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.
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.
When I was first diagnosed with Asperger’s I was emphatically told that this didn’t make me lesser, only different. My parents were sure to explain that being an Aspie came with positives and negatives. “Specialist subjects,” a common facet of Aspie life, can be viewed as either depending on the context. These are subjects with which we are intensely fascinated, and we often jump at the chance to talk about them. For parents, educators, and siblings hearing about the same topics over and over can be frustrating, but to us collecting new knowledge in these areas is addicting and fun. If intellectual engagement with a subject is like a flame that may burn out, Aspies have an autistic spark that reignites the flame and drives us to learn more and more about our specialist subject. I believe this drive can be put to good use, both for our individual wellbeing and the planet’s.
Turning Your Specialist Subject into a Science Career
“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” -Unknown
This cliché often attributed (doubtfully) to Confucius seems obvious, but for Aspies it goes double. For many of us, making a career out of our specialist subjects would be a dream come true. This is not always possible, but for those of us interested in parts of the natural world like species of birds or relationships between plants, statistics and big data, or even how humans structures are designed, a path exists to an enjoyable and vital career. The scientific endeavor is by its nature slow and methodical. To properly function it needs stewards who are committed to expanding knowledge in their field and protecting the integrity of the process. The road is long and complex, but passionate scientists are needed to improve human understanding of the world we inhabit.
The World Needs People Like You
“I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” -Greta Thunberg
The Earth is changing. Increasing atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, overfishing, deforestation, eutrophication of streams and estuaries, habitat loss, and many other destructive forces are reshaping our planet. We don’t yet fully understand how our global ecosystem functions and inter-connects, let alone how it will change as a result of human actions. Continued human existence as we know it, not to mention that of millions of other species, depends on a thorough understanding of how the world works and what we can do to protect it. This requires dedicated scientists who can work on all aspects of the problem. Ecologists are needed to characterize ecosystem structures and to identify keystone species. Data analysts and population scientists are needed to determine which species are in the most imminent danger and to set hunting and catch limits. Geologists and climatologists are needed to assess what will happen to the Earth’s biosphere and what we can do about it. Conservationists are needed to design and implement new strategies to protect life in each of our ecosystems. These are only a few natural science careers through which you can help protect our planet.
What is this Blog About?
My goal here is to convince other Aspies (and non-Aspie/NT folks too of course!) to put their autistic spark to work by joining the scientific endeavor to better understand and protect our world. As an aspiring marine scientist with a specialist subject in bony fish biology, I am familiar with the unique assets Aspies posses that may benefit them in a scientific career. I have also run up against a few challenges that may be unique to Asperger’s. With this blog I aim to-
Encourage young Aspies to pursue a career in the natural sciences,
Answer common questions Aspies might have about the academic world through my personal experiences,
Address unique issues Aspies may face in academia (specifically the natural sciences) and share strategies for overcoming them, and
Improve general public awareness and acceptance of Aspies in academia and society.
This blog addresses issues that may arise at different points in a science career, from high school to full-time researcher. It is designed to be read by Aspies at all career stages, as well as any neurotypicals that find it helpful.