Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | July 12, 2013

But you can’t be autistic… you’re such a good teacher!

One of the things I’m best at, is teaching. I’m really really good at it. I’ve taught several classes of my own, in addition to being a Teaching Assistant several times as an undergraduate and graduate student. I even have a second job centered around teaching, where I’m constantly held up as an example of one of the best teachers at the place. My boss constantly tells me that I’m one of her best teachers. My clients constantly come to thank me for my wonderful teaching skills. Given all of this evidence, I have to come to the conclusion that I am in fact, a very good teacher. To some people, this particular little fact about me is “proof” that I am not autistic. (Or worse, that because I am autistic, I can’t possibly be a good teacher.) Because in their minds, autism and teaching are such polar opposites that they can’t possibly occur in the same person. But I disagree, wholeheartedly. In fact, I think that my extraordinary teaching skills are a product of being autistic… I’m a good teacher BECAUSE I am autistic, not despite it. But that doesn’t mean it came easy…

In a teacher/student situation, the social roles are pre-set and well-defined. I know the rules, and can follow them. When I lecture, or interact with a group of students, we both have roles to play, and I can play mine very well. I’ve learned. I’ve been teaching others since elementary school, when my teachers decided that to keep me occupied, they would have me teach small groups of my peers sometimes. I taught my stuffed animals, and I taught my younger sister. I knew what was right and proper, and I learned how to problem-solve and reiterate and re-state until the person I was supposed to be teaching had gotten to where we were supposed to be. When the student-teacher roles break down, and I’m no longer in that specific scenario, that is when I struggle. But when there are defined roles, I’m pretty darn good. Plus, it’s often one-way communication about my favorite subjects. Of course that helps considerably…😉

I spent much of my life constantly observing and learning about human behavior and interactions by route. My giant super-computer of a mind has been slowly taking in and organizing since I was born. Because of this, I can often imagine a number of ways of thinking about something. This means that when a student of mine is having trouble understanding a concept, I can often come up with several different ways to present the material and explain it. My unique way of thinking about and looking at things comes in handy during times like this, because I am able to work with, and help a wide variety of learners.

Concepts and skills didn’t often come easily to me. I’ve had to think and come up with many different work-arounds and attempts to understand the concepts before I finally stumbled upon one that worked for me. I’ve learned to break down skills into their tiniest little parts, then put them back together again. And I’ve built up a library of vocabulary, sayings, and ways of thinking about and conveying the concepts and skills that I teach, that is accessible and able to be shared with my students. For me, I know there isn’t one “right” way of thinking about something, and I accept that. I’ve seen it over and over. You might say I learned by observing bad examples. I learned by watching teachers struggle to explain something to me over and over, never varying their words or descriptions. I learned that it was completely ineffective for me. And with that, I learned that people think differently, and that there are different ways of solving a problem.

This is why I am such a good teacher. Because my brain works differently from most, I am constantly observing, and learning new ways to think about the world. And I am constantly revising my understanding of how things work. I accept and appreciate that people learn differently, and I can break down skills and concepts to their tiniest little steps in order to help people learn effectively. I understand how to switch tactics when someone doesn’t seem to understand. I’ve learned to accept that not everyone thinks like me (in fact, most people don’t!), and that it is not only ok, it is extremely valuable. And I convey to my students that I am willing to take this journey of learning together.

I am a good teacher because I am autistic. Because I have been given the gift of awareness that my brain is different, I have come to understand that everyone’s brain is a little different. Because I struggled to learn so many things, I have developed a deeper understanding of these skills and concepts that I can draw upon to communicate to my students. Because I have learned the role of teacher, I can effectively teach in social situations where I might otherwise be overwhelmed. And because I am so passionate about the things I love, I am able to use the great joy, the unharnessed, stimmy, wonderful joy that I derive from thinking about the things that I love, and transfer some of it to my students, so that they, too, can enjoy learning about what I am teaching.

And this is why I take so much offense when someone says to me “You can’t possibly be autistic, you’re such a good teacher!” Because to them, autism can only hamper such an ability. But it just isn’t true. And in saying something like this, they are dismissing my entire experience in and out of the classroom. They think that because I can teach well, that I must be a great “people person”. That I must have a desire to connect with those around me all of the time. When I have finished teaching a class, I have to go home and sleep. I have to disconnect from people for hours to re-charge. But I love to teach. I love to share my knowledge and joy of learning. I love seeing that spark when someone clicks with a challenging concept, or tries and succeeds at a new skill for the first time.

