Tag: Autism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit to Pexels

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

The Autistic Spark

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-

  1. Encourage young Aspies to pursue a career in the natural sciences,
  2. Answer common questions Aspies might have about the academic world through my personal experiences,
  3. Address unique issues Aspies may face in academia (specifically the natural sciences) and share strategies for overcoming them, and
  4. 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.

What is an Aspie? A Personal Explanation

What is an Aspie? A Personal Explanation

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-

Centers for Disease Control

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network

The Website of Dr. Temple Grandin