The Blog and the PhD – why I can’t do one without the other.

I’m writing this post to try to explain what blogging means to me.

One of the things I’m really thinking a lot about just now is how the same words/actions/practices can have very different meanings to those who engage in them, and that often we might spend time and effort trying to ascertain the ‘right’ meaning, without thinking and reflecting on different perspectives and trying to understand them in their own terms.

I know that people blog for lots of reasons – sometimes as a way of engaging with an interest or hobby to take them away from pressures they experience in everyday life, sometimes to raise awareness of an issue about which they feel passionate, sometimes to engage with other members of a specific community. And I suppose to an extent, all of these reasons apply to me too, but I’m learning that there is so much more to my experience with this blog, and what I’m getting out of it – particularly in terms of its relationship to my PhD, and I want to share this here.

I also want to speak AS A PHD STUDENT, because I think there might be a tendency to think about writing a blog as something that is separate from, and that detracts from the process of “proper” academic writing for a PhD. So I want to share that for me, I feel the experience is actually quite the opposite.

Why did I start this blog?

The short answer to this question is – “because I had something to say”.

What this means is that there were ideas, questions and concerns running around in my head – things that were making me confused, troubled, angry and challenged and that I just couldn’t leave alone – they were also things that were not part of the focus of my PhD, and I was getting really concerned that I was being far too obsessive over those and should just switch off from them, leave them alone and get back to work like a “good PhD student”.

One of the stories I was telling myself about this was “you’re being obsessive – problematic obsessions are part of autism, maybe this means that your being autistic means that you can’t be a good PhD student”. I don’t think this now, but it was a powerful feeling until recently and a source of real anxiety – which in itself is something that I think has tremendous power to prevent productivity (in a pleasingly alliterative fashion.) And I mention it here because one of the things I’ve been exploring with this blog is how the ways in which autism is talked about in society (discourses) can actually be just as disabling, if not more so, than anything that autism actually is or might be.

So in those circumstances, it may have seemed easier for me to tell myself, and to be told by others, that I needed to leave this stuff alone. That the posts in this blog, and the endless streams of consciousness of which the material I write here is a very small, very measured part, are not my “proper” work and are taking up too much of my time. People have told me this before when I’ve been thinking about things that are important to me – and it is certainly true that none of us has infinite time, and there are things which must be done and must be prioritised – we all to an extent have to work with what we’re given in that regard.

But I honestly don’t think I could have done that.

And it would be easy to frame that statement in terms of autistic obsessions too, but don’t we all have things in life that matter so profoundly that we can’t leave them alone? And don’t some people manage to learn from those things and use them in their work to really powerful effect? I don’t know for certain yet if this is possible for me, but it’s definitely something I want to try to achieve, because trying that seems a better option than collapsing in a heap of despair about my broken brain and how it’s ruining my life again.

So what was the problem? What has the blog “fixed”? 

Well, for me, this blog has given me a means of self-expression without being scared, and that is a powerful, powerful thing.

I honestly don’t know how I got to be so scared.

I certainly didn’t start off that way. I started off as a child who read obsessively, who questioned everything and who always wanted to know more. At home this was met with an endless supply of books, straightforward answers to any question I asked, and encouragement to go beyond what I learned in school and try to experience the world for myself (lovely trips with my mum to build on things I’d done at school). Very, very privileged.

But the trouble is that asking questions just because they pop into my head, and wanting to discuss certain topics in public (because they were interesting, important and meaningful even if – or perhaps especially if they were socially ‘taboo’), and saying when I thought things were wrong, also got me some other labels – so I was “outspoken” and “blunt” and “tactless” and I didn’t think of others, and I challenged authority, and then I was ‘impaired’ in social interaction. On two occasions in two different schools a teacher told me in front of the class that my writing was brilliant but she wasn’t going to read it out (as she was with the work of other pupils) because it was about a topic that “we don’t discuss” or that “might be shocking”.

And I internalised the message that these things I was interested in, and these personality traits were BAD and had to be repressed, that I was BAD and had to learn to perform in order to be socially acceptable. None of these things that I thought, or that I was, were “good” and I wanted to be “good”. This meant that my focus shifted profoundly to “trying to get it right” – trying to be acceptable to other people.

I felt ugly and stupid and wrong and broken and weird, and like the only way to survive, and to stop others hurting me, and me hurting myself, was to keep quiet about myself, my views, my feelings because these were so obviously different from those of others that they must be wrong.

