Professionalism and passing: When hiding is difficult

by Kat

The personal is academic for me. My graduate studies are directly informed by my Autistic experience; as I shift pronouns between sentences: persons with autism, Autistic adults, those with pragmatic language impairments and executive dysfunction — just like me is what I want to say. But being completely out as an Autistic graduate student (who will eventually look for a position as an academic) seems unlikely.

It doesn’t help that Autistic behaviors are perceived as unprofessional. I tangle underneath desks at meetings. I use they and you pronouns, but rarely I when talking with professors about my fellow autistics. It feels too vulnerable to acknowledge these personal connections, and yet I both live and work in the Autistic community.

These past few weeks it has been so much harder to hide my Autistic traits. To pass as quirky rather than visibly disabled feels like an impossible task; but maybe I don’t want to pass. I’ve felt so unsteady in the midst of grief — that even if I wanted to pass, I couldn’t. I can see overload, both sensory and emotional, coming more easily.

On Tuesday, I felt so distant from myself — as if my brain was attempting to leave my body to deal with the sads of that day. I assume this is some form of mild dissociation, a sort of mind-body disconnect that happens when I’m feeling utterly overwhelmed. It happens less frequently since I’ve learned grounding techniques and discovered stimming, but when it does, I’m still scared. That uncontrollable feeling is awful.

I remember sitting in front of my tablet at the local cafe and noticing my breathing had become shallow. I was in-between. Body in seat; brain across town. I knew what was happening, but knew I couldn’t stop that distant feeling. At best I could slow it down. As I wrapped my arms around my diaphragm, I attempted to breathe deeply again. I returned to the proprietor for a cup of chamomile tea, panicked in the midst of this frustratingly familiar state.

I haven’t had a full-blown shutdown in a while, I said. But this makes sense, considering that emotional processing takes a significant amount of energy for Autistic adults. This grief is so recent and visceral. I sat for some time with a lunch slowly eaten. I realized I wasn’t going to class that day. I approached the proprietor and asked her how I could talk with my professor, who was expecting a fully functioning grad student to appear before her, not an overloaded autistic adult.

She gave me a two-sentence social script to email my professor. She reassured me of how she had seen me grown in the two years I’ve visited her cafe. She reminded me how well I was coping. I remembered her previous community work and reminded myself that witnessing people falling apart was probably a familiar sight from those years. I told myself it was okay; that she wanted to help me.

I kept breathing and remained in the cafe until the proprietor closed the doors for the afternoon. I checked in with my advisor, who knows I’m both Autistic and clinically anxious. She continues to remind me that she notices my strengths and my impairments. Sometimes she explains me to relevant parties when I’ve run out of words.

I remember telling my therapist later this week, at this point, it would be difficult to doubt that I am Autistic. I am stubbornly choosing not to pass in public settings, especially if doing so requires me to prioritize others’ comfort over my wellbeing. My stimming and monologuing can be incredibly othering, but there is nothing wrong with these self-soothing acts. I’m learning to accept that sometimes I can’t hide; that it’s okay to appear visibly Autistic, even if I feel strange taking care of myself.

Earlier you called yourself wonderfully odd, she said. Yes, I suppose I did, I said. I’m moving toward a space of self-acceptance, hoping I can create a climate of acceptance in academia for young women like me. I stubbornly remain in special education research knowing that self-advocacy is a full-time job along with the school work. I feel like I need to defend my narrative, that I am a 25-year-old PhD student who is knowledgeable about developmental disability, who recognized herself by living and working in this field.

I believe this narrative and as I continue to examine my assessment options, seek academic supports, and find allies in my department; perhaps this story grows richer. I tell my story to understand it, lessening my own isolation, while also realizing I’m not alone in it,