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The F-R-A of autism

The F-R-A of autism is not just when autistic young people are looking to apply for Higher Education. Or when they try to successfully finish their higher education. The F-R-A of autism is also when college professors are themselves autistic people. That's right, you read that right! University professors are autistic people too! You can also say it the other way around - Autistic people are also college professors!


But if you think about it, having an autistic young person applying for Higher Education and thinking that they need to apply for Inclusive Education referral is difficult for you and on several levels. Now, imagine a university teacher asking the Higher Education Institution where he/she works for some kind of accommodation because he/she is an autistic person?!


Luís (fictitious name) and Carolina (fictitious name) are both university professors. From the image none of us can understand who the autistic person is. And that is due to the fact that autism is not visible on the person's face. The sentence may be absurd in the sense that many people who read it will immediately think - Obviously, autism can't be seen on the face! But many people still don't know that, or think and feel that way. And when we are talking about cognitively and intellectually competent people, as is the case of Luís and Carolina, many people get the idea that it makes no sense to think of autism in either of them. The truth is that Luís is not autistic, but Carolina is.


Carolina is looking at a reply message that Luís sent to her the day before. Carolina vented to Luís about the possibility of leaving the Academy because she feels she is not coping with the whole situation. Whether it's the sensory issues, the endless hours in meetings that she considers absurd in the way they are approached, with excessive amounts of time spent on circumstantial conversation. But also with the deadlines for the delivery of some more or less formal things. And with the sudden changes that are systematically happening and that for Carolina make absolutely no sense. Many may think that what is written here is part of the normal everyday life of a university teacher, right? I understand, I've also been a university teacher for a few years and I empathize with this idea. But I'm also very sympathetic to what Carolina feels.


Carolina didn't always want to be a university teacher. But throughout her training and the psychological support she received after her diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Carolina started to build up the idea that an academic career made more sense to her. This was because she could do a lot of the research work she likes so much. And in this kind of work she would be further away from contact with people on a daily basis in her workplace if she had chosen another solution. But what Carolina wasn't counting on are the situations described above that are making her consider leaving the Academy. Luís sent her a message saying that before she took any decision they could see what possibilities together could not happen.


When considering starting a career in academia, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of what that role entails. People considering an academic role as a career path should ensure that they are aware of the skills required, and the benefits and challenges of this environment, and if possible find opportunities to experience the environment before committing to a career path. While the skill set required for academia is challenging for many entering the profession, it can be particularly difficult for autistic people who often have an uneven cognitive profile with challenges in some areas and great strengths in others.


As with all workplaces, Academia has procedures, standards and unwritten/formal rules. There are practical steps for a person they can keep in mind to increase their chances of success. These include developing new skills and honing existing ones, learning more about the structure and processes of the institution, identifying measures of success in their area of expertise and learning the hidden curriculum.


A common element of many autistic people's reflections as university teachers is the importance of engaging with the right people. In all workplaces, and also in Academia, alliances need to be made. And when we think about autistic people, there are still those who consider this as impossible or even unwanted. And it's important to help autistic people themselves develop that awareness to survive and thrive in the workplace. And there's nothing wrong with that - being an autistic person and that being a university professor consciously chooses to develop some approaches to establishing that network. And we're not talking about social camouflage or ableism. We are talking about free choices of the self, aware of what it represents for them. Choosing the right mentor to develop their project is crucial for those who consider a higher degree in their research work. They should look for someone who has genuine interest and expertise in their research area, but also an understanding of autism (or a willingness to learn), and an openness to autistic ways of thinking and working.


As important as it is to understand the role, people, culture and environment, it is also important for the autistic person to know themselves. Research suggests that autistic people are less able to accurately assess their own social and cognitive skills, and have lower global self-perceptions than non-autistic people. And this is not an indication of inability, but of difference. A clear understanding of their strengths and challenges will help them navigate academia, value their skills and develop the skills they need. It will also help them know which opportunities are right for them and those others that will leave them in burnot.


It is vital to ensure that in meeting the needs and expectations of others, autistic academics do not overlook the importance of their own needs. It is vital to think about aspects such as self-care such as looking after physical and mental health and maintaining work-life balance, as well as work-work balance which is an increasing challenge given the complexity and demands of a competitive academic role environment. In addition it is essential to think about adjusting schedules to avoid overload and the physical overload environment to reduce sensory input.


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