up. If you are comfortable passing as neurotypical and don’t have any serious sensory issues or stimming requirements that would come up while working, I don’t see how explaining your Asperger’s to your supervisor upfront would be necessary. Small accommodations, like needing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent sensory overload in an office environment are often reasonable and common, and most advisors would probably agree to this without an explanation of your diagnosis. More significant accommodations will probably require you to fully discuss your Asperger’s, but if you can get away without this conversation and are comfortable doing so, go for it. If, however, you are enrolling as a graduate student and plan on studying under a PI for 3-7 years, this conversation will probably need to happen sooner or later. The relationship between a research mentor and their student is a unique one, and it frequently requires very open and comfortable communication. Having your mentor on the same page as you will be necessary.

Once you’ve decided that your working relationship will require a conversation about Asperger’s, the question becomes when to broach the subject. This depends a lot on your social confidence. Over the years I have become comfortable enough discussing my Asperger’s that I consider it no secret. I often mention it when appropriate during job interviews as evidence of my learned ability to understand and work closely with others. If you have built your social confidence and feel the same way, I’m sure you will be able to read your advisor and find an appropriate and relevant time to mention it. If you haven’t yet built this self-confidence, I have some very good news for you: Understanding of the autism spectrum is at an all-time high, particularly amongst educators, and many academics are autistic too. Honestly, there is a decent chance that your advisor is on the spectrum as well. Take a deep breath and remember that your advisor is on your side and wants the best for you. When should you bring it up? If you are a graduate student, you likely have regular meetings with your advisor to discuss your project. These are an excellent time to have a respectful, face-to-face conversation with them, and to answer any questions about Asperger’s they might have. The same goes for post-docs. If you’ve been hired on as a lab manager or full-time technician, you may have a more difficult time getting the PI alone. Travel to and from field sites, if this applies, can be a good time for this. Otherwise, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for a one-on-one meeting to discuss this.

Finally, what should this conversation look like? The priority should be making sure everyone is on the same page. Your advisor has a vested interest in supporting you and your work, so make sure they know what you need to succeed. If you struggle with communicating via email or text because you need facial expressions and tone of voice to fully understand, say so. Video chatting exists for a reason, and in my experience advisors are more than willing to accommodate. If you need to wear noise-cancelling headphones while working at your desk to avoid sensory overload, tell them. If you stim in a particular way and need your lab-mates to not make a big deal out of it, explain that. Odds are, you won’t be the first person on the spectrum that they have worked with. Or the tenth. Besides, a good advisor will be willing to learn from you just as you learn from them.

My last piece of advice is to make sure all of this isn’t blurted out suddenly and quickly. I made this mistake with one of my early academic advisors, and the conversation just muddied the water. Your priority should be to calmly, politely, and genuinely explain what Asperger’s means for you, and what that means for the lab. Talk about your strengths and weaknesses, what you feel you add to the work environment, what you need to succeed, and how you would like to improve. Your advisor is training you to be a scientist. These are the sorts of subjects you need to discuss with them even before Asperger’s comes into the picture. I know some of us dread this conversation, but imagine how much it would mean to have your advisor on board as a supporter and an advocate.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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