Five Tips For Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jill Richardson studies sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She struggles with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

When I started graduate school, I did not realize that I was a student with mental illness. I knew that I suffered near-daily migraines and sought out disability services. What I did not understand was that my migraines were a physical manifestation of a mental illness, and that the way I felt my entire life was called “anxiety” because the experiences I had as a kid were called “trauma.” Graduate school severely exacerbated my anxiety.

Whether you are a student or a professor, keep in mind that everyone with mental illness is different. I have a lot of trouble attending classes, while another student I know cannot meet with professors one-on-one, and a third has panic attacks every time she attempts to study for prelims.

Additionally, everyone is in a different phase of their mental health problems. Some are not yet aware that they even have a problem. Some students have only just discovered their problems but have not yet found help, or they have sought help but it’s too soon for them to get any relief just yet.

A student can probably function far better in grad school if they have already found medications that work effectively (if applicable), a therapist they like and coping strategies they have learned and practiced. In Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains that you can change your own brain for the better to heal some of the harm from adverse childhood experiences. But that takes time.

I have had to devise various coping strategies to survive the difficulties of graduate school, which I share below. They aren’t perfect — grad school was hell even still. But I earned my master’s degree and lived to tell about it.

Five Pieces Of Advice

  1. Limit things that are most difficult to you, if you can. For me, that meant establishing a schedule that gave me one or two days a week when I did not have to go to the campus. I also set a quota of one extremely difficult class per semester (e.g., those with weekly exams, heavy reading loads or very exacting professors). I only wanted to deal with one of those at a time.
  2. Remember you do not have to do everything. This suggestion flies in the face of the helpful career advice I’ve received that one should assume all “optional” activities are actually required. I’m sorry, but I won’t be at the department picnic, the lecture series or just about anything else that isn’t formally required. I will be busy during that time taking care of myself. There may be consequences for missing events that my professors prefer I attend, but I need to put that in perspective. The consequences will be far worse if I do poorly in my classes or fail to complete my thesis. Completing required work must come first, and anything else is off the table if it will jeopardize my ability to do that.
  3. Find people with whom you feel comfortable and avoid those with whom you don’t feel comfortable. That goes for professors, friends, therapists and anyone else. You are not helping anything or anyone by voluntarily spending time with someone who makes you feel rotten. (You can also block them on social media or, at the least, unfollow them so you do not see pictures of the times when people in your cohort all have a party without you.)
  4. Self-care is essential. This is crucial for everyone but more so if you are struggling with mental illness. For me, it meant weekly massages, therapy and allowing myself to just eat a cookie if I craved one instead of beating myself up for it. Sometimes, it meant reading Harry Potter instead of scholarly journals. (Other less expensive or even free options can be mindfulness meditation, yoga, a hot bath and exercising outdoors.)
  5. Medications. If you decide to try medication, remember antidepressants can take four or more weeks to work effectively. Sometimes the first med you try will not work or will have unbearable side effects, up to and including suicidal thoughts. If you’re a student, have a friend or family member look out for you when you start a new med, in case you have adverse side effects. I would wait until a break from grad school to try a new med if possible. At the very least, don’t start your med the same week your big term paper or grant application is due.

Simple Ways Professors Can Help

While students can promote their own healing and well-being, their professors can help also immensely by taking a just few simple actions.

First in my book is empathy. Empathy is easy, yet few people do it well. As a faculty member, you should listen to students with mental-health issues, imagine how you would feel in their circumstances and say that. Avoid jumping to fix a student’s problems, telling them “it will all be OK” or dismissing them because you think they are begging for a higher grade or special treatment. If they tell you that they are having panic attacks and they are struggling with their schoolwork, just say, “That sounds really difficult.” Even if a professor can do nothing else beyond that, feeling like that person understands me and hears me is helpful in and of itself.

Going one step further, imagine yourself in the student’s shoes and think of how you can make it easier for them to succeed in your class in ways that do not require much extra effort from you, such as giving flexibility with deadlines.

Therapists talk about giving their patients unconditional positive regard, and I try to approach my own students such regard. That does not mean I am an easy grader (I am not) or that I let my students walk all over me (I don’t). But a simple willingness to listen to a student without judging is an emotional balm to one who is struggling. It can even ease a student’s anxiety enough to help them be more productive in their work.

And yet many professors don’t do that. Feeling seen and heard is a big theme in the mental-health world. People need to feel seen and heard. Unfortunately, I never felt that in graduate school.

Students with mental illness often have a very negative self-image. Being in grad school is difficult because it requires students to try new things and to risk failure. Simple positive feedback can go a long way. If a student is struggling through something difficult but they are ultimately normal compared to their peers, tell them. If you have observed progress in their work, tell them that, too. The nicest thing a professor ever said to me was “That’s something that most people come to later in their career. All graduate students struggle with it.” Really? My difficulty is normal? Hallelujah!

Last, don’t expect your depressed or anxious student to kick the problem quickly. Therapy takes time, and even medications can take a month or more to work effectively. Be patient. That doesn’t mean allowing a student to pass a class without doing the work. But it does mean extending compassion to them without judging them for continuing to struggle with the same issues week after week, even though those issues seem easy to fix for you as a mentally healthy person. If it’s frustrating for you, remember that it’s even more frustrating for the student.

Pursuing Tenure As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault Suffering From PTSD

Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.

Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe

I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.

I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.

I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.

Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.

Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.

By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.

No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”

It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.

What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.

I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.

I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.

Cause for Hope

Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.

A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.

Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.

I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.

Navigating Graduate School As A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. The anonymous author is a Ph.D. student at a large public research university.

Sexual Violence and Graduate School

I was an excellent student before I was raped.

As a child, I was above average in school. My books were a place to hide, and my teachers were a consistent source of support. My self-worth was intertwined with my performance in the classroom. School was where I felt confident and safe. I excelled.

After junior year of college, I became a person who could not concentrate and was chronically absent from class. I was angry, demanding and inflexible. I do not remember sleeping. I sometimes cried in closets. I lost friends. I stared out of the window during class. I struggled with substance abuse. That perfect student was gone.

