Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | May 15, 2012

Autism and Oral Exams

I’ve been running low on spoons lately. Spoons in the metaphorical sense. (If you haven’t yet read “Spoon Theory”, please do – it’s a great way to explain living with a disability, or anything that gives you limited resources.) Hence, there haven’t been many posts recently – I have barely had time to sleep and eat, much less write – and those that have popped up since the flash blog have been short and not terribly enlightening. But this evening, as I was walking out of my apartment, a giant bag of books over my shoulder, to go teach a class (ah, grad school), I was poked in my side, and when I reached into my bag, I found a spoon. Literally. So turning the metaphor into reality, I decided I would use my extra spoon to try to write something somewhat substantial this evening.

Sometimes words are hard for me, especially when I’m having a conversation with a group of people. But sometimes I can talk for hours. Lucky more me, when I’m talking about my special interest (which also coincides with my graduate studies, <sarcasm> shockingly </sarcasm>), I can talk for hours, and often be quite articulate as well. I’m pretty good at that whole 1-way communication thing. And so, yesterday, I passed my mock oral exam! 🙂 This was where a group of older students got together and grilled me for an hour and a half – the full time of the actual exam. The older students were very impressed with my knowledge base and ability to reason scientifically. They said I should have no problem with that on the actual exam (which is in 5 weeks). I did get a couple of questions wrong, which gave me a great chance to think on my feet and be mystified in front of them, which was really a good thing as well.

My biggest issues lay in delivery. You know… “excuse me, my autism is showing” kind of delivery. I’m young. There’s a dichotomy between my “intellectual age” and my “social age” that comes from my being Autistic. I’m also the youngest in my class, but have the strongest knowledge base. It makes the divide even more obvious. When I get nervous, there’s rocking, tics, weird facial expressions, and nonsense that comes out of my mouth. I play with the whiteboard markers (and drop them) or other things like that. My committee was super nice afterwards and gave me lots of good feedback and tips on how to not come off as insecure and not confident in my knowledge. They said I obviously know my stuff, I just need to sell it more. Every time I looked confused, with the one exception of when I was asked something I honestly didn’t know I came out of the question just fine, with all the correct information given. So basically, my nerves got in the way of my ability to speak. Hmmm, that sounds familiar, now, doesn’t it?

So what does this mean for me for the next 5-6 weeks? It means lots of studying the material, of course. (I didn’t get *everything* they asked me – and there was even something that I had completely not heard of that came up.) But more importantly, it means I get to work really super hard on appearing “normal”. Or at least, appearing more confident, calm, and composed during the exam. Less twitchy, rocky, and stutter-y. One of my best answers they told me, was one that I had rehearsed before, so I’ll be doing lots of practicing. Writing myself scripts. Finding ways to stim invisibly. It’s kind of frustrating, because really, why can’t I just be myself? But alas, they want to see how well I present the information, not just how much I know. Plus, I don’t want to “make a fool out of myself” in front of 5 really important professors. It’s been a while since I’ve had to work to actively hide all of my autistic traits. I used to have to do it at home to avoid the awfulness that came from my parents, so I do have tricks up my sleeve, but they’re draining, stressful, and just plain exhausting to employ. It’s just frustrating, because to be a fair exam, my brain should be occupied only with the test, just like everyone else’s. Now my brain will be occupied first by attempting to appear neurotypical. I can’t say I didn’t know this was coming, but it’s still frustrating.

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be this way. But this isn’t a perfect world. It’s the “real world”. This is a rite of passage that everyone must go through. My biggest fear at this point, is that they’ll ask me a question I don’t know, or they’ll interrupt me mid-thought one too many times, and I’ll get overwhelmed and lose my words, and shut down completely. I really really really hope that doesn’t happen. I was fine in my mock, but it’s always a possibility. I’m actually really looking forward to it, intellectually. I think it’ll be great fun, actually – 5 professors in a room asking me challenging questions that require me to think lots about my favorite thing the world? Now all I have to do is to train some body language signals that suggest that rather than being terrified, I’m confident in my answers. I need to work on, when I don’t know the answer, not letting my face give it away. I need to work on finding a way to stim without them really noticing. I need to convince them that I am mature enough to continue to be a PhD student. And most of all, I need to work on a strategy for not shutting down completely if I get stuck. Oh yeah, and I need to find a way to sneak my little stuffed dolphin, which has been to every major exam in my life (literally, starting with 2nd grade state testing, up through APs, GREs, and finals), into the room with me. Talk about being young!