And as you might imagine, this is not the strongest, most desirable or efficient position to be in if you’re trying to learn and to do academic work. It put me “on the back foot”.  As I already thought that what I felt and said were wrong, anything I wrote academically also felt wrong almost before I wrote it – and writing became an exercise in trying to please others, rather than trying to express myself and my thoughts. It was an exercise I was quite good at, but it was unfulfilling. And as I already felt stupid and lacking because I couldn’t make myself think like others, rather than opening my eyes to new possibilities and ways of thinking, reading things that I didn’t already know just served to confirm my stupidity. A long, long way from innate curiosity and a passion for reading – and unhelpful, stunting, limiting and unproductive. Thought processes like these become prisons that shut you off from so much of the beautiful stuff in life, and I feel now like I’ve missed out on a lot. I’m desperate to catch up.

I don’t expect that this will necessarily make sense, and I certainly don’t seek to justify thinking like this. It is what it is – or maybe, it was what it was.

I also don’t know why it happened like this – I’m not trying to blame anyone else for the fact that I picked up this message – a lot of it was given totally unintentionally, and that which was intentional was well-intentioned, and I’m also refusing to blame myself for being weak. It is what it is, and we are where we are – and part of me getting beyond this to where I’d like to be, is about being straightforward about things that feel painful and shameful. Naming these experiences takes away their power, even if they can’t be fully explained.

(I also need to be clear here, that I’m talking about ‘me’ not about ‘autism’. What I’m saying will speak to the experiences of some autistics, and not others – but it will also surely speak to people who are not autistic. It’s really important to me that my words be taken as mine – not as some “account of autism”)

So how does the blog help?

This is possibly going to sound quite lame, but it honestly feels like this blog has given me a “voice”.

To be clear about this – I always had a voice in a physical sense. With the exception of moments of extreme anxiety, I am a (very) verbal person, and I’ve been writing for work, and in order to achieve academic qualifications for a long time. But there is a difference between doing these things and having a “voice” – as in, saying something because it is right inside your being, and you feel it with every part of yourself and it is your truth.

I’d lost touch with much of what that is for me, and it was making the PhD process really difficult – I was making it difficult for myself because I wasn’t in touch with, and wasn’t drawing on myself, my voice, and what I as an individual could offer to the process. I was thinking I was stupid and worrying about having those suspicions confirmed. I wasn’t feeling it.

But now, because I’m blogging, and because I know I have this place for self-expression, I’m thinking and feeling things all the time. Sentences run through my head constantly, and now I have a reason to shape them and to really work (and play) with them – interrogate and challenge them until they take some kind of useful form. I know that I can put them down here and they will be safe and contained and “real”. I don’t need to run away from them so I can work with them and learn from them. And this – not just the blog itself as a physical (virtual?) entity, but its place in my life and in my thinking – is helping me to know who I am, and what matters to me. I’m getting in touch with the themes that make up my position in the world and really learning what I stand for.

The other powerful part of this experience is that through this blog, I’ve engaged with others, and people (some of whom I know and whose opinions I care about) have engaged with my words. They’ve taken them seriously and valued them – including questioning them and in so doing they’ve helped me to question them and move on. But they haven’t laughed at them. They haven’t laughed at me. They haven’t told me I’m weird and they haven’t said “you can’t say that” or “we don’t talk about that.” And this is giving me freedom to write with my “voice” academically too. Now, the sentences for my PhD are starting to pop into my head without being forced. I’m starting to get at what I want to say, which is exciting and exhilarating. And that’s why I think that although this blog won’t feature as part of my PhD, it’s going to run invisibly though it as the driving force that makes the “proper” academic words flow.

The blog may (does) take up some time, but it’s making me unafraid to learn and to question, and it’s making me want to write. I don’t see how one could do a PhD in any other way.

 

 

 

 

Why I’m unhappy with “Imposter Syndrome”

So, I may have mentioned that this blog is likely to be a pile of contradictions – and that I might end up changing my mind, or refining ideas about things as I go along.

Well, this is one of those times …

I wrote a blog recently about how I feel that my autism diagnosis makes having confidence in my ability to do my PhD really hard (it’s here if you’d like to take a look). In the post, I mentioned how frequently the term “Imposter Syndrome” was used to describe how often people don’t feel like they ‘fit in’ in academia – that they don’t feel good enough. I tried to explain how having an autism diagnosis, with all that this involves, makes this even more tricky.

