Autistic in Academia: A rant.

I never thought I would be so lucky: I am working my dream job. I am teaching, doing research, and writing all day long. Or I would be, if I didn’t have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and networking, and overcome loads of hurdles to do the job I so love. A lot of issues in academia create problems for everyone and well-known, but here are some that connect directly to being autistic.

Forced Socialising and Networking

I am more than capable of working in teams, and often quite happy to do so (especially when there’s clear hierarchies and tasks). This is not about that. This is about socialising without purpose but within a forced work context. Think team-building events. Think communal lunch pressure.

I get that, for some people who really need it, being forced to socialise at work or in courses is a lifesaver, a way to find friends or alleviate loneliness, or at the very least, an important push towards personal growth. But for me, it is hell. It is terror. It is crying in my kitchen for half an hour, and then spending hours trying to plan how to deal with random colleagues that I must meet with for the next couple of weeks because I have been put in a course-related socialising group.

I have wasted years of my life learning to be “sociable” and putting time and effort into it so people would like me and not think I was weird. It is not worth that energy and it is never appreciated because I am STILL extremely bad at it despite all effort and inner turmoil. And I have started to ask whether I can just not do that shit anymore. It gives me nothing and only depletes my time and energy when I have to socialise with random people and without concrete purpose.

Even worse is networking. I never have, and never will, understand superficial conversation and so obviously fake niceness for calculated professional purpose. It feels like lying. Because it is lying. Why do I have to pretend to be interested in someone if I am not? Why do people feign interest and then lie about having to go away to get another drink because really they don’t want to talk to me at all? Why does it all have to pretend to be this “social” event? Why is networking in person and as some sort of social theatre so important? Why do I have to exchange pleasantries with someone first for them to answer my mail in the future???

Are we some kind of fucking birds of paradise doing some sort of fucking mating dance? But also I am some kind of like lost cuckoo that has happened upon the scene and has no clue what is going on? Maybe not the best analogy.

The worst thing is when someone I meet in a work context is like “let’s meet up” or “let’s get coffee”. Professionally or privately? About what specifically? How long? Towards what purpose? Am I “allowed” to decline? This brings me to my next point.

Lack of Clarity

I found a workshop I would like to participate in. What is a workshop? What exactly will I do there? I don’t know, it seems to be expected of me to know. I have to write a position paper. What is a position paper? Looking it up was fruitless and I am tired of asking my coworkers questions to which the answers seem to be considered common sense.

As I have found out so often in life, when you’re like ok I will just do what I think is right, it turns out in hindsight there was actually a “correct” way of doing it all along and you actually did it wrong because you didn’t magically know like everyone else! There’s a way of formatting documents, of writing emails, of writing position papers, of inviting examiners, and so on. So many things are a complete mystery to me and are SO VAGUE, even when I try looking them up online I am often none the wiser, but everyone seems to just know. I literally googled “what is a position paper” and “what is done in an academic workshop” and still had zero clue. It made me feel extremely oblivious and childlike in the worst possible way, and it makes me apologise loads to everyone all the time and feel like I have no right to even be where I am.

And yes, maybe I should mail the accessibility chairs to ask if they can make a little guide to “what exactly happens during a conference” for people like me. Maybe I will. I need someone to tell me “You will be in a zoom room. Your pre-recorded video will play, then there will be 5 minutes of questions moderated by a Student Volunteer. These questions are usually friendly, asking about details. People might invite you to get in touch, so prepare for that” – that’s the kind of shit I need. But if I ask, that makes me feel shite about myself too.

I am tired of pestering my colleagues with questions the answers to which seem to be considered common sense. I am tired of that feeling of gratitude for everyone who has taken me by the hand and explained to me the basics of life, sometimes repeatedly, without laughing at me.

I know a lot of this is trauma, from a past wreaked with ugly incidents that made it painfully clear that there is a right way to do things, I just never know it. So I get extra insecure and have even more need for clarity and structure.

