Keeping Up

One of the hardest things about grad school (from three weeks in) is that it’s hard to know when I can relax.

(Hah! Trick question! It’s never!)

(Shut up, brain.)

So far I’ve been keeping up with all of the work, both my own coursework and my work as a TA, but there is always more to do. I finish one week’s readings and assignments, and the next set is waiting. I look at a book I could read for fun, but think, “Wellll, I could do that, but if I get a head start on next week’s reading, I won’t be as crunched.”

Then there is the question of starting to think about my own research. I need to be keeping up with the research I want to incorporate, and starting to synthesize my own ideas. Now, some of that is the reading I’m looking at for fun, because I’m really interested in my research ideas, but I have to admit it’s not exactly relaxing.

The sheer volume of stuff I could be doing, of course, triggers decision paralysis (and occasionally a hefty dose of autistic inertia), so I often default to whatever is due next. Which so far is working out, but it again leaves open the question of when I can relax. Because the paradox is that by pushing myself to get ahead on the next week’s work, in the hopes that maybe I’ll have a little more time, is that any “more” time I free up will just get applied to the following week’s work. If the model is “work more now so you can relax later,” well, there’s always more work to do. ¯\_()_/¯

Now that I’m going into my fourth week, I’m starting to convince myself that I’ve got this. I’ve gotten through my first round of grading papers and I could still keep up with my own reading and assignments. I finally got back to reading books for myself (ok, one’s for research, but still) this past weekend. I’ve started picking up my ukulele again every day or two, just to play a few songs. And I decided to write this blog post in part of the hour before my next class instead of spending the whole thing obsessively diving into the next set of readings. Which I’m still going to start once I’m done, but heck, they’re also really interesting.

So, am I relaxing yet? Not really. But I think I’m settling in.

And So It Begins

Whenever I hear that phrase in my head, it’s always in the voice of Kosh, the enigmatic Vorlon ambassador on the 1990’s sci-fi show Babylon 5. In my case, the phrase doesn’t refer to the beginning of a long, sweeping arc that includes intrigue, conspiracies, and interstellar war, though (or at least, I hope not). No, in my case it refers to the beginning of my first semester of graduate school.

I attended two days of orientation at the end of last week; the second day in particular was a marathon of different breakout sessions, punctuated by communal meals. I met a lot of new people, both in my department and out. My favorite thing about that experience is that academic small-talk usually starts with, “So what are you hoping to research?” That’s a way more interesting starting point than talking about the weather—although another interesting facet of conversation was often about where people were from, which sometimes led into concerns about New England winters from those who haven’t been accustomed to snow. Not being new to the area, I tried to reassure people that it was manageable.

During the course of the orientation, because of that tendency of people to ask about research interests, and because my research interests are squarely rooted in my experience of being autistic, I talked about being autistic quite a bit with a diverse group of people. Sometimes I could tell that they weren’t quite sure what they meant, or to how that related to my sociological interests. Other times people seemed to have more familiarity. I also tried out different ways of summarizing my interests, which I suppose is a skill I’ll need to hone if I’m going to be in an environment where that’s a frequently asked question. It’s definitely interesting to try to distill it down to a short description, and to think about what details are most relevant or helpful for understanding. And of course, I heard about a lot of other people’s very interesting research interests, in a variety of fields.

Also during the first day of orientation, I received a message that one of my classes had posted a syllabus, and that there were some readings for our first class on Tuesday. I was able to read a few pages that day in between events, but the next day I had absolutely no time to continue. On Saturday I downloaded all of the assigned reading—all 200 pages of it. Guess how I spent my holiday weekend? 🙃

Classes start tomorrow, both my own and the one I’m a TA for. Starting a new school and a new job at the same time is pretty intimidating, but I’m encouraged by the fact that even though that first reading assignment was grueling, it was interesting. And to quote Kosh one more time, “The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” Time to see where it carries me.

Planning, Anticipation, and Uncertainty

One of my biggest strengths is the way I anticipate and plan; I automatically work out the logistics of getting things done, and I usually find ways to make the doing more efficient as well. This has helped me in both my work life and my personal life. But one of my biggest sources of anxiety is also the way I anticipate and plan, because it means I am always thinking ahead to how things might be, but I can never be absolutely sure that that’s the way they will be.

