This is part two in a three-part series about being an autistic graduate student. In the first post, Ira Kraemer, AKA Autistic Science Person, considers the graduate school transition process. Here, they explore the toll their undiagnosed autism and a co-occurring condition took on their well-being and academic outcomes. They also candidly share some of the differences between support in an undergrad program and the changes that come with beginning a graduate program. Finally, they talk about some of the most important things to find or establish once you begin a graduate program.
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.
Not Knowing I Was Autistic
In some ways, I was rather a different person at work than I was at home. At work, I subconsciously masked pain from auditory sensory bombardment (not from people, from machines), I tried to be helpful with everything, and I remembered important things and made sure I got details right. At home, I had to turn my brain off. I would watch TV and try to get in an hour of some semblance of quiet if I could. Honestly, I felt lazy. Other people saw me as a hard worker because I would often try to help and stay and work (turns out I have a sleep disorder, so I was constantly absurdly tired, but I didn’t know what “awake” felt like, so it looked like I was energetic all the time!). I remember one night at work where I just kept thinking, “I feel like death.” In an I-have-no-more-energy, kind of way. I never felt like I was doing enough to be a “good” graduate student.
It’s also important to remember that no one is going to go around congratulating you or telling you that you did a good job. If you want feedback about something specific, you should ask your professor or advisor. Luckily my advisor is relatively direct and almost always gives me honest feedback about my work when I ask. Imposter syndrome is very common, especially as a first or second-year graduate student. I felt like I didn’t know anything at all, so why was I here? The best advice I can give is to talk about this feeling to your peers. It makes you feel not alone. Everyone else (almost everyone else…) has that same feeling of not being enough. We may sometimes feel this more acutely, especially when social events and sensory sensitivities are involved. For example, I went to the holiday party this year for five seconds and knew I had to get out. Flashing synchronized lights and live loud saxophone music is not for me. It just reminded me that some neurotypical things aren’t for me. I was slightly relieved, as I didn’t really want to socialize anyway.
Things I was really, really bad at in my first 2 years at graduate school:
- Understanding my auditory sensitivity and hyperacusis, and therefore, preventing myself from being in pain
- Understanding my touch sensitivity
- Understanding alexithymia (knowing when I was tired/hungry/too hot/too cold/overwhelmed/in sensory pain)
- Reducing my stress levels, anxiety, and fatigue
- Knowing to not overextend myself (i.e., don’t say yes to everything all the time)
- Understanding that I may be misinterpreted by acquaintances as seeming cold/defensive/uptight due to my autistic body language and facial expressions.
- Expressing my emotions and intentions verbally (such as “sorry, let me think about this for a second” or “I’m having a hard time understanding this concept, do you mind rephrasing it?” or “do you mind if I finish this email quickly before we talk?”) – this also ties in with alexithymia, because I may not know that I am stressed or that I can’t verbally express what I want to in the moment.
I can’t overstate this enough – the most important part of graduate school is finding nice people, having a kind, supportive mentor, and having peers who support each other. I was very lucky to get that advice before graduate school, and lucky to have all of those things! Graduate school isn’t about being “smart,” it’s just about being persistent, and knowing that things absolutely will go wrong, but that is expected and is something to work around rather than through.
I wouldn’t recommend the way I got here, even with as much support as I have. I got here (a PhD candidate now) through what some people say is “sheer will,” but what I would call brute force and anxiety and stress and avoidance. If I had known, I would have been able to reduce my stress, think through things more carefully, and be ready to pace myself instead of burning out halfway through graduate school. I believe my masking/people-pleasing demeanor was part of the reason my (also undiagnosed at the time) sleep disorder became so much worse, as stress generally makes my hypersomnia worse. By the end of my 2nd year in graduate school, I almost went into a depression due to my hypersomnia. I couldn’t do things I wanted to do. It took 3 hours and 4 (30-second, falling-asleep-in-my-chair in a daze) naps to read one paper. It took 1.5 months to get medication from the time I knew I had hypersomnia. I worried about doing experiments by myself so I tried not to do any. I felt so unproductive. As I wasn’t officially diagnosed yet, I told my advisor, as well as professors whose classes I was taking, that I was seeking a diagnosis for a sleep disorder, and they were fortunately very understanding. If I could do it again, I may have gone through the disability center at my university first. I am very lucky that medication, for the most part, helps my hypersomnia, but the first thing I did was try to reduce my stress as much as possible and try to not feel guilty about my low productivity, as that guilt became an endless feedback loop of stress and hypersomnia.
Were you an undiagnosed student in undergraduate or graduate programs? What were your experiences like? Let us know in the comments. For more on health, see our page on Mental, Physical, and Emotional Well-being.