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I am neurodivergent (autism), and I will be leading the teaching on a module of work for the first time this coming September.

While I have been preparing content to teach the module, a thought has occurred to me. Should I inform my class about my neurodivergence at the start of the module?

While I have done some teaching in prior years, my experience is still quite limited at this stage. This module is a much more significant amount of teaching than I have done before.

Previously, I have not informed classes I have taught, but my concern is that students may not understand the small but involuntary autistic tics I have (though when teaching/interacting with students I do mask as best I can). I am also concerned that I may misunderstand a student's (e.g. grade-related) question if they are not clear to me in their intentions.

Most members of staff in my department are aware, one way or another, of my neurodivergence.

For reference, I am teaching computer science in the United Kingdom. The students are in the third and final year of the degree.


This is similar to this question: Should I tell my advisor that I have an autism spectrum disorder?

…but specifically about telling a class I will teach rather than my supervisor.

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12 Answers 12

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I would argue "no". It's a common mistake for new lecturers to overshare personal information at the start of a course. I would give this same advice regardless of the exact subject (autism or anything else).

At the outset of a course, the critical things are to get students focused on the major themes of the course, how classroom sessions will run, and presenting the instructor as the confident domain-expert and authority figure in the room. Anything other than this will be derailing the students' focus. Becoming over-familiar with students by way of personal details undermines the authority needed to run the room. In a small number of malicious-student cases, it will be fodder for what can be used to emotionally take advantage of the instructor.

Steven Krantz in How to Teach Mathematics says this, on the point of students agitating for better grades (Sec. 5.9):

In short, younger faculty are more vulnerable. This is one reason for dressing differently from students and maintaining a slight distance. Again, this may sound cold. But I speak here from hard personal experience.

Sharing to colleagues or mentors is very different from sharing with a classroom of students. Consider some questions on similar themes of how much personal info instructors should share with students, all asked by people new to teaching:

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Commented Jun 18 at 2:05
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Unless it's relevant to the actual content of the course you're teaching, there's no reason to do so, so don't.

And the only reason it'd be relevant is if you want to show personal experience with autism, so that'd be a course related directly to autism (most likely in a setting of a course in psychology).

From my experience any teacher showing any potential weakness to their pupils or students is setting themselves up for failure. There's always a group who will abuse that knowledge to make your life hell.

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I would advise caution. I work professionally in the field of autism, and have several friends who are autistic. My experience is that the majority of people who have never met someone with autism find it very difficult to conceive of what it is like for someone to have difficulties with communication and social interaction, and it takes a lot of explanation to get them past this stage. This particularly applies to younger people like students who have limited life experience. So you are going to have to explain very clearly what autism is and how it affects you.

If you do disclose, I suggest you are very explicit on what you expect from your students to assist you in your teaching and them in their learning e.g. "My autism means that I tend to take things literally, and may sometimes misinterpret your questions. Don't be surprised if I ask you to clarify something, and if you think I have misunderstood please tell me".

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    Even saying what would help you can be done without invoking autism specifically. Commented Jun 15 at 16:27
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    I’m not convinced your point about this applying particularly to students really holds. While it’s true that they lack life experience, the number of people identified as neurodivergent early on, and being openly neurodivergent even in primary and secondary schools, is so much higher now than just a decade or two ago. When I left high school a little over 20 years ago, I had never met a single neurodivergent person (that I knew of); nowadays, most high school students are very likely to personally know several. Students these days have greater exposure to neurodivergence. Commented Jun 15 at 17:23
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    Your advice "I suggest you are very explicit on what you expect from your students" nails it. It's a big, diverse umbrella, everyone is different, so labels themselves are unhelpful/un-actionable. Conversely, specific instructions or asks like your example will likely be welcomed, and naming the label itself seems optional. (as an aside, In technologically advanced countries, do most autistic adults not know they are autistic? could use a better answer)
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 16 at 1:01
  • @JanusBahsJacquet ditto.
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 16 at 1:03
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Only share when it is relevant to the teaching of the course.

If you are inexperienced, I would not disclose it and first gather some experience in student-teacher interaction first. When you see that it becomes a problem that you misunderstand students or that the autism is impacting the teaching relationship, you can still decide to disclose it then. And even then- it doesn't have to be a whole disclosure of autism. It could simply be "I don't always pick up on non-verbal cues, could you be specific in what you want / need?".

Lastly, the cultural context matters. My experience with CompSci in the UK is that courses are majority Asian (mostly Chinese) students, and not many British, let alone EU. Different cultures have different understanding and acceptance of disabilities. I would take this into consideration as well.

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It's a personal decision that only you can decide. However, you can see what others before you have done.

As a recent example, Holden Thorp, current Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine recently had his page 1 editorial on his own disclosure. He talks about his decision in a blog post as well.