In therapy, I often refer to myself before my trauma as “she/her” — as if I were a completely different person. It is the only way that I can think about it without losing my mind. I write this without hyperbole.

After being assaulted in college, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After years in therapy, trying different medications, learning to reinforce boundaries with friends and family (and even professors), I am finally making lasting progress.

Now, as a Ph.D. student at a different institution, I am not standing on top of the parking garage, contemplating stepping off of the edge. I have not had a nightmare in a while, though I still have issues sleeping through the night. These days, I am fairly consistent with my work. I am able to talk about my research without crippling anxiety.

But some of the old challenges remain, while new challenges that are unique to grad school have emerged. Sometimes I feel like a fraud because my department admitted her, but they got me instead.

On Being a Survivor in Grad School

According to the Department of Justice, 18 percent of women in the United States have reported being raped in their lifetime. In 2006, 5 percent of all college women reported being raped. When other forms of sexual assault are included, this number increases to one in four undergraduate women. These statistics do not include survivors who do not identify as women, although studies show transgender students and nonbinary individuals have even higher levels of sexual assault.

But even though there are so many survivors, we don’t seem to have space in higher education. Despite knowing my history, my college professor once embarrassed me by publicly making fun of how zoned out I was in class. In graduate school, a student called me “lazy” and “full of excuses.” Another faculty member told me that they kept it together despite their life-threatening disease, so I should also get it together. Due to my disability, I have experienced public shaming, condescending lectures and slights against my character. It is all very defeating.

I often wish I were her, not me. She would have been so much better at grad school; she would never receive these triggering comments. There would have been a little bit more space for her.

There is no space for me. There is sympathy, but no understanding. There is only critique and an immense pressure to perform like the students without my disability. I find myself begging faculty members to have faith in me and apologizing for things that are outside of my control.

I feel ashamed of my disability. I wish it did not exist. Sometimes, I wish I did not exist.

The typical down-and-out feelings are easier for someone without mental-health challenges to process. When you are a survivor of sexual assault, the typical trials and tribulations of grad school life trigger feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and helplessness. I get triggered, and it is a chain reaction, but I am getting better at managing it. And just to be clear: my disorder makes me stronger and more capable than most people. Even when I do spiral into a shame hole and fall into a 14-hour depression nap, I am still strong.

Even on my worst day, I know deep down that I am extraordinary. It takes a commitment to self, patience and compassion to heal from trauma. Most important, recovery requires support from professionals, family, friends and even institutions.

Offering Support

So, how can we make higher education more supportive for sexual assault survivors?

Besides the obvious (stop sexual violence), that’s a hard question to answer. In general, faculty members must have a better understanding of mental-health challenges among their students. When students disclose their disability, faculty members often avoid asking further questions in an effort to be respectful and avoid extending the conversation. I have experienced that, but I have pushed against their discomfort to specifically disclose that I suffer from PTSD. It is not enough to comply with disability accommodations. Faculty members need a general understanding of mental health and how they can avoid triggering students.

Faculty members need to understand depression and anxiety, as they are often consequences of sexual assault. It does not take much time to read up on how these challenges affect students. A quick search (“depression in students”) will return a wealth of information on this subject, although with few suggestions for what educators can do to assist struggling graduate students.

An article by Rachel Adams highlights two important things: 1) students with depression often disappear instead of reach out for help, and 2) due to the stigmas of mental illness and disabilities, many students do not receive a diagnosis or disability accommodation. With that in mind, graduate advisers must take initiative. Although few students will explicitly disclose being a survivor of sexual assault, the subsequent depression and anxiety are more easily recognizable. I am at my best when my adviser is attentive, suggesting breaks and offering advice and reassurance. Anxiety causes me to put off work due to a debilitating need for perfection, but maintaining communication and scheduling weekly meetings has helped me keep me accountable.

Graduate advisers should explicitly tell students to fight the urge to vanish. If you notice that behavior, take initiative and recommend university counseling and disability services. I know that you have a million projects, but it is your job to keep up with your students. Schedule weekly meetings, send emails and advise them on how to balance work and life. I have found the worst thing about being a survivor is feeling alone.

As survivors, we carry the guilt and shame of what happened to us. In academe, people speak in frustrating, roundabout ways. I am not surprised that the conversation on sexual assault in academe is limited. The burden of this conversation falls on the shoulders of those of us who have experienced it — and some of us are just trying to get to tomorrow. It is hard to talk about because it makes me feel vulnerable and unsafe. It is a deeply personal conversation to have in public.

I do not know which is scarier to reveal — my trauma or my experience with my department. That tells me this conversation is absolutely necessary. If I have learned anything from my recovery, it is what you avoid discussing is often the subject that most urgently needs to be addressed.

On Being A Black, Dyslexic, And Unstoppable Academic

shawn-robinson_1Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Shawn Anthony Robinson is an independent scholar and dyslexia consultant who brings a wealth of academic experience, training and knowledge about the psychological development of dyslexia. His research has been highlighted in NBC News in an article titled “This Man Is Searching for a Link Between Illiteracy and Racial Bias.”

Ain’t No Stopping (Me) Now

If you’ve ever been held down before
I know you refuse to be held down anymore
Don’t let nothing, nothing
Stand in your way ….

“Aint No Stoppin’ Us Now,” by McFadden & Whitehead

I was warehoused in a special educational system that is designed to segregate, rather than emancipate, black men. This not only left me behind academically but also led me to feel hopeless about obtaining a bright future. Besides being identified as “at risk” and attending an alternative high school for two years, I also graduated from high school with scores reflective of an elementary school student.

Yet my life changed when I was accepted to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh in 1996. Robert T. Nash, the former director of the Project Success program and a dyslexia specialist, saw past my frustration and recognized my talents when other educators were convinced that college was not for me. My mentors always believed in me, encouraged me to turn my dreams into realities, and discouraged me from listening to those who doubted me. Their words, love and encouragement kept me moving forward through trying times.

