I am an "abnormal" graduate student in the sense I had been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome by a professional psychiatrist when I was in college. In college days I mostly study mathematics on my own and covered the subject by reading textbooks/lecture notes online, and I mostly learn by having private conversation with the professor instead of going to the lecture. However after entering graduate school I noticed for teaching undergraduate students, this approach does not really work. Last semester I tried to teach measure theory to my students in the probability class, and the result was in the end of the semester they still did not get what expectation really is.

This semester I have changed my approach and assuming that they knew nothing more than pre-calc. As a result my teaching performance has improved. But I still suffer from problems I assume normal instructors would not encounter. For an extreme example, I met a student asking me for quiz contents tomorrow and who makes the quiz, because the ones I gave tend to be more difficult. I responded that any event is likely including I die because of traffic accident or suicide because of depression, and in the above case there will be no quiz to prepare for.

(Added: When he pointed out this was quite bleak point of view, I suggested that) another quite unlikely event is I won Megamillion tickets and decided to quit grad school, so there will be no quiz too. (Added: Similar to this I also quoted possibility of me being late or there is a class cancellation due to snow storm. When he pointed out that no one can foresee these events, I suggested that is why having health insurance that enable me to see a therapist as well as covering physical diseases is important.) I suggested that he should prepare for anything that might happen with the quiz, and take consideration of the probabilities to maximize his performance of quiz with the time and energy constraint available.

(Added: When he suggested that bell curve is all he needed to pass this course), I also told him real life events often do not follow Bell curve and central limit theorem has limited value for random variable with no expectation exists. To make sure he is not confused, later at night I sent an email to the class repeating my points and suggested everything in the book we learned so far can be tested, and the bonus problem content can be coming from anywhere.

Later I received an email from the instructor of the course, claiming that the student was so unhappy that he suggested to remove me as an TA, because I made him "extremely uncomfortable" and "a bit scared". Further the student suggested I am "literally crazy". But I could not notice anything illogical in what I told him or craziness out of me. The instructor and I had a down to the earth conversation on this. I promised that this would never happen again. However, to be a responsible person I am confused what exactly went wrong. I suppose this is not an isolated event because the instructor told me he has received "many complaints" from students already. My questions are as follows:

  1. What did the student went through? Why is he unhappy? I did not use any profane language or threatened him in any way. I think what I said are largely "abstract nonsense" everyone knows. In fact, I think I was being very polite for speaking with him on this boring topic for 15 minutes or not appear to be unhappy with him at all. I thought he would think like what I did during my student days, that before a test students wish the class might be cancelled and one can spend more time to review.

  2. Has there been anyone else in this forum also having Aspergers syndrome? Can someone describe his/her experience and make some suggestions?

  3. Is there anyway for me to avoid this kind of unwanted events in future? There is no prospect that I can "convert" to a normal person. And I do not want people to be unhappy with me for trivial events like this in future. I could have dismissed the case as the student being irrational, but I think there might be something deeper into it. So I think I should ask.

  4. Even if there is no one mentioning this on my future teaching reference, would I be qualified for a teaching position in future once I got out of grad school? I ask because it is literally impossible for a graduate student in my university to get a serious research oriented post-doc unless he or she did something very remarkable. While I am not diffident about myself, I feel I should be serious with my future teaching career now, since I would have to teach as a post-doc as well and there will more teaching load.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Nov 21 '16 at 19:55

15 Answers 15


I think what I said are largely "abstract nonsense" everyone knows.

I'd bet that's part of the issue here. When people ask a question, the general assumption is that the answer will try to maximize usefulness. When this doesn't seem to be happening, it's viewed as a very strong signal. For example, suppose I ask you "Are you having lunch with John tomorrow?" and you reply "I don't know. Maybe he'll commit suicide tonight." If there's no special risk of suicide, then this is a useless answer, since everyone knows suicide is a theoretical possibility that would disrupt the lunch plans. So it's natural to interpret this answer as suggesting you honestly fear John will kill himself. Giving a logically correct but near-vacuous answer is considered highly eccentric (if not done deliberately) or rude (if done deliberately). Either way it will upset people, because it completely throws off their ability to judge what is really meant. It can be OK as a joke under the right circumstances, but otherwise it's generally problematic.