Well, my blog was picked up and retweeted by Susan Oman, who is researching wellbeing, including in relation to PhD experiences (you can check out her work here). What was particularly interesting was that in retweeting the blog link, the phrase that Susan picked up on was “I feel like an imposter, but not just that, I feel like an autistic imposter.”

And this is really how it felt to me when I wrote it – like all PhD students experience ‘imposter syndrome’ but being autistic makes this even more of a problem.

So why am I questioning this now?

Well, since I wrote the blog, I’ve been thinking about, and speaking to others about how the notion of ‘imposter syndrome’ actually works, and it occurs to me that the phrase, and what it implies, might not be helping.

What I mean by this is that I had been thinking of ‘imposter syndrome’ as something that affects individual PhD students – and that my individual experience of autism meant that my version of ‘imposter syndrome’ was different/worse/whatever than that of others. Well, the thing is that I do still think this might be the case to an extent – and I don’t think that those who aren’t autistic can understand what it’s like, or can know about it. I do still feel that, but in the past that’s made me quite protective of it, and quite “parochial” (I guess) about the specialness of autism and of autistic experiences.

I didn’t want it to be lumped together with other types of individual experience because how could others possibly know about autism? (Which was my individual experience, and the overriding cause of my ‘imposter syndrome’). So it shut off my thinking about other types of individual experience – people who experience ‘imposter syndrome’ because they are trying to do PhDs and balance childcare commitments, because they have come to academia via a ‘non traditional route’, because they are older than the ‘typical postgraduate’ – or all the other hundreds of thousands of ways that people can feel that they don’t fit in with the model of what a ‘proper PhD student’ should be.

It set me apart from them because the term locates ‘imposter syndrome’ in the individual. It sets it up as an individual ‘problem’ for the individual to overcome.

But I’m not happy with that. Because locating the issue within the individual makes it into a ‘personal’ struggle and creates some kind of hierarchy (“my experience is worse than yours because I have autism” or “your experience is worse than mine because you’re from a Working Class background”). It also has the potential to locate the cause of the trouble in individuals – individual supervisors, individual departments. And this in itself is something that makes raising these issues very problematic for those of us who actually have good relationships with supervisors or with our departments. Indeed, this concern makes it feel troubling for me writing this now, because it feels like it would be so easy to infer from my attempts to absolve myself of any individual ‘blame’ for feeling like an ‘imposter’, that I am attempting to lay the’ blame’ on other individuals. But it’s absolutely not that. I have a really great supervisor and I like the department I’m in. The issue is a far deeper cultural one than that, and I think it goes beyond individuals and is historically and culturally rooted.

So I think that this individualisation of ‘imposter syndrome’ lets the wider systems and structures that lead people to feel that they don’t have a place within academia ‘off the hook’. And really, seriously, if this phenomenon is so widespread, across so many different types of student, different institutions, different academic disciplines – then maybe, just maybe the problem is not an individual ‘syndrome’ but a structural issue. Maybe the focus for change needs to be on the concepts and practices, the systems that are creating the conditions for people to feel like outsiders in a place where they have earned the right to be.

And I don’t feel that talking about ‘imposter syndrome’ really gets us to a place where that is our focus for change.

I don’t pretend to have definitive answers for change, but I do want to be part of something that makes change happen – that makes academia a more inclusive place to be, so that those of us who are ‘non mainstream’ can make meaningful, recognised contributions in a way that does not push us to the brink of breaking, or beyond.

My reasons for this are clear and unashamedly partisan – as an autistic woman, I feel that I need academia. I need to be able to go beyond my own personal experiences and understand how the world works around me. I need to learn, and I love to teach. I also feel that I have something to contribute. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am, and so many people have helped me along the way. But being part of a community means you have a responsibility to it, and to help to shape it, and that’s what I’m trying to do from my autistic perspective.

So the one thing that I feel like I can offer at this point is the suggestion that maybe we should reconsider the language of ‘imposter syndrome’ and begin to talk about something that locates the problem outside of individuals so that we can begin to work within and change a system that actually makes the majority of us feel like ‘imposters’ at some point. Maybe we need to shift our focus much more firmly to ‘hostile spaces’ or ‘hostile cultures’ in the PhD experience and in academia more widely (of which the PhD is a formative part). Because that’s where I think change needs to happen.

 

“I can’t do this bloody PhD. I’m too bloody autistic and too bloody stupid.” Doubts and Hope when Identities Collide.