Twenty years later, after six years of undergraduate college, five years of graduate school and seven years in the Ph.D. program, I accomplished a major task that is unheard for black men who come out of special education and are unable to read. On Oct. 19, 2015, I successfully defended my dissertation, “Navigating the Academic Systems Through Three Perspectives: A Twice Exceptional Black Male With Dyslexia. An Autoethnographic Account.”

My academic journey has led me to take a social justice stance for equal and equitable education. My lived experiences are what drive me to change the narratives of students in special education.

I decided to write this poetic account of my journey to provide my struggle, redemption and transcendence. I want to remind students in the trenches with a learning disability to always have hope.

Ain’t No Stoppin’ Me Now

The Struggle

Prior to college, my academic learning was concerning;
My abilities were masked, and teachers just asked;
Passed through the special education system, I felt like an outcast;
Some teachers’ instruction was more like disorganized road construction, with much obstruction, which resulted in my own self-destruction;
Unable to read, I wasn’t freed, trapped within myself, I constantly snapped;
With no self-control, I didn’t have academic goals;
Throughout my schooling I had self-doubt and constantly cried out;
I had no knowledge of the alphabetic system and was unapologetic for my behavior;
Thought I was tough, and teachers had enough;
Caught up in the wrong system, the academy didn’t miss me;
My future wasn’t bright, and in some teachers’ minds, I was out of sight;
Yet, graduated high school at an elementary level, my college courses were supplementary;
I was psychologically damaged as an 18-year-old learning basic phonological and morphological skills;
Learning to read was the key that opened the door, which allowed me to exceed past my wildest dreams;
Furthermore, instruction on writing was ignored, which left my thoughts and structure of ideas in knots;
College, M.Ed. and Ph.D. weren’t easy, but I had some professors that acknowledge my frustrations, and had high expectations;
Yet I had professors who questioned my ability, and didn’t want extend a hand;
They failed me, thought I would go away, but I plugged away.

The Redemption

As a black collegiate male with dyslexia, I heard all the doubters and shouters;
“Shawn, you’ll never make it,” “Shawn, can you read,” “Shawn, your writing is awful” to “Shawn do you think this program is for you”;
These messages were real and a constant spinning wheel;
I relentlessly worked within and against a higher education system where black males with dyslexia are a nonentity, and labeled with a “special” identity;
Expectations were low, faculty discounted my visions and decisions, and I found myself in a battleground;
Utilizing support services, I managed to no longer be academically “disadvantaged”;
It took me six years to achieve something that many didn’t believe;
I flipped the script, but still wasn’t equipped with the necessary tools for graduate school;
On mandatory academic probation to continue my education;
Five years of graduate school, one or two classes a semester, I didn’t feel like a fool;
Even though the content was difficult and my writing sucked;
I spent hours with candid tutors, instead of sitting in front of training programs on a computer;
Finally, I graduated, and illustrated what a student can receive when they believe (M.Ed.);
Doctorate in language and literacy was tough;
Professors questioned my desire and didn’t see me as a Ph.D. qualifier;
Many criticized my thoughts, writing and exercised their authority;
Two professors failing me, did not result in me bailing;
Shocked that their insults didn’t have me walk, I saw them again and had a game plan;
Sought out writing support, and my past pain was only a second thought;
I laughed at professors like that, because they couldn’t stop my craft;
Heard “Shawn you’ll never be a published author” to other inefficient comments;
I kept my eyes on the prize even though they put me a year behind;
Before I graduated, I was a chief investigator of a statewide project;
After seven years, I graduated with a couple peer-review manuscripts and my Ph.D. transcripts.

The Transcending

Here I am, a successful black male with dyslexia who survived stressful times;
I wanted to quit but had to recommit;
Warehoused in special education barely reading;
Overtime, I became self-liberated, and now leading;
Now I love to write, which allows me to give insight;
The truth to the youth, I didn’t learn to write until my second year in the Ph.D. program, and now speaking outside of Capitol Hill;
I may not be the most prolific writer, but I can drop some specific knowledge;
My story isn’t unique, but rather I refuse to listen to the negative critiques and learn proper techniques;
To survive challenging times, I had the inner drive to strive;
My hunger for knowledge broke me hostage from self-bondage;
I realize that not many black males with learning disabilities are returning;
It is my mission to become an academician, so I can refute the negative stereotypes given;
My academic success was a result of a rigorous process;
Persistence is the key that allowed me to be free;
My academic journey ended with me attending a meeting at
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Concluding Thoughts

I like to share my pain, emotions and enthusiasm through poetry. I hope my story resonates and inspires others to keep their head high, and stand strong through the storm.

With the limited research, educators could not only offer black men with dyslexia in special education a pen to drop poetic knowledge, which may provide them a sense of “liberation,” but also serves as the platform they need to have their voices heard about their position in the academic system (#BlackMaleDyslexiaStory). And to the youth in the struggle, “if you’ve ever been held down before, I know you refuse to be held down anymore. Don’t you let nothing, nothing stand in your way.”

On The Stigma Of Autism In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Scott B. Weingart (@scott_bot) is a historian of science, Carnegie Mellon University’s digital humanities specialist and co-author of The Historian’s Macroscope.



Once or twice a year, my parents and I huddled into my little windowless bathroom. Our ears were glued to the radio as we attempted to calm a terrified golden retriever and waited for the hurricane to pass. While our dog never liked it, I always appreciated the safety that the room provided. In fact, I would often lock myself in the bathroom after school, sitting on the covered toilet with the lights off and a towel bunched against the door, blocking light and sound from the rest of the house. The best moments were those nights in that bathroom when it got so dark my eyes never adjusted, so quiet that it seemed I could hear my own heartbeat.

Apparently this isn’t uncommon among those diagnosed on the autism spectrum, nor were many of the other traits and actions descriptive of my childhood. It feels complicated to say that publicly. I always resisted a self-diagnosis (despite the urging of some friends), and only was positively diagnosed by a professional much later in life.

