Tag: Aspie

Scuba Diving as an Aspie

Scuba Diving as an Aspie

Scuba diving can be a wonderful, potentially life-altering experience. For many people, descending beneath the waves of the ocean, or even into a lake or quarry, can feel like exploring an alien planet filled with unfamiliar forms of life. While humans evolved to live in terrestrial environments, about 71% of the Earth is covered with water and about 97% of that is ocean. Further, all life on Earth is thought to have originated in an aquatic environment. One could then argue that the oceans, with their variety of distinct ecosystems, represent the primary habitat on Earth. This, I feel, drives an intense curiosity about the undersea world for many of us.

Recreational scuba diving is a fast-growing sport and is by no means restricted to those with related jobs, but scuba can also be used in a range of natural science careers (both marine and freshwater). There are many scientists whose fieldwork includes underwater surveys of fish, algae, and invertebrates, collecting samples at depth, or even conducting habitat use, feeding, or reproductive studies while diving. If you are interested in this sort of work, earning scuba certifications while in high school or college can be enormously beneficial.

However, it should be noted that scuba diving is not for everyone, can be quite expensive, and is absolutely not required for a career in marine/aquatic science. The message you take away from this post should not be “I have to spend a lot of money on scuba courses and gear or else I can’t be a marine scientist.” A lot of marine science is done in labs and on computers, rendering scuba training unnecessary. I know many marine scientists who can’t even swim, let alone scuba dive! Even amongst those who are scuba certified, most only dive for fun, not work.

I bring up scuba here because, in addition to being a moderately common tool for marine and freshwater scientists, it can be a unique experience for those on the autism spectrum. In particular, the sensory and organizational aspects of autism and Asperger’s can have massive implications when scuba diving, both positive and negative.

General Therapeutic Effects

There have been anecdotal stories of individuals diagnosed with ASD (DSM IV autism and Asperger’s) experiencing moderate relief from sensory stresses and anxieties while scuba diving for some time. As far as I am aware the only formal study on the subject came out of Midwestern University in about 2014, though this study simply analyzed personal accounts of autistic divers to identify common themes and experiences. Drawing on my experience as an autistic divemaster, I can confirm that many positive aspects of the scuba experience can (sometimes, in some people) impact common types of sensory issues. Neurotypical scuba students frequently report these benefits as well, though they may be more striking for autistic divers.

Many autistic people derive comfort from weighted blankets or similarly thick clothing; this is thought to be the result of increased pressure on the body. While I can’t explain why this works physiologically or psychologically, it is a widespread experience. When scuba diving, the ambient pressure on your body increases rapidly due to the weight of the water above you. That pressure is double what you experience at sea level after descending only 10 meters (33 feet) and increases linearly with depth. Autistic divers have commonly reported that this increased pressure, in addition to the squeeze of their exposure suit, provides a comparable effect to that of a weighted blanket.

For some people on the spectrum oversensitivity to certain stimuli can cause headaches, anxiety, and stress. Because diving narrows your perception through impairment of most senses, it can significantly reduce sensory distractions. When diving, your vision is narrowed by your mask, smell and taste are severely limited, hearing is minimal, and tactile reception can be reduced with gloves. Some have described this as freeing, simultaneously relieving the anxiety and headaches associated with overstimulation and improving focus. I cannot speak to the medical validity of this, though it is an interesting possibility.

Finally, dive training can offer a sense of confidence and accomplishment to anyone willing to put in the time. This is frequently cited as a major benefit of recreational dive training for neurotypicals, and I feel it extends to the autistic community. Particularly for those of us who may not have a lot of agency and control in other areas of our lives, building confidence through dive training and execution can be intensely fulfilling.

Potential Aspie Advantages

In some ways, Aspies are built for scuba diving. Virtually all scuba training makes use of extensive lists, acronyms, and mnemonic devices. Aspies are commonly drawn to this type of mental organization, and many of us already rely heavily on lists and categories to manage our daily lives. Personally, scuba training felt almost familiar because of how it was structured. Neurotypicals face a potentially high barrier to entry during their initial scuba training because they must adapt their existing mental organization system to keep track of gear, conduct equipment and buddy checks, and establish and remember dive plans. For many Aspies, this manner of organization is more naturally grasped.