I started writing this post earlier in the week, when work was feeling hard, and I was feeling pretty low. I thought I knew what I wanted to say here – but then this weekend, a ‘thing’ happened on Twitter that has made me rethink how I feel and has very much reshaped this post.

The ‘thing’ was a conversation among autistic people under the hashtag #illogicalsocialrules. I found it this morning and it’s been quite powerful in helping me to rethink how I see myself as an autistic PhD student studying “social”. So I want to explain why.

Firstly though – the background.

The title to this post is what goes through my head whenever anything feels difficult – when I can’t say exactly what I want straight away, when I feel overwhelmed, when doing a PhD feels like eating an elephant. It’s tricky to explain, and probably falls into that category of “things I feel I can’t say”, because it seems like everyone finds doing a PhD difficult at least some of the time. There’s loads written about ‘imposter syndrome’, and loads of sharing in departments and on forums, about how feeling like you can’t manage, feeling isolated, feeling like an ‘imposter’ is totally ‘normal’ and to be expected. I know the intention of all of this is to be helpful, but as with so many things in autistic life, being told ‘it’s normal’ and ‘you’ll be ok’ doesn’t get at the problem, and actually shuts down any real discussion of the situation. So I need to try to explain how this is for me, and where I think autism fits into this explanation.

The thing about autism as I experience it is that it’s about being neither one thing nor the other.

I have a diagnosis that lists all of the things I can’t do (that I’ll share on here when I finally track down a copy). A neatly typed bundle of failures that is supposed to help me. I have gone through all of the clinical literature and read the  articles that appear almost daily, discussing all of our deficits and all of the hopes for a cure for our muddled, dysfunctional thinking. I know all of the theory around weak central coherence, poor executive functioning, rigid thinking, poor planning and problem solving, deficits in social communication, poor receptive language processing, sensory dysfunction. And I experience all of this – that’s how I come to have the diagnosis, that’s how I “count”. (The current DSM criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder are here if you’re interested – so many failures and abnormalities!)

I also have years and years of being immersed in an autistic community of firsthand narratives detailing what we can do – sharing successes and proving how ‘normal’ and ‘capable’ we can be. I’ve read the articles on ‘5 ways in which my autism helped me get my PhD’, and all the stuff on how our neurology is a ‘natural human variation’. I’ve seen a huge increase in recognition of how autistic women live – and that feels very different from when I was diagnosed, very positive progress.

The thing is though, that none of that helps when I doubt if I can do my PhD – or when I doubt myself more generally and feel like a broken human being. All the deficit stuff, the “proper” clinical stuff is so strong and dominates my thinking – it feels so authoritative, so confident, and it fits with how much of a failure I feel. So it confirms it. I feel like an imposter, but not just that, I feel like an autistic imposter. How on earth can someone with all of that long list of deficits possibly think she can do a PhD? Every time I think about it, the conclusion I reach is “Maybe this is just as far as an autistic can get – maybe autism just makes this impossible”. And the thing about this type of thinking is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the doubting robs you of your productivity because being so afraid of confirming your failure means that you can barely bring yourself to try.

But I don’t WANT to accept that. I refuse to accept that – because when work is good (as it is just now) it’s the most amazingly, addictively good thing in the world and I will not give that up.

So how does a twitter hashtag like #illogicalsocialrules help with all of this?

Well, to be blunt, it helps me find my place, and it helps me to identify my tribe. My own interest in “social” has sat uncomfortably with an autistic identity that risks erasure if it is seen to be too aware of other people, and of “social”. One of the reasons why those “5 reasons why my autism has helped me get a PhD” articles don’t help me is because they tend to orient towards stereotyped forms of autism that I don’t have. They describe highly routined autistics working in maths and science fields in ways that would make Rainman proud.

But that is not me. My passion is language – all kinds of languages – words, words, words. And how words happen between people. I love watching people ‘act’ in order to be ‘social’. Sometimes it grates because I’m so aware of it and it looks fake and cringeworthy, but it’s what I’m tuned to. In my own language and in other foreign languages – I love spotting patterns and nuances. I’ve had to. But this is just so “unautistic”. We’re supposed to have deficits in social communication, so it’s always felt like I have to choose between an autistic identity (which I need, when the sound of a hand dryer paralyses me, or I’m terrified about going somewhere new because I don’t know what to expect), and an identity that loves language and observing and dissecting the “social” (though might not always “do it right”).