Culturally speaking, autism is weird. Affluent white men, especially those in Silicon Valley, tend to valorize autism and are quick to identify themselves along its spectrum. For better or worse, autism is seen as an umbrella category for socially awkward people who like math, and it can be lobbed as an excuse justifying impolite behavior or as a banner under which people with those traits can gather as allies. Many people worry incorrect self-diagnoses make life more difficult for those who actually match the DSM-V diagnostic criteria, even if the association with modern tech leaders paints us in a positive light.

Admitting mental illness or neurodevelopmental disorder is dangerous, unless you’re a middle-class white man diagnosed on the autism spectrum. If you’re black and/or a woman, or if you have depression or anxiety, you may be deemed too unstable to work in a modern business or too dangerous to trust as a neighbor. But if you’re well-adjusted white dude who scores low on the autism severity spectrum? Have a job at Google!

It’s from this acknowledged position of privilege that I choose to come out, under my own name and from a non-tenure-track staff position at a major research university. According to several independent professional diagnoses over the course of my life, I am both autistic and ADHD. (Whether either or both of these actually constitute a “disorder” I leave to the reader.)

It is terrifying to admit this. I am afraid what employers who don’t quite understand will think and whether doing this will screw with my future. Whether people will think that I must be a bad teacher because they assume I cannot relate to students or a bad scholar or department member because I cannot meet deadlines. But honestly, my stance is pretty much what Randall Munroe depicts here.

If it’s scary for me — a white man with the disorder that most people (improperly) associate with genius — how scary is it for everyone else? How scary is it for those who are already marginalized in other ways, such as race and ethnicity, gender or social class? Most don’t say anything or only do so privately.

The prevalence of mental health issues in higher education is so high (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and the stigma associated with it is so great, that many students end up floundering with no academic mentors to whom they can turn for advice or support. That is why I am writing this essay. Maybe a struggling student will see it and feel safer around me, or maybe it will help tip the scales towards eliminating the stigma around mental health. In either case, there are a thousand ways in which academe is toxic. The more that we perpetuate this toxicity in the name of our careers, the more complicit we are in raising the walls of our own future jail. To quote the comic I linked to above, “Fuck That Shit.” I acknowledge that I am in a more privileged position to be able to act on this claim, but if enough of us act similarly, that privilege will no longer be required.

My decision to write this essay was precipitated by the CBS TV show Elementary. The show currently features a budding romance between two autism-spectrum characters, and watching it now makes me realize how much I wish I had seen it growing up. Things that have never made much sense might have been easier for me to understand. Maybe if I had seen more familiar faces going through similar difficulties, I would have sought help sooner.

So here I am, presenting my face to the world: I am an autistic academic. In a future essay, I will discuss how that shades my interactions with academe. I hope that outlining some of my experiences will help someone with similar experiences find comfort or will help others understand people like me a little better.

On Being Bipolar: A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative


Seth is a PhD candidate and lecturer at a large public university. His work tackles issues of affect, psychiatry, and sexuality in the post WWII American novel. He has taught courses on gendered violence, feminism, and American sexuality. Seth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 7 years ago. He has been sober for over 19 months. In this guest post, Seth reflects on one aspect of managing bipolar disorder that no one talks about — weight gain — and his struggle to adjust to his new body. 

You can see Seth’s previous guests posts here.


A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

I’ve read a lot of recovery stories on a lot of different popular websites. I’m sure you know the ones I’m referencing. They all kind of say the same thing, give or take a few elements: life is much better, colors dance in the warm sunlight when before everything was black and white, the author wants to live, love and marriage are possible. I’m not going to say that that narrative is a lie, or wrong, because for some people (who are lucky) it is truly like that. For them, mental illness is a one-time occurrence; the meds or therapy work well, and the only reminder of the horrible times (for them or those around them) is the daily dosage or faint memories.

However, what I will say is that for a large number of us, recovery is not an invisible process; there are a variety of visible signs that we have been (or are) sick. Sometimes navigating these signs is harder than the actual illness because we as a culture do not celebrate ongoing progress or struggle. For example, we praise new mothers who lose pregnancy weight quickly by telling them that they look like they never had a baby in the first place. In other words, we tell women whose bodies just completed an extraordinary physical and psychological act that their ideal state should be where there is no marker of this occurrence at all, except a well behaved, non crying, visibly “healthy” baby. Struggle should be hidden or washed away.

Rehabbing Gender, Managing Bipolar

Managing bipolar and medication side effects is hard because you never know what your recovery will feel like – whether a certain medication will send you back into the hospital or into sanity or simply into a larger clothing size. This has all been intensified by the fact that my gender identity as a man largely was tied to my sexuality and ability to be sexually attractive to women and, to me, fat was not sexually attractive when I was the one wearing it. The models of masculinity I grew up with demonstrated to me consistently that being a man meant women and lots of them. As I came into my various identities, I was able to date easily and readily, always having beautiful women on my arm whom I treated poorly because I was sick and manic, looking for affect in anything I could touch. I used with them, drank with them, and moved on. I emulated the successful men I saw in my own life and in film. My own father was a mix of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, so I thought I had to be like that, too.

For a while, it worked. I was at the height of my dating game when everything crashed. I almost ended up in the hospital multiple times. There were more than a few instances with drugs and alcohol where friends nearly called 911. I was teaching gender studies and living out all the worst stereotypes of what it could mean to be a man. I have since separated myself from this behavior and people who encourage it, but large parts of my management from bipolar has been rehabbing my own ideas about masculinity and how to be a man in public and private. They are always linked for me – my disability and how my masculinity comes out in times of stress or calm. I’m still not the nicest or best person in a relationship, but I try harder than I did before and that matters to me. I don’t cheat.


