Fieldwork is all but certain to play a part in your career as a natural scientist. Even if you plan on exclusively analyzing data, working in a lab, or teaching, your education will likely include a field component somewhere along the line. Working in the field can create challenging situations for Aspies that aren’t an issue in other types of work. Whether you are taking a course at a field station, occasionally collecting samples for your research, or working a full-time field job, you should be aware of and prepared to meet these challenges.
Perhaps the most obvious issue with fieldwork is socialization. Not only will the number of people with whom you can regularly interact decrease, but you will probably be spending long periods of time in their company. For some work you will have to spend weeks at a time working with only one person. As an Aspie this can be a terrifying prospect. What if interacting with this person drains you too much to work? How do you cope if you don’t get along with this person? How do you move from seeing a person on and off during the workday to spending the full day working exclusively with them? Socially exhausting situations like this are unfortunate, but they may be unavoidable depending on your line of work.
My first full-time field job is a good example of this struggle. After graduating from college I spent a summer working as an electrofishing technician for a state agency. My unit would send out 2-5 person teams on 4-day data collection trips every week, weather allowing. This is what the job demanded. My first time working with a new person was always socially intimidating, especially if it would only be the two of us that week. Working ten plus hour days together, eating dinner together, then doing that three more times can get exhausting even for neurotypicals, so you can understand how an Aspie might be extremely stressed.
Your first line of defense concerning fieldwork is deciding whether a position is right for you. The last thing I want to do is discourage Aspies from pursuing fieldwork, but you should know that the nature of the job often requires situations like the one I’ve just described. It is important that you read up on a job before applying. You need to have a good understanding of what that position will expect of you, and what you need in order work well. Don’t despair if this limits you, though, because there are plenty of jobs that can give you field experience without the socially intimidating conditions. You just need to sort out which ones are which.
When in the field, try to identify and retreat to “your space” whenever you can and feel you need to. This can be your hotel room or cabin if you have one, a walk away from the campsite, etc. It won’t always be possible to do this, but there will be opportunities for you to step away from your partner/group. You can explain that, when appropriate, you need a little alone time. This is not an unreasonable request, and your teammates will understand. Even if the whole group eats dinner together, you are not required to eat with them. Neurotypicals may consider you rude for disappearing without explanation, but most will understand so long as you make it clear that you need time to unwind, and that it isn’t personal.
Another helpful strategy is to familiarize yourself with the expedition details beforehand. If you are preparing for a marine research cruise, there may be an opportunity to do a walkthrough of the ship before departure day. This will allow you to start acclimating to the environment gradually, potentially striking that from your list of stressors. If you will be spending some time at a field station, you are likely to find online photos, videos, and maps of the station that can similarly help. For short-term expeditions, I recommend you participate in the planning process as much as possible. Provided you are not in charge of the trip, hearing those who are discuss equipment and methods that will be used, as well as the team’s goals and priorities will give you a better sense of what to expect. This will also give you a chance to ask questions.
Finally, know that it is ok to discuss your needs and apprehensions with your partner or teammates. If you feel comfortable having an open conversation, your team’s understanding can go a long way toward alleviating your social stresses. In my experience, scientists are generally aware of Asperger’s Syndrome and tend to be supportive of their colleagues on the spectrum. However, you should not feel pressured to share your diagnosis and personal struggles with anyone. Only do this once you trust your teammates and are comfortable enough to be open with them.
I hope these strategies for coping with the challenges of conducting fieldwork as an Aspie are as helpful to you as they have been to me. This post will be updated as I continue my career, encounter new challenges, and develop new ways to meet them. If you have your own related challenges or advice that you would like to share, feel free to reach out. I am always happy to learn from the experiences of others.
I would like to clarify that the above personal anecdote is in no way a criticism of or complaint about any of my coworkers or the agency in general. The people I met in this job were all wonderful, fascinating people, and I did enjoy my time there. I simply want to characterize the fears and frustrations I experienced as an Aspie in this situation that my neurotypical coworkers likely did not.
Moving out of our parents’ house is a scary process for all of us. There are so many things to worry about, from staying in touch with family to remembering to handle utility payments. For Aspies, there is often an additional consideration. Whether you are moving away to attend college or to pursue a job, odds are you will have to deal with roommates at some point. Because the rules that govern these relationships are rarely explicitly established, Aspies often struggle to get along with neurotypical roommates. In anticipation of this, you should prepare yourself for some of the issues you are likely to face.