So there's a real danger whenever you try to explain "abstract nonsense everyone knows". It can be misinterpreted in many ways. "He thinks I'm an idiot who needs to be patiently told things everyone knows", "He's making fun of me", "He's intentionally being rude", "He's gone crazy and can't stop talking about suicide and the bell curve even though they are irrelevant to my needs", "He's severely depressed and is trying to prepare me for the possibility that he might be gone by tomorrow [or is awkwardly asking for help]", etc.

Math culture can play a role here as well. It's not uncommon for mathematicians to be a bit obsessive about logical correctness in everyday life. For example, when someone asks me about my lunch plans, I have to fight to urge to reply "as far as I know" instead of "yes", since of course I don't really know for sure. If I see a bag sitting my itself in my classroom as everyone is leaving and ask the class "Did somebody leave their bag behind?", I'm sure to get an answer of "yes" from multiple students. Among mathematicians, this communication style is widely tolerated, and it can be viewed as amusing or a sign of in-group solidarity, but it can really provoke non-mathematicians.

So it's important to keep in mind that Asperger's and math culture can line up in ways that interfere with effective communication. This is usually less important in advanced classes, but it can be a big deal in introductory classes, especially with students who are not majoring in mathematics.

Dealing with this can be nontrivial, but I'm confident you are on your way to sorting it out. As I see it, the two biggest obstacles are realizing that there's an issue and recognizing that it's more than just "students can be irrational", and you've made it past both of these obstacles.

Even if there is no one mentioning this on my future teaching reference, would I be qualified for a teaching position in future once I got out of grad school?

Yes, Asperger's is far from rare in mathematics and it is in no way a disqualification for a teaching career. Overcoming initial hurdles can lead to a very effective teaching letter, since this demonstrates a serious and professional commitment to teaching.

Many universities have a teaching center or the equivalent, where people can go for feedback or assistance with their teaching. For example, someone could sit in on your class and offer advice, or video a session and go over it with you (seeing yourself teach from a student's perspective can be illuminating). It might also be possible to be paired with a long-term mentor. There can be advantages to working with someone outside the math department (who is not involved in evaluating you professionally) or within the department (who can offer better feedback on the clarity of your mathematical explanations). Either way, it's worth looking into what resources might be available, since this can be a valuable way to improve and to demonstrate commitment.

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    +1 for invoking Mathematician's Answer – March Ho Feb 14 '15 at 18:33
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    Cf. the cooperative principle. – Eric Feb 15 '15 at 14:02
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    +1 for the third paragraph. I always struggle when someone asks to a group I belong the question "Does someone want to do X?" How can I answer if I don't want to do X but I cannot ask all my group their opinion??? – Taladris Feb 17 '15 at 7:13
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    @Taladris: That reminds me of the old joke in which a bartender asks a group of mathematicians whether they would all like beer. Each answers "I don't know", until the last mathematician says "yes". – Anonymous Mathematician Feb 17 '15 at 13:31
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    (+1) In addition, I'd say "abstract nonsense" (and in particular random abstract nonsense) produces an impression of arbitrariness. Which is completely contrary to the students' need to be able to predict reliably what is to be expected in the exam (both with respect to the subjects covered and to the weight put to particular skills/knowledge that are tested). I'd be suspicious with respect to the fairness of grading of any examiner who exhibits signs of arbitrariness. – cbeleites Feb 24 '15 at 22:17

First of all, kudos to the OP for sharing his problem. Without a doubt, this the first step towards addressing the problem. Unfortunately, most of the answers do not seem to get to the "meat" of the problem. And the main question is:

Was the OP rude to the student and was the student on the right to complain about this behavior?