Even though I was first diagnosed seven years ago, it was not until a year ago that I was put on the drug that would save my life and stop lots of the behaviors I discussed above: lithium. My psychiatrists had tried nearly every other medication and type of therapy, always avoiding lithium because it’s serious. But when a particularly suicidal episode sent me to the doctor yet again, I no longer had a choice. That day, it was lithium or the hospital. I chose lithium because I was embarrassed by the thought of the hospital (I still am; this is a cultural thing for me). I knew the drug could eat my kidneys and thyroid, resulting in weight gain and epic thirst, among other things. There’s the general feeling of fogginess and being constantly tired, plus the tremors I have every day, especially in the morning.

It wasn’t until I reached therapeutic levels of the drug (which for me is a very high dose) that the weight gain started. Before I started, I was not a thin person by any means. My natural frame is athletic and stocky. I ran triathlons and took spin classes, but celebrated muscle bulk, not being “tiny,” even when I still identified as a woman. Testosterone has only made my frame stockier, my muscles larger. Those in the queer community would call me a bear cub if my beard was thicker. I’m not long, lean, and androgynous at all, but I was in good shape and was in a healthy weight range according to my doctor, albeit at the heavier end of that range. I wore men’s skinny jeans from stores that favored slender bodies even if they were in the 30 sizes, not 20s.

On lithium, I am definitely chubby and I hate it because between the testosterone and the lithium it’s an uphill battle to lose weight; even my endocrinologist acknowledges that it might never really happen like we want it to. Most of the time, I try to stick to a low-sugar high-protein diet because I physically feel better and sugar makes me depressed. But, there are times in which I get overwhelmed with restricting so much when I’m already sober, trans, and taking these meds. I feel as though I don’t deserve to worry about my weight and hate the way I look after all that I’ve been through. I know that doesn’t sound very good, but it’s an honest sentence. And recovery should be about honesty.

There is nothing that highlights this reality better than standing in front of your closet after six months of lifesaving lithium treatment and finding that none of your clothes fit. I had spent months manically not wanting to leave the house or get dressed, but when the time had come for me to actually do it, it was almost logistically impossible. No one tells you recovery looks like this. You are alive, but so what? Socially you have lost lots of power and comfort. The person you saved from the black hole of mania, depression, and suicide looks nothing like the one crying in front of the closet. So many days I ask myself why I bothered to try all those months in therapy when the end result hasn’t been super great. It was mediocre at best. Therapists tell you that life is amazing, but I have not gotten there yet. I’ve gotten to mediocre. Is my life the exciting, passionate death pit it used to be? No, but the doctors tell me that’s a good thing. So I’m fat and mediocre. I used to be manic and exceptional.

Recovery, and Transformation, In The Classroom

Teaching with this type of shift in gender and body shape has been very difficult. Clothes that I wore for years and spent lots of money on no longer fit me and may never again. I may never be thin (by my standards) because lithium actively works against this by making me retain fluid and slowing my metabolism. By now, I’ve basically stabilized, so I am starting the massive endeavor of remaking my wardrobe and personal style for teaching and life. My weight has gone down a little bit with a lot of work – that’s for my health, not solely for aesthetics. But, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I liked the way it felt to get weighed and see a smaller number.

I used to say that the classroom was my personal runway. I loved dressing for class and I wore a tie everyday. I wore lots of color. I wanted to be a cool queer teacher who was stylish and who my students could look up to. In this past year, I can count the number of times when I’ve worn a tie on two hands. I wear mostly black as if I’m in mourning for my previous not-fat self. And, I guess I am. I miss feeling confident and put together. It angers me that “confident and put together” equals thin. It shouldn’t. Fat Seth deserves to feel professional and good just like thin Seth. No one ever told me that days of recovery would feel worse than days of sickness. I survived bipolar, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll survive my meds.

Getting fat has taught me a lot, especially about the amounts of privilege that I still have in terms of my size. I’m not big enough to get comments from strangers. I can still shop at straight size (not plus size or big and tall) stores. I can go into mainstream retailers and leave with a suit, as I just did for my sister’s wedding, not to mention shopping without being followed or hassled because I am an educated white person in a racist city. Until this past year I would have told you that I believed thinness and fitness to be about “discipline,” not a carefully socially constructed set of images combined with winning the genetic lottery. I would have told you that overweight people were lazy; medication was an excuse. I used to tell my female students in class they could be beautiful at any size but tell friends in private that I didn’t eat carbs. I was a jerk and a hypocrite because I wanted to be what dominant queer culture viewed as attractive, which was masculine, lean, and dapper.

This is where I think queer culture has a lot of work to do. It needs to call out the celebrated androgynous aesthetic and displace masculine individuals from the top of the food chain because it just reproduces heteronormative notions of power and control. Women and femmes keep coming in last. It cannot be like that anymore. I was a person who championed that culture and saw the damage I did on a personal level to others and myself. What if we all took a look at our actions and feelings, working to fix them? If any of the women (or men) whom I ever dated are reading this, I’m sorry for everything I did.

Lithium changed the way I looked at fatness and weight, both mine and others. It also changed the way I thought of myself as a man because I no longer can fulfill my own twisted fantasies about what an “ideal attractive” man should look like. It taught me to be a nicer person and someone who was more patient with students and myself. It taught me to learn that recovery was not a black and white experience in which one was guaranteed to look like they had never suffered. However, I think the most important thing it has taught me is that being present for the students – in either workout pants, jeans, or dress pants – we we are all bodies in the classroom who struggle. It is okay to show, honor, and give space to that. I’m no longer hiding. Lithium made me fat, and I refuse to lower my voice or wear clothes that I do not like just because they help me “pass” more or make me look “thinner” in ways that are culturally constructed.

This semester, I’ve been making an effort to honor the struggles present both in myself and in my students. It has been working. We approach the material as individual people with wounds, large or small, and talk through these feelings and identities as they are reflected in our course material. I’ve started to slowly wear ties again and catch myself looking in reflective surfaces more, despite pretty much looking the same (this isn’t a weight loss before and after story, sorry). My students speak more openly and generously during class. No one is perfect and everybody hurts, but, it seems, when we hurt together we shatter the facade of perfection and find beauty in the shards of glass we pick up along the way.