I can offer advice for living amicably with multiple neurotypical roommates based on my personal experience and that of people I know, but I can’t speak toward your specific roommates. The blanket caveat here is that people, autistic or neurotypical, are incredibly different from one another. If you feel that one of the approaches I recommend here will fail with your roommates, don’t try it. Above all else, I highly recommend laying out ground rules together when you first move in. Not everyone will agree on the same ground rules and this post is not supposed to outline what your rules should be. Instead you should consider each of the following areas where conflict might happen and decide how you feel about each issue. This will prepare you for the “ground rules” conversation. Many of the issues I discuss here will be much easier to handle if you have established basic rules and expectations on day one, and my advice assumes you have done this.
Whose Names are On the Lease Matters
I understand this issue may be either nonexistent or completely inescapable depending on where you live, but I had friends in undergrad that were able to avoid it. In the U.S., zoning laws sometimes limit the number of unrelated tenants that can sign a lease for a particular property. Landlords might get around this by, for example, allowing four or five people to live in the property and pay rent, but only letting two of them sign the lease. Setting aside the questionable legality of the situation, this can become an issue if there is a conflict between roommates or if someone moves out during a lease period. If a tenant whose name is not on the lease decides to leave, they are not under any legal obligation to continue paying their share of rent. The unexpected rent increase for everyone else is inconvenient at best and completely unmanageable at worst. This uneven power dynamic is neither safe nor appealing, so I heavily recommend that you find a place where everyone can sign the lease.
Depending on where you live, utilities like water, electricity, gas, trash, sewage, and internet may be included in your rent, billed separately, or a mix of the two. If you anticipate having any non-rent shared expenses (utilities, communal grocery trips, etc.) it is vital that you establish a few ground rules when you first move in.
First, you need to decide how these expenses will be divided. I imagine most people would prefer to split the bills evenly, but some people might suggest other payment schemes. For example, you might have a roommate who never watches TV that doesn’t want to pay for the cable bill, or one who plans to have their significant other stay over much of the time, in which case you might ask them to contribute more toward utility payments. The household doesn’t have to agree to these schemes, but you should hear them out, discuss them, and decide what to do as a group.
Second, you should establish a protocol for making changes. There are situations where a change in your utility payment scheme is necessary. Depending on how many roommates there are, a majority vote or a unanimous agreement might be best. You’ll also want to talk about whether a voter can abstain or must pick a side. Establish that now, so you don’t have to argue about it later.
Finally, you need to talk about new roommates. If you plan on living here for more than one lease period, you may have to find new roommates as the old ones move out. The “ground rules” conversation needs to happen again with the new roommates, especially when talking about utilities/shared expenses. The goal here is to avoid a situation where someone is suddenly stuck paying more money than they originally planned to. What you need to decide now is whether an incoming roommate-
Automatically agrees to the utilities/shared expenses payment scheme that was in place before they arrived, meaning any changes they request must go through the usual decision-making process (majority vote, unanimous agreement, etc.), or-
Gets to renegotiate the utilities/shared expenses payment scheme upon their arrival and is under no obligation to accept the previous scheme.
The benefit of establishing this now is avoiding an argument later when a new roommate tries to get out of paying a bill they were expected to pay, requiring everyone else to pay more. This also prevents new roommates from being surprised by a shared expense because everything will have been discussed with them before they sign the lease. Open communication and agreement on a simple set of rules at the beginning of the roommate relationship is vital when trying to avoid money arguments later, and utilities and other shared expenses are the biggest culprit.
Discussing Non-Monetary Issues when Moving In
So far I’ve talked about leases, rent, utilities, and other shared expenses. Conflicts in each of these areas can be quite serious, as the implications have dollar signs attached. On a day to day basis, however, you are much more likely to experience roommate conflicts with less serious, more socially based implications. For example, a common source of frustration in many college dorms, apartments, and households involves cleaning up after oneself in the kitchen. Standards of cleanliness and motivation to clean vary from person to person, sometimes leading to hostility. The fallout of such arguments won’t require anyone to pay money, so many of us assign less importance to and fail to plan for such situations when moving in.
These situations should be addressed to a certain extent during the “ground rules” conversation, but you’ll need to handle them differently than the money-related topics discussed above. Although an extensive system of household rules may appeal to you, I would caution you against trying to push your neurotypical roommates down this path. Many neurotypicals, especially younger ones, have an innate sense of distrust around rules, particularly when those rules are made by one of their peers rather than an authority figure. Generally, the more rules you push for, the less seriously your roommates will take each subsequent rule and the more they will feel controlled and untrusted. The last thing you want to do is give your new roommates the impression that you are impossibly particular and bent on controlling them. You’ll need to pick your battles by pushing for the most important house rules first. From there, you can work towards the issues that are less important to you, gradually transitioning from “establishing rules” to “feeling out how each other will operate.” For example, in my college household I prioritized a rule against nudity in the common areas (living room, kitchen, etc.). Because this was important to me, I made sure to bring it up first when my roommates still had the energy and enthusiasm to talk about strict rules. Later, we discussed things like cleaning up in the kitchen and acceptable shower lengths. Because I prioritized these issues less, I didn’t push for hard and fast rules. Instead we had a discussion where everyone shared how they felt, so we were on the same page and groundwork was laid for any future issues that came up. This may seem more inefficient than just deciding on rules for everything now, but neurotypicals usually don’t want to do this and will react negatively if you try to make them.
You should also make sure to invite and listen to each of your roommates’ opinions on each issue you discuss. Just because you prioritize an issue highly and want there to be a strict rule doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t have an equally valid point of view. So long as your roommates still have the patience and energy to do so, everyone needs a chance to speak on each issue. Lastly, you should approach this conversation together. Think of your roommates as teammates working together to solve a problem, not opponents to be beaten, proved wrong, or overcome. The “ground rules” conversation, done well, will be vital for you to live healthily and happily with your roommates and should help to prevent future conflicts.
The Chore Chart
Depending on your living situation, there will probably be at least a few communal chores to handle. Whether it is worth the time and effort to set up a system of accountability for these chores is up to you and your roommates and your need for such a system will vary. If, for example, you share a one-room college dorm with one roommate, there is little communal space to clean. You might opt to take turns vacuuming the room every couple of weeks, but beyond that there are probably no other major chores. If you live in an apartment, you’ll likely need to clean the bathroom, wash dishes, clean the kitchen, vacuum and/or mop the floors, and take out the trash and recycling, among other things. If you upgrade to a full house, you might have a yard and/or driveway to maintain, including raking leaves, removing snow, and mowing grass. Personally, I have found semiformal chore accountability systems to be helpful when living with more than one roommate in anything bigger than a basic dorm.
Getting all of these chores done regularly can be a handful, especially if you are a college student or work long hours. Even if you split up responsibilities amongst the roommates, resentment will build if someone appears to be doing less than someone else. If you and your roommate(s) decide the best way to distribute responsibilities fairly while ensuring everything gets done is a chore rotation system, I recommend that the rotation be tracked in a place that everyone can see. In my college household we used a cardboard chart that separated the weekly chores into five categories. Each roommate had a different-colored paperclip which would be rotated to a new category on the same day each week. This literal chore chart was posted in the communal area of the house. If you don’t want to use a physical chart, you can easily set up a comparable system in a roommate group chat. Just make sure everyone agrees on the chore categories and rotation timeline before setting it up and remember to post the new responsibilities on time.
There are situations where a formal rotation is unnecessary. If, for example, you only have one roommate that you know well and get along with, settling into the home and feeling out who will be responsible for which chores and how frequently they need to be done as you go might work fine. However, for the most part you probably won’t know your new roommate(s) very well when moving in and I don’t recommend taking this risk. Even if your roommates are skeptical about needing a chore chart at first, they will probably change their minds after a week or two of living with someone whose standards of cleanliness and motivation to clean are lower than theirs. At the end of the day, how you handle chores is up to you and your roommates, but in my experience the value of a chore chart accountability system cannot be overstated if you have more than one roommate.
Inevitably, you will find yourself in conflict with one of your roommates. You can’t plan for everything and even if you have planned for a given situation, emotions tend to run high once you’re in the middle of things. When this happens neurotypicals and autistics alike may abandon prior agreements about how the situation should be managed, much to the frustration of others involved. This means that each person participating in the dispute is now relying on their own personal values, sense of fairness, and ideas of right and wrong, rather than whatever agreements you had in place. These vary between individuals, and that gap can only be bridged by calm and rational discussion with the goal of compromise. This is not something that someone in an emotionally heightened state, autistic or neurotypical, can be reasonably expected to do. When you find yourself in a situation like this, you should prioritize defusing the situation by first assessing yourself, determining how you can calm down, and doing so, then by assessing what the other person needs and providing that opportunity to them.