The assumption that someone cannot be a good teacher if they have a disability is one of the saddest things, because it discounts their personhood, as if having a disability is mutually exclusive from being good at teaching. Fundamentally, teaching is all about connecting with other people and transferring knowledge and understanding. In my case, my disability has allowed me to be very good at this, and I don’t think I’m unique. I just wish that the rest of the world could learn to see me as a whole person, and not judge my strengths and weaknesses based on stereotypes. I’m going to be a professor, and that is one of the reasons I’m so terrified to be “out” about my autism in real life. People are unable to put aside their stereotypes and actually look at a person. If I say I am autistic, the assumption is that I will be a poor teacher. This is wrong on many levels, but it is how the world views us today. I hope that by sharing my experience here, people can come to realize that being autistic doesn’t mean having poor teaching abilities, or having to overcome extreme barriers to be a barely acceptable instructor. I am a great teacher is because I am autistic. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Responses

  1. Makes me think of how everyone is shocked that I love NYC. If it weren’t for Broadway, I would probably hate it. If we love something, the struggles we face feel worth fighting through.

  2. So I’m actually so excited to read this post I’m having a difficult time figuring out how to write what I want to say…

    What you’ve written here is something I think about a LOT. Particularly when I write about how it wasn’t until I began talking to Autistic adults that I began to fully understand a great many things I hadn’t understood or been able to even have awareness around. I was lucky that YOU were one of the first people I interacted with during those early months of meeting people who share my daughter’s neurology and while I do not think a scan of my brain would peg me as Autistic, it certainly would indicate a broader Autism phenotype, which is something you urged me to consider as well!

    But the larger point and getting back to your post here is that it was my interactions with people like you who taught me it was perfectly okay to ask questions and that if I didn’t really understand something I could keep asking and no one would ridicule or get impatient with me. You, my friend Ibby, Julia, and so many others have been crucial in helping me understand concepts regarding autism, disability, functioning labels etc. I cannot tell you what a relief it is to feel I have people I can go to who will be patient, who will not judge, who will stick with me, explaining something in different ways until I “get it.”

    I KNOW you’re an extraordinary teacher! Because you’ve been one to me!! I can only imagine what you are like in a university setting and very much in your element! This post just makes me so, so happy!! Yay E. Yay. Just YAY!!

    (I really hope this came out the way I was hoping it would… I can’t tell. I’m too excited!)

  3. I know this feeling- I teach too, and people are surprised. But it’s similar to what you say- teaching, I do know what I need to do or close enough.

  4. We should start an Autistic Teacher Society! I love and am reputedly good at teaching also! And I also think it is a causal relationship rather than a “despite” type of situation. I love this post very much. As for myself I had a little hurdle in the beginning with public speaking panic stuff so I needed theatre training to take me from the small tutorial to the however large I want of classes professor level, but that was fabulous and useful in so many ways in life. Now I am also a theatre nut.

  5. The only thing I find REALLY hard is to hang on to that patience and understanding that everyone thinks in a different way… when someone says “But you can’t be autistic, you’re fun to be around!”

    Grit teeth. Explain. Step by step if necessary. Try and see other person’s point of view. Don’t take it personally when they’re not interested in being taught.

    Very hard. But for the 10 people who turn away, there’s one who suddenly gets it. And that makes it worthwhile. For me and for every autistic person who is automatically labeled as “not fun to be around”. Or “not a good teacher”. We are teaching the world, and it’s worth it.

  6. I’m glad you posted this, and broke down your mental processes and how you use your skills in relation to teaching. It’s kind of like how I’ve heard the assertion that autistics can’t be creative, yet I’m a poet…I find that autism (and my particular version of visual thinking associated with it) help me write, as I visual tend to “see” my poems in my mind before I write them. I’m endlessly fascinated with words and love language — I used to read the dictionary for pleasure (all those words, so little time :)) as a child.

    The more we speak, the more doors we open for understanding. Universities need more teachers like you. Thank you for sharing.

    -Nicole

  7. Fantastic🙂

  8. A wonderful post, E!

    I, too, have done a bit of teaching (though not on the university level), and that ability to break things down into steps, and understanding that sometimes (or even most times) you need to explain things in different ways, is hugely valuable for that. (And for writing documentation, actually. Step-by-step processing can be useful for so many different things….)

    To those who say that autistics can’t teach, or at least, can’t be good teachers, I say :P! They obviously don’t understand what good teaching involves! Because yes, it does pull on our strengths.

