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How to Reconcile Being an “Aspie” and a Scientist

I received a very late diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, when I was already twenty. Before that, I was ashamed of my “social awkwardness”, but my passion for life sciences and research relieved me of my sorrow. After I learned about my condition, I was able to self-accept and be proud of myself (and continued to love biology, of course).

What is Asperger Syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), since it shares some characteristics with classical autism, though in a milder way. People with Asperger syndrome, who are informally called “aspies”, usually struggle with communication and social interaction. Also, we are usually very interested in a restricted topic or activity to which we like to dedicate ourselves. Another common trait is clumsiness, as well as some sensory differences, such as hypersensitivity.

Although group activities found in student and lab lives can be helpful in learning how to handle social events, they may be stressful for aspies like me. Fortunately, during my journey, I learned some life lessons that helped me reconcile my research and being the way I am.

1. Being an Aspie Doesn’t Prevent You from Being a Scientist

Asperger syndrome never prevented me of working in the life sciences field. As my “strict and repetitive repertoire of interests and activities” were basically biology and the University, I managed to be a good undergrad researcher and a top student.

For many aspies, the symptoms are mild and don’t impair day-to-day life very much. Indeed, it has been shown that scientists and mathematicians tend to have some autistic traits! But, of course, being neurotypical does not prevent anyone from being a researcher.

2. Congresses and Other Events May Be Harsh

Presentations have always been harsh to me: it is difficult to maintain a confident posture and talk fluently! But I somehow managed to deal with this by training a lot and planning my presentations carefully.

Furthermore, PowerPoint presentations are a great help. They provide guidance to your talk, so you can avoid the interrupted speech pattern typical of some aspies. Also, if you are not keen to be face to face with the public, you can focus your eyes on the slideshow, though it is not highly recommended.

However, I consider poster sessions the hardest, since their ambience is noisier than oral presentations. Aspies may present hypersensitivity, so this situation can be overwhelming. In my case, I ask for someone else to present the poster for me, or I opt for an oral presentation if it is possible.

Remember: if you are an aspie and consider oral presentations and poster sessions too stressful, you don’t have to participate. There are other ways of making your research visible! For example, magazines such as The Scientist and Scientific American accept texts about recently published work. Also, you can ask your co-authors to present your research for you.

3. Clumsiness and Lab Work

Another difficulty is being clumsy. Indeed, marked clumsiness is a characteristic of Asperger Syndrome, and some studies show that autistic people tend to have decreased motor skills.

During my first lab experiences, I found it was painful to pipette precisely or to seed agar plates, despite my best efforts. After I realized I didn’t have a flair for this, I decided to put most of my energy into mathematical modeling, meta-analysis, bioinformatics, and literature review.

If I have to do a lab experiment, I carry them out when more experienced students are around in case I need help. On the other hand, if your problem is the overwhelming lab ambience, you can work in calmer hours or use earphones to listen to relaxing music to escape the noise and excessive movement around you.

4. Neurodiversity and Social Convivence

Because my different way of being and perceiving social rules, I have already experienced prejudice or even bullying from classmates and lab partners. For example, during my first years of college, the gossip of some classmates about my reclusion almost made me drop out. Once, a potential supervisor ignored me just because of my way of being. Besides being frustrating and destroying my self-confidence, this is not good for lab convivence and professional networking.

But I see that most of these people are not actually cruel. They simply do not understand the huge diversity of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and Asperger’s. Most importantly, they have no idea how to behave and deal with the different. After all, most people still have a stereotyped image of people with mental disorders, and cannot appreciate that they happen in a broad range of symptoms and severity.

However, this may change, since movements claiming respect for neurodiversity are growing every day. The neurodiversity movement requests acceptance of the diversity of neurological conditions such as Asperger’s, dyslexia and ADHD. Neurodiversity is as important and valuable as gender, ethnic, sexual and cultural diversity. If everybody is aware of this, we can live in a prejudice-free world.

References

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J. & Clubley, E. The autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): Evidence from asperger syndrome/high-functioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 31, 5–17 (2001).

Fournier, K. A., Hass, C. J., Naik, S. K., Lodha, N. & Cauraugh, J. H. Motor coordination in autism spectrum disorders: a synthesis and meta-analysis. J. Autism Dev. Disord. 40, 1227–1240 (2010).

Silberman, S. Neurotribes: the legacy of autism and the future of neurodiversity. (2015).

World Health Organization. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems – 10th revision. (2010).

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