Lack of Structure

I mean, strucure is also part of everything I have written up to this point, but I wanted to stress it by itself too. There’s so many areas where there is no structure or guide on how to do things. And yes, I create my own structures, but you can’t impose those on others and their work. I can be like “this is how my day is gonna go” only until someone decides we need to have a meeting. I can plan field work only if my participants cooperate in the planning. I can get all my shit done by myself only until I need something like a refund. I can ask my teammates to check a document but nobody will force them to answer.

I can only communicate my structure needs so far without sounding like I am micromanaging others or, even worse, “being difficult”. The worst of this is when something is required of me, by others or the University, but no structure or assistance whatsoever is given to me for delivering it. Which brings me to my least favourite aspect of work:

Confusing Bureaucratic Bullshit

You have to upload your publications manually into a repository and provide proof of peer review through screenshots of it. You have to go pick up a document for sick leave and then scan it and send it to someone specific on a specific day. You have to write proposals based on loads of parameters not indicated in the guidelines, so you have to take extra courses for popular funding places to learn how to propose in ways they look for. You have to put the courses you teach into the system before a certain deadline, wait for them to unlock you, then confirm you plan to hold them and later confirm you have held them. You have to e-mail a student staff administrator about student staff you hire changing their address, you are not allowed to just put that into the system yourself even though the software allows you to, and the students shouldn’t mail it directly themselves. You have to write weekly reports on certain projects about what you and others have done, but this varies depending on the funding scheme which always has very exact guidelines that never fits the flow of what you’re actually doing so you just kind of bullshit your way through it. You have to file a home office agreement and write what you do at home. And you have to do so, so many other such nerve-wracking shite.

And for none of it, none of it at all, can you find any information anywhere on how it is done. Ever. You just sort of struggle through it, and somehow get through, usually pestering all your colleagues for help, most of whom are clueless themselves.

I nearly got into a situation that could have been grounds for firing because I just failed to take sick leave because I was – who would have thought – TOO SICK to overcome my executive dysfunction. I had never been sick before and did not know what to do and how. By the time my energy was back it was too late.

I feel like Academia has taken the worst of a corporation without any of the upsides: you get all the productivity and performance pressure, and all of the bureaucratic nightmare, while getting none of the benefits like streamlining or company support (or, you know, money). And it’s also the worst of both a fixed job and freelancing combined: you get all the precariousness and insecurity about the future and whether you will earn enough, while you get none of the freedom because you are still owned by the University and have to abide by their rules. Am I having a bit of a tantrum? Yes. Yes I am. Moving on to the worst bit:

Open Secrets (We Don’t Talk About That)

As in many other bureaucratic contexts, certain things are legal grey zones or open secrets. Like how I am just forced by the system to ghost-supervise students. That one is a commonly known issue in Academia.

But there are other concrete examples I can’t detail here for obvious reasons. It has happened to me at least once that I spoke out an unspoken secret and immediately got everyone into an utter pickle and only narrowly escaped consequences by then simply and unbelievably just not saying anything further on the subject. There’s a lot of unwritten rules and “don’t ask don’t tell” going on, and I never fail to trap myself. I even now have a colleague who keeps giving me heads-ups about these things and let me tell you there would have been more than the one incident if he didn’t.

Also, often, there are instructions on how to do things and I follow them only to then find out that that’s not actually how they are done. Like being a good little worker and filling out a formal request only to be told, after weeks of waiting, that actually the form doesn’t work and there is a specific person you have to know and directly e-mail for anything to ever happen.

There’s more.

But this rant is already quite long (and extremely ranty), and in reflecting on the challenges I have described so far, and other autism-related issues I experience, I think these relate a lot to Academia as an institution, while others relate to the research work itself, so maybe I’ll write another post about that.

As I write these lines, I am slurping gloriously Autumnal pumpkin soup and drinking spice tea. I am also playing around with some horse chestnuts from the vast collection I have accummulated by pocketing a couple on my way home every day.