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.