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

Back in January, I failed my first PhD comprehensive exam. I already wrote a post about this and how I was strategizing on preparing myself for the next exam and my next attempt at at the January one. My preparation for my next comp continues to go well so I’ll have to wait to see what happens. One of things that I thought was contributing to my failure was academic anxiety, especially exam anxiety. As such, I made contact with a psychologist in the area to see if he could help with this issue. I’ve had two sessions with him so far and I’m very much happy with the progress I’ve made (and not just for academic reasons either).
Our first session together went well enough. We spent about half of it just him getting to know me and then we began strategizing about how to lower the anxiety, such as learning how to replace negative thoughts such as “What if I get kicked out of the program?” with thoughts like, “I know I’m smart, I can do this work” and to talk with someone right before the exams to come whose voice would help calm my nerves (I have at least a couple of people in mind).
At the second session, things went a little differently than what I had expected. I thought that we would just strategize more about how to overcome my exam anxiety, but at the beginning we somewhat shifted gears. I brought up my social life with him as it was one of the last things we had discussed at the first session and one of things that can impact good academic performance. Of course, I had told him already at the first session about my autism and how it impacts my social life. He then passed a little booklet to me, which was a photocopy of half of a real book. It was called “A survival guide for people with Asperger syndrome” and was by Marc Segar (who I was told has Asperger’s himself).
He gave a copy to me and we looked inside. There were headings on the pages and after each heading, several bullet points after each was sentence or several sentences. One of the first pages was titled Worrying, which was certainly appropriate given the context. The first bullet point was:
One thing autistic people are often good at is worrying.
Another read:
Another problem you might face is that achieving things by half does not feel like enough. You may be an all or nothing person but remember, this might be the autism speaking.
Well, what do you know, my autism itself might have more of a role in all this, than I had previously thought. There were several other bullet points that I could certainly relate to. We talked about both of these, which certainly made me feel better. Then we looked inside the book some more. One other point that I could definitely relate to was under a subheading called “General Knowledge”. It was about how general everyday knowledge can be very challenging for someone with autism to obtain. One of the bullet points that I could relate to was the following:
Getting absorbed into one’s own head-space every other moment can make it extremely difficult to “learn things on the trot” which is the way most non-autistic people are used to doing it.
It certainly made sense to me. I have to admit that the way my own thoughts come and go throughout the day are very much thoughts in my own head-space. I find it quite challenging to focus, without at least one “head-space thought” pass through my mind and distract me every few seconds. When I’m learning things on my own through my own motivation, such as reading a book, my “own headspace thoughts” do come and go every few seconds, but the fact that I’m motivated to actually learn what I’m trying to learn and the fact that I can learn it at my own pace accommodates this self-absorption.
Unfortunately, such accommodations don’t come with everyday social interaction or any other situation where you have to “learn things on the trot”.
So we talked about this as well and way to learn things about the “outside world” and paying attention to the outside world, which would contribute to a more enjoyable social life. One of the exercises that I was given at the end of the second session was to be part of conversations, but to now contribute anything for the first few moments, but to simply listen and then join in later. He was offered the encouraging words that it would get better soon the more times I practised. After I had left the psychologist’s office I knew that the successful of my social interactions depended greatly on my ability to not let my own thoughts consume me. So I came up with a supplementary exercise for myself. Besides, listening in on conversations where I was part of a group, that evening, I would actually write down as much as I could about what I had listened to this day. I hoped that this exercise of my own would motivate me enough to be able to keep my own thoughts at bay.
Well, I’ve done that exercise for about a week now. I’m as of yet not talking any more in these conversations than I previously did, but I am keeping my own thoughts at bay thought both the psychologist’s and my own exercises. I’ve written up more than half a computer page single spaced each time I’ve actually gone through my own exercise. My own “head space” thoughts do keep coming up when I’m with others, but with less intensity. It also helps to say in my head, ““Not now. You can think about your thoughts in your own head space later when you’re alone.” I believe I’ve created a healthy social program for myself and that I can pass on to others (for example, the members of my Waterloo Autism/Asperger’s Support Group).
In way, I can’t but feel somewhat grateful now for failing that comprehensive exam back in January. It brought out ways to further improve myself not just academically, but socially as well (and the two are certainly very much dependent on each other).

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