    And the enthusiasm we feel about our special interests… if there’s any way that we can get that across to students, it’s a success. That’s something that’s needed in the world; enthusiasm about what we’re learning.

    Great post!

    😉 tagAught

  9. As someone who wants to become a teacher as well, I thank you for this post. I am worried that people will doubt my skills; or worse, lump me together with with all those ill-intentioned “teachers” you hear about in the news. But all of my best teachers were open about their own ADHD or dyslexia. They struggled with the school system themselves. Because of that, they decided to go back into the system to make it better for future generations of neurodiverse students like themselves.

  10. I’m an elementary teacher, but this post felt like you cracked open my skull and gave voice to my thoughts.
    It took a long time before I even considered becoming a teacher, because there’s all this *talking* and *interaction*, but, once I got my feet wet, I realised that this is my calling. I can handle all that interaction because most of the stuff I can’t handle in casual social interaction is cleanly delineated here (and, yeah, it exhausts me, but it’s not soul-sucking).
    So, thank you for putting into coherent words these things that have been bouncing around my brain.
    When I started teaching, my students made me realise that–far from being problematic and isolating–my various learning and social challenges brought me into solidarity with my students and made me a better teacher. Thank *you* for helping me see that I’m not alone among educators!

  11. I identify with this a great deal myself. I have had the opportunity to do a lot of teaching…one on one, and in wider settings. I, too, have often thought that the reason I was good at this was because of autism. Being autistic has forced me to spend a lot of time learning about my own learning and communication styles and those of others.

    In order to survive, I’ve had to learn to “translate” between the different ways of thinking and communicating. I had a conversation with a friend where I talked a bit about my social differences — how understanding body language and other social things didn’t come easily to me. She was perplexed…she said, “But YOU help ME to understand other people!” She’s a hyper-social, extroverted neurotypical person (and by necessity, I had to spend a lot of time teaching her about what feels like to be different).

    The preconception that autistic people can’t be good teachers based on social issues is something that seems to be born in the same way so many are — people “projecting” what they think diagnostic criteria mean, rather than understanding the lived experience. For many of us, the lived experience of autism FORCES us to learn how to break down concepts in a way that others don’t have to do. It’s great to see others discussing this topic.

  12. I just wonder: when people come up to you in real life, as your describe, and tell you that you can`t be autistic in real life, how do you generally react to them?

  13. In a teacher/student situation, the social roles are pre-set and well-defined. I know the rules, and can follow them. When I lecture, or interact with a group of students, we both have roles to play, and I can play mine very well. I’ve learned.

    Your reasons resonate very well with me…

    I am an excellent face to face interviewer (my job) and I think my social sensitivity & adaptability is very high in that situation. The interview situation is highly structured and scripted, it is basically the same interview over and over with different families, just slightly varied to suit their interaction and circumstances. I have done it literally hundreds of times, and every time I learn something new… improve the way I do it a little bit, and add new people and a new family to my mental database of people variations. Because I am so familiar with the core task and the situation is so structured, I can pay attention to subtle non-verbal signals and social/emotional aspects I wouldn’t normally have the overview and surplus attention to notice or process. So I suspect the people I interview see me as a “people person” … and it feels good:-) but I wouldn’t be able to sustain that role for long, had the situation not been so scripted. I usually fall through when the interaction turns casual (e.g. breaks), and I don’t have a clear agenda for what my role is and what I am supposed to do.

    I imagine some of the same features apply to a teaching role. It is a structured situation where the core content is prepared and basically scripted, which gives a solid basis for dealing with the variation and social requirements of the situation.

  14. I really appreciated this post, and it ties into something I’ve been thinking about lately. I recently finished my first year of grad school, and teaching was something that was *hard* and caused quite a bit of stress (it was also the thing about grad school I was most worried about going into). It was better the second semester, in part because of the nature of the class I was teaching, and in part because I’d had a bit more experience. But how I was doing teaching, and my ability to do it effectively, was something I was constantly worrying about. I was doing okay, but I was constantly worrying….

    The odd thing about this, is that for me the student side of the classroom paradigm has always been *great.* There have been rare exceptions, but for the me the structured classroom context has generally been a very comfortable one for me (one of the most comfortable, for that matter): I feel like I know what to do in there, what’s expected, and how to be a good student. I am also usually not self-conscious at all, or worried about how I’m coming off.