Humans (except for fluent sign-language speakers) lose our primary means of communication when diving. To compensate for this, the dive community has developed a set of hand signals that allow for limited communication at depth. Although there are small variations in the use of niche signals and the overall syntax when multiple signals are used in sequence, the most important signals are considered universal. However, because these signals are so simple and so few, divers need to be deliberate when communicating. This system will appeal to some Aspies. Because it reduces communication to only the most necessary messages, normalizes the practice of “speaking” methodically, and eliminates confounding factors like tone of voice and facial expression, some Aspie divers I know find this “language” preferable to speaking on land. Aspies may indeed find they are well-suited to this form of communication and therefore better prepared to become divers.

For Aspies, plans and expectations that are thorough, clear, and explicit are frequently a source of comfort. Due to safety concerns and limited communication at depth this is always the case when diving. Every dive training course will emphasize the importance of making thorough plans for each dive and clearly articulating any goals or expectations. Divers are also taught to stick to the plan, erring only on the side of safety. As the saying goes, “Plan your dive and dive your plan.” I imagine many Aspies will find this culture of safety and explicit communication comforting, as I have.

Potential Aspie Disadvantages

I think I’ve made a fair case so far for why Aspies tend to make good divers, but there are some ways in which we may be naturally unprepared. The biggest of these relates to the diving medical requirements and associated sensory issues.

While I am not aware of any proven correlations between autism and other specific medical conditions, the sensory under- and over-stimulation common amongst those on the spectrum can be a problem when diving, depending on how it manifests. For example, the rapid pressure changes involved in diving affect gas pockets in the body including the lungs, inner ears, and sinuses. Divers must compensate for these changes by breathing full, calm breaths and exhaling while ascending (lungs), equalizing/clearing their ears, often manually (inner ears and sinuses), and always ascending slowly (both). Although I have never witnessed autism-related sensory issues prevent a would-be diver from properly performing these tasks, someone prone to over-stimulation in their sinuses, for example, would almost certainly require extra help during training to get used to it. Similar sensory issues could arise with breathing compressed air, which is necessarily cold and dry and can be uncomfortable in the mouth and throat.

Another skill that may present some difficulty to autistic divers with sensory issues is the conscious regulation of breathing rhythm and overcoming the instinct to hold one’s breath. As mentioned above, lungs are fundamentally gas pockets that will expand and contract as the ambient pressure changes. This can cause a serious lung over-expansion injury if a diver, for example, holds their breath and swims upward. Slight changes in lung volume (inhaling and exhaling) will also influence a diver’s buoyancy, allowing for fine mobility control. For these reasons, dive training courses emphasize conscious control of breathing and expect students to maintain that control throughout every dive. I know one individual on the spectrum who struggles with sensory over-stimulation when she starts to think about her breathing. While I imagine this might be a rare issue, it would be a significant problem when undertaking dive training.

I have known some Aspies for whom anxiety is a defining facet of life and who are prone to panic easily. If this sounds like you, I recommend that you approach diving with caution. While scuba diving can be a tool to regulate anxiety and panic through comfortingly thorough training, clear communication, and reduction of sensory over-stimulation, this regulation must be learned early in the training process. The best advice I can give to someone in this situation is to share their concerns with their instructor clearly, and to accept that extended training time in the pool may be necessary. Anxiety does not preclude you from becoming a successful diver but pretending that it isn’t part of the equation might put you in a dangerous situation.

Finally, diving is a social sport. While Aspies generally don’t experience speech delays in childhood, many of us have to work very hard to figure out the unwritten social rules that neurotypicals grasp quickly. Different Aspies do this at different rates during different stages of their lives, and some will probably never understand their neurotypical peers. I don’t personally see this as a failure or shortcoming, but it does create practical issues when entering a highly social activity that is, like most things, dominated by neurotypicals. There is no magic advice that will make your dive peers like or understand you. All you can do is keep a good attitude and open mind, give your best effort, and communicate genuinely. If possible, it may also be best to dive with a friend or family member who knows you well and will not be put off if a social rule is broken.

