Is Academia + Autism a 'Fit' or a Myth?

There are several claims I hear about employment and autism. Some of these claims are generally true, some are definitely myths, and all of them are dependent on many variables. No job is ideal for every person with an autism spectrum disorder, and not all autistics fit stereotypes about skills and interests. In this post, I want to explore the idea that an academic career is somehow a better fit than other careers.

Is academia an ideal place for an autistic person? That's a complicated question.

Writing this post is probably not the "smart" thing to do professionally, but the topic is important to many families and individuals. I've read several articles suggesting academia is a haven for autistics. Is it?

Q. Which academic setting is being considered?

When we discuss academic settings, we should admit that there are a nearly infinite number of settings. Not only do grade levels require different types of teachers, but so do different types of institutions. I'll deal with the "settings within settings" later, because these also vary greatly.

Elementary school is about relationships. You have to connect emotionally with 20 to 40 (yes, I've seen fifth grade classes of 40 students) often unpredictable children. You have to connect to parents, who will reflect the nature of the community around the school. Finally, you have to connect to your coworkers, many of whom are outgoing socializers. Yes, there are personality traits among teachers — parents and students want a elementary teacher to be energetic, outgoing, and happy.

The lower grades are general, multi-subject grades. While you can establish routines, these are also unpredictable grades because social skills are so important. You have to deal with fights, jealousy, and all the normal behaviors of children. You'll have to be good at cleaning up messes, too.

Middle school or junior high varies by the way the school is organized and which grade levels are included. I attended a 7-8 "junior high" that followed the same schedule as the nearby high school. Middle schools and junior highs might have students as young as sixth grade and as old as ninth grade. There is an amazing difference between an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old student.

The closer the school is to the high school model, the easier it might be for someone like me. That isn't because I want a single subject — I'd rather teach several subjects — but it is because the schedule is comfortable. I still miss the bells signalizing the beginning and end of each class period. You can do the same at lower grades, if you are good at being the timekeeper. My problem is that I struggle to stop a discussion, activity, or lecture when I'm deeply involved in the moment.

The university level might be ideal for someone focused on a single topic or interested in specialized research. However, this depends on the type of college or university: some are teaching-focused and some are research-focused. The vast majority of colleges are teaching-focused. Instructors handle four, five, or more courses at a time — much like the high school workload — and have limited time for research or scholarly writing. There are only a handful of true "Research One" ("R1") universities, and at those institutions undergraduate teaching is dominated by teaching assistants and adjunct faculty. To earn tenure, faculty at R1 universities have to focus on building research reputations. I'll address the research and teaching issues of the university later.

Given a choice, I'd teach high school. However, I never cleared my elementary or high school credential. I earned a preliminary credential, passed all the necessary exams, but I didn't finish my first full-year as a high school teacher. The situation was wrong for me. That leads me to the next point.

Q. What is the workplace environment?

Schools are workplaces. They are not better than or worse than any other workplaces. You need a good supervisor, a mentor willing to help constructively. Men and women who believe they are "good" can still be bad supervisors. I've had supervisors other people loved turn out to be the wrong supervisors for me.

Managing a person who struggles with social skills and interpreting other people is not something every manager can do well. Even schools, which should know how to help people with special needs, can have trouble managing autistic employees. Some of the mistakes are probably honest misunderstandings, but they be overwhelming. Regular, useful guidance is essential to navigating the workplace and meeting goals. Curiously, many goals aren't stated as clearly as you might expect.

Does your direct supervisor really understand the special needs of an autistic person? My experience is that most do not and even fewer will be willing to learn about autism. I've offered to help people understand my needs, but that offer isn't always accepted. In some workplaces, I've been advised that discussing "autism" or other challenges would be a bad idea.

Even within education they might not "get" how sensitivities are physically painful.

I've had three offices in my current teaching post because the campus is being redeveloped. That's not a bad thing, but it was difficult for me. Two of the offices were horrible and my new office is a challenge: one was in a construction zone, one was next to the "physical plant" (HVAC) of a building, and the third office is too far from my classrooms. I use a cane some days and don't exactly move easily. (I'm fine other days, though always a bit slower than most people.)

My classrooms have been a challenge, too. I've told my supervisors — which is the most you can do sometimes. There is limited space on most campuses, so maybe there are valid reasons I cannot use other spaces. Good management would explain whatever the reasons are for not accommodating physical limitations.

