I’m autistic, and I would probably be classified as “medium-support” since I have significant limitations. But I managed to survive college with a high GPA.
It wasn’t easy, and it took more than 4 years. But as the end of those years approaches, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Now I’d like to share some strategies for all the people who are still figuring it out.
Today we’re talking about disclosing disability to professors. My hope is that I’ll be able to give you some ideas to make the process easier and more effective.
My strategy could be broken into 3 steps.
- Setting up accommodations
- Having the talk
- Maintaining the relationship
Step 1: Setting up accommodations
Before classes started, I registered with the school’s disability center. My school’s center is very high-quality, and as a result they provide a number of useful services. The ones I used were:
- The ability to take exams in a private room
- Extra time on exams
- Full-time equivalency (the ability to take fewer classes and still count as a full-time student)
- Emailing professors to tell them there’s a disabled student in their class
Other useful accommodations I personally didn’t need included having a note-taker (a classmate hired to share their notes), audio recording lectures, having a sign language interpreter, having a scribe write down your answers on exams (which I did need once due to an injury), textbooks presented in alternative formats, and more.
I needed to provide documentation proving that I had indeed been diagnosed. Then they just asked me which accommodations I thought I’d need.
Accommodations are awesome
Some people seem to think that it is a sign of personal inadequacy if you get disability accommodations. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about.
If I tried to live a neurotypical lifestyle, the stress would literally be life-threatening. My brain is structured differently. Noise and chaos and having a million balls in the air does not work well at all. It’s like juggling poisonous eggs, and the truth is that I do not know how to juggle. You get the idea.
No, I excel in low-pressure environments. I take on a limited number of tasks and I do those tasks very, very well. I work best when I feel like I have all the time in the world. I turn in beautiful projects when I am told “just meet the minimum and have fun.” This is the opposite of how the world expects me to be.
College is designed for non-autistic brains. Without accommodations, I am at a huge disadvantage for reasons that are completely not my fault.
Accommodations give me the environment that helps me thrive. I get double time on exams and almost never use that extra time, but I do far better because I feel relaxed and I can focus on my work instead of worries about the clock. A lighter class load prevents toxic build-ups of stress and allows me to fill my transcripts with A pluses.
College is an environment built for neurotypicals. The right accommodations give me an environment that’s built more for me.
That’s what equal access looks like. I deserve it, because I am a human being and all human beings deserve an equal chance to succeed. This is my right as a student.
Why would I ever feel guilty about being given a fair chance?
Step 2: Having the talk
Why did I talk so much about how accommodations are my right and how they are something to feel good about?
Because I take that attitude with me when I talk with my professors.
At first I used to try to attend office hours to talk to professors about my disabilities, but once I got good at it I realized I could make it a quick conversation at the end of class.
During the conversation, I make these basic points:
- My name is Luna
- I have a disability
- These are the accommodations I have and this is what you can expect
- I’ll let you know if I need help with anything specific
- Thanks and I’m happy to be here!
I typically do this face to face, because I have zero social anxiety and I find that people respond better to a smiling face. (Though you could do it via email if you find talking hard.)
Let’s break it down a little.
A. My name is Luna and I have a disability
Typically I don’t say “I’m autistic” right away, even though I usually like people to know.
You see, even if people study psychology, they usually have a very stereotypical view of what autism looks like. Their only knowledge might come from Autism Speaks ads. They may not realize that autistic people can be capable and bright.
I don’t want professors to pre-judge me based on these inaccurate ideas. So I tell them that I’m autistic sometime in the second half of the semester. By this time, they know my personality and abilities much better.
Instead of letting their stereotypes of autism change their opinion of me, I let their opinion of autism change due to their personal experience with me.
B. These are my accommodations and here’s what you can expect
My accommodations are a fact of life. I inform the professor about them. I don’t pretend it’s up for debate because these are my rights as a student. And any decent professor knows this and will want me to succeed.
I know horrible, nasty professors do exist. The good news is that I’ve never met one. All of them have been OK with my accommodations because they want students to do well. It’s just a matter of logistics.
I also sometimes tell them details about my disability that I think they might need to know. I might say something like:
- “Because of my disability, I can be fidgety and I find eye contact uncomfortable. If you see me moving oddly or looking away in class, you can assume I’m just listening in a way that makes me comfortable.”
- “I have difficulty processing spoken information. No matter how hard I listen, I won’t catch everything. Having access to the Power Points and having important announcements written down will make sure that I know everything.”
What I say depends on what I feel like is important and what I think might be most pertinent to this professor’s teaching style.
Fun story: I told one professor about my difficulty with spoken words when he had a Power Point that wasn’t online. The next day, he said he had been in a rush and hadn’t uploaded the slides to the class website… so he handed me a print-out. Awesome guy.
C. I’ll let you know if I need help
I don’t always know ahead of time what will be the most challenging parts of a class. I can try guessing where I might struggle, but there are no guarantees.
So I tell the professor I’ll come to them if I need anything. This shows them that I’m assertive and that I’m willing to make an effort. They tend to respond really well to this.
D. Thank you!
Professors’ jobs are to teach people. They are here to help. If I succeed, it reflects well on them.
