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.

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.

Finding Your People

One of the common themes in a great deal of autobiographical writing by autistic people is a pervasive sense of not fitting in, even among one’s own family. That’s one of the reasons that learning that one is autistic later in life can come as a profound relief; after a lifetime of feeling different, there is finally a name for that difference—or part of it, anyway. (Being autistic isn’t the only way a lot of us are different from others, but I think it’s often related.) Having that understanding often replaces a feeling of simply being bad or wrong for not fitting in or doing things “right.”

But having a name for it also does something else that has been equally profound for me: it provides a way of looking for others. Learning that you’re part of a neurominority gives you the language to seek out others in that same minority, with whom one might find common ground. Of course, like any minority (or majority, for that matter), autistic people are not monolithic; common ground isn’t necessarily automatic. But I have found—and have heard it echoed by many others—that it often takes less effort to connect with the thought processes and interaction style of other autistic people than with the world at large.

I have noticed that descriptions of autism often include depictions of non-autistics as “naturally” understanding social interaction and social cues in a way that we do not. But a great deal of research in sociology and social psychology has centered on a) common breakdowns in such communication, b) understanding how people learn these things through the process of socialization, and c) how they differ across cultures. They’re not innate, and they’re not infallible—not for anyone.

Now, maybe that begs the question of why autistic people don’t seem to absorb the same lessons about social expectations as others; there seems to be something innate that makes our social styles different. (I suspect a combination of monotropism and sensory differences, which may themselves be related.) But the impact of that difference can vary by culture, too: for example, cultures vary in how, and how much, eye contact is used. Being in a subculture focused on a particular interest feels different than being in a group of people making small talk. The social environment you’re in shapes social expectations, and makes it more or less likely for you to be able to meet them.

So finding other people who have a similar social style can feel like coming home to one’s native culture after trying to make do in one that is different and much less comfortable. A lot of us get pretty good at the latter, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And when it seems easy to everyone around you, it again starts to feel like you’re bad or wrong. Finding other neurodivergent people who are similar to you (which, again, won’t necessarily be all of them, and I also don’t mean to say connection isn’t possible across neurotypes) can go a long way toward alleviating those feelings by reflecting back a different way of being and socializing that feels more like home.

This is one more reason I embrace the label of “autistic” as a social identity, as I mentioned in a recent post. Doing so has allowed me to find community. It’s not my only community, but it is extremely precious to me. It is my hope that identifying as autistic will also allow others to connect with me, so we can build that kind of community for more of us.

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.

Going Back, Moving Forward

View from inside a dark hall with tall ceilings, looking out through three tall windows onto a sunny day.
Looking out from inside the main entrance to MIT

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having some feelings about my recent return to MIT for my 25th reunion, and how that relates to how I’m feeling about starting graduate school in the fall. Thanks to alexithymia, I’m still not entirely clear on what all of those feelings are, but I can at least articulate a few things at this point.

One thing I noticed while walking around campus is how little I remembered about how to get around, outside of the most obvious landmarks. I can chalk some of that up to physical changes that have occurred on campus over the past 25 years, but to be honest, there was a lot I just didn’t remember. My therapist has pointed out that having fuzzy or ill-formed memories of a period in your life (childhood, for example) is a common symptom of having had depression during that period. I think this is absolutely spot-on regarding my time at MIT, which was four years of increasing pressure, anxiety, and alienation. I’m sure I was deeply depressed for a good portion of it, too.

Another thing that came to mind, especially as I talked with people from my class, was how completely my interests have changed from when I first decided to attend MIT. Well, I shouldn’t say “completely,” I suppose; I had been very interested in psychology and other social sciences starting in high school. But I was certain, back then, that I wanted to be a scientist in some sub-field of physics, so that’s what I went to MIT to do. It was not a good fit.

I excelled in math and science in high school, and I received a lot of praise and attention for this in particular because I was (perceived to be) a girl, and that made me think it was what I wanted to do. At MIT, I kept up, but I quickly learned that I didn’t like physics as much as I had thought I would. Perhaps more importantly, I met a lot of people who really did live and breathe their chosen fields, which made it clear that this was not something I could keep pursuing for the many more years it would take to get the advanced degrees needed to do interesting work in the field—a field whose work no longer appealed to me anyway. For reasons to do with my ROTC scholarship, I was limited in my options for changing majors, so I stuck it out in physics, gritting my teeth and taking humanities electives to keep myself sane.

