Picture by Emil Widlund on Unsplash.comIn this post we explore our experiences as autistic researchers.  Both of us were diagnosed later in life, Aimee at 37 and Helen at 56, having already completed PhDs and established careers as researchers. Aimee has worked within a charity, the NHS and mostly within academia. During two of her roles, Aimee was not able to access agreed reasonable adjustments related to her neurodivergence, resulting in her experiencing mental ill health, battling to (re)instate adjustments and needing to leave the jobs. By contrast, most of Helen’s career has been spent as an independent researcher, working on commissioned research for statutory and third sector organisations and partnerships. Before this she had various employee roles, in business, social services, and charities, none of which lasted very long.

Doing the actual work was never a problem for either of us; in fact, in common with many autistic people, we experienced rebuke for working too fast and too effectively

The problem was our inability to thrive in workplaces designed by and for neurotypical and able-bodied people. In this blog we focus on our strengths as autistic researchers, and the environments in which we flourish

The strengths of Autistic researchers

Autistic people are often viewed negatively, and seen through a lens of deficits. This applies to undiagnosed autistic people too, who may be seen as weirdos, attention-seeking, needy, chatterbox, anti-social, and so on. But what would happen if we turned this on its head, and looked at autistic strengths and how they can be beneficial in particular contexts?  That’s exactly what some researchers have done, calling it the Autistic Advantage.  It is known that autistic people are excellent at staying on task, sometimes called hyperfocus, that we have great attention to detail and that we are creative. We’re also pathologized for having “special interests” (a term that makes us want to go “yuck”), which conversely can be called monotropism, or focusing in detail on a small number of things.  Direct communication is perceived by some neurotypical societies to be rude, but in a research context being direct allows for clarity and precision. 

Hyperfocus, attention to detail, creativity, monotropism and direct communication are all absolute assets for a researcher to have.  Therefore being autistic gives an advantage if you want to do research

Environments in which Autistic researchers can flourish

Whilst what we’ve said above is absolutely true, that autistic skills are an asset for doing research, not all employment contexts, employers or managers will be open to the autistic advantages. This is because autistic people are routinely disadvantaged by society; many institutions are built on neurotypical norms resulting in institutional discrimination; deficits of the health and education services may result in late- (or non-) diagnosis; and managers and colleagues may only accept neurotypical communication and behaviour as acceptable. Therefore it is unsurprising that autistic people in the UK are under-employed compared to neurotypical peers, although we do not have good evidence to tell us by how much. We ourselves have both experienced great difficulties in employment and periods of unemployment. We are sure these would have been lesser or non-existent if we had had working environments which were suitable for autistic people.

So what would a good environment look like for an autistic researcher? We would argue that workplaces need to be welcoming to autistic people as an absolute minimum. Even with this aim, there will still be some challenges. Employers should actively aim to meet autistic needs, for example by using clear communication, providing a space that meets sensory needs; and clearly setting out expectations, such as not relying on autistic people to pick up on unspoken rules. Managers and colleagues are likely to benefit from training on working with autistic people.

How to pursue a research career

If you recognise that you have the skills it takes to be a researcher, you may wish to investigate research as a career

Research careers vary by discipline and country. Researchers work within government departments, health organisations, charities, research organisations like think tanks or market research agencies, and many other places as well as universities. Some researchers, like Helen, are self-employed and work as freelance contractors. We would advise you to think about your interests and to investigate options in the subject(s) you are most interested in.  Sometimes you may be able to secure a junior researcher role, such as a Research Assistant, following an undergraduate or Masters degree.  In other disciplines you may be required to undertake a doctorate (a PhD) or a professional doctorate, which is a subject-specific qualification like an Eng-D in engineering or an EdD in education. These are often 3-7 years long, depending on the country and whether you study part-time or full-time. They may be funded, although some researchers do not receive payment and have to pay fees to study.  These days many more people get PhDs than there are academic jobs for, particularly in humanities subjects. Fortunately, PhDs can be very useful for some roles beyond academia, such as independent research work, third sector research jobs, and employment in academic publishing or government research departments, to name just a few.

Conclusion

So, if you are Autistic and you want to be a researcher, you are very likely to need a good undergraduate degree as a minimum; you may also need a postgraduate qualification. Then be clear about what you’re good at and where you struggle, and look for a supportive workplace. Independent research is often attractive to autistic researchers, and Helen has offered advice about this career option on her blog.

Conversely, if you run a research organisation or department or manage staff who do research, think about how you can meet autistic needs in your workplace. The Autistic Advantage means it will be well worth your while to put a little effort and some resources into this.

Supported autistic employees are dedicated, loyal, and hardworking, which are surely attributes you want in your team

Postscript: We recently wrote an article which focused on the Autistic Advantage and how it applies to researchers, where we discuss the topics raised here in more detail.

Aimee Grant and Helen Kara

February 2022