Orals are a strange thing. They test both your knowledge, your ability to think, and your ability to communicate. For most people, the hard part is the first two. For me, the challenge is the 3rd. At least my “Autistic Superpowers” help me with the first two of those. I’ll just have to work extra hard on the 3rd.

On the plus side, a couple of my committee members knew me from 2 years ago, at the beginning of my 2nd year of college – they were in my math class. They remembered me (yikes) though I didn’t remember them. They both said I’ve grown up a lot since then (oh god, I don’t want to know what I was like in that math class!) and that they have confidence that I can pull it off. Wish me luck! Hopefully this will be the last piece of writing obsessing over oral exams until mid-June.

I promise a more substantial post soon. I have several in “draft” form, so they do exist. I was just too tired to deal with them this evening. I’m giving a presentation in another class tomorrow, and though most students have used powerpoint, the professor suggested at the beginning of the class that we should (if we could), try to use just the chalkboard. So I’m challenging myself to do so. I’m really looking forward to it, since it’s an interesting subject. Plus it’ll give me more practice at presentation skills and writing/answering questions/explaining to a group of people, including several professors. It should be very interesting, and good practice. Yay! 🙂



  1. Good luck with your oral exams :). I enjoyed reading your post.

  2. Thank you for sharing this and for the link to the spoon theory post!!

  3. Good luck to you, E! I’ll be thinking about you today. Love the stuffed dolphin, it made me smile. I think even NT people have talismans like that.

  4. E., you are going to “wow” those professors and sail through that oral exam with flying colors! It is unfair that you have to invest so much energy and concentration on trying to appear NT for these people; hopefully, pioneers like you will make situations like this easier on autistic students in the future. Fortunately, you have the maturity and ingenuity just to deal as well as possible with “what is” rather than what “ought to be.” Your first-rate intellect will shine, and your courage and determination will take care of the rest. Good luck!

  5. My boyfriend had to take oral exams for his PhD and one of the suggestions if your mind went blank was to just start drawing a diagram on the board to see if your brain started working again.
    It sounds like you probably don’t have to draw on a whiteboard for your exam, but maybe you can have a strategy like repeating the question etc to see if helps jumpstart your brain if you go blank.
    Best of luck!

    • I definitely have use of a whiteboard (thank goodness!) – I’m not sure if that would help me or not – I’d have to think enough to draw some things. Though they usually start their questions with “please draw a set of axes”, so that might do it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. How I smiled reading about your love of one-sided conversations on your favorite topic! You are very wise to have pursued studies in your special interest. I wished I would have.

    I feel strongly you will do well. Your intelligence and intensity will doubtlessy thrill your proffessors. Break a leg (<-not really! I mean good luck without a jinx!) 🙂

  7. I definitely wish you luck! I have faith in your abilities and your super powers! You are amazing!

  8. Although I don’t have to defend my dissertation, but I am bound to run into OT autism experts (I know who they are and what they look like) whenever I deliver my OT conference presentations on autism. So, I experienced a similar sort of pressure as you described. Sure, the stakes are not as high in a sense… since dissertations are much more pressure packed than a conference presentation. That said, if I happen to do a bad job in my presentations, I can tell by people walking out the door (which thankfully didn’t really happen yet)… and that will equate to bad reviews, which will also equate to the planning committee for these conferences having reservations about me presenting in the future.

    I think that the more you do this kind of thing, the better you will be at it. If you really want to be a great scientist, you will have to present your research to people. In such instances, you will have MORE experts listening to you. If I were you, I will try to get as much practice in such situations as possible (and as tolerated of course). Right now, I am doing a conference presentation about once every 6 months (which is more frequent than a lot of my NT peers). Also, I have been upping my the level of material as well… I used to do introductory presentations. Now, I am moving on up to intermediate presentations.

    But before I chose to do conference presentations on such a regular basis, the best I could tolerate was just 10-15 minutes in a group setting. So, to all of a sudden make the jump to a 2 hour presentation by myself is really a huge jump. What made me do the jump? I was actually motivated by one of my OT best friends who is a former “rival”… as we both respect each other a lot after we got to know each other. Seeing how she did in person presenting her research two years ago made me think, “I know she will be proud if she gets to know that I have conquered my fears and present at conferences regularly like she does!” I told her 12 months later about what I did (as that was when we got to meet each other again), she told me that she was extremely proud of me and happy that she has played such a strong positive influence in my professional life.

    Now back to my message to you- find someone you idolize in your field. If that person is willing to support you to get to where you want to get to, accept it… even if it’s just emotional support.

Please Share Your Thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: