A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.


Well, it’s been almost two months since my last posting. Sorry for not keeping up, but there was a good reason for it. It’s actually a continuation of what I described in my last posting, that is the difficulty I’ve had in adapting to the high demands of graduate school in pure math at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. I hope everyone had or is having a great holiday so Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays (whatever your celebrate) and an early Happy New Year. I’m certainly looking forward to it and I hope you are too.

As I said in my last post, I’ve had difficulty adjusting to grad school. That was early November. A lot has conspired since then, but the basic story is that the demands just got so big that I found that I couldn’t follow the conventional plan for their graduate students anymore. No, I haven’t dropped out. I’ve just made adjustments. Like making accomodations for my autism (without accommodating myself too much, of course!). Anyway, here’s the story.

I continued finding the course work for my masters incredibly difficult to complete. I raised the number of hours I worked on to try to not get behind so much. Instead of working 50 hours/week (although I ended up putting in a lot of extra hours because of the difficulty of the assignments), I bumped it up to 60 hours/week. This worked fine for about a week or two, but nearing the end of classes, I still found this not enough. I raised it high still to 70 hours. When classes were over, however, I knew something had to change. The last math assignment I was given was extraordinarily tough and what eventually happened was that I pulled an all-nighter working in an empty classroom with another student on it. While I still got it done in time (to the best of my ability), I knew something had to change. I actually felt that my joy in math was being sucked out of me.

At the end of classes, I ended up talking with a bunch of people, including the admins of the pure math dept. as well as the graduate officer. We decided that a full load of three math courses was too much for me and so in the winter term I could take only two math courses and still maintain my standing, as well as extend my masters into next fall. I also got my functional analysis exam moved until the first week of January so I wouldn’t have to concentrate so much on the few days right before the holidays.

Then the unthinkable happened. I blew my algebraic number theory exam. I had 59/60 in the course going into the exam and the exam was worth 40%, but I really blanked out on it and couldn’t answer any of the questions. I spent a lot of time preparing for the exam so it wasn’t because of lack of preparation so much as stress and high levels of anxiety that I’ve been experiencing all semester because of the workload. Thankfully, I’ve got some medicine to help with it and am planning on seeing a psychotherapist when I get back to waterloo.

I talked to Dad a lot about my problems and we agreed that there was a bit of a knowledge gap between what acadia taught me and what waterloo expects me to know. I didn’t mention this in my previous post, but I found I had to catch up on a lot of material as well, material that I was supposed to know in order to take the courses I was taking. And let me tell you. Playing catch-up isn’t fun. It’s stressful (although I’m an easily stressed out person) and tiring. It caused me to fall behind. I got uncomfortable at learning material at such an unnaturally hurried pace. And the suggestions that I got from professors of reading further textbooks and sitting in on undergraduate courses WHILE trying to stay on top of the graduate courses were of little use. I love math, but I do actually like having time of actually appreciating what I’m learning and that only happens if I can take my time with it. So after calling the pure math dept. we found what looked like a good solution. I would be put into a probationary period in my masters so that I could focus on taking a couple of undergrad courses in the winter and then a couple more in the spring with a TA in both terms. Of course, I’ve had to suspend my scholarship, but at this point, it really doesn’t matter to me. The plan is to resume everything next fall with it. And as well as the couple of undergrad courses they’re letting me take this winter, they also let me try a graduate course on top of it (the course is on logic and is one of the lower-level grad courses so I’m hoping it doesn’t cause me too much trouble not to mention I love logic!)

So what has all this come too? Right before coming home I was getting some textbooks to help with my studying for my functional analysis exam when I had an epiphany. I had never gotten closer to rock-bottom with math than this term. I failed miserably on both the one test and the one exam I had and the work was tougher that what I had ever experienced before. And one thing in particular that it has helped me with is getting rid of my perfectionism. Instead of worrying that wouldn’t get A+’s in my math courses like I did at Acadia, my worry turned to whether or not I would even get my degree. I cast aside my obsession with achieving top marks because I was past caring about them.

It also enabled me to look at myself in a more realistic way. I’m human and am prone to making mistakes in all areas of my live. Not just some areas, but all, including math. Not being the top math student anymore meant I had nothing to hide myself behind. My difficulty with math this term exposed my weaker self. I had nothing to hold onto to show how great I was. And hey if I’m allowed to be imperfect with math, then I must be allowed to be imperfect in all ways in my life. So overall, my first term in grad school didn’t just get rid of academic perfectionism, but I think it helped with my overall perfectionism in my life. I know myself a lot better as a result and am not going to pretend to be anything more than who I really am. I can easily make more free time for myself instead of simply letting math take over. I can accommodate what I’m truly interested in (while still pulling down descent marks in my courses!), such as writing fiction (a passion that has really grown).

I truly feel I was set free.


Comments on: "Freedom" (6)

  1. I have delayed sending you my opinion on your grad school tribulations, as I thought you would work out a satisfactory solution by yourself.