Getting Started—Finding a Healthy Dive Culture

While the vast majority of dive operations are shining examples of safety, there are plenty of less-than-reputable businesses that cut corners either out of laziness or to minimize expenses. Once you have engaged with such a business, they will frequently use peer-pressure (yes, really) to get you to finish your training while overlooking equipment safety issues or rushed instruction. All prospective divers should make sure that they are pursuing training through a reputable organization, especially those on the spectrum who anticipate needing extra time or assistance.

You’ll want to start by looking for an open water or introductory scuba course (these are common terms for a “basic” recreational scuba certification) offered by an internationally recognized dive training agency. These include the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), Scuba Diving International (SDI), the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC), the Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS, also called the World Underwater Federation), the National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE), and others.

Visit a dive shop, school, or training center associated with the agency of your choice and inquire about the dive certification process. Voice any questions or concerns you may have, including relevant sensory issues or significant anxieties. This initial conversation can tell you a lot about how a dive operation is run and, when coupled with online reviews, will form the basis of your decision. Learning to dive requires honesty and vulnerability, particularly if you have sensory/autism related concerns. That can be scary! You need to decide whether you feel comfortable being honest and vulnerable while working with this operation’s staff. All the effort will pay off when you receive patience and individual attention during training, and with a certification card that will be recognized by dive operators around the world. If you decide to pursue advanced dive training or even a career as a dive professional, you can rely on this familiar and trusted operation for guidance.

Getting Started—Adaptive Diving

The world of adaptive scuba training is growing rapidly, and new opportunities are popping up all over. This type of training was originally conceived for paraplegic divers, but it has expanded to cover a range of physical and mental conditions including most forms of autism. While the process I’ve outlined above may work for many Aspies who are capable of “passing” as neurotypical and/or who have relatively mild sensory concerns, people (Aspie or otherwise) elsewhere on the autism spectrum may benefit from adaptive training. This includes anyone who struggles with basic verbal communication or learning in a traditional academic setting, has severe sensory issues, or who does not function autonomously to the degree a diver normally would.

If you fall into this second category and want to learn to dive, your best bet (in the U.S., at least) is to find a shop with an instructor certified by the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA). This sort of thing will usually be emphasized on a store’s website. The HSA site (hsascuba.com) is supposed to help you find instructors, divemasters, and dive buddies who are HSA certified, although at time of writing each of these links causes the site to crash. I recommend starting with an internet search for “HSA Instructor” followed by your area.

HSA instructors are scuba instructors who have undergone additional training and are qualified to teach students with a range of physical and mental disabilities and conditions. Depending on the dive operation and your unique situation you may be placed into a class with neurotypical students and given the extra attention and support you need, or you may get entirely private lessons. If you have a friend or family member who dives and would like to dive with you, the HSA offers a Dive Buddy Course (DBC). This course prepares divers who are already certified to partner with paraplegic, quadriplegic, amputee, and blind buddies. I have been told that the most recent version of the DBC includes information about diving and the autism spectrum, though I can’t personally confirm this.


For me, scuba diving is as much about focusing my mind on a single task as it is about exploring. It grounds me, calms me, and keeps me active. While I can’t guarantee that diving will have these effects for all Aspies, I encourage you to try it if you are at all interested.

Your best source of advice about diving in the context of a science career will be faculty mentors engaged in diving research, so seek them out and talk to them. Lastly, remember that diving is far from required in the aquatic sciences; it’s just one of many tools that can be used to study marine or freshwater systems. Whether or not you decide to (or are able to) take up scuba diving, you are welcome in the natural sciences.


I am not a medical professional; the advice and views expressed here do not constitute formal medical advice. Further, these writings are my own and do not necessarily represent the official positions of any dive training or safety agencies with which I am affiliated, including the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Schools International (SSI), and Divers Alert Network (DAN), or that of any dive operations for which I have worked.

Working with Neurotypicals

Working with Neurotypicals

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels

Teaching as an Aspie (How to Teach Neurotypicals)

Teaching as an Aspie (How to Teach Neurotypicals)

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.

Avoid Condescension

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.

Photo Credit to Pexels