The physical challenges pale next to the social aspects of workplaces.

My first "real" teaching post (many years ago) taught me that there are bullies in the workplace. The situation was unhealthy for me, and I opted to resign and pursue other career options rather than deal with an abusive supervising teacher. After that experience, I still dreamed of teaching high school. It wasn't meant to be, though. I love teaching, but not enough to be miserable in the workplace.

Because I am not good at the social things, I end up trying to follow orders and whatever rules I am told. Once a supervisor realizes he or she can manipulate and push me around, that seems to happen more often than it should. It's not always a problem, but it has been a problem more than I would like. My supervising teacher had me doing a lot of extra work, and some work not even connected to my job. In the end, I didn't feel like I was part of a team — I felt like a servant.

Being exploited, and that's what it has been, can happen in any workplace. Maybe it is related to autistic traits, and maybe it is my fear of upsetting people. I'm not even certain people realize they are asking me to do too much or abusing my desire to fit in and meet expectations. This risks not only burnout, but it also risks alienation. While I'm busy trying to do as I've been asked, that means I'm focused on those tasks.

Understand that earning tenure at any institution is a social process. While the social aspects of promotion vary by grade level, discipline, and much more, tenure is as much about fitting in with your colleagues as doing great work in the classroom and lab.

Q. How do disciplines differ?

My experience is that what you teach and the department you call home are important considerations. This might fit the stereotypes of autism, but I'm not sure. Maybe Temple Grandin is correct that it is easier — and more common — for autistics and people with autistic traits to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields than other fields. In academia, I have to admit that the STEM departments and programs might have been a better fit for me, even though I have degrees in English, journalism, rhetoric, and communications.

My doctoral work did specialize in new media, technology, Web design, and special education. However, because I studied within the departments of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota, I can't easily find a position focused on technology or media arts. I wish I had earned a degree that was clearly technical, something that proclaims, "COMPUTER and MEDIA ARTS GEEK" to the world. I made the choice to study technical communication and design, imagining I could find position that would include teaching technology skills and theories.

I'm not sure how to explain the differences among the disciplines. In the STEM fields, being quiet, withdrawn, and focused on your discipline is easier than within the humanities. Many of my colleagues in technical fields seem to share a lot of traits: focus, passion for things, a desire to solve problems, and a biases towards objective results.

It turns out, at least in my experiences, that humanities departments are more social. Those observations are only my experience, though. There seems to be more emphasis on conferences and gatherings than in other fields. The sciences emphasize peer-review journal articles and grant-funded research. There are many STEM conferences, too, but having attended technical gatherings and humanities gatherings I can attest they are nothing alike. It seems that humanities careers are based on relationships and friendships. I know this will be controversial, but friendships matter in a way they don't in the sciences.

The humanities are also driven by more overtly political idealism. You can read the paper and publication topics for conferences and see that "social justice" and "activism" are themes at English conferences. The themes of computer conferences tend to be more concrete; I understand the topics more readily than I do the topics at writing-based conferences. At one writing conference I attended, the featured speaker spent most of his time talking about capitalism and corporatism. Maybe that is scholarship, but it isn't appealing to me.

Th nature of the humanities, it could be argued, is political. The scholarship, especially the theoretical works, do tend to reflect the dominant political views within the departments. That's fine, but I'm uncomfortable with political arguments. I want to improve writing instruction and methods of writing for students with special needs — that's about as political as I want to get. It is a form of advocacy and should be sufficient.

I am convinced I could fit within the right humanities department, especially if there were other scholars interested in people with special needs. Again, finding the right workplace is important and difficult for everyone.

Q. How does a research institution differ from a teaching campus?

Research institutions generally offer a reduced teaching load in return for conducting research and producing publications. You might teach two courses a semester, instead of four or five courses. It is common to expect faculty to produce two or three research articles a year, a conference paper or two, and maybe a book-length work every four to six years.

What constitutes "research" varies dramatically by discipline. Much of the "research" in the humanities, in particular writing disciplines, is theoretical. I'm not sure I'd call it "research" as much as ethnographic reflection. That's valuable, but it is more subjective than research in the STEM fields.