    I was an (undergrad) math major – without a disability.
    I took another undergrad business degree – with a disability
    Then I was a grad school student – with a disability. (Taking an MBA, not an advanced math degree.)

    I took longer to get my degrees when I was disabled (a severe brain injury) because I could not keep up with a full course load.
    I took a less-than-full course load – although it was still considered a full-time one (as opposed to part-time).
    Which is what you are going to do.

    Make sure you know what is considered full-time for a disabled student. That is important to know with an invisible disability, such as you and I have.

    It does not matter who graduates first – take your time. The “race” does not favour those who bolt out of the starting gate first. In fact you will probably have a bit more depth to your learning than those others – because of the lessened pace

    My personal passing grade was a B-, for undergrad courses. You say yours has been A+?
    That is where I cannot make any relevant comment. I always told myself that with a business course, an A+ depended on what the professor had for breakfast. There is less latitude in a math course.
    And it really does not matter – at the gradate level – what the grade mark is … as long as it does not interfere with you graduating or with retention of your scholarship. A B- was the real passing grade for MBA courses as I recall – because more than one or two would drag down one’s overall grade point average.

    What I originally held back from saying when you first went away, was that you should put your other interests on hold while you are going to school.
    Yeah, you were able to do a little bit of everything while at Acadia – but an undergraduate degree is supposed to be broad-based and enjoyable. A graduate degree – in whatever subject – is more like work, whether you love the subject or not.

    Everything all at once (course worries plus extra studying plus catching up) no doubt caused your anxiety/panic attack with your algebraic number theory exam.

    Does not Waterloo have provisions for disabled students? I am thinking of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. The Atlantic Centre for Disabled Students is there. I got extra time on my exams and the possibility of note-takers and records of the lectures, while doing my MBA at SMU.

    This point is where we disagree: I think you should concentrate ALL your time and energy on the one thing – on your studies. Keep your nose to the grindstone!
    Your passion for writing will still be there after you finish university. But university is not going to be there when you finish writing.

    I think it’s great that you and the university have agreed on a probationary period!
    Just what is needed to get you up to Waterloo speed – from Acadia speed. Better that than falling out of love with math due to failure.

    Now how do we turn time backwards so I can get a good night’s sleep tonight?
    Take care,
    Jane(y) Warren

    • Thanks Jane. I never though of probing full-time allowances for disabiled students. Sounds interesting. I’ll consider it, although hopefully the current plan works out for me all right. Also thanks for the encouragement to take my time. Yes, graduate school certainly isn’t a race. I don’t think concentrating ALL my time and energy on my studies is applicable though. I’m afraid we’re still disagreeing there. I do believe I need “JC time” where I can take a break, hang out with others or do some writing, although there are profs at waterloo who would agree with you (while a few others would agree with me).

  2. JC;

    Ok, we agree to disagree about JC time.

    And I realized after I had sent that overly long message yesterday that I had not added a disclaimer to what I had said.
    The disclaimer would have been: “Take it or leave it. My words are offered as advice only, and I will take no offence whatever you do.”
    My words are not carved in stone that you MUST take direction from. Your experience and mine are different. Your current university experience is in Ontario and my experiences were solely in Nova Scotia.

    Just remember that “full-time studies” as classified by the university may differ from the classification of “full time” as defined by Student Loan. (And a part-time student loan is something you do NOT want to get tangled up in. It is only for those who are suffering from a temporary cash flow problem.)
    I want to say that the university classification ALWAYS differs from the student loan definition – but I don’t know for sure. I expect there are slight variations between universities, as well as variations between provinces. Check it out, remembering there is a difference between “a full course load” and a full-time studies”.
    It sounds like the probationary period (of graduate and under-grad courses) which you are going to begin takes this into consideration.

    We’re going to have to stop meeting like this – in the wee hours of the day. But I’m probably going to have nightmares tonight. Yesterday, I lost all the e-mails that had arrived in my account in 2011 and I found out tonight they are not recoverable. I think the Sent file is intact so I shall have to rely on having answered the important ones.
    And that has just brought to mind an e-mail I had not answered. I co-authored an article (about women and brain injury) that was published lately (in the past three or four months) and the e-mail asked if I wanted a copy of the journal. Damn me for procrastinating!

    How about if we worry about that tomorrow?
    Take care,
    Jane(y) Warren

  3. Hi JC! It occurred to me that I hadn’t left a post letting you know I’ve caught up on your blog. I find your writing quite refreshing to read because it is very honest and self aware. Keep it up! Good luck with your semester,


  4. […] to a wonderful new sense of freedom, which I’ve illustrated this experience in a previous post Freedom. Now we can replace academic perfectionism with sexual frustration and that pretty much sums up how […]

  5. […] struggled a lot already throughout grad school. My Master’s was no cake walk (see Freedom) and then getting into the PhD program was pretty difficult too (see The Acceptance). Based on […]

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