For example, I have a couple of busy days coming up next week, when I have a series of orientations for new graduate students to go to, and I have already started working out the best plan for how to get where I need to go. I’ve looked up the times and locations I need to know (but I’ll be looking in more detail at the campus map the day before, to make sure I know how to get there), and made inquiries about whether my parking permit will be active or not yet (it won’t; sigh). I’ve added in a couple of to-dos that I should be able to handle in between meetings and other events, and made sure I know where I need to go for those, as well.

And all of this will be immensely helpful—but it’s also a lot of mental energy that I’m expending ahead of time, which may or may not reduce the mental energy I’ll need to actually navigate those two days. After all, I still don’t know how busy the campus will be, or where exactly I’ll be able to park. I don’t know exactly what all of the venues look like, or with whom I’ll be interacting, so those are things I’m going to have to incorporate on the fly. Anticipating does feel like it’s helpful, and I’m always happy that I’ve gotten myself organized ahead of time. But it’s also kind of draining. It’s like my brain is always going, always mapping things out; as soon as any new element enters the picture, I’m adding it to the map, rearranging if I need to.

This is why it can be so very stressful when a) something gets added or changed at the last minute, b) something takes much longer than expected, or c) something does not go at all as I had planned. The way I manage long, busy days is usually by rehearsing them in my head ahead of time; then at least I feel like I’ve practiced and therefore know that I can get through it all. When reality does not go according to that mapped-out rehearsal in my head (which it has an annoying habit of doing on a frustratingly frequent basis), I can implode.

Not all the time, though, and I’m a lot better about adapting than I used to be. And the good thing is that my brain just keeps on mapping, so after the initial breakdown, I am able to bounce back pretty quickly with a re-route. I suppose I just need to work on building more flexibility into the map in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like a total collapse when something doesn’t work out.

Academically Organized

It’s the day after my 47th birthday, and it’s hard to believe we’re this far into August already. But late summer always seems to fly, to me. I’m actually happy about that, because while I’m thoroughly enjoying the fact that I have the month off, I am also very eager to start my first semester in grad school.

One thing I did to get ready for that was create a visual schedule of all of my classes, including the one I will be a teaching assistant for (and my office hours for that position, too). I used a schedule template in Numbers, the spreadsheet application on my Mac, as a starting point. I merged cells to create blocks of time for each class, then entered the details like the name of the class, the professor teaching it, the building and room number, and the exact starting and ending times. I color-coded the blocks, too, so the classes I’m taking are in green, and the one I’m a TA for is in yellow. My office hours are in orange.

This lets me see all of my standing obligations for the week at a glance, and also serves as a single reference point for where I need to be for each of them. I used to have recurring nightmares about not being able to find my classrooms when I was in college before, and I’ve already had a couple of them this summer. And that’s extra silly this time, because all of my classes are in the same pair of connected buildings, and the majority of them even meet in the same room! But such is my brain.

I also entered all of this info into the calendar on my phone, which will also have other meetings and appointments that aren’t recurring each week. But I find it harder to visualize my week when looking at my phone calendar, so creating this visual aid for keeping track of my schedule—which is different every day—was really helpful. Once the semester starts, I’ll also add recurring reminders for each class into Todoist, because that is the main way I keep track of things I need to do. I find putting appointments in there as well as my calendar makes it really easy to remember them, since I check Todoist multiple times per day.

So those are my main tools for staying organized in terms of knowing where I need to be, and when. I’ve also set up a Trello board for keeping track of assignments for each class. I had been using a white board in my home office for that, but that was when I was only taking two classes, and it’s not big enough now. 😂 I have one list on that Trello board that is reserved for my own research ideas, and I’ve been busy populating that over the last couple of months. Then I have lists for each class, one for my work as a TA, and one for administrative tasks (although usually I just use Todoist for those, since they’re usually simple one-off tasks). It’s another good visualization tool, since I’ll be able to see all of the things I need to get done, with due dates and such. That may not end up being something I particularly want to see, of course—but it’s better than forgetting something!