This is where self-reflection will benefit you. My parents taught me from a young age that it is not wrong to experience negative emotions, only to act inappropriately based on those emotions. Applied to a roommate setting, this means that it is ok to feel frustrated or upset with your roommates, so long as you don’t lash out at them. Responsibly handling your feelings in this way requires a healthy amount of self-reflection. As a result, I believe it is the responsibility of every person to spend time thinking about what makes them tick. This can’t be done in a day and is worth a substantial time investment. This also isn’t something that you can learn by reading my blog; you’ll have to ask yourself why you react the way you do to different situations, and eventually notice patterns of behavior that clue you into how you think emotionally. This is a very personal journey, and it may be more difficult for some people than for others. I won’t say any more here because self-reflection is an area where I have a lot more growing to do, but the internet is full of people with better advice on this subject than me.
With the benefit of your time spent reflecting you should be able to recognize why you are upset at a given moment and have the discipline to stop escalating the conflict. From there, you need to assess what the other person needs. In my experience, the vast majority of neurotypicals need space and time. It is usually in everyone’s best interest for you to disengage from the argument and leave the other person alone for a while to calm down, deal with anything else that was bothering them, and return to a state where they can work constructively with you to solve the problem. How long this will take, and how they will reconcile with you, depends on the person. Prepare for this by getting to know how each of your roommates works in a conflict. Observe which sorts of things upset them and which don’t, how they go about solving their problems, and how they calm themselves down after a conflict. Do they take a hot shower? Do they need to be alone in their room for a while? Do they need to vent to their other friends? Once you have this understanding, you can predict what your roommate will need after you disengage from the conflict. Stay out of their way and let them do whatever it is they need to do.
Once everyone has had a chance to calm down, it is important that you reconcile. Regardless of whether you still feel your original argument was right, you should apologize for having had an argument. If you raised your voice at all, if you came on too strong and upset your roommate, or if you didn’t disengage as quickly as you should have, admit it and apologize. The most important lesson I have learned from dealing with neurotypicals is that an olive branch like this can be an immensely powerful thing. If you admit that you both have egg on your face because of the argument, they will be much more likely to reconcile. I reiterate, do this even if you still feel your original position is right. The world of interpersonal relations is incredibly complex and I’m still learning new things every day, but this method has worked very well for me. Handle roommate conflicts like this, and I believe your household will be socially healthier for everyone.
Talking to your Roommates about Asperger’s
For some of us this is the most intimidating topic in the post. Unfortunately, it’s also the subject I can say the least about. There is no set of guidelines or rules that will tell you what to do in this situation. To quote Temple Grandin, “Rules are not absolute; they are situation-based and people-based.” Whether your roommates will find out that you are on the spectrum may or may not be a decision you get to make, depending on whether you are trying/able to pass as neurotypical in front of them and how observant or familiar with autism they are. Likewise, how they will react should you choose to share this information with them is not up to you. Good people may have a negative reaction if they are unfamiliar with the autism spectrum because confronting your own ignorance is uncomfortable. The only advice I can give on this subject is to surround yourself with people who care about you and support you, open up to them about your Asperger’s only when you feel comfortable and supported doing so, and remember that you don’t have to pretend to be neurotypical for people to like you.
As an Aspie or otherwise autistic person, you’re probably aware that the majority of the world isn’t like you. According to the CDC in 2014, approximately 1-2% of the human population is autistic. The harsh truth of living as an autistic person is that this world wasn’t built for us, and in many ways simply isn’t well-adapted to our needs and abilities. This can cause miscommunications and problems in the workplace, especially in high-pressure jobs. Regardless of your career path and goals, you will statistically work for many neurotypicals during your life, and most of your coworkers will be neurotypicals. While your bosses should (key word) make an effort to adapt to your way of communicating on the job, you should always try to meet them in the middle. The importance of getting along with your coworkers should not be forgotten either. This post is meant to share a few lessons I’ve learned while working for and with neurotypicals that apply at several different levels of employment, from minimum-wage high school student to degree-holding scientist.