On “Coming Out” As Bipolar In Academia

Seth Selfie

Seth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. In Seth’s first guest blog post, he wrote about navigating academia with bipolar disorder.  In this blog post, he reflects on the power of “coming out” as an instructor with bipolar disorder in order shatter the silence, as well as the stigma, that surrounds mental illness in academia and society in general.

Coming Out vs. coming out

Legendary queer theorist Eve Sedgwick used to write that coming out was a continuous process. She told us that whether we liked it or not, we would be coming out day after day, year after year, because there would always be someone new who did not know “the truth” about who we really were once the office door was closed. And it’s not as though Sedgwick was wrong. I would say I out myself six times a day in terms of a different part of my complex identity in an attempt to gain agency in a world that consistently desires to label me incorrectly. This is not easy or fun, but it has given me access to parts of my dignity that I otherwise would not have maintained through a considerable amount of challenges. And when I am feeling sentimental, I also remember it is Pride month (at the time I am writing this essay), and if I come out maybe someone else in the future won’t have to, or at the very least that it will not be as scary.

In my last essay, in which I discussed my silence surrounding my bipolar disorder, I alluded to the fact I am a transgender man and am out to my students. I painted a fairly positive picture of that circumstance. I told you that we talked about it in class and that the students knew both of my names and that this did not bother me. To be clear: it does not bother me that they do not view me as a cisgender male, but coming out to them on the first day of class was one of the most challenging academic exercises I have ever experienced. I stood up in front of a class of thirty students with varying levels of gender studies experience and told them my preferred name and pronouns, explaining that I was indeed the same person listed in the school’s computer systems—the one with the girl name and the same one they read about on I was already shaking from my normal medication and this sudden thrust into my private life made it worse. I put my hands into my pockets and moved on to explain my syllabus and the course requirements.

After that first class, I got several emails from students congratulating me on the coming out speech and telling me that they thought it was great, that they were excited to have me as a teacher. I was not misgendered or misnamed at all that semester. Even though gender dysphoria is still considered a mental health condition, none of my students saw me as sick. They thought I was strong and a role model. The irony of this, like I discussed in my first essay, is that I actually am sick, people just do not know what “type” of sick I am. While coming out to a large group of undergraduates can turn you instantly into some twisted campus LGBTQ celebrity (which seems glamorous at first), the most important coming out experience I’ve had was much smaller and one that I do not bring up often because I view it as a precious moment of self articulation and mentoring rather than a public show. But, I believe sharing it now is important, especially in light of my last post in which I ended with the image of disabled students and faculty coexisting on campus but never directly interacting, something that should and needs to change.

“coming out” As Bipolar

Given my sadness over this academic climate and the material I teach in my courses (which deals directly with mental illness), I have disclosed my disability to exactly one student on one occasion. I believe that moment to have been one of my most scholarly, even if it was risky and gave me no public gain the way my various LGBTQ classroom coming out experiences did. I was teaching a unit on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in my Sexuality in America course. I talked about teens with mental illness being deserving of sexual lives and how the protagonists cultivated sexual intimacy on their own terms. (Interestingly, I was working through this topic in my own life in therapy at the time, given the mood changes from testosterone, and how they were affecting my bipolar symptoms and medications.) Over half of my class disagreed and were vocally ableist. They told me that people with mental illness were too risky to date, that certain non-heteronormative sexual acts did not count as real intimacy, and, perhaps most jarringly, that if both members of a couple had the same disability then the relationship would be doomed from the start.

I tried to stop it, but it was too late; the discussion got out of hand and I felt personally victimized by my own students even though they had no idea. The tone of the class was one of privilege and ignorance, that each student was certain what they had been reading about had no connection to anyone in the room at all, despite constant vigilance on my part to remind them that our course material was sensitive and that they may never know whether someone in our class was personally identifying in serious ways.

A few days later, one of my students emailed me and asked to make an appointment to discuss how she felt during class. We met and talked about the text, the discussion, and how she was processing the climate of the class in general. It was clear she was having a personal identification with the novel (but did not tell me exactly what). She was shaking in her chair and I knew it was because she was used to the stigma of mental illness and that the act of disclosing to a teacher is not easy. I wanted her to keep her dignity, something I missed when I having to “confess” to faculty members years ago. I made an instantaneous decision and said:

You do not know this, but I have bipolar disorder and it is very hard for me to hear my own students speak like that. This book affects me deeply, too. I feel that it is my job to advocate for anyone who might feel unsafe in class or scared. I will go out of my way to make sure this changes. I feel as if you are very brave for coming to me and telling me that our classroom is not ideal. This is exactly what shows me you have academic maturity. Tell me what you need to feel better about class.

Relief washed over her face and we went on to outline a plan on how to talk to the class about ableism and invisible disability. The following week, I implemented the plan and, while it took some time to take effect, eventually everyone in the room was more mindful (including me) about what was said and the tone used. This type of classroom management was extremely difficult, but once it was implemented I feel the class was one of the most successful I had ever taught. Coming out to my student allowed me to merge my personal and professional lives in a small, but significant way that informed my teaching throughout the semester. If I said before that bipolar is always a student in my classroom, then disclosing the bipolar made me a student in my own classroom for the first time. I learned, I taught, and on some days, I felt free. I do not know if I will ever tell another student again, but on that day I needed to tell this particular student she was not alone, or more importantly, tell myself that I was not alone in my own classroom.

Closing Thoughts

When I got my evaluations back that semester, more than a few students noted that I was “sensitive,” “accommodating,” and “fair.” I believe these comments to be directly reflective of the plan my student and I worked on to actively combat ableism. It has also led me to think that students crave this type of classroom atmosphere, but do not have the skills to ask or advocate for themselves. This is not their fault. They grow up learning test scores are more important than feelings.