The answer to both questions is a big YES. When someone asks a question about a test quiz and gets an answer like "I do not want to tell you because I might commit suicide because of depression" the student (in his human imperfection), has the right to feel "scared" and "awkward". But even then, the student still made the right choice: He notified the university "authorities" (the main instructor of the course) about the problem he faced. This is what we suggest all students to do (in this SE forum) when they are dealing with a dangerous or threatening situation within the university campus. And although the danger was not real, the student felt that way, so he reported it. What would a teacher do, when one of his students told him when asked about a meeting, "I do not know if I can make the meeting tomorrow because I might be dead"? Exactly the same thing. Notify the university authorities. So first, I believe we must all agree that the student did the right call. Otherwise, the OP might not even have acknowledged the problem and how the student felt from this situation (which I am not sure if he totally gets is 100%). And BTW commenting on "I do not want people to be unhappy with me for trivial events like this in future", let me tell the OP that being "scared" by your university teacher is not a trivial event at all.

I am not a doctor and I cannot provide remote diagnoses. No one should do it especially online. But being a teacher is mostly about the students and not ourselves. We are still human, we are imperfect and we sometimes make irrational mistakes. But if something (disease, personal state, even grief) prevents us to do what is best for THEM, we should do whatever it takes (therapy, medication, personal leave) to protect them and be the best teachers we can be. Otherwise, we are not doing those young people justice.

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    I don't agree at all that this is the main question. And even if it is, I don't agree that the OP was rude. I recognise that the OP came across as rude, but rude is something intentional. I have Asperger myself, and I strongly believe the OP that he or she meant no harm to the student. – gerrit Feb 14 '15 at 19:29
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    @gerrit According to Merriam-Webster."Rude: not having or showing concern or respect for the rights and feelings of other people". The OP's behaviour was textbook definition of it. And when people are rude they should apologize, regardless of their intention or pre-existing condition. – Alexandros Feb 14 '15 at 20:41
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    The OP shows a lack of empathy (which is a symptom of Asperger's, caused by lesser functioning mirror neurons), but not a lack of sympathy. If I don't know that my behaviour causes grief in other person, then continuing that behaviour is not rude. It is very well possible that I am concerned about your feelings, try not to hurt them, but unintentionally still do. I don't agree that rude is the correct word in such a context. – gerrit Feb 15 '15 at 0:05
  • @gerrit, there is still the "should have known" issue. Lack of intent through lack of information of which one_should_ have been aware is tricky. – paul garrett Jan 25 '18 at 23:02

+1 to Anonymous' answer.

In addition, you mention that you have Asperger syndrome. One of the key symptoms in Asperger - right in the first paragraph at Wikipedia - is "significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication". That is: your interaction with the student was likely "abnormal", to use the term that you used. And importantly, you probably have a hard time in understanding just what it is that caused the student distress.

What could have been "abnormal"? This is hard to say. Communication happens on many levels. Only a very small percentage (I have seen suggestions of 10%) are the actual information content. The rest is "everything else": choice of words, intonation, facial expression, body language, context, surroundings, relationships and so forth. It is very hard to explain what really goes on here. And of course your 10% information content could have been exactly on the mark, while the other 90% could have been just a bit outside what the student expected within the parameters of such a conversation. And that would be enough for him to conclude that you are "crazy". (Although of course telling this to your professor is rude.)

So, what can you do? One problem with Asperger is that you will need to consciously learn and practice communication norms that non-Aspergers soak up automatically, so they don't even need to think about them. I am not a therapist, so take my advice with a large grain of salt. But I would make sure that you stick with the actual information you need to convey (as Anonymous recommends). Given that you have problems in understanding how you come across, better to reduce the possibilities of being misunderstood. Don't do jokes, don't discuss six-sigma events like a meteorite hitting you.

In addition, I would strongly recommend that you look for help. Either talk to a therapist - student services at your university could probably help you there. Or at least look for a self-help group. Asperger's is not too rare, so you may find such a group close by. If you have a trusted (non-Asperger) friend, ask him to observe you in conversation and ask him to give you feedback. Maybe even take a video of you in an interaction so the two of you can go over it in detail.

