The following post was originally published on Duck of Minerva following the death of Dr. Will Moore.
Recent events have prompted necessary discussions about mental health in academia, but a topic that remains underdiscussed are the challenges faced by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). As an adult diagnosed with ASD and current PhD student, I have personally experienced how ASD can be a strength or a struggle, conditional on the surrounding environment. ASD is a spectrum and affects each person differently, but for me, being autistic shapes every moment of every day of my life. I’m thankful that ASD has given me the ability to intensely focus on my research interests, making me a dedicated and creative researcher. At the same time, I have struggled to learn and communicate in the same ways that neurotypical students do. It takes enormous energy and mental space to navigate a world designed for the neurotypical, and most faculty are simply not trained on how to respond to or recognize the difficulties.
I have had significant ASD-related challenges in graduate school, but several people and resources have been crucial to my overall success. First, a TA during my first-year methods training took it upon herself to give me hours of additional assistance beyond what was required by her job when she saw how I struggled in the classroom setting. Second, I have developed two close friendships with people in my cohort; they have helped me navigate and interpret social interactions, monitor tone, and have stepped up for me when sensory processing is difficult. Finally, I have access to regular treatment through the Emory Autism Center and worked with a private tutor my first year. These resources are expensive and not covered by insurance. I hope that institutions find ways in the future to offer these types of assistance to all students with special needs.
Academics are frequently ill-equipped to interact with people with ASD and thus miss out on the rich contributions that people with ASD can make. It is important to remember that individuals with ASD have the right to decide if and when they disclose ASD status. My hope is that these tips will give you practical strategies to proactively support and engage with people who have disclosed so that academia fosters the success the people with ASD. Above all, the best response is to send a clear and credible signal of your willingness to support and engage with individuals with ASD.
For Student Interactions:
Ultimately, these are just suggestions for how to support students and colleagues with ASD. However, this is part of a larger conversation on mental health in academia; another useful reference is Amanda Murdie’s piece on depression.