My advice to my colleagues (if I’m qualified to even give it), especially those who have suffered at the hands of this life-shattering disease (or countless others), is to give your students the education we always needed but didn’t know how to name. Teach with love, compassion, and mindfulness. Give extensions, leave your office doors open just a little longer, believe your students when they tell you they are sick even if they don’t seem to have the sniffles. But, most importantly, I try to remember what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) creator Dr. Marsha Linehan once said about surviving mental illness and then devoting her life and career to helping others with also were ill. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I was in hell.  And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”

Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.


Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.

On Being Autistic In Academia

AutismIn this guest blog post, Stella S. (a pseudonym) shares her experiences as an autistic academic, and offers advice for other autistic scholars (and everyone else) on communication, networking, and navigating academia while being visibly different.

The Impact Of Being Autistic In Academia

I’m autistic.

There, I said it in an academic space for the first time and even though I am writing under a pseudonym, it feels good. I was diagnosed later in life, after I became a PhD researcher (which I still am). Just because it took longer for me to know does not mean that you should call me “high-functioning” or “mild” or any other word that is supposed to make you feel better about my autism. I only identify as “autistic,” thank you very much.

I don’t personally know anyone in academia who is openly autistic. Due to this, I find it hard sometimes to make sense of where I belong.

This made me want to write a little bit about some of the ways that academia makes me feel inadequate and how I am trying to mitigate this. I hope that that this may make some people more aware of the issues autistics face. I pass as a neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) and no one in my professional life knows about my autism. This has an effect on my well-being and my mental health, though. As I have started to make sense of my own narrative, I have often felt guilt over my autism. Being publicly autistic does not feel safe due to the amount of people who see it as an excuse or a trend. It is very difficult to consciously care for myself while also having to strain myself to do certain things because I cannot explain why it is causing me distress.

I feel that if more people knew about what it is like to be an autistic academic, they may take us into account. This may, in turn, make us feel more comfortable to be publicly autistic in academic spaces. You should note that autistics have widely different profiles in abilities, so I am not suggesting that my difficulties will be shared at large. Some of my difficulties will also be shared by neurotypicals: the difference between you and me, though, will be their amount, their intensity, and the impact they have.

For this particular entry I will talk specifically about communication, networking, and being visibly different. Although the advice I will suggest is based on my own experience, I am hoping that people of varying strengths and weaknesses, autistic or not, will find them helpful.


I thrive in clear communication. What I found upon entering the world of academia, though, is a lot of rubbish talk, politics talk, and talk that suggests power relations, to name but a few. I particularly struggle in face-to-face communication, and I may be slower to process what is being said.

My advice:

  • It is ok to ask for clarification in class, meetings, or talks. This may seem obvious, but it can be hard to feel free to ask questions when everyone around looks as though they are getting everything quickly, feeling the pressure to sound and look “clever” at all times.
  • If the situation allows it and you have everyone’s approval, recording a class or meeting may be an option. This will allow you to review what was being said later on, freeing your mind to listen and get involved, instead of having to listen, take notes, and get involved, which can get overwhelming.
  • If this is a meeting where things to do are being decided, you can ask that an email be sent around outlining what will happen next. If this is a meeting with your advisor, you can send an updated agenda at the end with basic notes and ask them to check.
  • Take your time to find out whom you can trust, as well as whom you may not be able to trust. While I find that the “cheerful” and “outgoing” student often seems to be a must (and I am very good at acting “cheerful” and “outgoing” myself), I have realized that people can manage to be this way while not giving away their trust. This is particularly important if you struggle to analyze who is “safe” and who is not.

What autism is not


Boy, isn’t networking so important in our work? At least that is what I keep hearing, seeing, and experiencing. Networking is extremely difficult for me. I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.

My advice:

  • Observe, observe, observe. Admittedly, I am still in the observation phase, but I am trying to find ways that people use to network so that I can imitate them. That said, not everyone’s style will suit you: don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are completely out of character either.
  • What I struggle with the most is finding how to start the conversation. Once it is going, I can manage a lot better. If you know someone at an academic event, follow their lead. There may also be opportunities for you to talk that will make people want to come and talk to you themselves, such as Q&As after talks and presentations. Otherwise, hovering around seated areas may be a way to include yourself in a conversation.
  • Ask people about their research. People love to talk about their research and this may be an easy way in.
  • Do not talk too much about yourself. Yes, people love an enthusiastic student, but if you’re anything like me, you may struggle with turn-taking in conversations. I find that taking deep breaths at regular intervals can help to give time for the other person to intervene and reply, if they wish to.
  • Twitter! I found that this is a great way for me to network and feel like I am doing something positive. It also makes it easier to connect with other disabled academics, who may not be otherwise visible to you. I still need a limit or I run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, but it works a lot better than face-to-face interactions.

Being Visibly Different

Even though there are lots of friendly people around in academia, it can be difficult to be visibly different. Disclosure involves risks, and it puts you in a vulnerable position. Finding people you can trust with this information is not a given, as autism is so misunderstood. While I don’t feel I have been actively discriminated against, I know that I have missed certain opportunities because of the way I act and talk. On any given occasion, people may assume I am cold and unenthusiastic. At the other extreme, I may be seen as overenthusiastic, which can perceived just as badly. Imposter syndrome put aside, I also know that I can simply come across as “not quite having it together.”

My advice:

  • If you are not already doing so, I would suggest you start looking at the blogs of some autistic activists such as Autistic Hoya and Neurowonderful. There is acceptance and a sense of identity to be found by taking part in the autistic online community.
  • Take small steps. The day I attended a training day and used my usual self-soothing techniques throughout the training (this is called “stimming”) was a liberating day. This involved a “tangle,” an object that I was seemingly “playing” with, but actually helps me to stay focused. No one dared to ask what this was. I acted as though I belonged, like my tangle belonged. I owned it. I acted like it was normal. Because it is – for me.

Closing Comments

Being an autistic in academia isn’t easy. I read all the advice out there for students and feel as though much of it does not apply to me. Sometimes, after a long day of real life interaction, I feel as though everyone is so peppy and good, and I’m just a mess who needs to leave the room regularly for sensory reasons.