If you work on your communication skills, I don't think you would be barred from teaching. One question is whether you actually enjoy it - many people with Asperger's don't enjoy interaction with other people.

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    The commonly repeated statistic is that 70% of communication is non-verbal. There's actually very little evidence to back this up. skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/15512/2974 and spring.org.uk/2007/05/busting-myth-93-of-communication-is.php. – TRiG Feb 14 '15 at 18:19
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    -1 for advising to discourage communication. Practice, practice, practice.... Some of my best professors had Asperer's. Their lectures were logical, broken into small pieces, the expectations were clear, not to mention brilliant people. Focus on the strengths that come with Asperger's, and work on coming up with communication rules for yourself (social stories). But please don't stop trying. – Orion Feb 15 '15 at 4:03
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    @Orion: I'm not sure where I discourage communication. I recommend sticking with the actual information, not going into jokes and six-sigma events. Kind of like the logical lectures you like. And I explicitly recommed working on communication skills. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 15 '15 at 10:39

In the first place, I believe that the student was quite rude.

That said, your response regarding the quiz was presumably regarded as sarcastic and mean-spirited, even if it was not intended as such. I think that it is a fair question which deserves a reasonable answer, based on what you intend to do. That answer might be "Everything we've covered in class in the last three days, and in Sections X, Y, and Z is fair game for the quiz" if you don't want to be more specific.

Until you get more comfortable with teaching, I recommend making your courses extremely predictable. (This is especially true if you are a TA rather than an instructor.) You can get creative with your lectures, but I would recommend making all of your course policies very explicit (e.g. what material is covered on the quizzes), standard, and explaining them as clearly as possible. Your quizzes should focus on material emphasized in your lecture and/or the book, and not have any "trick questions".

In general, in ordinary conversation, I would usually recommend ignoring the possibility that highly unusual circumstances (i.e., your death) might occur. The question "What will you do?" may be interpreted as "What will you probably do?" or "What do you intend to do?"

Best of luck to you.

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    I disagree about the student being rude. Let's say you ask your teacher what the test covers, and the answer is "everything is possible; I may commit suicide because of my depression". Wouldn't you report it too? Sorry to be blunt but it's an extremely inappropriate and stupid answer – Thomas Bonini Feb 14 '15 at 12:39
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    @AndreasBonini we can certainly discuss the appropriateness of the answer, but saying that someone is literally crazy is definitely rude. – tim Feb 14 '15 at 13:18
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    @tim - I don't think that statement was intended for the OP to hear/see. The student privately contacted the instructor to express concerns with the TA's behavior, and the instructor went and blabbed it all to the TA. I think it was extremely unprofessional for the instructor to email the OP this information. I'd be very upset if I were a student in that section and I found out the professor basically just forwarded my comments to the TA and didn't even bother with a face-to-face meeting. – DaoWen Feb 14 '15 at 19:13
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    @AndreasBonini: I see your point, and acknowledge that my answer leaves room for disagreement. But "extremely inappropriate and stupid"? Please be more respectful. – Anonymous Feb 15 '15 at 0:45
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    @Anonymous I think that "it's an extremely inappropriate and stupid answer" refers not to your answer, but to the OP's reaction "everything is possible; I may commit suicide because of my depression". – Alexandros Feb 15 '15 at 21:13

I think the other answers have done a good job of explaining the why the student was offended by your response in this situation. So instead I will try to give you some general "rules of thumb" that would help you avoid similar situations.

When someone asks you a question, before you answer, think about why they are asking and what the answer means to them. Often there's a deeper, more fundamental question underlying what the person actually asks, and that's the question that you need to answer. In this case, the student was nervous about the exam, and wanted to know how he could improve his chances of passing.

If you have to deliver bad news, acknowledge what it means to the other person, and stick to directly relevant facts. In this case, the bad news that you had to deliver was that you couldn't (or wouldn't, for pedagogical reasons) tell the student what was on the exam.

