March 24, 2007 4:05 PM   Subscribe

Is there any point to my seeking a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS), and how can I avoid quacks?

I know that Asperger Syndrome (AS) is the mental condition du jour, and that I'm not qualified to diagnose myself on the basis of news articles and forums. Do I have AS, and should I seek a diagnosis?


I have a severe hearing impairment and was brought up orally. I do not know ASL (sign language). I had great trouble with both speech therapy and a course in ASL that I attempted to take at Gallaudet University one summer. I speak fairly well, but strangers sometimes have trouble following me. I was born 3 months prematurely. Neurological damage is possible: slight stiffness on one side of the face.

I was a kid in the 1970s, when nobody had heard of AS.
•I hated being touched and would not hug or hug back
• I tried to climb into small spaces
• I was hyper-lexic (I would read anything and everything, including Winston Churchill's multi-volume history of WWII)
• I fixated on special objects (blankie, a TinkerToy stick)
• I had emotional meltdowns and tantrums
•I panicked whenever doctors had to give me injections or eyedrops. I fought them and at one point had to be given general anesthesia for a retinal examination.
• I did not (and still do not) get jokes and sarcasm
• I was ridiculed by my younger sisters and probably by schoolmates, but I do not remember suffering active bullying
• I can do without social interaction for long periods of time
• People whom I don't see in person tend to drop off my mental radar
• in high school I was often depressed and I had very few friends; I hung out on the fringes of a couple of groups.
• I attended a large university for the first two years of college, became dependent on a few friends, until they pulled away because they were tired of it. I became very depressed and had to withdraw for a year.
• I transferred to a smaller college.

I did very well in school (800 Verbal SAT, 760 Math) and majored in Classical Studies (Greek and Latin) in college and then pursued graduate studies in Ancient History, getting a Ph.D. I have done very good research and have published my dissertation as a book and written several articles; another book is in the works. I am happiest writing or working in a research library.

However, I am humiliated trying to explain to people why I am not a professor. I am not a good teacher. I can't lecture, I do not have a good speaking voice, I don't know what the students want to hear, I can't detect their boredom or interest.

As with AS types, I have a very poor "theory of mind" for what other people are thinking of me or what they expect. I prepared excessively detailed handouts and coursework for the students in the few courses that I have taught. As a T.A. and adjunct, I had unpleasant run-ins with students. One wanted her grades adjusted upwards. Another committed plagiarism on her term paper. I feel that if I had been a better teacher, this would not have happened. I don't know if intensive speech therapy would help me get a teaching job, since I feel that I have no theory of mind regarding the students.

I have also failed all of my academic interviews. I was in the academic job market for four years, applying for about 100 positions, with no results except one post-doctoral fellowship (in which I encountered the student who complained) and a small summer stipend. These were often one-year visiting professor or even single-course adjunct positions, not just tenure-track positions.

Classics has a large conference every year at which the universities and colleges host hiring interviews. I always ended up crying in my hotel room and sometimes in the lobby (inabiity to control emotional meltdowns is another AS trait).

Should I simply resign myself to not being cut out to be a professor? I am thinking of getting an M.L.S. or law degree, or trying to get a commercial book contract. God knows the field of Classical Studies produces far too many Ph.Ds relative to the number of positions, as with English but more so, since smaller colleges and non-Ivy universities often do not have Classics departments.

In short, what is the use of seeking a diagnosis of AS? I don't intend to use it to sue anyone. I have been living with family for the last several years and have no money for a lawsuit. I want to feel like what happened is not my fault. That it was not under my control.

Would a diagnosis, if made public in any way, only hurt my research and publications? Stupid and ill-informed people who think that AS people are retarded and confuse them with autistics might think that I didn't do my own research, or that if I did it, I didn't understand it (the "parrot" formula).

In seeking a diagnosis, I don't have much money (I might spend $300, but not $3,000), and I want to avoid quacks and scammers.
posted by bad grammar to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
you remind me of Temple Grandin. I'm not sure what a diagnosis could do exactly, but if you go that route I would suggest a univeristy-based center (there may be one if your area - Seattle, Sacramento, Nashville, Kansas City are some big research sites that diagnose).

It sounds like AS has a lot to do with your interviews and I think it will depend on your future employer if this hurts your research and publications. Aspergers is becoming more and more known, but most people are still clueless. A diagnosis might help people to understand you as a person.