    Yet, for some reason when the roles were reversed, and I was now the teacher — that comfortable context was undermined. I no longer felt like I knew what to do, and I suddenly became hyper-self-conscious and worried about how I was coming off.

    A little while ago I was having a conversation with a friend who’s also an autistic grad student and teacher, about things like passing and how you come off. And in the course of this conversation, it became clear to me that what had been going on in my teaching was that I had basically been trying to pass as NT. Which is something I’ve for the most part stopped making any effort to do in other contexts. And something I don’t do at school otherwise, as it’s not something I care to do, and I feel comfortable in my department. (I’m not exactly openly autistic either, except to one person there, but simply not disclosing is different than actively trying to pass….)

    Yet, I was indeed doing this while teaching. And this was a source of a lot of the anxiety and worry I felt about it. Because while I was teaching there would be this inner dialogue, constantly, about things like “Oh, wait how am I coming off? Did I make a weird expression? Did they understand my tone — wait what even was my tone? Was that enough eye contact? I have no idea what their faces are saying, are they understanding?” etc. etc. etc. On top of trying to figure out how best to, like, actually explain how the dative works in Latin. It was mentally exhausting.

    And again, it was weird because these things almost never go through my head when I’m on the student side. In that context, I just don’t worry about those things, because I *know* I’m a good student. And while I recognize (and have sometimes had teachers point out) that my way of being a good student can be obviously different than is typical — I’m completely comfortable with doing it my way, and being myself, in this context. And I’ve come to recognize that it is in part precisely because of certain autistic traits — certainly not in spite of — that I am as good a student as I am.

    But for some reason, this did not translate for me over to the teaching side. At all. For some reason (still not sure how, or why) I’d apparently got it in my head — on some not quite conscious level — that there was a Right Way of being a good teacher. That this entailed being, or at least passing as, NT — and that autism in this context could only be a negative thing that needed to be compensated for. And worst of all, that I was somehow *obligated*, in order to do my job and be a decent teacher, to appear as NT as possible. As if that was something I *owed* my students; as if being taught in a more autistic way wasn’t something they signed up for and would somehow cheat them out of what they’d had. Hence all the anxiety about how I was coming off — such questions had become closely tied in my mind (through unexamined assumptions) with whether I was doing my job or not.

    Now, I’m still not sure where exactly these assumptions came from (some internalized ableism, maybe), but once I became aware that that was what was going on, I also realized that it didn’t have to be that way. And I reasoned: if I can be a good student without caring or worrying at all about such things, if I can be a good student *as* an autistic and in part precisely because of those traits — well, why on earth can’t I do the same thing while teaching? At the very least, I’d be more comfortable, and I could mute that horrible internal dialogue which, when it comes down to it, is largely about things I can’t even determine or control anyway. And devote more mental energy toward doing what actually is my job. Heck, at best I could even be a *good* teacher. (Whereas before I had just been hoping for competent.)

    At that point I resolved that with next semester’s Latin class, I would reframe what I was doing, and cut out those old assumptions. I would stop worrying about those things, about passing, about being self-conscious. I would instead focus on exploring teaching autistic style, and figuring out how I could do it in a way that is truer to myself, that was more naturally in line with how I experienced the classroom on the student side — as a placed that I loved and felt comfortable in.

    Because of this, I’m actually (!) feeling excited about teaching next semester, in a way that I haven’t before. And I’ve realized in retrospect that I’ve felt best when teaching when I’ve been the least worried and self-conscious. Teaching is still a bit intimidating, and I know it will still be stressful at times — but at least it’ll be stressful for the right reasons (like, oh man I got to grade all this stuff tonight) instead of unnecessarily self-imposed ones.

    Anyway, apologies for the length. But since I was just recently (within a week ago) thinking about all these things, the timing and content of your post was…perfect. It was incredibly encouraging, and gave me some confirmation that I’m on the right path.🙂

    • I’ve totally been where you are. Speaking from experience: You’re absolutely making the right decision. Letting yourself be weird in the class will make things better both for you and for your students. You, because you won’t be so worried about teaching that it exhausts you and makes you sick, because if you let yourself be weird (stim) you’ll be able to concentrate better and do a good job, and because you’ll be happier. Your students, it’ll be better for because you’ll be better able to concentrate on making sure they get it, because they won’t be made tense by how tense you are, and because it’ll make the NT ones feel more comfortable around you to see you be human and so they’ll be more likely to ask you questions when they’re having trouble.