From a society perspective, Thorp notes: In talking to all these superstars, I came to realize that it can be useful for people to disclose their autism diagnosis in order to lower stigma. From your own personal perspective, Throp noted in his editorial that his disclosure helped his students understand him. I would follow Thorp's example and discuss this with people close to you who can help you understand your specific situation. I personally do not see any downsides, but people near you may see some that are not obvious from your webpost.

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I agree with the other answers which suggest that this may be over-sharing, and is probably not relevant to what you are teaching. However, I would suggest a slightly different approach, similar to how accommodation letters work in the US.

At most US institutions, there is some kind of office which serves students with disabilities (e.g. at my current institution it is the "Office of Accessibility and Inclusion", at a previous institution it was the "Disabilities Resources Center"). Students with disabilities may approach this office and request an accommodation letter. Such a letter, given to the instructor of a class, outlines what actions the instructor must take in order to accommodate the student.[1] Accommodations may include things like extra time for exams, permission for a note taker to attend classes with the student, and so on.

Importantly, these letters do not say anything about the student's diagnosis or disability.

I tend to take a similar approach when working with students. I tell them what to expect from me, but not what my diagnosis is (or even if I have a diagnosis which, for all you and they know, I do not). This is usually in the form of a little joke at the beginning of the semester:

Q: How can you tell when a mathematician is an extrovert?

A: They stare at your shoes when they are talking to you.

I am a mathematician, and while I don't think that I am quite that bad, you might notice that I am a little awkward in social settings. In listening to recordings of lectures, I have noticed that I sometimes sound a little angry or upset, even when I am not. I'm also not super good at picking up certain social cues, especially when we are not in the same room together.

Please have patience with me, and know that I genuinely care about all of you and want you to be successful. Please also feel free to let me know if I have misread some cue—it won't hurt my feelings (much).

Again, importantly, I am not talking about any diagnosis or neurodivergence---I am describing specific behaviours that students might expect, and giving them permission to respond in a particular manner.

In big letters: describe behaviours, actions, and appropriate responses, not diagnoses.

That being said, one other thing to consider is your own status. I am a 40-something white man—it is relatively easy for me to make myself a little vulnerable, as both my age and gender provide me a lot of protection. I have seen young female colleagues get torn apart when making similar kinds of statements—one, in particular, described herself has having "resting b*tch face" to a class; about the only thing on her evaluations at the end of the quarter was "the instructor is a total b*tch" and similar horribleness).

If you are young, inexperienced, or a member of obvious minoritized community (neurodivergence can often be masked; most of my students don't know that I am Jewish; but students can generally tell if you are a woman or black, for example), I would be a bit more hesitant to share these kinds of statements. If nothing else, perhaps practice in front of people you trust (especially people in your department), and see how they feel things go over.

To be clear, it upsets me that I feel like I have to give this advice—but students can be cruel, and it sucks to lose a class over such pettiness.


[1] These letters very much do require the instructor to do whatever is detailed in them (though the content of the letters if often negotiable between the instructor, student, and relevant student services department)—they are backed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (under Title II, if I recall correctly) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. If a student has an accommodation letter and the instructor does not do what they are told to do in that letter, the student has grounds to sue the instructor and/or institution.

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  • Good answer. However, I think you shouldn't comment on skin color because it can provoke racism.
    – Etemon
    Commented Jun 16 at 20:29
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    @Etemon That is actually precisely the point that I am making. Instructors of color are often treated quite differently (by students) than white instructors. Women are treated differently from men. When you decide how you are going to interact with students, you have to consider how their prior biases are going to effect their perception of you. I am not saying that this is a good thing---indeed, it is quite terrible. But that is also reality, and I think that pragmatism dictates that it should be part of the decision making process. Commented Jun 16 at 20:56
  • Good points, but the framing of accommodation letters as ironclad requirements isn't correct. Letters at most institutions surveyed explicitly invite negotiations between instructor and accessibility on the best design. We regularly push back, with success, against nonsensical requests. See top answers here: What recourse do I have if the disability office grants unreasonable accommodations to a student? Commented Jun 17 at 16:33
  • @DanielR.Collins I guess I am viewing it from the point of view of "once the letter has been finalized, it is the law". If the instructor accepts the letter and then fails to adhere to its terms, then the instructor is opening up a can of worms. I don't think that I have said anything which says that an instructor can't negotiate those terms with OAI (or whomever), and since that isn't really the point of this post, I didn't spend too much time getting into the nitty-gritty. Commented Jun 17 at 16:35
  • @XanderHenderson: That's not how it works IME. There's no "finalized letter" with force of law. Commented Jun 17 at 18:14
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I do not think that you should, i.e. that a professional obligation exists, tell the class.

You can judge for yourself in class and one-to-one interactions with individual students if these "tics" require explanation.

I don't know if your classes are recordable. If so, you may be able to view any impacts on video later and evaluate.

But for now I would simply focus on doing the job.

Your HoD and senior colleagues know of this condition and still show confidence in you to do the work competently. There is a crude physical logic to this that should give you more faith in yourself.

