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.

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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!

Peer Pressure and Authenticity

I had some trouble sleeping the other night, and as I was lying awake at 4 AM, I encountered a random memory from my childhood. I was at a public swimming pool with a friend, and we were watching people jump off the high diving board. The really high one, with the long ladder that took forever to climb up, and even longer to climb back down.

My friend and I had been diving off the lower diving board, or at least jumping off it; I wasn’t great at diving, and sometimes ended up with water up my nose when I dove head-first. That was very unpleasant, but I hated those pinching nose clips, which tended to come off when I hit the water anyway. In between jumps, my friend dared me to jump off the high dive, and said she would do it if I did. I told her I wasn’t interested, and swam away.

The thing is, I had already tried that once, which is how I knew that it took longer to climb back down the long ladder than it did to climb up it. I got up there once, and simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump. I felt a little embarrassed at having to climb back down the ladder in front of the other kids, but also intensely relieved that I didn’t have to do it. So that day in the pool, I knew this about myself. I didn’t like heights, so just climbing up there would have been unpleasant. And I knew from a couple of roller-coaster experiences that I didn’t like that feeling of falling, the way my stomach seemed to lurch up into my throat. Throwing myself off of a high diving board was not something I cared to do, especially not to satisfy a dare from someone else.

It’s not that I didn’t care what my friend thought of me; I just didn’t care enough for it to outweigh my own preferences. And because my friend was not an asshole, she didn’t make a big deal of it, and we continued to have a good time at the pool. I think she did go off the high dive, and I watched and cheered for her. If she had been an asshole about it, we wouldn’t have remained friends for long. That’s something I knew from experience as well, having had “friends” who turned on me over petty (or nonexistent) things in the past.

I think about things like this when I read about studies related to autistic people and what is called “reputation management,” or the presentation of self in a way that is designed to enhance others’ opinion of you. Self-presentation in general is an important part of social interaction, and it’s an aspect of sociology I’m particularly interested in studying with autistic people in mind, both in terms of reputation management and also in relation to autistic “masking” and “camouflaging.” In one particular interview study, Cage, Bird, and Pellicano found that autistic adolescents did have a desire to fit in with others, but many also valued authenticity and being true to themselves; they wanted to be accepted as someone who was different, rather than simply conforming.

This rings true with my experience, as in the diving board example above. I wanted my friend to have a good opinion of me, but that concern for my reputation was not as strong as my desire to not do something I didn’t want to do. In other cases, I did my share of camouflaging in order to fit in, but there was always a line where reputation concerns lost out to personal preference and/or authenticity. They still do.

This is a balance that everyone has to strike, I think; if we only care what other people think of us, we risk becoming a doormat instead of being ourselves. But I do wonder whether autistic people reach that tipping point—where a desire for authenticity outweighs reputational concerns—sooner than non-autistic people. Or maybe some of us are already masking our autistic traits so much that we just reach a point of exhaustion and can’t add on any more self-presentation strategies. Or possibly both things are true.

Accommodations

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?

Cooking Up New Habits

I’ve been working on building better food and fitness habits before I start grad school in the fall; I figure that it’s easier to build habits like that when I have free time, then I can adjust when time gets tighter. One of these involves learning more about nutrition and starting to cook more so I can eat more whole, unprocessed foods.

Cooking isn’t something I have typically enjoyed doing. For a while I experimented with a meal-kit delivery service, and got fairly comfortable in the kitchen, but I ended up getting tired of their recipes. I find a lot of things about cooking challenging. When I know what I am making, I’m pretty good at planning out efficient ways of getting everything done at roughly the same time, but planning what to make takes some effort. I also find things with many steps (like clean this, chop that, brown this, bake that) very tiring, and they look really daunting ahead of time, which makes me not want to even start. There are some sensory issues as well, especially around handling food; I don’t like wet or oily fingers, for example. And then there’s all the cleanup afterward.

My husband does like to cook, but there are several evenings of the week when he is not home because of his work schedule. We sometimes manage to make enough food so I have leftovers when he’s out, but that doesn’t always work. As I’ve been starting to cook more, our strategy has been to get me set up with the meat for my meal already made—either he cooks an extra serving the previous night, or picks up something pre-made at our local food coop, where I know they use good ingredients. Then I cook the sides to go with it. That way I have less work to do in the kitchen, and I can experiment with different vegetables and ways of cooking them.

In the course of this, I have discovered that I really enjoy roasted asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and carrots. The combination of roasted brussel sprouts and carrots is particularly good; I just make them very simply with a little bit of olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Soon I’m going to try roasted zucchini as well. (Roast all the things!) It’s been gratifying to find some new things I like that are easy to make, so I am looking forward to branching out into more recipes, including ones where I make everything myself. It’s also fun to cook together when my husband is home; that takes away some of the “so many things to do” anxiety about all the steps.

I have a book with a four-week meal plan that I’m thinking of trying out. That, too, would reduce some anxiety around deciding what to make for each meal. It’s just a matter of making sure we have all of the ingredients I need when I need them; sometimes it’s tricky given our shopping patterns, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out. And the recipes look great, so I think it will be worth it!