      When I let myself be weird in class, my students’ average jumped two letter grades. I do not exaggerate: They went from a C- average to an A- average. It might not be that extreme for you (one of my sections my first year was comprised almost-entirely of ESL students and they tend to have a harder time of things because of the language barrier so that probably accounts for about one letter grade right there), but you probably will see an improvement in your class atmosphere and in your own comfort, and possibly in your group averages, as well.

      Finally, if I can offer any more advice: Let them see your enthusiasm for your material. Talk a bit about your research. Enthusiasm is infectious – since I started talking a lot about my research, I’ve had a few students tell me that’s why they majored in chemistry. Secondly, let them know how what they’re doing applies in practical situations. People hate doing something they feel is pointless, so if you make it clear how Pointless Seeming Task #134 applies to real research, industry or safety, it suddenly matters to them.

      Especially for safety gear, I find practical illustrations effective: Here, look at this pair of goggles I had last year. See the glass imbedded in them? That glass went into my goggles and not into my eyes. See this lab coat? The holes are where acid was splashed on the lab coat instead of my skin. See these acid bath gloves? Look how hard, discolored, and cracked the plastic is, and then think this is acid-rated plastic designed for exposure to those chemicals. If it can do that to this stuff, imagine what it would do to your skin. That’s why we wear safety gear.

      • Thanks for your encouragement and advice.🙂 Honestly, I generally feel a lot better about the teaching scenario, just with having made that mental adjustment.

        When it comes to teaching Latin, making connections with things like real-world relevance is not always easy. I did however try a couple things out that were fairly successful: the first day of class I asked people to think of any Latin they’d encountered in modern culture / daily life — and got some pretty good responses; I also gave them an extra credit project of tracking down some Harry Potter spells and trying to figure out what Latin they were coming from. They seemed to have fun with that.

        I hadn’t thought about mentioning things I’m working on (maybe in because I don’t have a clearly defined research area yet…), but will think about how I might be able to include it.

        And hopefully without devoting so much mental energy to worrying how I’m coming off, my unbridled geeky enthusiasm will come through more clearly.

  15. We make so many assumptions about autism and disability and usually as a subtraction from what is “whole” or “good.” Thank you for educating so many.

  16. I really loved this post. I also teach, and much of this reflects my experience. In fact, I also spent my childhood teaching fellow pupils, stuffed toys, and my (often reluctant!) sister. Thank you!

  17. I teach too, I’m a good instructor, especially for large classes. People like my structured approach.

    Moreover, where NT’s tend to be patronizing, aspi teachers assume that those at the receiving end of teaching are on par. Students thus feel taken seriously.

    • I don’t entirely agree with NTs tending to be patronising. Even assuming that a teacher on the spectrum would be someone I’d have less trouble connecting to and understanding as a student, I still can’t say for sure which (if any) of my favourite teachers were autistic. The two teachers that in hindsight displayed signs of being on the spectrum actually were the ones who just didn’t have patience with me not “getting it”.

      Same goes for my parents. I can’t say whether they’re actually on the spectrum but after seeing my mother stim on a childhood video and realising my dad’s funny remarks about the smell of colours weren’t meant as jokes… well, genetics is a thing. And out of every person I’ve told about my wanting to get diagnosed for autism, they are the most patronising about it, saying it’s just a lame excuse to stop trying.

      Yes, I think autistic traits help you to become a better teacher. But they don’t automatically make you a good teacher, same as being NT doesn’t automatically make you a bad one. It’s still a lot of hard work, like E described: observing, analysing, putting your skills into practice, being aware of everyone’s brains working differently. NTs can do the same hard work and become good teachers, although they might have to do it without the tools that autistic people have. So shouldn’t we have sympathy for that and help them understand, instead of simply calling them patronising if they don’t get it?

      • In my experience, NTs don’t tend to be patronizing, though they do tend to assume everyone thinks and learns like them. People who are neurodiverse (not necessarily autistic – people with learning disabilities and mental illnesses have to do this, too, in my experience) are forced to deal with the fact that not everyone thinks and learns like they do all the time, and so get better at taking that into account because they have to. NT people don’t have to take that into account because the world is set up for them.

        It’s less patronizing, more that in my experience their “explain stuff” tool bag has only ever had to hold a hammer, and that makes everything look like nails.

  18. Great post! I was so intrigued by your explaination as to why being autistic is THE reason you are a good teacher. I found you from Emma’s Hope Book. She is always writing and sharing her opinion on the great influence and awareness being spread by autistic blog authors. I will agree w her when she says that our perspective and outlook is most positively effected when reading from the words of autistic individuals. Thank you again for sharing!!!!