Lastly, I attend a large research university and have had MANY profs who weren't good teachers but had amazing research. Best of luck.
posted by enaira at 4:18 PM on March 24, 2007

In my mind, diagnoses are useful for a few reasons:

1) Legal issues
2) Treatment
3) Making sense of your own past

You claim (1) isn't an issue. You dont' say much about (2). It seems what you're really looking for is (3). Is that worth 300$ to you?

Personally, I'd suggest you skip the diagnosis and spend your money on treatment instead, if you can get it without a diagnosis- there exist facilities and programs to help you form a better "theory of mind" for dealing with other humans (any suggestions? I know such things exist but not where to find them). (And it sounds like you'd like to do this, whether or not you get a formal AS diagnosis). But only you know what your real reasons are for wanting a diagnosis, and only you know how much you're willing to spend for those reasons.

Separately: Having one student ask for a grade to be changed, and another plagariaze, is in no way your fault. Students do these things (especially the grade grubbing)- it is not your fault, nor the fault of your AS should it exist. These things happen to *all* teachers at some point, and the only thing you really have control over is how you react. (True in general: even if you *are* diagnosed with AS, every social interaction that goes poorly is not necessarily the fault of you or your AS. Sometimes the other person is the one in the wrong!)
posted by nat at 4:52 PM on March 24, 2007

If being a great teacher was a requirement to get hired as a professor at any university, at least one law school professor I am currently taking and a multitude of my undergrad professors would be out of a job tomorrow.

I guess my question is this: while you say that you want the AS diagnosis for personal peace reasons, what else would it give you? I'm not necessarily saying that this reason isn't sufficient; far from it, as you'd probably do yourself a world of good being able to understand what is going on in your life. You mention, though, that its currently embarassing to try and explain why you're not a prof to other academics - would you use your diagnosis to help with that?

If not, you may just not actually *like* being a professor, regardless of an AS diagnosis. Part of being a professor is human interaction, and unless you plan on using your AS diagnosis to get past this (or explain how you can't do it), you're not going to be doing any student (or yourself) a service if you're just not good at teaching. Perhaps teaching isn't your bag, regardless how much you want to do it.

It sounds like you would a fantastic researcher, and an amazing help to an entire college of professors who need research assistance with papers, etc. While I'm not an academic, or really understand in detail how the world of professional academics works, I have to think that a position that is like this has to be out there and is begging for you to fill it.

Good luck, and congratulations on the self-awareness that is motivating you to make your life better.
posted by plaidrabbit at 4:54 PM on March 24, 2007

I can't address the medical issues in your question, but one things you wrote struck me. You say you are thinking of getting an MLS. I have an MLS and work in a college library. You might get the degree and end up being a cataloger or archivist who never has to deal with people, but you might also find yourself in a position like mine. I am a cataloger, but I am also required to work the reference desk and deal with stressed-out students and faculty. Being a librarian often means providing excellent customer service, which you do not sound like you would enjoy.
posted by Biblio at 5:09 PM on March 24, 2007

However, I am humiliated trying to explain to people why I am not a professor.

You don't have to explain anything; just tell them you prefer being an independent scholar -- which clearly appears to be the truth. I have numerous friends, family members, and colleagues with PhDs who are either professors and curators; many of them feel utterly trapped and exhausted by the endless demands of the university and/or museum systems, and would love to be able to simply do their research on their own, as you have found a way to do.

So to me, you sound like you don't have anything to feel humiliated about; on the contrary, it strikes me that you've successfully negotiated a way to do what you enjoy in a way that is a good match with your own personality and abilties.
posted by scody at 5:46 PM on March 24, 2007

We had a PhD student a few years ago in our program--classics at a Research I university--who also exhibited nearly all of the symptoms of AS but never pursued a diagnosis. He experienced nearly all of the same problems that you mention in the classroom (both as a student and an instructor) though he was one of the best philologists I've ever known. After two years, he decided that enough was enough and went the library science route. He now has a great archivist job where he also is required to pursue his writing, which he seems to be doing quite well. So on that level, the library option may indeed be a good one. As you mention, classics jobs are hard enough to come by, and in interviews through APA--fairly or unfairly--many if not most search committees are looking more for reasons to dismiss applicants from their pool than anything else. Additionally, on-campus interviews are sure to be less than fun as well. There are a few pure research jobs out there, but they exist almost exclusively for senior faculty. And you would be surprised how many smaller schools will dismiss a candidate just for having _too_ much research in comparison with their teaching.

If you do go back to school, the diagnosis would be very important, as many schools have very strong resources in place for anyone with a diagnosed condition but are actually prohibited from giving special treatment to anyone who does not have the diagnosis in hand. These concerns can also occur after you land a position at a school, though they are often less important at that point.

