Ask an Aspergirl

Essays and poems about Autistic experience, mental illness, & (post-) ABD life

Tag: grad school

An internalized sense of wrong

Before our session ended, I left my therapist a copy of “She did it anyway” because I wanted her to understand how it felt to fall apart in front of a friend. Maybe I wanted her to see how hard grad school had been for me lately — the weariness and isolation that comes from pushing yourself to do tasks you remain unsure you’re capable of accomplishing. I’d forgotten how often I referred to shame in that poem, until she brought up the topic during my next session.

Let’s talk about shame, she said. Because although you were actively shamed by a professor who didn’t understand how your disability impacts your schoolwork, this is not the first time you’ve felt this way. You and shame have a history together. For some people, an internalized sense of wrong becomes part of their identity. Maybe that’s where your autistic traits and the experience of shame overlap.

I feel like I’m constantly developing workarounds to mitigate the tasks I cannot do the typical way. To avoid the notice and unnecessary questions of others, I’ve learned to hide this process. It seems that visible disability and quirkiness are merely different perceptions of the same experience. I am struggling, but how others interpret this behavior seems to depend on my value to the person. Do they notice my strengths amongst disability? Do they ask how they can help, rather than imply I’m not trying hard enough?

Back to shame I suppose. It’s a topic I avoid thinking about much, even as I live with the experience of it. I remember when Brene Brown’s TED talks were often mentioned in the department. Okay, I acknowledge that I experience shame; now what?

For me, internalized ableism — the sense that I should be able to do things I struggle with, and if I can’t, then I don’t belong — is a source of shame. It’s hard for me to ask for help because doing so requires me to acknowledge my confusion and seeming inability to meet the requirements of my role.

If I can’t develop a timeline for finishing tasks, maybe I shouldn’t be in grad school. Why can’t I consistently meet deadlines? What is wrong with me? That’s what I’m really asking, regardless of how I phrase it.

I’m learning to ask for help. A few weeks ago I found myself crying in a friend’s cubicle, realizing I didn’t have to explain the extent to which I was struggling because my body was showing her. I tried writing down why I was so upset, and she waited out the tears until I could explain what I needed.  She listened and helped me make a task list. I emailed the task list to my PhD advisor to keep me accountable. She continues to remind me of my competencies as a grad student in the midst of my struggles.

And so we learn to speak truth to shame. This is what I know — and even when I don’t, this is where shame cannot speak to my experience. Because shame is wrong about me. So I keep writing and doing, even when the act of trying feels like pretending.

Autistic in academia (or how I ended up inadvertently studying myself)

“Many of us will become interested in psychology and the helping professions along the way, either because of our diagnosis or in search of it. We find we want to nurture and help others in their journeys because we know how hard it can be.” ~ Rudy Simone, Aspergirls

I am a PhD student whose primary research interest is the social experiences of autistic young women — the supports available for them and their everyday experiences. I am also an autistic woman — this is not a coincidence. In undergrad, I remember writing my freshman seminar paper on the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism. These second-wave feminists spoke of how “the personal was political.” They saw how their individual experiences were reflective of community-wide issues.

For me, the personal has become academic. I first started reading about autism, specifically Asperger syndrome, because a friend of mine in undergrad had mentioned her diagnosis. Rather than be the person who asked nosy questions or said something unintentionally offensive, I decided to pick up Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome. I read it cover to cover, and then began collecting blog entries and online articles in a folder on my computer. Perhaps I identified with the experiences of individuals on the spectrum, but I don’t think I realized that at the time. I just found the subject fascinating.

It wasn’t until grad school, after I was asked if I ever wondered about being on the autism spectrum, that I started to consider the possibility that I was autistic. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so my first concern was that I’d somehow convinced myself that I was autistic: “What if I have psych major syndrome?” (like medical student syndrome – when med students become convinced they’ve contracted the ailments discussed in class – but for mental health conditions).  I called my friend who was a special education (SPED) graduate student while I was in undergrad.

Me: When you first met me as a freshman, did you ever wonder if I had Asperger syndrome?

SPED Friend: That thought crossed my mind, but I noticed how well you got along with the students I mentored, so it didn’t really matter.

During the spring of 2013, I read everything I could find about the experiences of autistic women, starting with Rudy Simone’s books and later finding autistic adults’ blogs. That was also my first semester in the PhD program. As I read about autistic adults’ experiences, I suppose I was weighing them against my own. I remember talking with my SPED friend and her noticing I seemed less afraid of identifying with the Asperger label.

It was a strange time because from reading the academic literature, I knew Asperger syndrome would be absorbed into the autism spectrum that summer. What would I call myself then? I settled on Aspergirl — it was safe, perhaps because it was never a clinical label. It was a portmanteau (Asperger + girl) created by another autistic woman. I kept writing for myself, while I read about the experiences of autistic young adults in my coursework.

This summer, both of my research projects concern the social-emotional experiences of autistic women. When asked how my research interests developed, I’m running out of  ways to allude to my autistic self. At most, I can mention my friends with Aspergers or how I identify with this population when I talk with fellow educational researchers. I wonder if it would be easier to be ‘out’ (of my autism closet) if I had a clinical diagnosis.

There’s one person in my department — my PhD mentor — who knows I’m autistic. She has been amazingly supportive, but sometimes I imagine what it would be like if I could openly acknowledge this part of myself.

“I am an autistic woman whose research is directly informed by her lived experiences.” Now if only I could say that aloud more often.

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