  19. For me, I don’t teach yet. However, I am mentoring 7 current and prospective OT students in professional development. For me, I felt that being a professional development mentor made me step up my game as an occupational therapist. After all, on one end, I know I now have people looking up to me in terms of where they might be in a few years. On the other hand, the fact that I continue to achieve success has a motivational effect for them to achieve.

    I also think this- because we need to understand some of the stuff that our mentees are experiencing now very concretely. So, autistic people can be great folks to prepare others who are going along the same paths as them.

  20. When I first started to revisit my teenage suspicion of autism, people I told fell largely into four groups, the smallest and most obnoxious to deal with of which was the, “You can’t be autistic! You can do stuff!” camp (the others being the “Wait, you mean you’re not diagnosed yet?” camp, the “You’re probably right because I’ve wondered for a while now,” camp, and the “I know nothing about autism, but if you think you have it and you want to get evaluated, I’ll support you,” camp).

    My parents, unfortunately, fall in the “You can’t be autistic! You can ____!” group. Their vehemence in refusing to admit the possibility dissuaded me from pursuing the matter as a teen (being asked why you want to be an [ableist slur] will do that to a person). So I’ve heard, “You can’t be autistic! You’re a good teacher!” before.

    But, here’s the thing: I’m only a good teacher because I’ve had time to build social rules for how to teach and because lab coats have pockets I can put fidgets in.

    When I first started teaching (before I started to re-suspect autism, but I’ve known I’m “weird” since before I started grade school), it was a hot mess: I spoke too loud (making the students think I was angry with them) or too quiet (so they couldn’t hear). I had no idea how to command attention. I would use $50 words where $5 words were sufficient. I was so scared of doing something weird that I held myself rigidly. One of the students I had that year later told me everyone was scared of me for the first month because I always looked like I was about to punch someone’s face in because I was so tense. When I got really nervous, rather than let myself stutter and explain that I have a stutter, I would force the words out slowly, which also has the effect of making me sound either like I’m angry or like I’m talking down to the other person. In all, I came off as a very nasty person and I had a hard time helping the students with anything for about the first two months, in part because they were all terrified that I’d explode in violence if they asked the wrong question – and, for reference, I’m a woman who’s 5’4″ and 135lbs – and I look lighter than I am because I have a lot of muscle. And I’m babyfaced. And I had dudes with a foot and 100lbs on me scared of me.

    During that time, I had one of my TA sections switched from TAing a group to marking prelabs because the prelab marker broke his writing hand. This actually worked out really well despite my handwriting problems, since I could sit and watch how other TAs handled stuff and that let me build my social rules. The next semester was a bit better. Each semester that I’ve TA’d since, I’ve refined my mental flow charts and social rules for appropriate TAing, and I get better at it. But it wasn’t something that came naturally; I had to work hard at it.

  21. Love love love this.🙂 I am also a good teacher if I take care of myself otherwise. When I’m exhausted though, it falls apart quicker than it does for my exhausted NT colleagues.

  22. A Dr. Told me I couldn’t possibly have Autism, because I have been married twice and have some friends and I communicate beautifuly with my hands.Dr.s exact words.

  23. I’m Autistic too, and this makes me happy.😀

  24. I wish someone had read the article about autistics being capable to good teachers before I tried student teaching. I was allowed to try student teaching twice… both times was discriminated against a lot by the teacher for my Asperger’s. The first time it was less obvious, largely because it was just a bad situation (overcrowded special education class + teacher who just wanted me there to do all the work = bad situation). Though still there was a couple times comments were made about autistics being teachers, and it was clear she didn’t approve. In the end my college basically ruled it her fault and gave me free tuition to try student teaching again.
    The second time I got good marks on all my evaluations, it was a good class to be in (maybe even a bit too easy), had all my lesson plans done with plenty of time to go, etc. The teacher readily admitted she didn’t think I could be a good teacher because I was on the spectrum. She said while I did good in her class, she couldn’t accept that I would be good in other classes. She said I had the wrong aura about me and always seemed scared (when in reality I was probably just overstimulated every now and then). In the end she dismissed me, with the rationale given looking like a checklist of the DSM description of autism.
    Since then I have been trying to get a job as a paraeducator, hoping that I might eventually be able to use that to get a teaching job, but have had little success there. I generally admit that I have autism on the applications, and have been told I shouldn’t, but if I am going to travel, sometimes great distances, to a job interview, I want to know if I stand a chance of getting the job when I get there. Teaching jobs don’t have simple interview processes, and I know I can’t hide it for an hour. I can’t help but thinking, that it is is a pretty widely held notion that autistics shouldn’t be teachers.