If you stay outside the academic realm, the question is going to be more about your peace of mind than anything else. As a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with AS, I can say we've not actually run into any negative reactions about this, but as it gets more and more common, I do wonder if we won't get the same looks that many now give when they hear someone gets special treatment for ADD. But it hasn't happened yet.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 6:05 PM on March 24, 2007

As a T.A. and adjunct, I had unpleasant run-ins with students. One wanted her grades adjusted upwards. Another committed plagiarism on her term paper. I feel that if I had been a better teacher, this would not have happened.

It's hard for me to tell how this relates to the overall question, but these kinds of situations should not dismay you. I don't think the problem here (at least with these situations) is anything to do with your teaching. To be honest, if anything, the fact that these situations dismay you is what reflects a certain lack of experience with the realities of teaching at a college level today.

First, plagiarism. Plagiarism is utterly rampant in higher education, and it is worth it for any educator to read about it. That site cites studies showing that something like 70% of students have committed some form of academic integrity violation. The reasons are many, and basically none of them have to do with the class itself. It is extremely unpleasant to deal with the results, but that again is not a fact about you.

Second, grade-grubbing. This is also pretty common, and I don't think it really means anything. If you mean someone wanted their final grades adjusted upwards, I think this happens quite a bit, and most of the time, just reflects an unjustified sense of entitlement on the part of the student. I haven't had to deal with this personally (as I haven't yet been the instructor of record) but I've heard of many cases where it has. It is possible your grade was unfair or represented a mistake, in which case the thing to do would be to apologize gracefully, and change the grade. But it is more likely that this was the kind of student who feels that they should be getting As, but don't actually deserve them, and won't do what it takes to deserve them. If this was just about an assignment, this happens all the time, for many of the same reasons. As an instructor or TA, you are in a position of power, and people will want things from you that you can't or shouldn't always give. This is just a fact of life.

I've witnessed some pretty unpleasant teaching scenarios (though thankfully never been in them myself, beyond the kind of thing you mention), and I think the ones you describe here are actually pretty mild.
posted by advil at 6:41 PM on March 24, 2007

Thank you all very much for your helpful comments. I don't want to sound too bitter. People tell me that the climate of teaching has changed (in contrast with 20 or 50 years ago): it is much more driven by the students. When I was T.A.-ing and teaching courses, what I felt that I didn't understand was just why students would want to cheat, besides overwhelmed desperation, and why I should make the course more easy / dumber or more like what they might see on TV.

I don't want to sound snobby; I feel that I don't understand this. It must be symptomatic.

My specialty is ancient military history, and luckily there is a pretty strong commercial market for writing.
posted by bad grammar at 7:12 PM on March 24, 2007

I didn't understand ... just why students would want to cheat

Most students go to college because it is what society, and their parents, expect of them, or because they feel they won't have a good career without a degree, or to party, not for knowledge or for the joy of learning. Most people do not find learning fun; they find it hard work, and therefore do the least they can to get by. If they think they won't be caught, they will cheat.

It doesn't matter how easy you make the course; there would still be cheaters. You could tell them you'd give them an A if they could sign their name, and then you'd probably find that some of them had signed someone else's name.
posted by kindall at 7:38 PM on March 24, 2007

Gnothi seauton: If I were in your shoes (and I'm not), I would get diagnosed. It's all about identity, and knowing who you are, and what makes you what you are. A lot of personal power can come from that. A lot of daemons can be laid to rest too.

I couldn't walk until I was four years old. To this day, I don't know why. I'm in the process of finding out. In some ways I couldn't care less, but it's my identity that's at stake. I never thought that would be important to me, but it turns out it is.
posted by humblepigeon at 2:39 AM on March 26, 2007

Whether or not you actually have AS I don't know as I am not a clinical psychologist. I would like to commend you however for a remarkably objective and honest asessment of yourself and your situation. You sound very intelligent and self-aware. I wouldn't be embarassed that you are not a professor - a lot of people aren't cut out to teach, AS or not.
posted by radioamy at 10:02 AM on March 26, 2007

Only you can make the final call as to whether you should be worked up for Asperger's or something similar, but it certainly sounds like a good idea; if you get treatment/learn coping strategies you could go a long way toward overcoming some of the limitations you feel you have. That could be worth a lot more than 300 dollars to many people, so think about what you are willing to spend. If you are looking for resources that are consistent with mainstream medical thinking, a good place to start would be the CDC.
posted by TedW at 10:15 AM on March 26, 2007

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