I’ve been thinking about the concept of accommodations for people with disabilities. When I started taking classes again before applying to grad school, I made contact with the school’s disability services office but didn’t ask for any specific accommodations to be made. I wasn’t sure what kind of accommodations might be helpful, in part because I didn’t really know what to expect from my classes. But I wanted to be on their radar in case something came up, and I also wanted to be in the loop about anything autism-related that was going on at the school.

This worked out really well for me, and I plan to do the same thing at my new school. I still don’t anticipate needing any specific accommodations, but again, I’m not entirely sure what to expect from my classes (including the one I’ll be a TA for). But thinking about this reminded me of a journal entry I wrote late last year regarding some things that came up in the two classes I was taking; the following is based on that journal entry.

There’s a difference between asking for accommodations and asking to be able to stop accommodating the rest of the world for once. For example, I was in a class where we were given the option of doing an exercise as a whole, in one large group, or breaking into small groups for it. I expressed a preference for staying in the larger group. One other student agreed with me, but the rest preferred the small-group option. I didn’t press the issue, but I also didn’t realize that we were going to be doing a second small-group exercise later; if I had known that, I might have proposed doing one of each.

The thing is, I end up really drained and stressed out after doing small-group exercises where there are multiple conversations going on in the room at once; it takes a lot of effort to focus on the voices of those in my group against the background noise of other voices talking at the same time. That effort has a real effect on me. I could have expressed that explicitly, and suggested that it was an accommodation I would like to have…but I felt that would be imposing on other people. After all, I could handle it, it would just take a toll. Also, it takes a stressful toll on me to make that request in the first place, so it’s something of a tradeoff.

What I would really like, instead, is for things to just be different, so I don’t have to ask for accommodations. I feel like I accommodate the majority in so many ways that they’re not even aware of—that’s exactly what I was doing in the example above, after all. Is it so much to ask for an environment where I don’t have to do that?

Around the same time as this incident, I had an experience in another class that really had an impact on me in terms of expressing my needs and preferences. This was a statistics class, and the professor was asking students to come to the front of the room and write on the smart board when we were working on practice problems. She usually asked for volunteers, but when I hadn’t volunteered after several problems, she nudged me to do one. I didn’t mind the math, but the smart board was a little bit glitchy, and the text looked like it was jumping slightly. From the back of the room it wasn’t too bad, but I knew if I was up close to it, it would give me a headache pretty quickly.

Because of that, I kind of made a face as I started to stand up, and she said I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to. I explained that I would probably get a headache, and she said then I shouldn’t do it. I added something about having enough sensory issues just being in that room with those lights (it was an interior room with no windows, so it was all fluorescent lights and computer screens). She looked dismayed, and I quickly said it was ok, I just deal with it, and she said that since I was going to be in another class with her next semester, she would see if she could get a room that had natural light so we didn’t have to use the fluorescents. That didn’t end up working out, unfortunately, but I was really moved by that concern.

I forget, sometimes, how much sensory stuff like that I just grit my way through, to the point where I don’t even notice it anymore. I might eventually notice how drained I feel after class, but I’m just used to putting up with so much stuff that it doesn’t occur to me that there might be alternatives. I’m sure a lot of that stems from an entire childhood of being forced to put up with stuff (fluorescent lights, those high-pitched squeals from ‘80s electronics, the constant noise of other children) that other people didn’t even notice and didn’t believe could actually be bothering me. Then, of course, the gut-it-out nature of both MIT and the military shut down any desire to speak up and ask for changes.

What would things be like if I hadn’t had all of that extra crap to deal with? Or if others actually noticed and cared that it was hurting me?

The HIPPEA Model of Autism

So! I have a new research rabbit hole that has captured my attention. It comes from cognitive science, which is not really my field, but it relates to autism and disability theory in some very interesting ways. My primary source for what follows is a 2014 paper by Van de Cruys et al., titled “Precise Minds in Uncertain Worlds: Predictive Coding in Autism,” which you can find in full at that link. I’ll include a full citation for it at the end of this post as well.

