Structure and Work

Now that my spring semester has started, in which I am taking three classes and auditing a fourth, plus working in a research assistantship, I am finding myself pretty busy most days. But the days are quite different in how that busyness is structured. Some days, I have a lot of things scheduled–I have to be in class at specific times, recurring meetings occur in between them, and assignments are due. Other days, though, I have nothing on my calendar but I still need to get a lot of stuff done. (For example, in my second week I was assigned 395 pages of reading across all of my classes, in addition to writing and lab assignments. Oof.)

On all of these days, I rely a lot on to-do lists to keep track of what needs to be done, but I am finding quite a difference when it comes to getting started. The days with wide-open time are the hardest: I end up with a list of tasks but no structure in terms of when to do what, or in what order. I usually start out those days feeling pretty overwhelmed by the volume of things to be done, but also knowing that they don’t all have to be done on that day…which is a little bit of a safety valve, but ultimately doesn’t really help, because not having a clear outline of what needs to get done that day only adds to the decision paralysis that often results.

I always do manage to get started, though, and usually I fall back on the strategy of starting with the thing that’s due first. So this week I did the readings for my classes in the order in which the class meetings are scheduled during the following week, and that has worked out pretty well. I also had to leave time to do the other assignments, of course, but this early in the semester they are not too time-consuming.

Where this strategy can become a problem is when it comes to the big end-of-semester projects that each class inevitably has: if I focus on putting one (metaphorical) foot in front of the other and doing the next thing that is due, eventually the next thing due is a 20-page paper, and it would really be better if I started that a little earlier. Luckily, my classes this semester all seem to build in some intermediate steps toward those big final projects, so I don’t have to adapt my strategy too much, but some classes don’t. So it’s good to keep those things in mind as I go.

For now, I am going to dive back into getting this week’s work done. I might post again in a few days, with a little tidbit of theory I’ve been reading, and/or some musings on my developing research project related to autistic identity. Stay tuned!

In Search of a Theme

So, I said a couple of months ago that I wanted to get back to blogging on a regular schedule, and that lasted about a month. 😅 I find it really hard to blog on a consistent schedule, even when I have a lot to say. If I’m in the middle of a school semester, I chalk it up to having too many other things on my plate, and if I’m not, I chalk it up to being worn out from the previous semester. That’s how I’ve been thinking about it for the past month or so, while I’ve been on a break in between fall and spring semesters. And it’s true that I have been busy during that time, while also feeling the need to avoid taking on too much while I rest up for the spring, but I also have to admit that I just find it hard to keep up a blog.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m never sure what to write about. When I started this blog, my intent was to write about my journey learning about autism and what it means to be autistic. I started this blog in March of 2016, having been diagnosed the previous fall. That’s quite a few years ago now, and while I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve got it all figured out now, a lot has changed in my life since then. I’ve also done a lot of what I initially set out to do, and the things that I have been thinking about have changed quite a bit.

For one thing, I’m about to start my fourth semester of graduate school in sociology (tomorrow!). Being a full-time student and research assistant has taken me in some very interesting directions, some of which definitely connect with my interest in autism (and some of my future research projects will likely explore that connection), but it has also taken me in other directions that don’t relate as well to the original subject of this blog. I could write about being an autistic grad student, of course, and my involvement with parts of the disability community at my university, but I often feel conflicted about making some of that public.

That brings up issues of compartmentalization, which has always been a part of my experience. I have always felt some pressure to keep certain things private, and to keep different areas of my life separate from each other. There is always a tension between wanting to be seen as a whole person in all of my parts, and at the same time not feeling comfortable (for various reasons, some to do with me and some to do with intergroup pressures) sharing this part of me when I’m with that group, or that part of me when I’m with this group. (As an aside, I’m taking a social psychology class this semester that is focused on theories of self and identity, which is sure to have some really interesting readings about this kind of thing.)

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure what this blog should be anymore. Not only are there the very real time pressures that come with my current role in academia, but there is also just the basic question of deciding what to write about every week. If I’m going to continue with this, I think it would help to have an outline of sorts, so I don’t have to add “making that decision” to my agenda every week, in addition to actually writing a post. So I’d like to ask you: if you read this blog, what would you be interested in reading about going forward?

