In this episode, I answer a listener question about autism's impact on my education and learning experiences.
Topics discussed include:
Episode intro music: "Walking on Clouds" by Audiobinger (no changes or modifications were made)
Episode outro music: "Love Is Not" by Broke For Free (no changes or modifications were made)
Theme music: "Everything Feels New" by Evgeny Bardyuzha.
All episodes written and produced by Kristen Hovet.
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Today I'm answering a question I received about autism impact on my education.
When I've read about this topic elsewhere or heard other people speak about it, the focus is often on the negative effects related to autism. As in how did autism mess things up for the person when it comes to learning, schooling, education, whatever you want to call it. So to try to balance out this approach and challenge the deficit model with its adoration of all that's negative and pathological, I thought I'd like to also focus on the benefits of autism on my education, how I learn and outcomes in the way of career and extracurricular activities. I want to emphasize that this is an episode on my own experience. So the experience of a late diagnosed autistic person diagnosed with level one autism. No two autistic people are the same, and so some might resonate with my experience and some might not at all. Some might only see themselves in some of the descriptions. Also, a warning that I briefly discuss suicide in this episode, so please take care.
I think it makes sense to take it back to toddler times and early childhood. I started speaking early, my mom says I was speaking in full coherent sentences by a year and a half. Since speaking and memory are closely tied, I have memories going really far back. I showed interest in reading, writing and language very early. Before I could physically write, I would dictate letters for my mom to write to cousins, aunts, and uncles, grandparents, friends. And I remember wanting to keep doing this, even when she was like I'm done. I was reading early and read books that were for older kids. And I was reading adult books when I maybe shouldn't have been. But I don't think anyone could have stopped me, I was pretty voracious in terms of reading, and just getting all the books I could from the library. For this reason, a lot of my vocabulary came before I should have been learning those words. I learned them from my own style of phonics or sounding out the words. And so I positively butcher the pronunciation of some words from time to time, to this day. Because of my early experiences with reading and writing and all that, once I was in school, I excelled in all the subjects related to language comprehension, writing, and grammar. I tend to learn pretty quickly, so many subjects in school were easy and enjoyable. Sometimes I'd say I'd even get a bit annoyed that things weren't going quickly enough in some classes or subjects. I think the quick learning part is a result of three main factors. For one, I'm able to memorize content quickly and absorb a lot of information. Secondly, I'm very focused on details and pattern detection or seeing patterns. So I start seeing how different bits of knowledge tie together and it all just kind of falls into place in my brain. And then lastly, I'm able to hyper focus without losing interest. When I'm hyper focused on a topic, something I'm learning, literal hours can go by that I'm not aware of. For example, three hours later, I'll be like, what just happened? How is it three hours later?
At the same time, the experience is super pleasurable. Think of the most pleasurable thing that you've ever experienced. Like maybe physically, I don't know, just like the physical sensation of something really awesome. Well, I get that from learning and being hyper focused on a subject and this happens several times a week. For me, the more interesting this subject is to me, the more likely I'll fall into this sort of hyper focus state. This can be confusing to those who don't experience hyper focus. And I'll say that I was surprised to figure out that not everyone experiences this. Some people talk about a state of flow, I think that is the most kind of similar comparison I can make. Over the years, I've learned to hide just how much time I spend hyper focused on beloved topics, because the responses I've gotten have been sometimes along the lines of that's weird, or, wow, geek, or don't you get bored? Or how can you spend so much time on that subject or that thing, to the point where I get it, and most people think this is odd, or think I'm wasting my time somehow. Some have said things along the lines of must be nice to have so much time to spend on that subject. But I don't think they get that when I'm hyper focused, I'm feeling balanced, and usually really good. These states of hyper focus are antidotes to stress, they help with various kinds of regulation, they bring my body down from fight or flight, and they've even helped advance my career and where I am today, in terms of work and school.