So I approach them with positive assumptions and a smile. I show them that I’m here to try and I believe in their ability to teach me. I smile and express that I’m glad to be here.
That has worked every time.
I’m going to share a few examples, using autistic characters from my stories as examples.
- “Hi, my name is Claire Fields and I’m registered with the disability center. I have a disability that makes me unable to speak. I can still answer questions in class by typing. I’m a little fidgety and I don’t always make eye contact, so please don’t be concerned if I seem a little odd. It’s my first semester, so I’m still figuring out this college thing, and I’ll come to you if I need help. I love writing and I’m excited to learn more about it this semester.”
- “I’m Ava and I’m disabled. I have testing accommodations at the disability center and I wear noise-canceling headphones in class so I can listen better. Sometimes I don’t catch everything I hear, so if you’re willing to post slides and announcements on the class websites, it’ll really help me make sure I got all the important information. I’ve heard good things about this class and I’m hoping to learn a lot this semester.”
- “I’m Aurora and I have a disability. I take tests at the disability center. You said you like to call on people at random. I have anxiety problems and that type of thing makes me so nervous I have a hard time focusing. Could we talk about a way to work around this so I can still participate without getting too scared?”
The whole process takes a minute or two.
Figure out how it best works for you and give it a try. In my experience, professors usually appreciate you being upfront and assertive.
Step 3: Maintaining the relationship
After that awesome conversation, chances are they’ll think positively about you. But college is about more than first impressions; it’s a process.
And it doesn’t hurt to be charming.
People think of charm as something innate, but it’s not. It’s a skill you can learn and practice. So here are a few little secrets to charming the average college professor:
- Raise your hand when you think you know the answer. Even if you’re wrong, they like your initiative.
- Ask questions if you don’t know. It shows that you care, and some of your fellow students may be secretly wondering the same thing.
- Ask homework questions via email, in office hours, after class, or in class if the professor says “any homework questions?” It shows you’re thoughtful and you take initiative.
- Sit near the front and take notes.
- Show up every day (unless you’re sick or something goes wrong). If you can’t show up, write a brief email explaining, apologizing, and asking if they have advice for catching up.
- Get in line to talk after class if you have an important question and if the professor isn’t in a rush to leave.
- Do homework on time. Turn it in early when you can. You’re a nerd now. What do nerds do? Win at life, that’s what.
- Be respectful always. Call them what they say they want to be called. (And if they like to be casual and joke around, it’s okay to do that.)
This can earn you the label of Good Student.
A lot of this boils down to “try hard and allow your professor to see that you’re trying.” You may not always be able to follow every step, but it really does make a difference. Even if you’re not an A student, professors love to see that you care.
And it’s okay to ask for help as problems arise. I can recall several mid-semester occasions on which I asked for help:
- One professor often didn’t write things down. On a one-on-one meeting about a confusing homework assignment, he mentioned class being cancelled on Thursday. I said I had no idea because I don’t always catch things that I hear. He apologized and said he wished I had told him sooner; he made written announcements on the class website after that.
- I was on major antibiotics and I felt exhausted. I emailed the professor, explaining the situation and asking if I could take the midterm later. She said she knew I was a good student, so I could just take it at the disability center whenever next week.
- My 4-person team for the semester was having issues. One had dropped off the face of the earth, one was working so hard I thought she was headed for burnout, and another said “I don’t know how to do any of that stuff” and did almost nothing. I met with the professor, explained how I had tried to handle it, and asked for advice. He gave me advice and told me that grades would account for individual effort (and I had been working very hard). Our project tanked, but I got an A+ in the class.
- I came to one professor’s office hours crying after I did poorly on an English-related exam. I showed her the paper and she told me that I had misinterpreted the instructions. She then said she knew I tried hard and was a good student, so this exam must be a poor method of measuring my knowledge. So she started asking me the questions verbally and letting me talk through my thoughts. Then she gave me points back as I demonstrated that I knew more than my previous answers suggested. I think I ended up with a solid B on that exam in the end.
I’ve asked for help plenty of times, but only one time was I rebuffed. (I had asked during a time when the professor was busy and stressed and I had worded it poorly.) But I have over a 95% success rate.
A solid chance that things will get a little better and a small chance it’ll stay about the same? I’ll take those odds.
I work hard at school. I study a lot and I turn in homework early. (It does help not to have a life.) I take anxiety meds that allow me to be more healthy and optimistic like I was as a little girl. I am intellectually gifted due to luck of genetics, and my parents have encouraged intellectual growth.
But that’s not all of the reason why I do well.
Some of it is assertiveness. Some if it is recognizing that all humans deserve a fair chance, and I am a human so I deserve it too. Some of it is smiling at my professors and asking them to work with me so that I can succeed in their class.
This is based on attitudes and choices, so these are skills you can practice.
You don’t have to follow my advice to the letter. Tailor it to my needs. Throw out what doesn’t fit. This is your life and you choose how to live it.
I hope that my words may have taught or inspired you in some way. You, like me, are a human being who deserves equal access. And you can go up there and ask for it.
I believe in you.