And right there – in that hashtag, there’s a whole group of other autistic people doing exactly what I do. Being autistic and examining the social – sometimes amusingly, sometimes critically, but USING the ‘outsider’ position, and all of the observations that go along with that as a SKILL to pick apart and analyse that which I guess many neurotypicals would take for granted because they’ve never HAD to study it.

So maybe it is entirely possible to be autistic, with all that that means, and to be good at observing and studying the social. Maybe those two can go absolutely, happily, hand in hand. And maybe it’ll all be alright after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s it all about, Aspie?

Why am I writing this blog?

Well that’s hard to say really. If this were “proper academic writing”, I’d present these posts as some kind of fully formed, reasoned argument with a beginning, a middle and an (apparently) inescapably logical conclusion – perfectly internally coherent if nothing else, with a full set of appropriate references, and all ambivalences and contradictions neatly ironed out.

That’s not what this is though, and it would be wrong on many levels for me to present it as such. This is messy – partly as a “work in progress”, and partly because life is messy and full of grey areas and smudges that need to be explored and explicated, not taken for granted – because they have power to shape how we think, what we say and how we live.

We ignore them at our peril.

It’s the thinking, feelings, passions, questions and concerns that are arising out of my experience, as an autistic (Aspie) woman doing a PhD in Social Sciences.

Importantly, I need to say from the outset that it isn’t my intention to “prove” anything – or to add to research about what autism “is”. There is lots of research about what autism “is” – and some of it is really good. What I want to look at is not what autism “is” in any empirical sense, but how what we say about autism actually happens in the social world – the effects of how we talk about autism, and what it might mean for autistic people. So I’m going to try to present thoughts or questions (lots of questions) and invite discussion or development from those who come from other perspectives.

It sounds then, like this blog is about autism – but it’s not really. It’s about power. It’s about asking questions about what we can and can’t say – what “counts” – and what happens to the ideas, words and people made not to “count”

It’s not meant to be a logical progression – it is unlikely to be consistent (Foucault was really onto something there!).

It’s about all the times when I find myself feeling “I can’t say that” –

  • About autism, because to speak out would be to expose and leave open to attack what feels like a vitally important but precarious and vulnerable identity;
  • About human rights, equality and the place of autistic people in the social world because “that’s fine for able people like you – but what about the others?”
  • Or about experiences like being a PhD student – because what if I’m only struggling because I’m autistic, and therefore useless, just not as able as everyone else and bound to fail?

And I want to get at all the times when I hear arguments about social phenomena – about politics, advocacy, campaigning and social change, and find myself thinking “but it’s not like that if you have autism” or “what about autistic people?” I can feel and say these things to myself, and I can get angry that no one outside of specialist autism settings is doing what I want – but instead, I’m going to try to begin to remedy this myself. That way, while the world sees us as simultaneously niche, complex and baffling – too difficult for non specialists to engage with, and at the same time as an ‘epidemic’ that needs to be cured and eradicated, I would hope that I can start to make at least a very few people out there think about us in terms of genuine equality and human rights.

This feels risky. It’s daunting to put something out there when I don’t feel like I have all the words yet, and when I don’t know the answers. It is intensely personal and I risk the possibility that I’m the only one who feels like this – who feels the need to challenge what are beginning to feel like established orthodoxies. It risks that I’ll come across as “a stroppy woman with an attitude problem” (which I could well be) Maybe I am the only one – maybe I should just keep quiet.

But I want the world to be a better place for autistic people, and for other people who feel like they don’t belong, and like society judges them as inadequate or broken (including PhD students!)

  • Not by adjustments or accommodations, which are reliant on the values of others in responding to ‘need’ and are easily taken away,
  • Not because of our similarity to “normal” people (“we may be autistic, but we can organize too/we feel things/ we can care/we can have relationships…” or “but you do so well, you don’t seem autistic”) – that doesn’t change anything about the stigma of “autism”, it just makes us retreat from it.
  • Not based on the arguments that try to emphasise our strengths in order to outweigh our weaknesses (she may be weird but she’s ever so good at Maths) – but because we are human. End of.

 

And I want to see what happens when we try to integrate autism/neurodiversity into the middle of social research, advocacy and change – and all the other things that are talked about around me. This sounds audacious, risky and even a little bit stupid, but I really want to see change in the world for autistic people – and I can’t think that anyone ever encouraged social change by keeping quiet for fear of looking foolish:

“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t un-see it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing becomes as political an act as speaking out. There is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” (Arundhati Roy)