Before embarking on a PhD, I dubiously took a gap year allowing me to travel and learn about wellbeing and healing. As an autistic person striving to make the most of all opportunities and begin to discover who I really am, underneath the masks, this year turned out to be one of the best years yet. Through this article, I hope to share some wisdom and insight that I have gained that I believe will support all our research journeys.
Goal Setting at Your Own Pace
This is your journey, so work towards goals that you set for yourself. Write down what you want to gain from the PhD experience and strive towards this (consider wider goals such as confidence building, developing interpersonal skills, gaining work experiences, having travel opportunities, learning how to use specific software, developing technical skills). It is vital to go into new experiences with an open mind. Although it may be tempting, try not to compare your progress to others; people work to their own timelines, and all have different histories. Push out of your comfort zone gradually; the beauty of a PhD is that you can go at your own pace.
Reframe Supervisions as Constructive Conversations
Your supervisors should be there to guide you through the process in a way that works for you. I prefer to be contacted through email and find it easier to meet on a one-to-one basis, so make sure you advocate for what will work well for you. Try to think of supervision meetings as a time for constructive conversation. Shifting your mindset from ‘learner’ to ‘informer’ may be helpful; your research should support you in finding your voice. You have a right to stand up for yourself and to share your views even if they do not align with other people’s.
Ask questions; no question is a silly one. Remember that it is okay not to know all the answers or to have a plan figured out. That is the point of research. Start by simply brainstorming ideas, even if it looks messy or you fear making a mistake. It is often harder to start from a blank slate.
Create Your Own Structure
The unstructured and vague nature of the PhD proved to be an immediate challenge. For my course, classes are non-existent, training is optional, deadlines are distant. As an autistic person, I thrive in structured, supported environments. As I still yearn to travel, it took me longer to settle and motivate myself. I have tried to combine my research with my passions and find a balance between study time and downtime. Action drives motivation so even taking small steps will help build some momentum. Many of us seek external validation and motivation, but it is important to develop this internally. I am reflecting on my reasons for beginning a PhD and why I have chosen to research the topic. Keep a short list of things that you find motivating; in my case, it is messaging my friend and having a weekend full of fun/rest and day trips planned to look forward to. It could be something as simple as a cup of hot chocolate or changing up your environment (heading to the library or a café instead of studying in your room). Aim to plan different motivating, hedonic moments into each day.
Think about the times of day that are more conducive for your studying and break all tasks down into smaller sections. I try to be as specific as I can with my studies for example, instead of thinking ‘I am going to do three readings a day,’ I write down the titles and authors and how much time I will allocate for each. Making a ‘key findings’ table may be a useful way of reflecting on the readings you have completed. Try to identify a ‘golden thread’ and maintain this throughout your work to help keep your research focused. I feel PhD life mainly teaches us how to strike a balance. We all have the same twenty-four hours in a day, we may just use the time differently. It all depends on what you consider to be a priority.
Please remember that you are the most important person in your life. You do not need to prove yourself or impress anyone. If things do not work out or you feel uncertain, know that there are options. Often, removing any excess pressure from yourself can help. If you need to, change your environment, ask for additional support or take a break from your studies. Your wellbeing must be a priority.
To deal with overwhelm, I am practising anchoring (thinking about the feet and bottom), noticing my breath without changing it and connecting to my body. The ABC method can be used alongside 3-3-6 breathing – inhale for three, hold for three and exhale for six. There are several somatic exercises which help to regulate the nervous system when things feel ‘too much.’
I underestimated the challenges of living independently and social interaction. The processing around daily living skills and issues with eating alongside an intense course proved to be overwhelming. Executive functioning is not my strong point. If you find social interaction challenging, start by accessing virtual opportunities and engaging using the chat function. Seek out quieter study spots on campus or access social spaces with a mentor. The ‘double empathy’ problem by Damian Milton suggests that social understanding is everyone’s responsibility; non-autistic people should tune in to autistic people’s needs and adapt their communication style rather than expect autistic people to consistently conform. We also need to understand how our senses interact with our environment.
Live in the Present!
I am sure, like me, you will feel as though things are insurmountable at times. It has taken me years to realise that I am in control. Life should be about living in the present moment. During your next commute or on your way to lectures, make a conscious effort to notice five or ten different things such as the colours of cars passing, the autumn leaves falling, the number of cafes you pass, the smell of the grass etc. Tune into your surroundings and pause to reflect. When negative thoughts creep in, ask yourself ‘I wonder what my next thought will be?’ This will give you a chance to reframe your thought. Consider how different it feels if instead of thinking ‘I can’t do this’, you think ‘I notice that… I am having the thought that… I can’t do this’. The only thing we really need to think about is what will make us feel more comfortable right now, in this moment.
I have also found creativity to be powerful and grounding; I enjoy music, journalling, writing poetry, photography and ‘walking and talking’. You could also incorporate ingenuity into your thesis by adding creative titles, using imagery and creative methodologies.
Always remind yourself of your strengths. Creating a protective shield (e.g. a document you can return to on hard days) highlighting your strengths, interests and goals may be helpful. Autistic people may have strengths that can be particularly useful in academia, including having an attention to detail, an ability to focus on interests for a prolonged period, an ability to work independently and being resourceful. If you can, think about what a best friend or someone you trust might say if you feel overwhelmed. If in doubt, reflect on how far you have already come and what you have already achieved in your life. Always celebrate successes, no matter how small.
I will no doubt continue to encounter challenges until I am awarded the Tudor bonnet. Nevertheless, I have control over how I respond and make the best out of any given scenario. We all have the power within ourselves to overcome obstacles.
Repeat after me: ‘Actually, I can. I am capable. I am strong.’ I believe in you. Let’s trust the process and embrace this opportunity to make a positive contribution.