I could focus on the aforementioned topic of being an autistic grad student in the social sciences; I could write about said social sciences and the things I am learning; I could write about my specific research interests as I get into them; I could write about my hobbies and dogs and everyday life; I could do something entirely different that I haven’t thought of yet. (Right now I am kind of leaning toward writing short posts about the Self & Identity class, and how I think the material relates to autistic identity, but I would still like to hear what you think.) Please leave a comment if you have any ideas, or feel free to email me instead. And thanks!

Social Discomfort

Just a short post this week, because I strained my thumb and keep tweaking it every time I try to use my hand. *sigh* But I was thinking the other day about socializing, and how I think of myself as a not-very-social person, but at the same time I keep seeking out social contact in various ways. I’m involved in several student and professional organizations in my academic life, and I make an effort to attend meetings and volunteer for positions where I can help get things done. I also try to keep in touch with people, in this time of remote classes and social distancing, and look for ways to make keeping in touch easier.

So then I tried to update the thought, from “not very social” to social but just “not very good at it.” But that’s not true, either. I get along really well in most social situations, and with most people I meet. I get the impression that most people like me, and while some are indifferent, I don’t think anyone really hates it when I walk into the room. And I think I really do end up helping the groups I am part of.

The problem is more along the lines of “not very comfortable with it,” even when I think I’m actually doing a pretty good job. Putting it in terms of the previous sentence, I always feel like that ending isn’t fully complete, that I’m “doing a pretty good job…for now,” but that things could change at any moment, and I will end up making some horrible mistake that will outcast me forever. The fact that this has actually happened more than once in my life makes that feel highly plausible, even though those events happened a long time ago, and I have lots more experience that says otherwise.

But things that happen in childhood stay with you, especially when they happen repeatedly. And the lingering trauma of ongoing bullying and ostracism — something a lot of autistic kids go through, diagnosed or not — can leave you walking on eggshells to avoid similar treatment even decades later. I’m getting better at recognizing the signs of that trauma being triggered (which, thanks to alexithymia, is NOT easy), but it still leaves me uncomfortable with a lot of social interaction.

But I still end up seeking it out. I’m just usually bracing myself when I do.

Routines and Flexibility

I really don’t like having a routine interrupted, but at the same time, I often don’t like having a routine. There’s a perception that autistic people crave routines, and that we’re very rigid in our adherence to them, but I think it’s often more complicated than that. For example, I much prefer to have some flexibility in my day, rather than a set work schedule. I came to that realization even before I got back into academia full time, when I was working a remote job that didn’t have set hours. If I have to be somewhere (either in person, or these days, on Zoom), I will be there, but the rest of my day won’t always be the same.

I’ve tried, at times, to create a daily and/or weekly schedule for myself, of when I will focus on certain things for work or for classes. And it usually sticks for a little while, but then I’ll hit a day where it just doesn’t work. Maybe I didn’t sleep well, maybe I’m feeling under the weather, or maybe I’m actually really alert and energetic but my attention keeps getting pulled somewhere else so I want to tackle that first. I’ve learned that I usually feel a lot better when I can let myself follow that flow of attention, and I usually get a lot more done, too.

What works better for me is to have a to-do list for things I want/need to get done on a given day, rather than have a specific schedule for when I plan to do them. That way, if I am sluggish from a lack of sleep, or, conversely, I hit a really great flow state while hyper-focused on one of my interests, I don’t feel compelled to force myself to switch to something else, with all of the effort and angst that often entails.

Of course, some things do happen on a schedule, so if something does go on my calendar, and gets a specific time on my to-do list for the day, that means it’s a fixed event that has to happen at that time–that’s when I have to be in class, or in a meeting or appointment. Those become the load-bearing structures for the week, and I have to work around them. But as I mentioned in my last post, about change and the academic calendar, most of those structures only persist for a few months before they change again. And I really like how that lets me refresh my whole approach to getting work done.

That’s not to say that changes in my routine never throw me off. Frankly, meetings can get canceled anytime without too much angst, even if they are regularly-scheduled parts of my routine. But even then it still takes me a little while to adjust, and figure out how I’m going to use that time instead. I used to get a lot more flustered by last-minute additions to my schedule, but I’ve had to get used to that as I work with other people who have a lot of demands on their time.

