Chloe Farahar uses her own experience as an Autistic academic to explain how we (neurotypicals in HE) can be less ableist
For many Autistic people[i], to be Autistic means to experience a neurologically different development, where Autistic experience is a natural variation within the human species. (See the glossary of key terms.) An inside-out perspective of Autistic experience advocates for a balanced narrative about what it means to be Autistic, where Autistic people are a culture and community built on shared positive and negative experiences. These shared experiences that connect Autistic people comprise shared and similar experiences of the sensory world; which in turn, shape our shared Autistic functional and pragmatic language and communication which is at odds with non-Autistic people. In this way, we share a common experience in the way that we think, move, and socialise.
Sadly, our shared experiences also include the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination due to living in a society that views our difference in terms of pathology. This extends to the systemic ableism that exists in institutions, including academia – where ableism is the disadvantaging of disabled people by creating and maintaining systems that favour non-disabled people as the norm.
Autistics in academia
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, as of 2019-2020, I am one of the 175 academics in the UK who are Autistic out of a total of 223,525 academics[ii]. Given the conservative estimate that one in 100 people are Autistic, this higher education statistic feels grossly underestimated. So, why might this be?
The fear of discrimination leads many in academia to hide their concealable stigmatised identity and experiences. This means individuals do not seek reasonable adjustments, or simply are deprived of living an authentic life where they do not have to hide their natural Autistic tendencies to move and regulate via objects (e.g. fidget objects), repeat words and phrases that feel nice to say (Autistic echolalia), wear noise-cancelling headphones, avoid water cooler conversations, and so on.
Owning my weirdness
As an Autistic woman in academia, in recent years, I have come to write, train, and talk on the importance of Autistic identity, culture, community, and space for individual wellbeing – the need to “embrace your weird.” This flies in the face of stigma, and certainly wholly contradicts the dominant medical narrative of autism spectrum disorder. Part of this weird ownership, this reclamation of our humanness, is demonstration of pride. Pride in one’s Autistic culture and community in the face of extreme discrimination. In the UK, there are a number of Autistic Pride events celebrating who we are as a people and a culture within our own right. A large part of this movement for Autistic pride, of Autistic outedness, is claiming the accommodations and respect needed for our experiences of the world in systems that can disadvantage the disabled and the different.
Embracing my autistic identity as an academic
Disclosing a concealable identity is a choice that many do not take lightly. Although I cannot know empirically, I certainly have worried that my disclosure has lost me academic, project, collaboration, and work opportunities. And yet I am openly Autistic and use my lived experience to inform my teaching and training. I do not shy away from bringing myself to the classroom. I wear earplugs during noisy class discussions, stim[iii] with objects, turn lights off. I do not apologise when I struggle to form sentences or find the words I need. More importantly, in order to support other Autistic people to feel safe to disclose, I have to be openly Autistic, even if this threatens my career prospects.
My academia sense-making is a work-in-progress. I am carving out a space for myself to be able to work and research. I make my own roles. I build on my strengths and ask for accommodations for things I struggle with. I try not to take on more than I know I can manage: I explain I cannot do audio marking feedback due to losing the ability to speak on occasion. I do not put pressure on myself to publish and I compiled guidance for evidence-supported thesis viva adjustments.
My entrepreneurial character is not out of choice, but necessity: I do not interview well; application processes are exhausting, and to the detriment of all other areas of my life. Ultimately, I have learnt that until the world around me changes I must do things my way. If what I need does not exist, I create it for myself and others. I co-created a support programme for Autistic people because it was what I needed, but also to help others avoid the ableist culture of autism and to be humanised as Autistic people. This determination, my values, and skills have led me to focus on stigma-reduction for neurominorities; to develop an accessible educative platform for people – neurodivergent and neurotypical – to learn about Autistic experience (Aucademy); and begin the arduous task of applying for research funding to demonstrate that our support programme improves Autistic wellbeing.
And while I cannot know if my disclosure has reduced my academic prospects, what I do know is, I am now sought out to work and collaborate on projects because I am Autistic; to offer my perspective on research projects; to be awarded grants to create neurodivergent training for staff to be able to better acknowledge, accommodate, and normalise truly neurodivergent inclusive practices; to deliver training to universities; and to share my perspective with the readers of this blog.
I acknowledge that I am in a privileged position as a white Autistic woman. There are Autistic men who cannot openly stim for fear of repercussions from those around them; Black Autistic people who cannot disclose or be openly Autistic for fear of violence; Autistic queer people who are overlooked in the literature on Autistic experience. Consequently, I call on you to amplify the voices (spoken and typed/alternate communication methods) of my fellow Autistic community members who are further marginalised by intersecting community memberships such as ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
The future for neurodivergent academics
I think it is safe to say that what might be most important for the Autistic community (and other neurominorities) is that (societally) neurotypical people come to cognitively empathise with neurominorities. Ironically, too often, people who are not Autistic, or of a minority (disabled, neurological, or other minority), struggle to empathise with those who have different sensory, social, and emotional world experiences. Yet, it is empathetic perspective-taking of Autistic people by non-Autistic people that will greatly improve the situation for my community. See My Call to Action sidebar.
I do not have lessons I can provide other disabled academics; that would be presumptuous of me. For those academics who decide not to disclose their concealable identity, they will have their own valid reasons. All I can do is continue to be openly Autistic in the hopes that I can help people feel safe to disclose their own identity, and to continue to make changes where I can so that they become normalised practice. We – neurodivergent people – have always been here, and now that we are mobilising as communities, we will hopefully feel able to make visible our concealable identities. We ask that you become our allies in this brave endeavour.
Consider your Autistic colleague on an individual basis: Find out how we want to identify and disclose to you, our colleagues, and our peers (if at all). Focus on our strengths and accommodate where you can so that we face fewer challenges. Tackle stigma and discrimination where you encounter it, do not stand for stereotyping or throw-away comments, even when they are not directed at your Autistic colleague/member of staff – we hear these comments and sometimes we do not have the confidence or the energy to keep fighting the stereotypes alone. Be our ally, you will have a grateful and hardworking colleague in return. We ask that you do not question our Autistic identity/status, or ask us what makes us Autistic, because we “don’t look Autistic” to you. Take our disclosure of our Autistic status at face value and ask respectfully what you can do to accommodate us.
My Call to Action
My call to action for academia as outlined in Lived Experiences of Ableism in Academia: Strategies for Inclusion in Higher Education include:
- University sanctioned and embraced staff inclusive working plans
- Disability/equality diversity and inclusion (EDI) led/hosted Autistic academic peer groups – for community and spaces
- Hosting Autistic trainers to improve neurodivergent inclusivity – to acknowledge, accommodate, and normalise inclusive practices. This means:
– Acknowledge: learning about neurodivergence and inclusive practices
– Accommodate: adjusting our practices
- – Normalise: normalising these practices for everyone – not just singling out neurominorities
- Universities and their EDI departments recognising Autistic experience from a cultural minority perspective, supporting this minority in similar ways to other cultural minorities who make up their staff – recognising differences in language and communication, systemic factors that lead to minority disadvantage, fostering and embracing our cultural minority and the strengths we bring to academia
Insist on Autistic-developed, led, and delivered training – and pay those Autistic trainers: There is an ongoing practice of hosting “autism” training delivered by organisations and charities, paying non-Autistic trainers. This training typically falls short of the lived-experience narrative and practical recommendations for accommodating Autistic people in the workplace. There is a difference between learning about the theory of autism as a pathological concept and learning about neurodivergent experiences and practical recommendations as delivered by seasoned Autistic trainers.
Read up on the double empathy problem: Autistic people are not deficient in communication ability. When together, Autistic people manage to understand one another due to similar frames of reference and experience of the world. Communication difficulties arise during cross-neurotype interactions i.e., non-Autistic and Autistic. Quite simply we speak different languages. Autistic people already work incredibly hard to understand the language and experiences of non-Autistic people; we ask that you learn our language and culture so that we can meet one another on a more equitable footing.
Take advice from Autistic staff and trainers: Finally, and importantly, I challenge universities to develop Inclusive Teaching and Working Plans with their student support services, human resources, and most importantly, actually Autistic personnel and/or trainers. Putting into practice support for your valued disabled academics will lead to a less stressful working environment for us, and you will have enabled colleagues to become the role models students, with and without inclusive learning plans, need. What better way to learn how to make your institution inclusive of diversity than from the people teaching your students?
[i] Autistic people, not “people with autism spectrum disorder.” Autistic is what I am, not something I have, in the same way that I am a white woman, not a “person with whiteness and femaleness.”
[ii] Data sourced from the Higher Education Statistics Agency pages Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics/HE academic staff by disability and academic employment function, Academic years 2014/15 to 2019/20. The university academic staff figure is based on all employment functions (teaching; research; teaching and research; etc.); terms of employment (fixed-term; open-ended; etc.); and modes of employment (part-time; full-time; etc.).
[iii] Stimming is the term Autistic people use to refer to self-stimulatory behaviour, which include means of (often repetitive) movement such as rocking, fingernail flicking, or tapping, and the repetition of words or phrases said out loud (echolalia) or internally (echolagia) (cf. Kapp et al., 2019).
Image: Meme by Chloe Farahar
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.