Better to Ask Sooner than Later
This one applies mostly at lower-level positions where your boss gives you a task to complete unsupervised while they do other work. As soon as you are given the task, think it through from beginning to end. If there is a part of the task that you aren’t sure how to handle or that you know you’ll have to ask your boss about, do that immediately, rather than waiting until you reach that point of the task. I have been very guilty of failing this in the past. It’s often uncomfortable to ask a long series of questions after your boss explains a task, and it can be tempting to just say “Ok, sounds good!” and let your boss walk away. You know you’ll have to go ask for help later, but at least for now your boss isn’t worrying about you and trusts you to handle it, right? While it isn’t the end of the world to interrupt your boss half an hour later to ask them where a tool you need is, or to clarify a detail, it’s simply better to ask about any issues you foresee up front. Your boss will likely appreciate that you think through tasks from the beginning, and you get to avoid interrupting them if they start a different task or take a phone call.
Dealing with a Social Manager
In any job that requires you to work as part of a team, there is always the potential for a bad manager, project leader, or supervisor. The term “bad manager” can have many meanings depending on the context, but I have found a particular flavor of bad manager that often spells disaster for Aspies: a Social Manager. These types of managers tend to prioritize the social environment created by the team over other measures of success. While trying to foster a positive work environment is admirable, these people take it too far by focusing on getting the employees to like each other. Aspie employees are less likely to share this priority, and may find themselves on the manager’s bad side even while doing their jobs well. Social managers rarely have written protocols for work tasks, instead preserving them socially by relying on older employees to teach the newer ones. This can be infuriating for Aspies because communication isn’t always our strong suit and many of us benefit from specific, written directions. Social managers may also play favorites, granting employees with higher social ranks more implicit authority than others, even when everyone officially shares the same rank or job title.
These factors can create a confusing and stressful environment for employees on the spectrum, but there are steps you can take to improve your situation. Step one, buckle down and focus on getting good at your job. Step two, be polite and courteous to your coworkers and manager, but don’t worry about trying to befriend everyone. Step three, do your best to stay out of any workplace drama. Step four, if you would benefit from written protocols or something similar, be the one to write them! With any luck, you will become known as the hardworking employee who handles their responsibilities, doesn’t start any trouble, and measurably improves the workplace. Dealing with a social manager can be intimidating, but if you are diligent about working hard and staying out of any drama, you will probably be just fine.
Take Criticism Gracefully
Neurotypical or otherwise, your boss and coworkers are going to criticize you. Hopefully this will happen in a constructive and respectful way, but it is essential that your priority is to grow and learn from the experience regardless. I’ve been on the receiving end of a handful of dressing-downs over the years, some of which were arguably undeserved. While there is something to be said for standing up for yourself when treated unfairly, there are times when it is better to grit your teeth and move on. Picking your battles is a learned skill, and a vital one at that. I’ve also witnessed a number of coworkers, both autistic and neurotypical, dispute criticism from supervisors that was entirely warranted! Don’t let this be you! To succeed in any workplace, you need to approach each day with humility and in good faith. You are there to get work done, and to maintain a positive work environment. If a coworker or your boss is giving you any kind of criticism, remain calm, apologize for any mistakes, and focus on solving the problem at hand. More than likely this will 1) Get the work done faster, 2) Show your work ethic and drive to improve, and 3) Earn you respect from those involved. If a coworker is bullying or mistreating you, you should always be able to go to your superior about it. Be discrete and professional when doing so, but this is not something you should be afraid of doing! Lastly, if you are frustrated with petty workplace drama or feel that you were unfairly criticized, vent at home! Don’t air your dirty laundry at work, that will only create drama. Find a friend, family member, or significant other you can talk to and get things off your chest.
I’ve made a handy flowchart for handling criticism at work! It’s pretty simple, but this is the kind of thing I would have appreciated when first learning to handle conflict.
Respect Your Colleagues’ Time with Proper Communication
I don’t care if you’re the world’s foremost expert in your field, you need to respect others’ time and treat them fairly, or no one will want to listen to you or work with you. This means responding to emails as promptly as can be reasonably expected, not rudely dismissing the thoughts of your lab-mates or coworkers when planning a project, and actually showing up for meetings/events that you have committed to! This seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen high-level professors become essentially unreachable because they were too busy to respond to emails for days at a time. Many of the same people have to reschedule meetings with students multiple times because their time-management skills are lacking. If your job requires frequent scheduling and other communications regarding plans, consider those communications one of your work responsibilities. Responding to any relevant or urgent emails should be on your daily to-do list, and if you decide you can’t make an appointment or event that has already been scheduled, contact the others involved as soon as you can. These habits will show your coworkers, supervisors, and students that you respect them and don’t want to waste their time.
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.