The downside of hyperfocus is that I think it underlies my issue with task switching. There are times where it takes all of my effort, and can even be painful, to move from one topic to another, or from one task to another. It feels like my brain is plugged up or stuck, and I physically cannot get it to focus on something else. This can be challenging in both work and school contexts when I want to keep working on a certain topic or problem or issue I'm trying to solve. For the most part, I've figured out through trial and error how to avoid hyperfocus getting in the way of getting things done. I keep to a schedule, for the most part, I work to deadlines, and I set timers if I have to. I've also learned that keeping physically active and physically moving when I need to switch to a different task can help reset. Sometimes this involves like putting my yoga mat down and doing some cardio exercises or just stretching, lifting some weights and then going back to what I was doing. And yes, working from home really facilitates this, oh my goodness. The downside of being focused on details is that I sometimes get, as they say, lost in the trees or the weeds, is it trees or weeds? I think the saying is can't see the forest for the trees. For me, it's like what forest? So sometimes I'll be going on and on about details that sometimes only I care about, and completely baffle or confound the person or group I'm speaking with. I've had to train myself to see the bigger picture. And I will say that being focused on details is not a bad thing. It's a very good thing. It's hard for some people to understand that perspective of like hyper detail focused. To see the bigger picture, sometimes I visualize moving up and out away from the details of whatever subject or issue I'm looking at. And sometimes I draw or visualize what the details are connected to and why it all matters. I guess it's a kind of way to connect the dots and help me see that what I'm working on is related to these other things, these other goals I'm working on on my own, or as part of my team at work. That helps me tremendously.
So to kind of go back to school experience, my favorite subjects in elementary and high school were English, social studies, history and science, especially biology. But I was atrocious at math. Actually, I did well at math until around fifth grade. And then it was all downhill from there. I think I probably have a learning disability in this area, but it was never formally diagnosed. I did just well enough to scrape by and pass in math, whereas in all other subjects I got A's and B's. So math...
In an early grade, I think it was first grade, my class was taught to see dots on the actual numbers we were learning. This was called the dot method or the Doman method, named after the founder Glenn Doman. So, for example, with the number two the actual number or numeral two was shown on a poster with two actual dots on it placed on specific locations on the numeral. In a similar way, the number three had three dots, four had four dots and so on down the line of numerals one through nine. I think the point was that, eventually, we just stop seeing the dots somehow, like, they'd become more abstract concepts. For me, I never stopped seeing the friggin dots, or even the colors of the numbers on the posters as they were introduced to my first grade class. Four is red with four blinking dots, two is green, seven is red. This was all great for addition and even basic multiplication to a point. But once math went further and got more abstract I was f*cked. I had a bit of a high point with geometry because you draw pictures and relate them to numbers, and I tend to get it much faster. I need things in diagrams, drawings, spatial anything, and I'm there, I've got it.
As an adult, I took a university math class and did well at it. But I had to try so so hard and get extra help. Math was my worst fear and a pretty serious phobia. So I decided I had to face it, even though my first degree had nothing to do with math. That was on purpose. Around the age of 13, I discovered psychology through a textbook at the library and was hooked. In Canada, or at least where I was in school, we didn't learn about psychology. I know some other places in Canada do. We didn't, so I learned about it on my own. So once I discovered psychology, that was like an ongoing interest from that point forward. I read books on psychology, I read anything I could get my hands on, I loved it. But my love for literature and writing was a bit stronger, or at least I saw it as more of a potential career path. So when it came time to decide my major in university, I initially chose English with a potential minor in philosophy, and then just ended up focusing on English. I loved literary theory, which is very similar to philosophy and unites concepts of social justice, psychology, even anthropology and history. I took several classes in archaeology because that was another subject I was considering for a degree, I just didn't see many work options in that area. However, burnout and trauma struck me about midway through my bachelor's degree, though, when it came to burnout I did not know the word for it at the time. I had zero idea that I was burned out or that this experience is quite common for autistic folks. True, anyone can get burned out. But because of our neurological differences, we are much more prone to experiencing burnout several times throughout our lives, especially if we don't have supports in place to reduce the chance of burnout.
