Autism and Teaching

Following a panel discussion I was asked if my autistic traits made me a better teacher.

I replied, "No. They are a disadvantage for much of what I teach."

The mother asking the question was puzzled. I don't believe I offered the answer she wanted. This led me to ponder the question and the answer further.

I teach a literature-writing course this semester, "The Study of the Essay." The course is a survey of major essayists and requires students to write personal essays and reflections weekly. The essay is by nature an author's attempts to persuade readers in a personal way. The essayist is a character in his or her own work.

Like many autistics I've met, I read a lot of nonfiction and historical fiction. There are great nonfiction writers, most of whom use the same techniques any novelist or short story author would harness. But, I don't analyze the style while reading: I'm interested in devouring facts. Literary analysis is not my strength.

If I taught programming — which I'd love to do — my perfectionism and passion for orderly, elegant code might make me a better instructor. If I taught science — which I have done — I could focus on the beauty that is a predictable set of laws and theories. There are many subjects that might suit my inherent personal quirks.

But I teach in an English department. It's as confounding at times as teaching in an art department. I love English and I love art, but teaching them is a challenge for me.

Over the years, I've observed teachers who are much better than I am in the classroom. They have a talent for interpreting the unspoken signals of students. Somehow, they read voices, faces, gestures, and other hints. These signals help such teachers reach out to students and draw out what the students want to express. It's like being a psychologist, I suppose.

While I do know autistic psychologists, few work directly with clients. Their mannerisms, I hope they forgive me for stating, might make some clients uncomfortable. I've wondered if I make students uncomfortable. Do I seem detached at times? Do I seem distant to their needs? I have no idea.

At the end of each semester, I receive good evaluations from students. I don't understand why, since I have plenty of doubts about my abilities. As more than one colleague has said, I often wait for students to tell me that I didn't seem to know very much at all. But, I also admit at the start of every semester that I'm not a human database. That's one reason I prefer students explore and discover.

If I'm a good teacher, it is because I know my weaknesses. My autistic traits are simply what I am, so I work around them when necessary and embrace them when they help.


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