Matthew Rozsa discusses a struggle unique to autistic individuals in PhD programs.
Without question, pursuing a PhD in history was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only has it opened doors in my writing career – which, professionally speaking, is my one true love – but it has allowed me to interact with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. The conversations that we have had both within and outside of the classroom have challenged my assumptions and enriched my mind, while the hundreds of books and articles that I’ve read have informed my perspective as a political columnist in ways that would have never been possible otherwise.
Most important of all, though, it has been an overwhelmingly positive environment for a person with high-functioning autism (colloquially known as Asperger’s Syndrome). In most lines of work, fixated interests on intellectualized subjects are perceived as at best frivolously enjoyable and at worst downright annoying; academia, however, demands the kind of intensely cerebral passion that comes as naturally to me as breathing. Similarly, although most autistic people struggle in social situations because they are viewed as “weird,” idiosyncrasies are cherished rather than marginalized within academic environments.
That said, there is one enormous way in which academia is brutally – albeit unintentionally – unfair to autistic people. By way of explanation, I turn to aspergersyndrome.org, which points out that students on the autism spectrum “are often off task, distracted by internal stimuli; are very disorganized; have difficulty sustaining focus on classroom activities… tend to withdraw into complex inner worlds in a manner much more intense than is typical of daydreaming and have difficulty learning in a group situation.” Among other things, this manifests itself in “poor concentration, slow clerical speed and severe disorganization.”
Although that piece focused on autistic children, it is especially relevant to autistic PhD students. Despite earning a 3.9 in my Masters program at Rutgers University and a 3.8 in my PhD coursework at Lehigh University, I have never once taken notes while reading a text or listening to a lecture. Even though I absorb all of the information and analyze it with ease, the ordeal of stopping my train of thought to jot down notes is nothing short of excruciating. One analogy that I have often used is that it’s like listening to a piece of music but stopping it every three seconds for observations. Some people may enjoy that, but for me the constant breaks are unsustainably disruptive.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like our modern academic system has any effective way of accommodating individuals with this particular disability. My professors, though sympathetic, don’t seem to know how exactly I can be helped, and now that I’ve reached the point where I need to take my comprehensive exams – a series of tests that require me to deconstruct hundreds of books, many of which I’ve already read but have no record of aside from my own memories – I find myself quite unsure of how to proceed. It’s easy enough to reread all of the books that I was once assigned, and because I’ve always done well in my classes I haven’t struggled with recalling important details or grasping necessary themes. Nevertheless, I cannot simply break thirty-one years of hardwired neurological impairment and start jotting down the notes that the system insists I produce. Try as I might, it seems that I have hit a wall which I cannot break through.
I wish that I could close this article on a hopeful note, but the truth is that I don’t as yet have any answers. All I know for sure is that, whenever I write about the predicaments which I endure as an autistic person, I almost always receive dozens of emails and comments from other autistic individuals. They commiserate with me about their similar experiences, offer advice on how to effectively handle my own problems (which I very much need right now), and reward me with the inestimable pleasure of their companionship. Since I haven’t broached this specific aspect of my autistic life in the past, I felt now was as good a time as any to bring it up. With any luck, someone somewhere will benefit from it.