    • Thanks for sharing that. I’m sorry you’ve run into all the discrimination as well. It is so sad that people can’t realize that autistic people are really capable of doing many things.

  25. Just thought I’d follow up on my older comments: It’s only been a week and a half into the semester, but so far the teaching is going significantly better compared to last year. I seem to have managed to translate the mental reframing into practice — I’m not worrying how I’m coming off, and the anxiety is basically gone. It’s much more comfortable for me, and I’m actually enjoying doing it every day. Because of this, I think I’m doing a better job, too.🙂

  26. I have never commented on a blog or article before but this particular blog spoke to me. I was feeling so frustrated and alone until reading this. I to have Autism and no one seems to understand. I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me I don’t have Autism because I am a teacher. I’m afraid to admit to it because of any possible discrimination as a teacher but I too feel that I am a great teacher BECAUSE of my Autism. I commend you for writing this and thank you.

  27. Thanks for this article. I’m a teacher and I’m presumed to have a kind of HFA. First I used to teach adults in a private institute and I did absolutely great, but now I’m working in a high school and I just suck! I feel like I’m getting fired soon. I can’t control the class properly, I’m very stressed all the time, its difficult to keep myself organized and I can’t retain the names of every student in my memory. What do you think may be happening?

    • I am sorry to hear that you are struggling. Unfortunately, I don’t have any diagnostic for why – it might be that you’re at your “social capacity” most days, and adding more is just too difficult. It might be a particularly challenging group of kids. Who knows. Good luck!

    • Leo, I have experienced this too. I have taught full-time (college) and had exactly the same sorts of problems–overstressed, disorganized, ineffective at managing the classroom–in my case, it was definitely a problem of overload; I was just trying to do more than my brain could handle. Problem disappeared once I dropped back to teaching part-time.

      Of course, that also means I can’t teach full-time, like a *real* professor, thus I get dramatically lower pay and no benefits (we don’t even get sick days). But at least I’m teaching. I hope you can find a happy medium, too.

  28. Late comment due to very late diagnosis as an Aspie, treated for many years for depression instead –> I am still devouring obsessively 🙂 everything to be found on experiences of people on the spectrum working in a scientific background. No surprise then that I absolutely adore your blog. The description of your excitement when you watched the little critters in the microscope makes me smile happily every time I remember it.

    The reason for commenting is that I want to underline every_single_sentence of your post, to confirm your analysis wholeheartedly and fill in some personal experience.

    I can look back to a decent career in biomedical research and teaching of almost thirty years, I sent you my credentials via facebook message. And like you I am a very, very good teacher. I get this every semester black on white since in my country anonymous feedback with grades and written text is part of the academic evaluation system. In fact, I constantly end up in the top ten percent of my peers. Thus over time teaching of several subjects for first year students up to seminars for PhD students has become one of my major activities. As you may relate to, lectures are easiest, structured seminars are OK whereas to run lab courses with close interactions is exhausting and requires withdrawal for recharging. For NT colleagues it is mostly the other way round.

    In lab courses involving a little more sophisticated experiments there is always something going wrong with equipment or reagents. From a competent professor students expect either immediate troubleshooting or at least a meaningful explanation what was the source of the problem. Although mostly I manage, this expectation of the unexpected (problem) is definitely creating stress. My personal daily dose of such an intensive exposure should not exceed four hours maximum. The coping strategy = role that works for me in this environment and increasingly in lectures as well is to stick to self-irony if not making fun of myself unashamedly! A bit of absent-minded mildly mad scientist. It is definitely better than constantly apologizing for shortcomings or being looked at with incomprehension.

    Like ‘I -know- I already talk too long on this subject. It’s these darned pills, you know?’ Maybe with a disrespectfully added ‘Bad for you but I’m having fun’ or ‘You don’t need to leave the room this time when I come in. I will shut up.’ or, when meandering to another topic during a lecture ‘No, he (he!) did not forget the about subject before telling this anecdote, here we go again.’ Surprisingly, most students take that as a joke although it is the complete truth. Indeed they love it when they compare me to over-streamlined or simply boring colleagues. My classes are full. Of course this only brings bonus points when combining this attitude with professional knowledge transfer a few seconds later.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, professorial habit combined with ASD – logical consequence.

