[This post was edited on 17/06/2017 with help from Juan Pablo Ruiz, this post was also featured on Labmosphere]
I’d been putting off this blog post for a while (I then wrote it and forgot to publish it) as I was waiting on the transcript from the first year of my PhD. I passed with flying colours (as they say). If the UK are good at one thing, it’s that during my MA, I was given adequate support, all courses were agreed upon before the semester (or term) began and changes weren't usually sprung upon students (with the exception of room changes, which I despise).
However, I didn’t start my PhD in the UK, but rather in Poland.
There were no undergraduate students there, funding wasn’t an option, and I worked full time. This was a very different institutional structure to anything I’d come across in the UK, largely due to a lack of organization.
No one thought ‘how will this affect the students’ but rather ‘what is easiest for the professors’: constant, unexpected, and inconsiderate changes were rife. I didn’t have anyone but myself supporting me financially, which meant the irrelevant classes I was forced to attend to gain credits were troublesome. My employer at the time changed my schedule accordingly (I worked as an interdisciplinary teacher). Then, the university changed their schedules, so I had to go back and change mine once again. This continued for a while: back and forth, back and forth. My employer became frustrated and my mental health suffered enormously.
Not long into my second year, I was told that my chosen classes were to be dropped and that I “could become a sociologist or political scientist instead.” “No thank you,” I thought. Imagine telling a philosopher that they can just change discipline. It shouldn’t work like that. I wasn’t there to waste time. I wasn’t there because I had nothing better to do and my parents were funding my student lifestyle. I was there to learn. I was there to gain insight from incredible human beings so that I might too be able to impart knowledge in a similar way.
I cried during my initial interview. I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the six men (and one woman) I’d never met before. They sat around a large wooden table. I was overwhelmed and distracted by the architecture, the smell of old carpets and coffee, the sounds of the Old Town and of people coming in through the open window. I was debilitated by my inability to speak in public without a script. I clutched my iPad. I was sweating profusely and incredibly aware of the marks my hands were making on the black leather of the iPad case. I would wipe my hands on my trousers then go back to clutching my device.
Perfectionism can be an issue when it comes to being an academic. I often felt as though I’d done something wrong, or that I wasn’t good enough, when in reality I’d done nothing wrong and I was good enough. One negative reaction could destroy an otherwise positive day. Professors who recognise this might be able to help in some way by reasoning with the student after a lecture or seminar. Perfectionism can be a good thing too, when it comes to organisation skills, note taking, etc. I have always been complimented on my handwriting, ever since I was younger. I think it was often my notes that gave me away as being different. I would be asked a question and know exactly where to find the answer in my notes. I also find that handwriting (or even typing up) information enables me to retain it more effectively than simply listening to information. I hear everything around me, all the time, so being able to write (or type) means I’m able to focus on listening and writing with nothing in between; it also keeps my hands busy. I have recorded lectures in the past but some professors don’t like it.
Had they even thoroughly read my proposal? This question came to mind on more than one occasion. I was asked heavily loaded questions about how my work was political even though at no point during my proposal did I mention politics. I composed myself, I began to explain my proposal, I went on to discuss why I wanted to study at their institution, how I intended to go about my research and what both they and I could gain from my doing so. My admission folder was white; it was new; I had bought it especially for the occasion. I’d say it was in pristine condition with every document carefully placed in the prefered order of the institution: my photographs, evidence, proposal and more. It was all in there. That’s when I first met the secretary. This woman saved my life. She was the only rock most of the students had. She knew everything there was to know about the institution, including its flaws. She was honest, kind and I will always be grateful to her for helping me when I was struggling.
On several occasions I had experienced misunderstandings with fellow students but as I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past, language barriers make misunderstandings easier. I don’t think there was ever a time that I found being around my fellow human beings to be easy. It has never been easy. I refuse to pretend that being autistic is easy, it is not. A misunderstanding in your own language between two native speakers can have a devastating effect on both parties involved whereas it’s easier to deal with misunderstandings when one of the parties involved has a language native to your own as a second (or third, or fourth) language rather than first, as it takes a little more time and effort. The statement 'you should come to class prepared' doesn't give me as an autistic student the chance to explain that I forgot my pen because something interfered with my usual routine. I didn't forget my pen on purpose but I will be thinking about it for the rest of the day.
I found that as an autistic in academia, the one thing I could’ve used more of was a combination of time and patience from others. A large number of the inspiring individuals I met whilst studying gave me their time and put in the additional effort it takes to get to know me. In the end, when I had left and moved to another city, I realised that most of the issues I have with people are in my head: people do seem to like me for me, even with my unusual behaviour or intense (sometimes viewed as aggressive or strange) conversational skills. I couldn’t understand why anyone would like me because more often than not, I don’t like myself, so I’d distance myself and lose out on forming strong connections with anyone.
I struggle to make relationships last and friendships have always been a problem. I miss so many people but have no way of explaining that to them in a way that doesn’t come across as ‘creepy’. This includes members of staff. How do I communicate with them without them thinking I want something from them? I don’t tend to ask anything of anyone, problems tend to build up, then I erupt, which is followed by, in the words of my father, “biting your nose off to spite your face”. The self destructive nature of my reactions is one way to lead an unsuccessful life, or in this case, an unsuccessful academic career. It’s no wonder I took such a keen interest in the philosophy of self, the rational and the corporeal. Perhaps I should one day write about autism, the self and Plotinus.
Ways in which institutions can help autistic students (based on personal experience):
When I was no longer able to concentrate on the lecturer over the sound of students clicking pens, flickering lights and construction site noises, I'd leave and wouldn't return. Lectures and/or seminars which last for several hours with one or two breaks are too long. I once had a meltdown in the toilets as no one but me had read a specific text and I felt as though I had wasted my time. Despite all of my issues, if I ever decided to continue my PhD (which I’m attempting to do remotely, without an institution) I believe I would be better prepared than I was initially. Education is a key part to growing as a human being so I do not regret negative experiences, instead I add them to my ‘to learn from’ list. Some of my work can be found on my site, Academia, the rest remains secret until such time as I’m ready to share it with the world.
Thank you for taking the time to read about some of my experiences, if you can relate to this post or you think I’ve missed anything important, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, ideally via Twitter.
All images used are by Kay Isabedra via Death to the Stock Photo.