As a scientist, you will probably be expected to present your research at academic conferences. These are meetings of professional societies where you can present posters, give research talks, participate in roundtables and workshops, and network with scientists from other institutions. Well-known marine/natural science conferences include the annual meetings of the American Fisheries Society, Ecological Society of America, American Elasmobranch Society, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, etc.
As an Aspie, these intensely social experiences can be overwhelming. When surrounded by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar city it can be tempting to hide in your hotel room as soon as you’ve finished presenting your research. This was how I felt at my first conference, and I imagine I’m not alone. It’s also possible to have the opposite problem; many students push themselves to attend as many talks as possible, ending up exhausted!
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, I have a few pieces of advice that you might find helpful when attending your first conferences.
Listen to Other Research Talks
Look over the list of talks and pick out a few that interest you. It’s always good to support your lab-mates or advisor if they will also be presenting, but you likely already know a lot about their work! Depending on how long the conference is/how many talks there are, I recommend listening to 3-5 presentations not counting the ones from your lab. As you attend more conferences you’ll get a feel for how many talks you can handle before getting overloaded and forgetting all of it. DO NOT try to hear a talk during every single time slot, you’ll get exhausted and stop paying attention anyway. Find your balance!
Set Specific Networking Goals
I am a huge proponent of breaking larger tasks down into smaller ones. Even if your project is broken into tiny baby steps it will get done if you take a step every day. Networking at a large conference can feel like a nebulous goal, but if you set a specific benchmark for yourself it becomes much more manageable. For example, if you are attending your first conference as an undergraduate, you might be scoping out potential grad school advisors. In this case your specific goals might be 1) Pick the three most interesting research talks, 2) Take notes during the talks and write down any questions 3) Find a time to introduce yourself to the speakers, either during a social event or after their talks if they don’t appear to be too busy, and 4) Inquire about openings in their lab and, if possible, swap email addresses. You can follow up with them after the conference. These are measurable, realistic goals for networking that make the process seem more approachable.
Don’t Feel Obligated to Attend Every Social Event
Many conferences have cocktail-style socials or full formal dinners. While these are often included with your conference tickets they are not required! If you’re feeling socially drained from a full day of presentations you absolutely don’t have to attend. It’s also ok to leave early if you need to. These events are common places for networking, but there is no rule against getting your networking done during the actual conference and taking some alone time during social hour. Remember, these things were designed by neurotypicals so you shouldn’t feel bad if they aren’t easy for you to get through. You certainly wouldn’t be the only person that struggles with them and needs to take some time for themselves.
Try Something Outside of the Conference
If you’re in a new place you should try some new experiences! Just because you are in town for the conference doesn’t mean you have to stay there the whole time. Try some local food, see some sights, or even participate in a day of service if the conference facilitates one. My first conference was the Southern Division American Fisheries Society meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My advisor recommended that I go kayaking on a bioluminescent bay, and it was a fantastic experience! I realize most conference locations aren’t quite that exotic, but any city will likely have something worth doing or seeing outside of your work. Do something to help you unwind after a long day of talking and socializing.
Consider Getting More Involved with the Conference
If you are an undergraduate student presenting at your first conference or two, you don’t really need to worry about this part yet. Once you are a grad student, post-doc, staff researcher, or professor, you should think about becoming a full member of the research society/organization that puts on the conference. Depending on how frequently you attend and what exactly you research, you may even want to run for a leadership position within the organization. Every group has different rules for how this works, but these additional responsibilities may help you to network and improve your professional standing.
Academic conferences are a whole ecosystem unto themselves, and they can be very intimidating for Neurotypicals and Aspies alike. They are also excellent opportunities to meet others in your field and hear updates about other areas of research. I highly recommend you start attending as soon as you can and take full advantage of all they have to offer. Your research advisor will have the best idea of which conference(s) are most appropriate for your interests and will likely help you apply for funding. Best of luck!
This post will be less of an exhaustive guide and more of a collection of lessons I’ve learned on the subject. Neurotypicals often learn very differently from Aspies, and just as your teachers have (hopefully) adapted to your learning style, you should adapt to your students’. Even if you don’t plan to become a full-time teacher, you may need to TA undergraduate classes while earning your graduate degree and so should be prepared. My experience comes from one year teaching 5th-12th graders at a marine science camp, two years as a TA in undergraduate classes, and two years working as a Divemaster.
