Graduate school is tough for anyone. No matter how hard you prepare, how hard you work at your classes, assistantships or other work commitments, and relationships, it always feels like you are behind and struggling. You are not alone. However, like most things, holding a marginalized identity can add additional challenges to your graduate school experience that some of your colleagues may not have to face. Every person and identity is different and faces different challenges, and I do not claim to have the answers to solve every barrier to grad school success for identities that I hold, let alone those that I do not. However, throughout my time in graduate school, I have picked up some key coping mechanisms for being a successful SA grad while embracing an identity that is extremely central to me: being on the Autistic spectrum. SA professionals and grads on the spectrum are some of the most dedicated members of the NASPA community I have had the pleasure of working with. We as a community bring a different set of strengths and a unique way of thinking compared to “neuro-typical” professionals. It is key that those on the spectrum know how to operate successfully within the field and how those not on the spectrum can best adapt the field to better accommodate. My goal for this blog post is to provide 3 key tips to help grad students on the spectrum navigate their program while maintaining their fundamental identity. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I am only speaking from my lived experience, but I hope that those reading this find a way to adapt my techniques.
Be Very Intentional About Developing a Structure
Structure is extremely important for me and many others on the spectrum. Having a routine that guides my life and working towards planning as much of my professional and academic time as possible is something that has gotten me through the first couple months of a grad program, especially during such an unpredictable semester. Now, it is not possible to plan everything out and learning how to adapt on the fly is a skill that myself and many other autistic people struggle with. However, once things change, being able to have a structure to revert back to once the unexpected passes is a key coping mechanism for dealing with change. Disturbances are often temporary, you can make it through anything!
Communicate What You Need With Supervisors and Faculty
Maybe I am looking at faculty and supervisors in rose colored glasses, but I genuinely believe that at their core, the vast majority of them want you to succeed. They may not show it outwardly and it may not seem like it at times based on a number of factors, but faculty and supervisors ARE usually rooting for you. However, they do not always know how to best support you and provide you the most opportunity to succeed. The person that knows what you need the best is YOU. It is extremely difficult for someone who often times has felt unheard or misunderstood to advocate for themselves, but I promise you it is worth it. Practice advocating for yourself with people that you trust and feel comfortable with. You are worth being included. Your voice and lived experiences, both in relation to life on the spectrum and beyond, are valuable additions to any classroom or work experience. Ask for what you need.
Try Not To Get Overwhelmed By the Cohort
I know not everyone is in a cohort-based program, but these styles of grad programs can be especially tough for students on the spectrum, but they have so many benefits as well. It was extremely overwhelming to meet the 21 people that I was supposedly going to be best friends with. Going through the grad school search, I heard countless stories about how your cohort becomes the group of people that you connect with and rely on. My cohort is fantastic and I am sure yours will be too, but the stories you hear are not the full picture. The struggle to build connections that is so hallmark to being on the spectrum is amplified in a high-pressure environment such as grad school. Allow yourself grace. It is a tough environment Eventually, you will realize that your cohort is likely not against you. They want to be there for you and support you and grow with you. That process may not look like what you have heard in cohort stories, but that doesn’t make your experience any less special. You are an amazing addition to the field and you are going to kill it at this SA Grad Life!
Author: Kirwin Seger (he/him) is a first year grad student in Western Illinois University’s College Student Personnel program. He is a native Brooklynite, proudly autistic, and an escape room whiz. He is involved with the AER KC as their Master’s Level Graduate Student Representative and is a proud NUFP alum. He can be found on Twitter (@KirwinSeger) or Instagram (@allidoiskirwin).