    Not to end without -all- the best wishes for your scientific career !!!

    Ernest

    P.S.: Running a research team and continuously getting funded as an Aspie, however, is a quite different story. Just in case: if you might want to hear about that let me know 🙂

  29. I am happy to read that i was just diognastic as a autist and i am a teacher, and i was how come this be possible and reading your story made me realize i can still be a teacher

  30. thank you for posting this! you’ve no idea how good it feels to read smn sharing similar experience to mine. thank you🙂

  31. I was diagnosed as High Functioning Autistic a few weeks ago. I’m a teacher too. Your article was really helpful for me because I didn’t understand why I was good at teaching and yet have this diagnosis. It also explains why I can be so OK in the classroom, where I know the interpersonal transactions which will happen, and yet fail so often with chit chat in the staff room. I do find teaching very draining though – it tires me out. Thanks again for writing this – it’s really helpful.

    • Glad it helped you🙂

    • Hee, hee, when I was diagnosed, the psychiatrist was “surprised” I had been successfully teaching middle schoolers
      for 15 years.

  32. Thank you for sharing your diagnosis and your experience with us. I also do have autism and I am an autistic support teacher. I have to get my masters degree and I would love to teach ELL learners but because of the autism I am not sure if I would do well. I would love to teach English to children.

  33. Wow, this is it. It’s my experience (except my darling students are 5th-6th grader). Thanks for putting it more eloquently than I ever could. Yep, Thanks.

  34. Reblogged this on Rambling Justice.

  35. I too am a teacher, and autistic, and this is so spot-on! Thank you for stating it so beautifully!

  36. I think I’m on the autistic spectrum, that’s something many don’t understand… it is a spectrum disorder and therefore when people think about autism they think of severe cases, those who can’t talk and really struggle, not those of us who like your self and me (if I am autistic) who have basic skills that they need develop over a longer period.

    I want to teach. This is why I am here. Reading the sections where you talk about your self personally was like reading about me. I need to go home and recharge after work, at the moment, until I complete my training – I work in a coffee shop. Talking to people and “acting normal” drains me that I have to go for a drive before I go home, to be further overwhelmed by my mother talking to me all night.

    Thank you for this post. It makes me worry less about gaining a diagnosis and going into the job I wanted to do since I was a child!

    I really appreciate this!

  37. Great article. I have Aspergers Syndrome and most of my life thought being a teacher would be a fabulous job. However, when I finally got one semester away from having my license, I got kicked out of student teaching for “bad social skills.” This included “criticizing a teacher,” singing the Battle of New Orleans in a history class where we were discussing that battle, and “lecturing” at a department meeting about history. I did not intend to insult anybody or cause any problems at that school. I was just really passionate about my subject and in my overexcitement, made some social errors. As a result, the school expelled me and my cooperating teacher told my advisor that I did not have the social skills to teach. As a result I have moved on and decided to pursue a career in Mechatronics Technology instead. It is exciting and I am very happy about my choice. However, I do believe that none of my actions were serious enough to result in being thrown out of the education program for good. (When I asked about trying student teaching again the following semester with a fresh start, I was told by the university that due to “multiple dispositions” (NOT MET on the evaluation forms) I was never allowed to take an education class at their school again.) I still wonder if there wasn’t some discrimination going on. Although I made some social mistakes, I did not threaten or hurt anybody or do anything worse than simply being immature and overexcited. In retrospect I remember my advisor saying that he wanted me to look for a new career because even though I had not done anything that horrible yet, he was “scared” about what I MIGHT do in the future due to having such bad social skills. Anyway I definitely think they discriminated against me due to Aspergers Syndrome and the biggest reason I believe so is because they did not believe I was capable of turning around my behavior. Academically I was excelling (Almost all As in the program) but they were not able to see me as a person; only me as somebody “with problems.” Anyway that happened 2 years ago and since then I have completely turned it around and not struggled with any social problems in my current field (I LEARNED from my mistakes in the education program and now I know to respect people who have more experience than me and not just be a know-it-all.) I have always wondered if Aspergers Syndrome and teaching just do not mix because teaching requires such great social skills. Even though I have chosen a different path, it really makes my day to see people saying that a person CAN be on the spectrum and still teach. The school I went to taught everybody to love and respect diversity. The irony was that when I gave them a little bit of diversity they could not handle it. Anyway I am just glad the experience is over and my life has completely rebounded since. Really interesting article.


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