Don’t Get Stuck on Lists and Categories
Asking students to remember sets of information is ok to a point, and as an Aspie you may be very fond of lists, categories, and hierarchies (as I am). While this sort of structure can help us to organize and remember information, most neurotypicals don’t work that way! Especially when dealing with elementary and middle school students, nobody will remember the “four traits all echinoderms share,” but everyone will remember that they can regenerate body parts because you told them about brittle stars regrowing arms! Even with high school students, memory and understanding seem to improve as you help them visualize concepts with demonstrations, stories, or exciting descriptions.
Don’t Use Exclusively Formal Language
As a scientist, I value precise, accurate, and succinct writing. Unfortunately, teaching using only this language doesn’t usually go over well! When teaching grade school students (and in many cases undergraduates) speaking in a more casual, conversational manner can be more effective. As I see it, the language with which you would write a peer-reviewed paper or give a conference presentation is designed to transmit as much information as possible in a limited space or timeframe. It does that job quite well, but it simply isn’t how neurotypicals talk to each other! An an Aspie, I often slip into formal language when explaining things because I like the precision and I don’t want to leave out any information. I imagine other Aspies may feel the same. When teaching neurotypicals, you should try to mix this precise language with more conversational and generalized language appropriate for the students’ age group. You can use simple metaphors for grade school (zooxanthellae is the in-house chef for a coral polyp), case studies or historical experiments for high school or college, etc. Even when discussing dense scientific topics, try to mix the precise, high-level language with more casual explanations to help your students understand the material and feel more comfortable. Reading dense scientific papers is a skill all science students need to learn, but at the end of the day it’s important to remember that even professors speak casually with their students and amongst themselves. Teaching doesn’t need to be too formal!
Be Flexible in your Explanations and Teaching Style
Just as Aspies and other Autistic folks are incredibly diverse, any two Neurotypicals probably don’t learn quite the same way. A particular example or way of explaining a concept may work for some or even most of your students, but you will always have at least one student that struggles with your default way of explaining something. There are a few ways of dealing with this. You can of course think of a new way of explaining the concept, or…you can get your students to do it for you! Try getting the students to explain the concept back to you by splitting them into groups and having them apply a principle to a specific situation as a team or draw out the full life cycle of an animal, or even assign different parts of the lesson to each student. They can then learn these pieces on their own and teach their portion back to the class. Obviously which method you should use heavily depends on the age and educational level of the students, as well as the class context (for example, having students act out the characteristics shared by all marine mammals charades style is great for a science outreach event with elementary or middle schoolers, but not so much for undergrads in a zoology lab!). If you’ve been teaching for a while you probably have a way of saying and doing things that you like and makes sense to you. But no matter how experienced you get you need to be ready to adapt your teaching to your students. If you try giving your students a little bit more of a voice in the classroom, you might be surprised at the creative ways they come up with to explain concepts you’ve known for years.
Your students will get things wrong. They will miss questions on exams, screw up lab reports, and give incorrect responses in class. They are human, and that is ok. I have known a few Aspies (myself included) who prefer simple feedback when this happens to them. “You did that wrong.” “Ok, show me how to do it right.” No hard feelings, no wasted time. We don’t often dwell on our own mistakes, both because that would be unpleasant and because we prefer to learn from them and move on. Most people are not like this. At least not always. Most of your students will benefit from a gentler approach, so as not to bruise their ego and discourage them from engaging with your lesson. Proper learning requires confidence in one’s ability to learn, and it is as much your job to nurture that confidence as it is to teach material. Show your students that you are invested in their understanding and that you respect them, and they will be open to learning from you. If a student raises their hand in class and gets the question wrong, don’t just say “no” and move to the next person. Talk about whether they are on the right track, if they have elements of the correct answer in theirs, or even the method they used to solve the problem. All of this may seem inefficient, and it absolutely is. But a desire for efficiency is no excuse to be inconsiderate or condescending. I have seen professors with a royal superiority complex outright refuse to treat their students with respect because “there is a lot of material to get through” or “they aren’t paid to make students feel good.” To teach well, you must engage your students, make them feel welcome, and create a respectful, positive learning environment. This will never be efficient. Have some humility, and don’t look down on your students.
Make Class Engaging and Interactive
This might be the fiftieth time you’ve given this lecture. You know the points you want to make, you know the concepts to highlight, and you know exactly how long it will take. The whole experience is probably a little monotonous for you. But from your students’ perspectives, this is brand new information that can be difficult to understand! You must never lose sight of this. No matter which level or age group you teach, neurotypical students often struggle with long, sterile lectures. Class activities, such as small group discussions or debates, group research or writing projects, or (with younger kids) games that illustrate class concepts allow students to grapple with class material while giving them a break from the endless powerpoints.
