This is the final part of a three-part series about being an autistic graduate student. In part one, Ira Kraemer, AKA Autistic Science Person, described the logistics of getting into graduate school. In part two, they describe being undiagnosed and the negative aspects of pushing past one’s limits. Here, Ira explores how their experience in grad school improved once they had some diagnoses (though not an autism diagnosis at the time) to guide their decisions around self-care, and they also talk about why they would have disclosed their autism to a disabilities services office.
Ira Kraemer is currently a neuroscience PhD candidate and late-diagnosed autistic person. They blog about their experiences as Autistic Science Person at autisticscienceperson.com.
Thanks again to Ira for this insightful series.
Reducing Sensory Sensitivity/Pain
I found out that most people don’t have stabbing pains in their eardrums in response to moderately loud noises (55 dB SPL+) and don’t have shutdowns from auditory overload where they can’t speak for multiple hours. I decided that I needed to reduce my stress and made rules for myself. I made myself wear headphones when walking around on campus. Even after a few days, I noticed I was much less stressed when I arrived in the lab, but I wouldn’t have known it without wearing headphones. A few months later, I learned about alexithymia and realized that I have that, which is difficulty identifying and verbally expressing one’s current emotional state. I tried to check in with myself every 2-3 hours, check my pulse to figure out if I was anxious, if I was sitting comfortably or in pain, and tried to change things to determine the cause. Sometimes I was irritable because I was too hot and needed to take my jacket off but didn’t realize it. Sometimes it was because a buzzing sound was extra distracting to me that day, so I needed to put headphones on. Sometimes it was because I hadn’t had lunch and it was 3 pm. Eating is the most difficult daily task for me, as I am sensitive to spicy foods (even just pepper) and have texture sensitivities. I can only tell that I’m hungry when my stomach starts hurting, so I make sure to try to eat something every several hours, even if it’s just a granola bar.
Try to give yourself sensory need boundaries – check in with yourself, wear headphones or sunglasses or earplugs if you’re annoyed. Ask questions if you don’t understand something someone said, even if you think it may seem like a ridiculous question to them. Sometimes I will even say, “I know this might sound simple, but I don’t understand how X works. Can you explain it to me?” “Sorry, I’m just very literal, can you rephrase that? I have a hard time with abstract concepts,” “I overthink a lot of simple tasks, so do you mind going through this slower?” or “Sorry, I can’t talk very well right now” when I’m having bad verbal communication days.
Disclosing your diagnosis is your own personal choice, but I know that if I had been diagnosed before I took my classes, I likely would’ve gone to the disability center to disclose. For me, interacting with professors I didn’t know well was the hardest part of being undiagnosed. I had at least four public shutdowns in front of professors who didn’t know what to do. They often made my shutdowns worse. They would ask me what was wrong (I couldn’t talk) or tried to look into my eyes (like lasers burning my brain). I wish I could’ve known at the time, so I could’ve explained to them what I needed. For example, one shutdown was during a final oral exam that the entire class had to take. The format wasn’t told to us and wouldn’t be. I had a shutdown in the middle of the exam, as the chairs were arranged differently (facing people), and I didn’t know if it was individual questions or group questions. I didn’t know what the question meant that they were asking. I had 30 seconds to respond verbally. So instead, my brain decided to have a shutdown. I tried to breathe quietly as tears rolled down my face onto the paper. Luckily, the professor told me to go to the bathroom. If they hadn’t said that, I would’ve sat paralyzed there even longer. I was luckily able to calm down and come back two minutes later and finish the exam.
Another shutdown was prompted after the exam, as the professor asked if I wanted to see a counselor or if I wanted to go eat dinner with the rest of the class. Eventually they left after I squeaked out a few words. I couldn’t talk for another three hours. When someone asks me what is wrong or what happened hours after a shutdown, my brain decides to remember that feeling and go into that place again, which means I’m unable to answer the question.
Personally, I haven’t disclosed being autistic to any of my committee members or advisor or peers – but that’s because I have never had to. They respect me when I’m wearing my headphones, don’t assume that I can’t hear them, and don’t think I’m being rude. My advisor knew I had hyperacusis even before I did and asks things such as, “Do you mind if I turn the vacuum on?” and will warn me if something’s loud so I can leave or get my headphones. If they asked, I would tell them I’m autistic, but usually that involves a longer explanation because most people don’t understand what being autistic means due to public misinformation about autism. I would have to explain that we don’t lack empathy and that I can understand sarcasm from most people, and that, yes, all kinds of people can be autistic! I don’t know what prior knowledge they have about autism.
I would have benefited from some accommodations so that professors understood that I was paying attention even if I wasn’t looking at them, or even if I was doing something else. I hear everything all the time. I wish professors were trained on neurodiversity and how to interact with autistic people. This is sorely needed.
I am happy to say that I now know at least two other autistic people at my school and have made friends with quite a few other neurodivergent people. For me, talking about being autistic on social media has helped me find peers who are also neurodivergent or can relate in some way, and to be honest, I usually befriend neurodivergent people anyway, whether I know it at the time or not. I hope my experience is helpful to autistic people who are transitioning to school or considering graduate school. It can seem like a very scary, daunting task, but having the right support and accommodations can make all the difference. I am very glad that I found out that I was autistic. It has made managing graduate school a lot easier and a lot more comfortable for me.
Do you have questions or comments for Arianne or Ira? Let us know below.
If you’re looking ahead to either undergrad or graduate school, you might like On Mentorship, Lab Environments, and Job Applicant Disclosure: An Interview with Chemistry Professor Jen Heemstra, STEM, Autism, and Building Professional Relationships: Interview with a Mentor, Part One, and Insight for Autistic Students and Their Families About Developing Self-Advocacy Skills: Two Studies on Emerging Adulthood.