If a longer class gets canceled, that’s a much bigger deal. It doesn’t happen very often, and it usually opens up a lot of time (and often leads to questions of how that’s going to affect the class schedule going forward). Similarly, if one of my martial arts classes is canceled, I might appreciate the sudden opening of my schedule in the moment, but I also miss the opportunity to exercise and learn new techniques. With either of those events, my whole sense of the week is often thrown off, and I have trouble remembering what day it is until I reach the next “load-bearing structure.”

Anyway, all of that is to say that I have a complicated relationship with routines. I can get very flustered and frustrated if a routine is interrupted while it is underway, and I also have certain things I like to do the same way every day (just not necessarily at the same time). If I can’t do them, it can be very upsetting. But I really like to have flexibility, too, so I can follow my interests and not be caught up in a matrix of expectations for how I’m going to spend my time.

When Change Can’t Come Soon Enough

So now that I’m back to blogging again, I feel like I should compose a long, narrative post to catch you all up with what’s been going on over the past year or more since I broke off regular posting. After all, I’ve finished the first year of my Ph.D. program, had a summer research assistantship, and am now in the very last few days of my third semester. During that time, I also began training in kung fu, I made some important lifestyle changes, and, oh yeah, a global pandemic struck. There’s a whole lot in there to write about…which is why I’m not going to even try for a summary. Instead, I’ll let things come up as they will in the course of writing about different parts of my grad school experience.

I’ll start out by saying that, while it is certainly disruptive to have my routine completely upended every few months, I’ve gotten used to the cycle of the academic calendar. Yes, my schedule varies depending on what classes I’m taking, as does the amount of work I need to cram into that schedule, but during the semester it’s stable enough that I am able to set up a rhythm to get it all done. And I like the concentrated deep-dive into the specific topics of my classes, which at this point I am mostly free to choose based on my interests. But then it doesn’t last forever, so by the time I am ready to move on to other topics, it’s over.

This semester has been a bit different, due to the pandemic. My classes and research work have all been online, but in order to make it so students who were living on campus could wrap up and go home for Thanksgiving break without having to come back again, the university decided to compress the semester by starting and ending early, and omitting a handful of holidays. I didn’t think the lack of holidays would affect me that much, given that my class meeting times would mostly not be affected, but wow, I sure did notice. Taking breaks out of the schedule made the whole semester feel like a never-ending slog, and I am absolutely ready for a change.

So that’s where I am right now, right at the “ready to move on” stage, but not quite at the “it’s over.” I have two final projects due next week, both of which are almost but not quite finished as I write this. I’ve been feeling like I’m definitely hitting a wall, but this long holiday weekend has been helpful to give me some space to get things done without feeling like I’m constantly working. This set of classes has been good, but I’m looking forward to having them done, and only having my research assistantship to worry about for a couple of months. (More about that assistantship another time.)

Now I’m off to try to get a little more done on one of those projects. Change will come soon, and change will be good.

Returns, Resonance, and Research

You ever need to just take a break from something for a while? Apparently I did, because I haven’t blogged in well over a year, but I’ve been really wanting to get back to it. I was going to wait another couple of weeks, until my fall semester was completely over and behind me, but then I got an interesting comment on an earlier post and it drew me back here in order to make it more visible to you. 🙂

First, though, a short catching-up statement from me: I am still in grad school, getting through the Covid-19 pandemic by focusing on my (online) classes and staying up to my eyeballs in sociology. I’ll have some more to say about that when I have a little more time, including some research ideas I’ve been having related to bringing sociological perspectives to the autistic experience–and, of course, sharing some of my autistic experience of academia.

But for now, I’d like to point you toward another research project underway, related to the subject of a blog post I wrote in the summer of 2019. In that post, The HIPPEA Model of Autism, I summarized a couple of articles I read about a cognitive science model of autism based on the way we process the predictability (or lack thereof) in the environments we find ourselves in. It really resonated with me, and I thought it explained a lot about what kinds of environments I find stressful and what kinds I don’t.

Well, as it happens there is a new research study underway now that seeks to explore what autistic people think about this theory, and how well it resonates with our experiences. If you are interested in providing input into this study, there are links included in the comments below my earlier post about the model (which again, you can find here). I don’t have any personal involvement in that study, which is out of the University of Glasgow, but I do plan to take part in it, and I’d be interested in seeing the results.

Ok, I need to get back to work, but I will be back soon! I hope you are all doing as well as can be in these chaotic times, and I’m looking forward to posting more regularly soon.

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!