As an undergrad I took a biochemistry course where the final grade was determined by two midterm exams and a final. There were no homework assignments, group discussions, projects, or attendance requirements; only the tests mattered. At the time I loved this, because I was more than capable of skimming the textbook and memorizing everything I would need for the tests. At the same time my research advisor was teaching an undergrad course with weekly reading quizzes and online homework, semester-long group projects, in-class experiments, and group discussions. I disliked classes like hers because there were so many moving pieces to keep track of. She told me to ask my classmates about how much biochemistry they remembered after the semester had ended, and (predictably) very few of us could recall anything beyond a few basic principles. Meanwhile students in her class had been more engaged with the material and were better able to retain what they had learned afterwards. My experiences since have confirmed that, for most people, classes that focus on engaging students will be more successful at actually teaching them, rather than getting them to memorize things for a semester.
Aspie is an affectionate name for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, a developmental disorder closely linked to Autism. The syndrome is named after Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who first described it in the 1940’s. Generally speaking, Asperger’s has similar symptoms to Autism minus the delays in language development during childhood. The most commonly described symptom is the inability to read non-verbal social cues without careful practice. With the publication of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 2013, Asperger’s Syndrome was formally folded into the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. That’s the clinical way of putting it, anyway!
I won’t be trying to define what exactly Autism is here, because I find any time someone tries to do that it ends up getting very impersonal and dehumanizing, and that’s not the goal of this blog. The minutia of Autism and Asperger’s research can be fascinating, but in this post I’d like to focus on, socially and professionally, what the term Aspie means to me. The Autism Spectrum is astonishingly diverse and the differences in experiences, abilities, interests, personalities, and modes of communication between individuals on the spectrum are huge! I won’t pretend to be an expert on ASD, but I can lay out the basics and offer links to other resources. Most importantly, if you’re reading about Autism/Asperger’s and are starting to think you might be on the spectrum, I would, if circumstances allow, encourage you to seek a professional diagnosis. This can get you access to all kinds of support and accommodations, and it’s absolutely something you should consider.
My understanding of Autism and Asperger’s comes primarily from my own experiences as an Aspie. I was diagnosed in about 3rd grade; looking back the signs were obvious. I had a set of toy vehicles that came in a rainbow of colors, and absolutely loved to arrange them into their “proper” patterns. I had a series of “patterns” that heavily governed my movement within a space, the steps that I took, things in the room that I touched, etc. These were all forms of stimming, although not necessarily healthy ones.
As I grew up, I started to hear a lot of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” labels being thrown around. These days those labels are considered outdated and rude, but at the time I let them undermine my experiences because I was labeled “high-functioning.” Sure, I had difficulty picking up on non-verbal social cues. I struggled with transitions from one activity to another, and my time-management skills were lacking. But I was able to interact with people a little, and I was good at school. For the longest time, I wouldn’t have called myself “really autistic,” because there were people out there who were entirely non-verbal, who couldn’t handle a school environment due to sensory overload, or who in other ways seemed to have it a lot worse than me.
While in college I read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and it introduced me to the concept of neurodiversity: the idea that people of different neurological makeups aren’t broken or lesser, just different. This is the concept that now informs how I deal with other people on the spectrum, as well as how I treat myself mentally. Embracing neurodiversity led me to accept one of what I call my “specialist subjects” and to pursue it as a career. A common facet of Aspies is a fixation on one or more specific subjects, often involving categories or lists of things (think species of birds, or car models). Silberman’s book, in part, motivated me to push my career in the direction of my developing obsession with fish biology, and to see my specialist subject not as a weird obsession, but as a career asset.
In short, an Aspie is a person who has probably spent a lot of time confused about other people. Although many of us do learn to pick up non-verbal social signals, that ability isn’t usually present from the beginning for us. Aspies have a variety of talents, interests, methods of stimming, and ways of thinking about the world. We have personal struggles just like everybody else. We have good days and bad days, and we doubt ourselves a lot. I have learned to see my Asperger’s as an asset, and one of the aims of this blog is to help other Aspies do the same thing.
If you have an Aspie in your life or have recently discovered that you are an Aspie, I HEAVILY recommend that you read more than this blog post to get a better grasp on Asperger’s. The best places to start that come to mind are-