Let’s start with the words “predictive coding” in that title. The basic gist of predictive coding models (if I understand correctly) is that our brains make predictions all the time about what to expect from our environment (including our internal environment). Those predictions happen on various levels in a hierarchical way, with more complex predictions happening at a higher level than more basic processes, such as sensory input. We base these predictions on mental models of our environment, and we can update those models when our predictions fail.

Of course, the sensory world is not always predictable; in fact, it mostly isn’t. Nothing is ever exactly the same from situation to situation, plus our biological sensory systems aren’t perfectly accurate or consistent. Differences between our predictions and reality are called prediction errors, and as I mentioned above, those errors can be used to update our internal models—in other words, we can learn from them. But to be efficient in that learning, we need to be able to determine which of those errors are due to important changes in our environment that we should learn from (signal) versus random fluctuations in either our environment or our sensory systems (noise).

This involves having an idea of how much natural variability there is in the situation or environment; if something is different, we want to know if that’s an expected difference (which can therefore be ignored) or an unexpected one (which we should learn from). In the paper mentioned above, this is called “meta-learning”—learning what can be learned. Ideally, prediction errors are weighted such that differences that seem important (signals) are used to adjust the model while those that seem random are ignored. That weighting is based on what is called the “precision” of our prediction errors, which is an estimate of how much variability we expect in the system. If precision is high, it means we want to pay attention to more of these prediction errors, because we expect them to be meaningful; if precision is low, it means we expect most of that variability to be random noise that can be ignored.

With me so far? Because this is where the HIPPEA model of autism comes in. HIPPEA stands for “High, Inflexible Precision of Prediction Errors in Autism,” and it basically suggests that the precision of our sensory prediction errors is constantly on “high.” This means that we treat every incoming difference between our predictions and the environment as being important and meaningful, no matter how small and/or random it is. So we are constantly updating our models and learning from all of our sensory input, instead of treating some of it as random and ignoring it.

If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Constantly feeling like we’re adjusting to new information results in chronic uncertainty, which leads to anxiety. And the more complex the sensory environment is, the more energy it takes and the more uncertainty we’re likely to encounter—and one very complex environment is the social environment. As Van de Cruys et al., put it, “we wonder whether social may just be a synonym of complex here” (p. 665, italics in original).

As laid out in their paper, this model predicts a number of common features of autism, including executive functioning issues, sensory perception differences (including sensory overload due to a constant influx of prediction errors), face recognition difficulties, and atypical social communication. One aspect that really caught my attention, though, had to do with stimming. As the authors pointed out, in addition to making predictions about our environment, we also make predictions about the outcomes of our actions; for example, I make a prediction that if I press down on the space bar on my keyboard, it will advance the cursor on my screen. I expect a certain tactile feedback from the keyboard, and visual feedback from my screen, and unless my space bar is stuck (or my hands aren’t where I thought they were), I get both.

In this model the purpose of stimming, then, is to create feedback that is predictable—predictable because it is something we ourselves initiated. I flap my hands and feel them flap; I rub something soft and feel the softness; I make a sound and immediately hear it. If I am in an environment where everything else feels unpredictable—meaning that I am adjusting to a large number of prediction errors—generating sensory input that is predictable helps to mitigate that. This is the case even when the form of stimming might otherwise seem to make sensory overload worse (like blasting loud music when you’re on the edge of a meltdown; yes, it’s loud, but I made it loud).

The HIPPEA model is still relatively new, and more research is needed to test its applicability, but I find it very intriguing, and a lot of it really makes sense to me. I initially came across it in another very interesting paper, Legault, Bourdon, and Poirier’s “Neurocognitive Variety in Neurotypical Environments: The Source of ‘Deficit’ in Autism” (2019). This paper used the HIPPEA model to argue that the so-called cognitive “deficits” in autism are actually caused by a mismatch between the kind of environments favored by autistics and the predominance of environments created by and for neurotypicals.