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I am going to buck the trend and say "Yes".

I'm neurodivergent myself, and I have been a professor at times (not for long periods). I have nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD) and have a website about it and have written two books about it (Screwed Up Somehow but not Stupid: Life with a Learning Disability and Twice as Weird: A Memoir about Twice Exceptionality)

I wouldn't go on and on about it, I'd just make a simple announcement at the beginning. Why?

First, it lets students know why some of your behaviors are quirky or odd. Autistic people can sometimes insult people without meaning to, they can appear to have inappropriate emotions (or lack of emotions), and so on. This lets students know.

Second, more and more, people are at least a little familiar with neurodivergence and autism in particular. Google Ngram Viewer shows the huge growth in the use of terms like this. There are movies and TV shows (and NOT just the Big Bang Theory, which was a parody) about autism.

Third, by mentioning it, you remove some of the stigma that is still associated with it. This may help your communication with your students. It may also widen your students' perspective (Holy *** my professor is autistic!).

Yes, a professor should primarily be concerned with teaching the material. But expanding kids' minds in other ways is also good.

Finally, some answers have said "only if it's relevant" or things like that. Well, autism is relevant. It affects how you communicate. And teaching is about communication.

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No, as a student I don't care unless it's going to affect your teaching and I need to accommodate. Be a lecturer, and be compassionate when needed.

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    It's a good point and an important perspective. But "Be a lecturer, and be compassionate when needed." suggests you're not familiar with the challenges of autism, which often include the initial outward appearance of not caring, and lack of empathy or compassion. I don't know about the OP, but some autistic people in this position might indeed want to say something like "...so if I give you the impression that I am uncaring or insensitive or lack compassion, don't take it to heart, just take a moment to explain further how you feel and what you need...".
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 16 at 1:12
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    "Be a lecturer, and be compassionate when needed." in this case it is more "be a student and be compassionate" that is required - the question is whether the OP can be confident of that happening. Unfortunately neurotypical people can find it difficult to be compassionate in these circumstances, IMHO precisely because they don't normally have to think very much about social situations. Commented Jun 16 at 13:25
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I'm going to go slightly against the grain and say that, while it obviously is your own decision to make, it might be a good thing to do. I think especially for a class that may be lecture-heavy, it could be a good way to humanize yourself to the students and make you more approachable.

I don't usually answer questions on here, but this one caught my eye because a professor of mine during my recent master's program had some tics while speaking, but she was one of the best professors I've had. She addressed it on the first day by just mentioning that she did that, but I've actually seen some talks of hers online and she does the same thing at the start of each speech. I'm not sure her personal reason for doing it, but as a student/viewer it interestingly made her seem more normal to me because of sharing something a bit personal instead of seeming disconnected from the class as can sometimes happen.

Hopefully that makes sense!

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...my concern is that students may not understand the small but involuntary autistic tics I have (though when teaching/interacting with students I do mask as best I can).

Given that your condition leads to observable behaviours that may surprise or confuse your students, I think it is a good idea for you to share your condition with your students, to let them know in advance what kinds of involuntary tics they might observe when you are teaching them. One reasonable approach here would be to put a short section in your course outline noting your condition and the kinds of things that students might observe while speaking to you or being lectured by you. You could then reiterate this in your introductory lecture in your course. That approach would give everyone advanced notice of what to expect, and it should ensure that there is minimal surprise or misunderstanding arising from your tics.

I disagree with the other answers here that consider this "over-sharing" --- if your tics are things that might affect your teaching then it is perfectly reasonable to let students know what to expect at the outset. I would expect that students would be happy to be informed of what to expect, and they are likely to be highly understanding in their interactions with you. An ancillary benefit is that your students will also learn about some of the involuntary tics that come with your form of autism, which will give them some mild additional knowledge beyond their coursework.

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    You are perhaps expecting a lot of 18 year olds - moreover 18 year olds in a crowd situation where peer status positioning may have much more to do with their response than what they truly think individually. Then again there will always be humorists and rabble rousers . . .
    – Trunk
    Commented Jun 15 at 13:43
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How about taking a very very small step, just for your own current piece of mind.

No need to teach while carrying with you any extra stress.

So... If there is a staff member that you feel you trust deeply. And might have useful personal knowledge on what to do. Then I'd say to start there.

Asking one person (and especially one person that has lived and relevant experiences) can be far more managable then opening a Pandoras box.

Could be a very common thing in your area. Could have an absolutely, beyond simple solution, that you just haven't considered yet.

Or it could be real bad.

But I doubt it will be bad.

On a personal level my openly dyslexic teachers were awesome. Yet I already knew they were awesome since before I even knew what dyslexia was. Then learning later that I was dyslexic and Autistic was a breeze, because I had more in common with those wonderful teachers.

So I honestly feel that you can't go far wrong here. And the fact that you are questioning this (and doing so while phrasing it all as you have above) is very reasuring and to me. As it practically to me that you will be fine regardless. :)

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