Advice | How to Make Room for Neurodivergent Professors

The day before my 40th birthday was a rather remarkable one: I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Although I had always thought myself to have certain quirks, the diagnosis came as a surprise both to me and to the family members, friends, colleagues, and former teachers with whom I shared the news. I didn’t “read” as autistic in my personal interactions, and because I was a professor who had secured tenure at a competitive research university, it seemed to observers that my autism had not held me back professionally.

That reaction — and the fact that I myself had never seriously considered the possibility that I might be autistic — likely owed to the widespread cultural stereotypes about how a “typical” autistic person presents in the world. When I began to explore my neurodiversity, however, I learned of the wide range of characteristics and behaviors associated with autism, and I discovered the many ways that autistic people mask their natural, nonneurotypical responses as a strategy for surviving in a world that wasn’t quite designed for us.

And just as suddenly as I was diagnosed, I began to realize the extent to which my unacknowledged autism had shaped my life — especially my professional life.

It didn’t take long to appreciate that my neurodiversity had contributed to the various social difficulties I had grappled with in academia, such as my tendency to express myself in a way that is prone to misinterpretation, my struggles to make small-talk at conferences, my inability to relate to most colleagues, my reluctance to engage in departmental politics, even when doing so might advance my career.

At the same time, I recognized that I could also thank my autism for many of my professional strengths, such as my ability to dive deeply into complex research tasks and to focus intently on a particular student’s concerns. I now understood that (a) I was an autistic academic and (b) that identity was vital to how I existed in the world, whether I had known it or not.

But I couldn’t help but wonder: How many other professors are like me?

Such statistics are not easy to come by in the United States. I did find a 2020-21 U.K. survey in which, out of 224,530 people working as academic professionals in Britain, only 220 self-identified as having a “social/communication impairment.” But that number seems far too low, given that researchers generally believe about 1 percent of the world’s population is autistic (or roughly 2,245 of those surveyed). In the United States, the CDC estimates the figure to be closer to 2.2 percent of adults. Perhaps the discrepancy in the British survey is partly explained by the reluctance of some people to self-disclose their autism, out of fear of discrimination and stigma.

I felt comfortable enough with my department’s administrative team to disclose my diagnosis. But I can certainly imagine conditions in which I wouldn’t have done so, and my identity as a tenured white man grants me certain privileges that wouldn’t always be extended to others. (I must admit: A small part of me still worries that my disclosure may detrimentally affect my career down the road, just as I have some reservations about publishing this essay.)

While many autistic academics may not feel comfortable in publicly sharing this kind of personal information, it is also likely that others are simply unaware of their neurodiversity, as I was. For one thing, autism is generally underdiagnosed in many populations, including among women and people of color.

More specifically, this kind of diagnosis among Ph.D.s is complicated by the fact that some people who gravitate toward faculty careers clearly fit the broad criteria of “gifted” — high academic achievement being a common trait. Giftedness and autism share a number of behavioral characteristics, and the presence of giftedness can obscure the fact that an individual is also autistic and mask the particular challenges and difficulties that gifted autistic people face in higher education.

At this point, let me acknowledge that I am in no way an autism expert, and I do not mean to present myself as one. But it is precisely because I am new to thinking about neurodiversity that I wanted to write this. After my own autism diagnosis in August, I immediately realized that at no point during my 17 years in academe (including graduate school) had I ever been asked to pay meaningful attention to what it means to be neurodiverse.

On countless occasions, both mandatory and voluntary, I have benefited from learning about matters related to other forms of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education. But in my experience, neurodiversity in students and faculty members is a subject that has rarely been given significant attention in campus workshops and training programs. For example, not long ago, I completed my university’s mandatory “Inclusive Communities” DEI training — and as far as I could tell, neurodiversity was only mentioned in a single sentence, in a nonrequired module listing additional resources.