I like research. I'd love to be conducting usability research and detailed, quantitative analyses of autistic writers. In fact, I am working on a research project about the nature of autistic writing. I consider the research valuable, but I am squeezing it in with a teaching schedule of three courses and two direct study assignments. It can be overwhelming. If I were working at an R1, I would have more time to focus on my research interests. That might also make it easier to "fit" within a department, where everyone is conducting research.

Before the last year, I would have said I belonged at a small teaching university. Now, I know I prefer the larger settings I experienced as a student. I attended two large research universities and a mid-sized state university. I thought a small campus would be easier to navigate, but it turned out to be a far more challenging environment. However, moving "up" to a research institution is a huge task — there aren't that many research positions open each year. I fear you have to start right off at an R1 to build that type of career, unless you manage to publish some groundbreaking research while at a teaching university.

Q. Is an academic career realistic?

I spent a year on the job market after completing my doctorate. I turned down interviews, really wanted a few posts for which I interviewed, and ended up accepting a post I thought might fit my technical interests. In the end, the university where I am teaching has decided to re-evaluate their technical communication programs and I will not be renewing my contract. My research and teaching interests don't align with the needs of the student population of the university — and building a program would be difficult in these financial times.

Many of my peers have found departments and programs closing or downsized, especially in the humanities.

Following my interviews with some campuses, I learned that they had hundreds of applicants. One university had more than 400 applicants for one teaching post. There are far more people with doctorates than openings in higher education. Seventy percent of professors are now adjuncts, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Some fields, such as petroleum engineering, have too few professors, but the humanities graduates are facing a saturated market with little hope for improvement.

I graduated from Minnesota's technical communication program with some good people, and several others didn't quite finish the doctoral program. About half of doctoral students do not complete their programs, in both the humanities and sciences. The colleagues from tech comm I know well range from having a great R1 position to being unemployed. Some are working on an annual, non-tenure track contract basis. Two are unemployed, sadly, and I'm not sure it will be possible to find a position after two or three years outside academia.

Everyone entering a doctoral program wants to imagine he or she will find a teaching or research position. You wouldn't pursue the degree without being optimistic. It saddens me to think about my colleagues who are struggling more than I am.

The job interview process is grueling. It isn't the best experience for someone with autistic traits. You fly from campus to campus, presenting your research and trying to be sociable. You need to "charm" an audience of strangers and convince them you deserve a final interview or a job offer. I submitted so many applications that I started to lose track of them, even with a checklist.

Because my research and papers discussed being disabled, and I traveled with my cane, it was impossible to avoid some questions and concerns about being disabled. There are legal concerns when you interview for jobs, but you also need to determine if the institution can and will provide the supports you need. I've learned that getting the ideal accommodations is a challenge, for reasons that aren't always easy to understand. Colleagues with special needs tell me this is a challenge at many institutions, causing at least one to quit a job after only a few months.

How much the campus needs you might affect how much effort they make to meet special needs. If you're in a field without many experts, and you are particularly skilled, you have some bargaining power.

Again, a STEM degree would be more advantageous in this job market.

Q. So is academia a good fit or not?

Academia is a job. That's the key point. It isn't necessarily a magical place, simply a type of workplace.

The best job I had in my entire life was at the University of Southern California, in Computing Services. That was the best, most intellectually demanding, and creatively engaged workplace I've ever experienced. I still dream of finding a similar job. The men and women were brilliant, and I respected them greatly.

If I had to describe my ideal fit, it would probably be a post at a research university with teaching assignments related to "new media" and technology. But, I can only guess if that would be a fit for me or not. Unfortunately, my current post simply wasn't the best fit. That's not anyone's fault — it is hard to find the right job in any career path.

Because I was happiest among computing experts, I do theorize the STEM disciplines might be a good match for someone like me. I hate to suggest a stereotype is accurate, but that is is one conclusion I've reached.

I recently received a copy of Scholars with Autism, edited by Lars Perner, whom I've met several times. The scholars profiled are not in English or art departments. A few are psychologists, one is an anthropologist, and all seem to be interested in better understanding why people behave the way they do. I recall Dawn Prince saying that being autistic forces you to be an anthropologist to navigate the workplace.

Personally, having to analyze social situations and workplace politics constantly is too exhausting. That will be a consideration when I prepare for whatever career path is ahead of me.

I hope this blog posting helps start a valuable discussion. Again, my experiences are only mine and not universal truths.


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