I was taking a full course load and found the juggling of all the classes to be very difficult. But because of some of the above mentioned benefits and how I learn, these kind of offset some of the difficulties I was experiencing at the same time. But then a classmate actually in archaeology that I'd been getting to know committed suicide. I left school mid semester, right after learning of this, and I could not step foot back on campus. I couldn't for several years. During that period away from school, my partner at the time and I had our son. I was a full time parent for a while, then worked part time for a while, and then went back to school and eventually got my degree, but much later than I initially expected or planned. It was actually about five or six years after I thought I was initially going to get my degree. I've learned that interrupted post secondary experiences are very common for autistic people. We'll stop and start our education, change degrees, get burned out but not recognize it in time, and so not be able to get the supports we need in place to cope. I was initially planning to do a Masters and PhD in English and become a professor, but at some point in my undergrad, I heard the siren song of psychology and science all over again. I ended up going back to the university where I graduated and very nearly completed a second bachelor's in psychology. I then started a master's program in counseling psychology, but was rudely interrupted by a cancer diagnosis, which I'll save for another time. While I was on my path to healing, I started taking journalism and science classes. Since learning is so pleasurable for me, taking these classes was exactly what I needed to help get my mind off the health stuff. But people were a bit baffled by my choices. I heard a lot of, you should just be resting, you're going to stress yourself out. I realized that I loved science writing, especially on medical topics, and wanted try my hand at that, which I started doing on a freelance basis. Eventually, when I was able, I decided I want to do this medical writing full time. I started looking for jobs, which led me to the position I have today, which is a Research Communication Specialist at a hospital research institute. It kind of perfectly unites my interests in writing, language, science, medicine, and all that.
I've been at my position for three years and I have to say that I've thrived because I'm able to work almost entirely from home. That's the game changer. And without being able to work from home, I kind of doubt that I would have stayed this long in the position. Working in an office, especially an open concept office is excruciating, because of the sensory things, the sensory challenges. And I spoke about that a bit last time in the last episode, so if you haven't listened to that one and if you're interested, I suggest listening to that one, episode five. So did those sensory issues bother me when I was younger? Yes, they did. And my ways of coping was like running home from school and going straight to my room. I don't know, that was just my way of getting away from all the overwhelm of things going on at school, and just relaxing and doing my own thing. And so I think just with age, it became harder to kind of bring myself down. I think that had a hand in me being sick a lot, a lot, a lot in university, for sure. I had a lot of stress related issues, and then just a lot of other health issues.
And that's another thing I didn't mention when I was talking about elementary school and high school is that things like, you know, fluorescent lights, and just the commotion that happens was extremely distracting and extremely challenging. So yeah, I feel like it took extra effort. I could go home and do homework and learn so much, or just listening to lectures where one person was talking, I found that very, very interesting, especially if there were notes and diagrams and things I could read, taking notes and seeing the words on the paper really, really helped me learn. But when they made things like more interactive, or you had to work with a bunch of people, I found that very stressful. When I got older, I found ways of doing that that made sense and that were easier for me, but as a young person, it was very, very challenging.
One of the good things that I remember about school in North Dakota specifically was that they were more like, I guess traditional in how they did things. I don't know how things are today there, but when I was in school there, it was sort of expected that kids behaved and were quiet. And even though I know some people would not like that rigidity, for me it made the experience a bit more calm, even though like in the hallways and things and on the playground, kids would be crazy and wild and loud, and all of that, and that's fine. But you know, in the learning environment, in the classroom, we were expected to be chill, be quiet, especially when the teacher was talking. And there were serious consequences for people that didn't obey. In North Dakota. I was in junior high for grade seven. So elementary there was up to and including grade six, and then grade seven and eight were at a junior high school. And then grade nine to 12 was at the high school. So in grade seven, I moved to junior high. And I remember and again, I don't know if it's changed, but when I was there in grade seven, everything was like very regimented. People were expected to be totally quiet in class, and they had zero tolerance for misbehaving. It was serious business. And then I moved to Canada after about three months or so. So I was in North Dakota for September, October, November, grade seven, and then in December I moved to Canada and started school back up in January. And grade seven was back in elementary school where I was in Canada. It's not like that everywhere in Canada, but in the city I was in that was what it was like back to elementary school and the class was chaos, like people sitting on the floors, people talking over the teacher, like, I just remember going what in the frick, what is this? And it was harder for me to focus. I think I still did well report card wise, but oh it was hard, it was really hard. And then high school there was a bit better, but still, like people acted out in classes a lot more. And I just remember the impact on me was, I don't know, it just made the experience harder because I would get like really flustered and disturbed by those things. And then, not to mention, like everything else going on. So the hustle and bustle of all these people around, all these things happening and then the bright lights, every classroom had fluorescent lights. So yeah, that part of it was hard. I feel like I could probably keep talking but I'm gonna end it there. Again, let me know if you have any questions. The email address is in the show notes.
Thank you so much for being here.
Until next time, bye.