In John K. Toole’s cult novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), Ignatius J. Reilly, the affable, flatulent protagonist, has an unusual tool to gauge the difficulty of an upcoming day or event. He contends that his “pyloric valve,” which usually controls the outflow of gastric contents into the small intestine, “closes” whenever he senses displeasing and deeply challenging stimuli. As such, Reilly shuts down and neglects to do the simplest of tasks set by his mother, or boss, because he “feels bloated.” Upsetting stimuli, to Reilly, often takes the form of a hapless and hopeless police officer, Angelo, who lurches from one unfortunate mishap to another. Thus, he projects his resulting misery onto Reilly. The “valve” is a comedic literary device that allows Reilly to frame his disturbing lack of motivation and responsibility as an authentic and scientific behavioural response.
Yet, what emerges from that minor literary device is a profound sense of how I experience the world. That is, without the bloating. For, I am autistic. I do not seek to pass the buck; rather, the valve “closing” reflects, metaphorically, of course, a process that happens in me. Morning walks to campus, for my colleagues and other students, can be and usually are refreshing and purifying. For me, the noisy stings of passing buses and cars make me physically recoil. The “valve” closes. The endless slipstreams of people hurtling towards me in great waves, going around me, passing me sideways, and undertaking me on Oxford Road conditions me into a hyperalert state that takes hours to come down from. Exhaustion can be my default state of being before a day of analysis even begins.
The green space inside the Righton Building offers the reassuring and calming familiarity that autistic students desperately seek. Attractive and bucolic potted plants, variable sources of natural light and relaxing spaces filled with novel and stimulating furniture converge to create a blanket of gold that snuffs out the worst part of my autistic temperament. During the Covid-19-imposed lockdown, almost all my yearnings have been for the Righton Building. It offers more than assurance; it shapes my mood, fuels me with motivation and houses a revolving door of friendly faces from my cohort that I often rely on, even if indirectly, for social sustenance. For, I believe the assumption we hold about autistic people (men, in particular) being extremely reticent is unfortunate. We often do not know how to express social yearnings or emotions, yet we are still social creatures. Simply seeing a friendly, or recognizable, face engaging in the same type of analysis, or activity, or reading as us can offer a similar level of reassurance as sending dozens of emails to our supervisors that carry breakdown-level overtones.
The pressure to ‘network’ at conferences, in-house events and department seminars, however, can sometimes feel unreasonable. Relying on social exchange for information about the PhD itself, as well as corollary information about the wider research community, is daunting, intimidating and can push us towards a lonely place. Autism feels, in practice, like a dimmer switch. Sometimes, the dial is cranked up all the way, and the world in all its indifference cannot temper your enthusiasm to interact, engage and feel a part of something bigger. However, when it is dim, you can feel pushed out into the dark, deep sea. Mental anguish over how to introduce yourself to an esteemed member of staff consumes you until the early hours, when you have already returned home in a state of alienation and pure despondency. It is okay to abstain from events and places that you know will trigger a physical meltdown. To momentarily abstain from the mania of academia is not to say that you are less passionate than others about your subject, or that you will fall behind.
The rewards of doing a PhD, which are plentiful, therefore often must be achieved by overcoming obstacles that neurotypical people would not consider even remotely challenging. Visits to local archives, such as Rochdale Library and the Liverpool Record Office Archives, are carefully negotiated affairs. The lovely and welcoming atmosphere of small record offices can often fade into the hazy ether as the prospect of a literal stack of archival material awaits you. Towering heaps of material can induce feelings of the sublime, agitating you towards an early exit and a disappointing overall trip.
For, I believe that autistic people are instinctively worse at distinguishing between the ‘small’ and ‘big’ issues of life, society and existence. Of course, the two often bleed into one another but to be exhausted by the morning walk to campus, or by the physical spacing of archival material, speaks to the developmental issues that come with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This quite profound sense of disorientation, in my specific case, has been mitigated by way of two avenues.
The first is an exceptionally understanding supervisory team. Dr Sam Edwards and Gervase Phillips use tailored approaches to my project, a History thesis on cultural nationalism in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world, that simultaneously garners my best analytical and discursive insights whilst not over-facing me with an alarming number of sources, databases or other general stimuli. The second avenue is a Postgraduate Research Department that encourages you with all their might and good faith to participate in events such as informal discussions and presentations on your theses, PGR seminars, PGR conferences, reading groups, development and research seminars, and so forth. Because these events are atypical social spaces, I feel imbued with a sense of confidence and assurance that is usually absent. I become an authority on my very own subject in such spaces, which makes a change from feeling under a weight of darkness in more conventional scenarios. Working with the PGR Development Team has led to me presenting at two different conferences, which I could never have foreseen and would be usually something I would advocate abstaining from (if autistic). The brilliance of MMU has made me pivot 180 degrees on that viewpoint.
I want to conclude this piece by offering some practicable advice that autistic students, and even non-autistic students that feel they are atypical, can use themselves:
- Make early contact with your university’s disability service. Because my diagnosis came in January 2020, I aim to make full use of MMU’s Disability Service by the start of the next academic year. They take regular recreational trips, amongst offering services that will aid your project itself, to induct you into a real, tangible community.
- Invest in some noise-cancelling headphones. They offer an effective and reliable shield against the wantonness of the outside world, be it the roaring chasm of a busy Piccadilly Gardens or the scraping of a pencil from across the desk.
- Read fiction/topics that are not covered by your project. The fields of wonderful escape that literature can offer can both: a) ease the stress, if momentarily, of a heavy workload at various points of your project, and b) provide a moment in time for your unconscious brain to process your work. You will get lucid moments of connection between your project and the wider academic field, even if you are reading Moby Dick at the time.
- Make bespoke arrangements with archives. If you contact the archives before your visit and tell them you have ASD, and an over-facing amount of material will lead you to physically meltdown, ask them to gradually introduce new material over the course of your visit. It will help reconcile your love for your subject with the abundance of material that will be waiting for you.
- Let your supervisors know of your needs. Once you have figured out, with the help of the Disability Service or other teams, how the PhD can become more manageable, let your supervisors in on your vision of how your project will unfold. They will be touched, and not irritated, that you have expressed concern or enthusiasm about this at an early stage.
- Enjoy yourself. We spend too much of our time fretting about the future and past. Live in the now and enjoy reading and writing your project. It is unique and it is you, in every single way.
You can find out more about Jake in their research profile (below) and see more of their writing at: https://dijungleland.blogspot.com
Jake’s current doctoral project looks at the representation, articulation and consumption of the C.S.S. Alabama, a wooden warship constructed in Birkenhead in 1862, in the years after its sinking. The Alabama served the Confederacy during the American Civil War but, owing to its British construction and staffing, the ship’s identity became hotly contested in both the international politico-legal sphere as well as the various existing transatlantic cultural forums. Primarily, the ship was reproduced in the image of racial Anglo-Saxonism to cultivate a shared transatlantic racial and lingual heritage between England and the United States. Secondarily however, the ship became a cultural icon across the Atlantic as a symbol of Whiggish progress – naval prowess, industriousness, and chivalrous masculinity, for instance. The ship transitioned from a symbol of modern warfare immediately after the American Civil War to a fluid and reflexive vessel onto which both transatlantic polities, and cultural elites, projected their own image, values, anxieties and subconscious desires.