As Legault et al. explain it, HIPPEA suggests that autistic people end up with “overfitted” mental models: because we are constantly refining them based on every new piece of information, they become very detailed and very specific, but less generalizable to other situations. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, tend to have “underfitted” models, with less detail but more general applicability. Because they’re not including everything, they can tolerate (and even enjoy) much noisier, more unpredictable situations. They can also find new social situations more familiar, because they can generalize from their models, while we’re analyzing all of the differences.

Meanwhile, being in their environments leaves us exhausted trying to process all of the noise (both literal noise and figurative noise-as-opposed-to-signal noise) that they’re ignoring. But that’s where we typically are—in environments that favor the neurotypical form of prediction processing (not to mention the neurotypical definition of what is considered worth paying attention to). And as Legault et al. pointed out, framing autism as a set of “deficits” in autistic people ignores this imbalance in who gets to define the dominant social environment(s) in which we find ourselves.

So that is what I have been reading this weekend, and again, it really makes a lot of sense to me. But it’s also still a fairly new model, and I haven’t explored every aspect of it in depth (and again, cognitive science isn’t my field). Any misunderstandings or misstatements in how I’ve presented it are unintentional, and if you think I’ve made any, please let me know. And please let me know how you think this model relates (or not) to your own experience!


Legault, M., Bourdon, J. N., & Poirier, P. (2019). Neurocognitive variety in neurotypical environments: The source of “deficit” in autism. Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science, 9(6), 246-272.

Van de Cruys, S., Evers, K., Van der Hallen, R., Van Eylen, L., Boets, B., de-Wit, L., & Wagemans, J. (2014). Precise minds in uncertain worlds: Predictive coding in autism. Psychological Review, 121(4), 649-675.

In the Looking Glass

I had a great discussion earlier this week about my research interests in sociology. (Opportunity to gush and info-dump about everything I’ve been reading and thinking? Yes, please.) One of those research interests is the application of sociological approaches to identity formation to the formation of autistic identity.

There are detailed examinations in sociology of the way in which self-identity is formed through interaction with others; Charles Cooley called this the “looking-glass self,” and elaborated that we form (at least part of) our self-concept based on how we believe others perceive us, and what judgments they might make about us. This imagined perception and judgment may or may not accurately reflect how others really see us, but it requires putting ourselves in other people’s shoes in order to view ourselves as they might.

I find this whole idea very interesting from two perspectives related to autism: first, there is the mismatch in thinking that frequently leads to misunderstandings between people with different neurotypes. (This is the issue that is typically mis-labeled as a “theory of mind” deficit in autistic people, but which is more accurately described by Milton’s “double empathy problem.”) Given this, if one is frequently wrong in assessing other people’s perspectives because their way of thinking and perceiving is very different from one’s own, what effect does that have on this formation of a “looking-glass self”?

And second, there is the very real stigma and antipathy surrounding not only the label of autism, but autistic traits and behavior. For example, a series of studies found that non-autistic people rated autistic people unfavorably, and indicated less willingness to interact with them, based on only brief, “thin slices” of recorded behavior. This was in the absence of any information about diagnosis or autistic identity; that negative impression was based only on quick first impressions. And if you’re autistic, you don’t need studies to tell you how being perceived as “odd” or “awkward” can lead to social exclusion and/or hostility. So when what one sees reflected back from others includes that kind of hostility or simple reluctance to engage, what effect does that have on one’s self-perception? (This is explored in the literature on stigma, as well, and applies to people with other stigmatized identities, which I also have an interest in.)

So I am interested in looking at these processes from the perspective of an autistic person, and in particular as one who believes that “autistic” can be a positive identity—in fact, having a positive identity as an autistic person has been shown to improve mental health. But I realized, a few days after my conversation, that when presenting my ideas on this topic I probably have to start by establishing that “autistic” can be an identity at all. I think most people hear “autistic” and think only of it being a diagnosis, rather than a social identity—a neurominority. And if non-autistics react negatively to autistic traits in social interaction, then it’s an inherently stigmatized identity, even beyond the label. That has real effects on people’s lives (as it did on mine before I even knew I was autistic), and it has its roots in the social world, not just in individual neurological differences.