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Autistic? But you got a PhD!

On occasion I’ve been challenged about being autistic because I have a PhD and I want to write a few words about this because what I did is not perhaps what most people think!

The challenges that autism presents me with are social, environmental (mainly noise) and memory / cognition stuff. But my IQ is above average (as is true for many but not all autistic people, just as it is for non-autistic people). And, maybe because of my autism, I can focus on logical tasks for long periods and I’m good at working with abstract concepts.

The environment I did my PhD in was a clean, quiet, nicely lit office / lab combination. It was large (the whole top floor of a building – I guess 25 x 25 metres or more?), and had maybe 5 (yes, five) people in it max on any given day. Including me. It was rarely too cold or too hot.

I would sit either at my own desk in a corner cubicle in a small side office which was usually had five other unoccupied desks in it, or in a similar sized “computer room” that had maybe four seats with two occupied (including me). That room was also quite dark and warm and had gently whirring computer fans giving a kind of white noise effect!

Some days, I would chat (about PhD subject matter) to one or two people doing their own PhDs on very closely related topics as we both faced our computers. Some days I would talk to nobody. I would talk to my supervisors maybe once a week. That was *it* for social interaction.

I did my PhD in 1988 to 1992. When I was home, I was home; there were no mobile phones, no boss calling the landline, no zoom meetings. I wrote my thesis at home on an Amstrad “laptop” (PPC 512 D) in a language called LaTex and took my drafts to the lab to process into PostScript for printing. I got so skilled at writing equations in that language that during thesis writing I only needed to go to the lab occasionally.

I commuted 12 miles each way from home which gave me an hour or so to decompress alone in my car, and I would work from maybe 9:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon at the “office/lab” combo, and do a bit more work / thinking / mulling at home later in the evening. So I wasn’t burning midnight oil by any stretch.

This kind of experience, by the way, is why we say that “What looks like ‘higher functioning’ is actually ‘higher privilege’“. My particular privilege in this case is that I was in the right place at the right time to find a PhD that suited my skills absolutely, and I was left alone to pursue it in any way that I wanted to (which was basically ‘suck it and see’ on repeat). And I was in the right place at the right time to be given decent government funding support to do a PhD in a clean & well appointed research facility.

I doubt very much that I would be able to get a PhD nowadays that required me to write a research plan, get that reviewed and approved, and attack it with a structured approach. I couldn’t bare doing a literature survey. My PhD topic was so niche that on a daily basis I consulted 1 or 2 reference books and papers and on only one occasion did some hunting for a third when I suspected a typo in one of them. I actually had to spend some time broadening my reference base as I was writing my thesis – out of embarrassment for not doing it at the beginning!

Also, the topic of my PhD was electromagnetics. Whilst the maths is very advanced (vector differential calculus) I’m OK (or was then!) at algebra and calculus and it’s a topic that I enjoyed. I also found converting the equations into computer code quite straightforward (and it’s easy to know when it doesn’t work and then fix it). The bulk of my PhD was about writing computer code to predict stuff, doing measurements in real life to check it, and then presenting this and the maths behind it all in my thesis. If I had been asked to do a PhD in a topic where there is no clear “right answer” – even something like doing statistical analysis in social science and drawing conclusions – I would have failed pretty fast and never got any further.

So, doing a PhD didn’t stress my autistic brain. In fact doing my PhD was one of the easiest times I’ve had in my life from a stress point of view. How could it be any other way? I was basically doing my hobby with very exciting and expensive toys, and being left alone to do it quietly and praised for doing it with productive results!


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