This is one reason I hadn’t seriously contemplated graduate school until now. Right after graduation, of course, I was far too burned out to even consider more education anytime soon. Because I was an Air Force officer, and a master’s degree was eventually required to be promoted to major, people would ask me early on (even as a brand-new 2nd lieutenant) when I was planning to start working on it. I would shudder inwardly and tell them not right away, I still had a lot of time. (And I doubted from the beginning whether I would be staying in long enough to make major anyway, so…)

But even later, when I started thinking about going back to school, I always felt at a loss when it came to what I might study. More physics was right out, but then what? Not only did I not really know what I wanted to do, I also dreaded the possibility of finding myself in the same position of studying something that felt like a chore I was forcing myself to do, rather than something I was truly interested in. Even when I started taking classes two years ago, thinking I might eventually apply for a Master’s of Social Work to become a counselor, I knew that a lot of that curriculum would be very difficult for me to navigate. Learning psychology is great, but the practical aspects of learning counseling skills, and all of the interpersonal elements of that kind of work, seemed more daunting.

Then I took sociology. It’s funny, because it was a little bit of a fluke; I was planning to take Intro to Human Services my first semester, as it was a prerequisite for most of the other classes that I wanted to take. But it was canceled at the last minute, so I substituted Sociology 101 instead. That was on my list of classes to take, but I had initially planned on taking it a little later. It worked in my schedule, though, so I took it right away…and realized this was the thing I wanted to study.

In a way, I had been studying it for a long time. Sociology is a vast field, or maybe a series of related fields, and a lot of my reading over the years could be filed somewhere under its umbrella. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed learning about psychology starting in high school, but even more than individual psychology, I was fascinated by social psychology and the study of social interaction and the structure of society. And is it any wonder? The social world was frequently baffling to me, and yet here was a way of studying it, picking it apart, and looking for patterns. That first sociology teacher described sociology (citing C. Wright Mills) as “making the familiar strange,” in that it questions the taken-for-granted nature of society and holds things up for study that most people didn’t think twice about. But for me, a lot of that “familiar” was already strange. Of course I wanted to study it.

This all left me feeling very out of place at a reunion for a school that is so intensely focused on science and technology that it has a single department for “Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.” But this actually brought me full circle to the disconnect I felt while at MIT, and ended up making me feel better about the whole thing. I was out of place there, both that weekend and 25 years ago. But I didn’t know myself back then: I didn’t know I was autistic, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know a whole lot of other facets of myself. I’m ok with being out of place there now; it’s not where I belong.

It is still part of me, though. I’ve been thinking of the move from physics to sociology like it’s a hard, right-angle turn, but physics isn’t a bad starting place for any field of study. I value the training I received in critical thinking, the scientific method, and not being afraid of complex math. And, of course, the trial-by-fire nature of MIT (it’s also called “drinking from the firehose,” so maybe I’m getting my metaphors mixed?) taught me a lot about taking on hard challenges and just plain getting things done. Ultimately, it feels good to have gone back for my reunion, and I’m ready to move forward in this new direction without hesitation.

I’m Going to Graduate School!

So…I guess I was busy again during the spring semester, since I haven’t posted since January. 😉 But the semester went very well. I took Sociology of Gender and a class in research methods for the social sciences. Both were interesting, although the latter was mostly focused on psychological research methods, while I’m more interested in sociology. There are some overlaps between the two, though. And the final project left me with a finished research proposal that I’m hoping to turn into an actual project someday (probably with some modifications as I learn more, though). I’ll post more about my final projects for both classes a little later, though; they both relate to things I’ve written about on this blog before.

But, of course, the big news is that I got into graduate school! I will be starting in September in a doctoral program (with a master’s along the way) in sociology, with a paid teaching assistantship that will replace my current part-time job. This will be a huge change in just about everything, but I am very excited about it. They admit only a small cohort each year, due to the financial support they provide, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the other people in mine, and learning what their research interests are.

I’ll be going back to my first alma mater, MIT, this weekend for my 25-year reunion. It’s my first time back in a long time, and of course since I’ve been back in school I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences the first time around. One big difference as I head into graduate school is that I won’t be living on campus. It’ll be a longer commute than I’ve had in a while, but not by much, and being able to come home to my quiet house in the woods will be a nice change from dorm living. And, of course, I’m older now and have a much better understanding of my neurology and my sensory needs, as well as more confidence when interacting with both professors and peers.

One thing I anticipate appreciating about grad school is the opportunity to focus deeply on my chosen subject matter. Autistic hyper-focus, activate! 🙂 That has also been a nice feature of my last two years in school, since I was not pursuing a degree so much as filling in some undergraduate pre-requisites for my new field of study. So I was able to choose only classes I was interested in. The graduate program does have some required classes, of course, but they’re still focused on sociology and related research-y topics like statistics and writing. And I think I’ll really enjoy having my job also be something related to my field of interest, rather than being completely unrelated as my current job is.

So now I have the summer to decompress and prepare for these big changes. I’ll be staying at my current job until the end of July, then taking August off. I have a couple of possible plans for that month, but I’m waiting to hear some more details before finalizing them. In any case, I’m still doing my usual amount of reading and thinking about research that interests me, and I’m hoping to get back into the swing of writing outside of class assignments again. I do want to blog about my experiences in academia, so I want to re-establish some good writing habits while I have some spare time. So I will be back posting again before another six months passes.

Promise. 🙂