I suspect that I am not the only faculty member to have been relatively unfamiliar with the multiplicity of issues related to autism and neurodiversity. I could have sought such information, of course, and it’s my own shortcoming that I did not. But it seems clear that many academic institutions are ignoring neurodiversity and, thus, ignoring a sizable slice of people on any campus. Colleges and universities could do much more to protect autistic and other neurodivergent professionals from discrimination and stigma in the workplace, and to help staff and faculty members in general feel safe to explore their potential neurodiversity.

What might that mean in practice?

Give more attention to neurodiversity and autism in DEI programming. Given that autism is underdiagnosed, as I noted, in women and people of color, incorporating more explicit neurodiverse awareness would naturally complement existing DEI efforts. Administrators and other stakeholders should familiarize themselves with neurodiversity in the workplace, just as they are already doing with other markers of diversity.

Their increased awareness must be accompanied by broad efforts to educate employees about the basic elements of neurodiversity and counter the many stereotypes about autism. Faculty and staff members should come to appreciate the variety of autistic experience, and realize that they likely often interact with autistic colleagues without knowing it.

Increased attention and commitment to neurodiversity would not only combat discrimination and help autistic professionals feel more comfortable in their campus workplace, but would also encourage some faculty and staff employees to consider the possibility of their own neurodivergence — something they, like me, may never have considered, let alone explored.

I was a successful professional before my diagnosis. But learning that I am autistic has been fundamentally life-changing, leading to an enormous improvement in my quality of life. Suddenly I realized that many of the intellectual and interpersonal challenges I had faced as a teacher and scholar were not the result of a personal flaw or failing, but rather, reflected that I simply engage with the world in a different way than many of my colleagues. This knowledge has not only been liberating, it has allowed me to become much more comfortable in my own skin.

I suspect that would hold true for other academics unaware of their neurodivergence. Institutions could open the door to such revelatory insights for many faculty and staff members, and improve the academic workplace, by fostering an environment that honors the countless ways in which non-neurotypical people inhabit the world.

Commit to the idea that neurodiversity strengthens organizations. For good reason, it’s common to hear professors and administrators acknowledge that diversity is vital to the health of an academic unit — and that all types of people contribute to the rich tapestry of our shared experience. But it’s also fair to say that neurodiversity is much less regularly identified as a desirable trait in faculty members. I suppose it may have happened somewhere but I’ve certainly never heard any administrator pledge to increase the percentage of neurodiverse faculty members in a department.

The implicit message: Autism, when it’s acknowledged at all, exists merely to be “accommodated,” and in ways that create the least amount of disruption for all involved. Yet outside of higher education, employers are increasingly recognizing that “neurodiversity [is] a competitive advantage,” one that actually “presents opportunities” to forward-thinking organizations.

Part of my success as a scholar and teacher is clearly linked to autistic traits that I didn’t know I had. In a 2021 journal article, Aimee Grant and Helen Kara argued that autistic people may possess certain professional strengths — “long periods of concentration (hyperfocus), leading to ‘flow’ and creative thinking, attention to detail, and detailed knowledge of topic areas that are of interest to the individual” — that would make them great assets to research teams.

It’s time for institutions to embrace the “autistic advantage” in their recruitment and retention practices, and take steps to ensure that autistic candidates are not penalized for their nonneurotypical behaviors during the hiring process. Indeed, disabled people are often discriminated against in the workplace via appeals to so-called “organizational fit” — and it’s easy to see how this could occur to autistic academics, given that interviews and campus visits involve navigating social dynamics just as much as demonstrating research and teaching proficiency.

Finally, it seems clear that a college that embraces neurodiversity in its faculty and staff would be better equipped to serve autistic students. Neurodiverse students often don’t receive the specialized support they need, and an institution that signals a commitment to neurodiversity at the level of employee awareness would naturally create teachers more able to help autistic students succeed.

I have always been an autistic academic, even when I didn’t know it. No doubt other academics either are unaware they are autistic or do not feel safe living as their authentic self in the academic workplace. Institutions showing a greater sensitivity to the conditions of neurodiversity would vastly improve the quality of life of people in both categories.

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