Fellow autistic academics – you’re here, though. You made it so far. You belong. Your autistic self also has a lot to offer. Your research probably links to your special interest. You’re driven. The networking and the interviewing and the need to be known (because you need to show that you are making an “impact”) can be overwhelming. But, remember that academia offers you so, so, so many opportunities to be cooped up in front of a computer focusing on what you love.

Dr. Adrienne Milner On Being Invisibly Disabled In Academia

Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor in sociology at the University of Alabama Birmingham (see her full biography at the end of this post).  In her guest blog post below, Dr. Milner writes about navigating academia with an “invisible” disability, driven, in part, by her determination to “tough it out” as a former athlete.


Transitioning from Playing through to Working through the Pain: Athletics, Positive Deviance, and Being Invisibly Disabled in Academia

milner head shotBefore winter break, we had a college-wide faculty meeting with the Dean of Arts and Sciences to discuss the events surrounding the decision to eliminate football, rifle, and bowling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). As someone who researches race and sex disparities in sport and teaches many student-athletes, I felt the need to express my support and concerns for my students during the meeting. I felt a bit nervous speaking out as a young, non-tenured, cisgender woman, but wasn’t aware of how visibly upset I must have been until after we adjourned. The dean came up to me, gave me what has been dubbed “the Christian side hug,” and asked if I was okay.

I was emotional because I know what it feels like to have a lifelong athletic career taken away. The summer after my freshman year of college, a car accident prevented me from continuing to play college basketball. During my time teaching as a graduate student at the University of Miami (UM), I witnessed a similar sense of loss among student-athletes who were suspended by the NCAA because of the Nevin Shapiro scandal. One of my brightest and most charismatic students, DeQuan Jones, was forced to obtain counsel and sue the NCAA after his indefinite suspension. He won his case and was eventually reinstated. His and many other football and basketball players’ personal reputations were damaged, however, and they suffered extreme losses in their professional draft stock.

I admire DeQuan for standing up to the NCAA and the UAB football team for expressing raw emotion during their meeting with President Watts after he cancelled their program. I was never as brave; throughout the majority of my academic career, I was silent about my car accident and my resulting disability.

Those of us who study sport are well aware of the positive deviant messages athletes receive and internalize from an early age, such as playing through pain, not letting the team down, and winning at all costs. “Positive deviance” is behavior that departs from norms but is interpreted as appropriate, and in sport, often results in hyper-compliance to sport values such as seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits (see Hughes and Coakley, 1991). For me, conforming to this dominant sport ideology began at 10 years of age when I finished a summer league basketball game after breaking my foot, and continued to manifest throughout my athletic career and beyond. No matter how much I was suffering, I put my game face on, which in my academic life consisted of maintaining a smile and performance of an energetic, friendly, and positive self. Fooling my professors, students, and colleagues into believing I was able-bodied resulted in my personal satisfaction of “winning” at my disability.

It took me a year and a half after I was hired at UAB to disclose my disability to colleagues. Interestingly, it was in the form of a party invitation which read:

Please join us for dinner and a toast as we celebrate The Settlement of Milner v. (Insurance Company)

Many of our friends and colleagues are unaware that growing up, Adrienne was a competitive three-sport athlete (she played basketball overseas, consistently contended for AAU national championships, and was recruited to play both basketball and lacrosse in college). However, when Adrienne was 18 years old, she was in a car accident that ended her collegiate athletic career and left her with permanent injuries and chronic pain, After over a decade of litigation, the parties have come to an agreement that validates Adrienne’s suffering and course of medical treatment. Let’s honour Adrienne for what she has accomplished despite these circumstances and support her as she closes this chapter of her life!

Even the last sentence of the invitation conforms to dominant sport ideology, suggesting that I have conquered my disability and moved beyond my physical limitations.

After my car accident, it took me my remaining 3 years of college and another 2 years of graduate school before I registered with disability services, which was not nearly as helpful as it could have been earlier in my education (e.g. using time and a half to complete a 72 hour comprehensive exam with dislocated shoulders and hips, herniated disks, and migraines for me would have been more detrimental than beneficial). Not only did I forego years of services that I was legally entitled to, not disclosing my disability may have resulted in a misunderstanding of my character since presentation of self is so important in academics’ teaching and professional careers. Because of my injuries, some days, I am unable to brush my hair, tie my shoes, or stand for long periods of time. When I am in pain, I generally look rough, act distant, and may vomit as a physical response to the trauma my body is experiencing. Without explanation, this behavior is at best, odd, and at worst, signifies a substance abuse problem.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to tell the people who I saw every day, and who were generally kind, thoughtful, and understanding, that I was disabled. Perhaps it was the competitor in me that never wants to ask for help, or the fear that I would be viewed as incapable of performing my job. Disclosing an invisible disability is difficult, and may not be the right decision in all situations or for all academics. However, sometimes concealing it may also have consequences. I am fortunate to have a wonderful advisor who understands the sport mentality and makes a point to ask how I am feeling, supportive colleagues who covered a week of my classes and sent flowers after I had complications from back injections, and empathetic students who don’t mind when I teach in “tree pose” or pop my shoulders and hips in place during class. I am also fortunate to have witnessed honest communication about what one is entitled to from our football team and from DeQuan, who despite what he unjustly endured, ended up playing professional basketball. That being said, the athlete in me will still enjoy a sense of victory if anyone reading is surprised that I am disabled.


Hughes, Robert and Coakley, Jay. 1991. “Positive Deviance Among Athletes: The Implications of Overconformity to the Sport Ethic.”  Sociology of Sport Journal 8: 307-325.



Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Milner’s research addresses issues of equity in terms of race and ethnicity and sex and gender in sports and political contexts. Specifically, she examines disparities in access to sport participation and analyzes the costs and benefits of participation for individuals with complex and diverse identities. Her other work focuses on racial and sexual attitudes, policy preferences, and inequality in the Obama era. She has a forthcoming book with Dr. Jomills Henry Braddock, II on segregation in sport.