Never a Good Autism / Autistic Scholar

Years ago, when I entered graduate school, I imagined helping students and teachers connect via technology. I wanted to study "writing across the curriculum" and online writing labs. These interests led me to a doctorate… but by the time I completed the degree I recognized that my career was already off my planned course.

When I decided that writing about autism and education would be beneficial to someone, beyond myself, part of that decision was based on the (yes, we should admit this) trendiness of disability studies and all things diversity-based. I could do some good, and the topic would be desired by other academic scholars. It was a win-win.

Instead, I found myself drifting back and forth between what I love (creative writing and the rhetoric of fiction) and what I believed I had to do to secure a teaching job (something autism-related). Not that I don't care about autism, but it isn't nearly the interest for me that it is for some other autistic scholars in writing and rhetoric. I care… sometimes. Most of the time? I want to study what makes a story effective.

My one "autistic" role is as a board member for a regional autism charity that helps connect people to services. I attend two-thirds of the board meetings, schedule permitting, and offer some ideas, but I'm not an active volunteer like many of the parents of autistics manage to be. I'm not involved in ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) or any other autistic-centric group. I have no desire to attend "Autreat" and I cannot recall the last time I looked at the online autism communities (probably when I was in graduate school).

When I read about autism as a topic at writing conferences, I don't celebrate this as a "good thing." For all the slogans such as, "When you've met one autistic person, you've met one person," the reality is that the autistic scholarship seems to convey there is a commonality, beyond sharing a diagnosis.

The "autism community" these scholar-advocates know is not that large. It is not universal. The "supportive academic homes" they have found are not the norm. Their experiences of being accepted and celebrated in academia are not mine. And they are not the experiences of so many autistic [former] students I have met.

Academia is not a wonderful, loving, supportive place that stands apart from other workplaces. No. Schools are workplaces. They can be great and they can be lousy. And my experiences have generally been pretty lousy.

At these conferences at which scholars in the audience will congratulate themselves for embracing and celebrating autistic scholars, I find myself an outsider. I don't enjoy the social events, the small talk, the need to schmooze to become familiar and eventually land a tenure-track job.

I'd be the one limping about, wanting to scream at the sensory overload, trying desperately to present one or two papers here and there to prove I am a scholar. And I hated it. I hated trying to read social cues, say the right things, and engage in discussions that didn't appeal to me.

My goal? Teaching writing as effectively as possible.

There is nothing "political" in my pursuits, and I have no grand scheme to promote Marxist critiques or to engage in some sort of social justice. I just wanted to learn how to help students master the dominant American Standard English (sorry, the Anglo-Colonial Dominant Language Tradition). (Yeah, yeah, teaching is "political" by nature… so I taught at two business-centric universities.)

You want to help students? Teach them to communicate effectively within their families, communities, workplaces, and so on. To teach effectively, I don't need to know about the social construction of ablism or what the latest neuroqueer critical theory might be. I need to know how can I help first-generation students and non-native speakers and those with cognitive difference engage clearly and effectively with the world in which they exist here and now. Does that world stink? Maybe. But, if you can't communicate, you can't change things.

So, I wanted to teach writing and teach it well. I wanted to use technology to help teach writing. That's what I wanted to do.

I didn't want to study which dead authors might have been autistic, unless that was going to help me teach Hmong- and Spanish-speaking students the difference between who and whom in a business document. I don't have time to address the rhetoric of social media unless that helps me teach first-year composition students the value of proper citation formats — which they must master for other courses in college.

Nope, I'm just not an "autistic" scholar.

Nobody expects autistic professors in the STEM fields to focus on autism and physics or autism and robotics. (Though there are some very cool projects using robotics to help people with special needs, those are applied projects, not the theory common the doctoral research.) No, it was my choice of field that somehow came with the mandate to be a disabilities scholar, if I wanted to remain and rise in the discipline.

Do I believe there are areas of study that overlap writing and disability? Absolutely, especially in the usability and user-experience areas that I am willing to research. I do care about accommodations. I want to solve problems of writing and reading, so I am eager to use technology to solve challenges. But, I don't care about so much else that seems to be the majority of "scholarship" in my field.

Since I do not have a teaching post and might not pursue another post, I have been reflecting on how strange it is that colleagues assume I should be interested in questions that don't interest me and seem disconnected from my life. I'm sure those scholar believe they could (and have tried) to explain why I need to care about the deconstruction of disability in discourse communities. (Uh… whatever?)

I just want to know if technology X will help person Y communicate ideas and concerns A, B, and C to the world. If that wasn't a good fit for any tenure-track post, so be it.

Now, I have some plays and movies to write. And more people will see any play that is produced than would be touched by the scholarship I have produced. See? I'm not wrong to care about the rhetoric of fiction. The successful stage adaptation of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has more people talking about autism and autistic experiences than all the autism scholarship ever published. I know some autistic advocates have used the play to rally against the lead role going to a "neurotypical" actor. I'm not that passionate about the actor cast in the role, since I thought the book was only okay.

As readers of this blog know, I'd rather be a good creative writer if I had to choose between general audience creative and academic writing. And if that means I also don't teach full-time at a university again, that's life.


  1. I think that your goals of teaching reading/writing/communication and using technology to solve problems in these areas are excellent. I hope you can pursue projects in this area. I am interested in these areas too, and knowing more about your ideas and approach. I am a graduate student in neuroscience doing brain/cognition/behavior research in autism and I am autistic too. I want to create some language learning resources for children who have language delay like I had. Also I find it hard to communicate my research to others, esp. through writing (even writing emails about it), less so through presentations that are more visual and I can explain many pictures in my slideshow or even do chalk talk my favorite. May I get in touch with you by email? I really want your advice to develop something practical in languages area, but I couldn't find your contact info anywhere. My gmail username is brrrnzzz, if you would like to contact me. Thanks!


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