Autism (or Neurodiversity) and Academia

Are you autistic and in academia (whether that’s studying an undergraduate degree or holding a tenured position in a university)? Do you have questions or advice for other autistic people in the academy? Share them here!

I personally am of the opinion that academia, at its core, is a perfect industry for lots of autistic people - it’s often pretty solitary, requires pursuing the same interest(s) for a long period of time, involves a high level of commitment, for example. The stereotype of the Reclusive Professor who is clumsy and socially awkward and just lives in his office with his books – and his twin the Reclusive Scientist, who lives in his lab – seems to me to be drawing on lots of common autism traits!

I mentioned neurodiversity in the title because I think that ADHD, for example, is also well-suited to the academy, provided there aren’t too many hoops to jump through – intense focus, being slightly scatterbrained, making new discoveries or connections or coming up with original insights no-one else has had all seem to me to be traits of both neurodiverse people and good academics!

With that in mind, what are your experiences in real-life academic settings? Do you agree or think that the academy is inherently unwelcoming to us? Let me know!

I was scared off pursuing an academic degree when I was choosing what to do, both by my teacher who said that I didn’t have the focus or ability (ADD) for an academic degree and also, to an extend, because the idea of having to learn modules in a degree that didn’t interest my was so awful I just couldn’t bare it.

The joke is on my A level history teacher though because I am determined to one day do a masters in history after my vocational making-things degree and then I can intensely study topics of interest to my hearts content

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I have an undergrad degree in Theology and a master’s in Occupational Therapy and I like to think that I have a fairly creative mind, but I am decidedly mediocre at academics. I’m really good at problem-solving but the idea of a discursive essay is something that never really computed. I used to get this essay titles that started “Discuss” or “Analyse” and have no idea what they wanted me to do. I was criticised throughout secondary school for the structure of my arguments but to this day, I don’t know what they were talking about, and it has to be said, literally the only reason that I got as far as I have academically is because of one end of term class I attended in my first year where the lecturer gave out a formula for how to write an essay by “comparing and contrasting” three arguments that I have followed religiously since (I get much higher marks in exam essays than in coursework for this reason, because your ability to construct an argument on the spot is weighted far higher than theoretical analysis), but as far as I am aware, my academic ability has not improved since I was 16 despite another five years of full-time education. I actually used my registration with the disability service at uni to book an essay coach to try and work out what this criticism was, but it became apparent it wasn’t going to help when this coach, who was presumably used to working with people who didn’t go to a grammar school, asked me why I had put a particular comma in a place and I said, “because it’s a subjunctive clause” and she decided I was too good to help. It seems that I’m sufficiently naturally clever to retain facts, and good enough at polemical argument and referencing that my general inability to understand abstract theories doesn’t bring my marks down too much in comparison to other students. For my research dissertation on non-verbal autistic adults, I had multiple meetings with my supervisors and had friends who have extraordinarily high academic ability to read it before submission, and I was given a first for my section on existing research and still got hammered for my methodology. I’ve tried reading the work of friends whom I really respect and who have a high regard for my own thinking ability and I simply can’t see what they’re doing that I am not.

It’s something I find incredibly frustrating. I find abstract concepts really difficult to process, so philosophy means absolutely nothing to me. When people talk to me about the construction of music, I have to just nod along - my friends mock me for primarily listening to cheesy pop and EDM while they’re all about these weird-sounding bands that seemingly are super clever and thoughtfully produced but it sounds like drivel to me and I don’t see the point. Apparently there’s a complexity in music that totally passes me by. When people are like, “oh god, look at this giant lollipop conceptual artwork, can you see the relationship between the artist’s frustration and his choice of colours here”, and I’m like, nope. Looks like a lollipop to me. Many, many people who rate themselves as teachers have tried to teach me maths and have all to date failed. If I try really, really hard, I can hold a concept for a few hours after having it explained, and then it’s like my brain just wipes it. For this reason, I simply cannot program, or fathom how IT software works, which has been a massive setback in my life online.

But because I have a really broad factual knowledge range across a large number of fields, people just refuse to believe that theoretical discussions are just meaningless to me. I was asked to read a booklet on Marxist theory the other day and when the guy was like, “Well, what did you think?” I was like, “seems fine”. And he said, “You don’t have any issues with our analysis of the current phase of capitalism and its likely degeneration?” And I said, “I have no opinion whatsoever” which he found really confusing given that I clearly agreed with his viewpoint. I just didn’t know how to convey that I am an intensely practical person and I put trust in other people to do my theoretical thinking that I then have them summarise the conclusions of because it’s just all a bunch of sentences to me.

I don’t think it can be denied that I am intelligent, nor, given we are writing this on a Forum for an organisation that I conceptualised, spent three years thinking about and then another year managing a team to build, that this has rendered me incapable of doing the things I want to do, but I have just given up at this point trying to understand journal articles off my own back, I just send everything to @alex now and ask him to tell me the important things I need to include in what we’re doing here.

What this has taught me is that the idea that there are different forms of intelligence is really true, but it is the reality that being able to identify and understand theoretical underpinnings of ideas is probably of greater value for independent achievement, and seemingly I just cannot do that for some reason that no-one has yet been able to work out.

I carry labels for autism, ADHD and dyspraxia, and I think I’m supposed to put it down to one of those, but of course we all know people who have one or all of these things and entirely live in the abstract, so I really don’t know what the barrier is here. I would like to know, but until someone believes me, my involvement in academia has to remain inherently limited.


This is going to be a short response: do what you want to do. Not what others think you should.

I’m autistic (diagnoses at 9ish), and I’ve done a Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and am now beginning my PhD in composition.

Sure there are days when my condition works against me, but I’ve learnt to use it to help me. (Check out Audible Autism episode 9).

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