Here's an example of an answer that might have worked better in this situation: "I understand you're worried about the quiz. I can't tell you exactly what's going to be on it, but it will be material that we discussed in class. If you review your class notes, you should be well-prepared." The first sentence acknowledges how the student feels. The second sentence delivers the bad news. The third sentence answers the underlying question, sticking to the facts. You might add something helpful like "Make sure you understand the concept of 'expectation'."

This answer will not completely satisfy the student, who was probably hoping to be told exactly what the quiz would be so he wouldn't have to do as much studying. But at least it delivers the bad news in a way that doesn't make the student feel any worse than he already feels.


What did the student went through? Why is he unhappy?

I can only guess, but I would say that the student expected concrete and short answers, such as:

  • Question: "Who makes the quiz?" Answer: "I will be making the quiz" (unlikely events preventing you from making the quiz are implied).
  • Question: "what will be the content of the quiz?" Answer: "Everything we covered in the last X weeks" or "Chapters X, Y, and Z of the book" or "Topics A, B, and C".

Your answer to the first question was probably received as too general and off topic, and might have made the student uncomfortable because it was a bit personal (regarding depression and suicide).

As to your answer to the second question: everything in the book is not an answer students like to hear, but it certainly can be a valid answer (if everything in the book is actually relevant to the class). content can be coming from anywhere on the other hand will make most students unhappy, because they cannot prepare for it. I know it is just for bonus points, but still, it would probably be better to base those questions on the content of the book as well, as to not frustrate students.

Is there anyway for me to avoid this kind of unwanted events in future?

Try to give short answers that you think will help the students the most. You can - as you did in this case - follow that up with an email, in which you can go into a bit more detail.

And although there is nothing wrong with being a hard teacher, scaling down the difficulty of your tests will make students happier and more forgiving. You don't have to create incredibly easy tests just so students will like you, but if your tests are always more difficult than those of other teachers, this can make students resentful (even if their main objective is to learn, passing this class and getting good grades is important for them and their future).

As others mentioned, you might also want to look for outside help. This can be therapy if you want to and can afford it, but you could also discuss events such as this with friends/family/possibly colleagues, and send important email (and maybe tests) to them before sending them out to students for proofreading.

Even if there is no one mentioning this on my future teaching reference, would I be qualified for a teaching position in future once I got out of grad school?

I don't think you should let yourself be hold back by this. It seems that you would have to do some work (because you received "many complaints"), but if this is something you like to do, do it.


There have been a lot of useful answers already. Although my own teaching experience is limited, my own Asperger's syndrome has frequently led to communication problems because of different understandings, so I will try to address your questions from an Asperger perspective.

Is there anyway for me to avoid this kind of unwanted events in future?

You can minimise, but not completely avoid.

All humans, in particular neurotypicals, are irrational. The statement “I might be dead tomorrow” is rationally obvious. Rationally, the statement might be expected to have zero impact (but see MSalters' comment). However, it will have non-zero impact on almost everybody (including many Aspergers, who have been functioning in a majority neurotypical environment and have consciously or subconsciously adapted). This illustrates that people are irrational — unless, as MSalters points out, listeners assume the statement must have non-zero information, and therefore assume there must be some non-literal (i.e. hidden) content.

You can minimise this kind of unwanted events by constructing a (mental) model of how information is perceived. This is non-trivial. It requires an understanding of Theory of mind. For such an understanding, Asperger's Syndrome is a handicap. Although Aspergers are likely over-represented in a mathematics department, Aspergers are still the minority. So, we need to adapt.

Other answers have addressed how information is perceived in this specific example. I'm almost sure you have experienced similar¹ miscommunications before — if you're not aware of any, then that's almost certainly because you did not receive the feedback you received now. Therefore, my literal answer will be: No, there is no way to completely avoid this kind of unwanted events in the future.

However, you can minimise. How would you go to construct such a mental model? I would recommend seeking communication with fellow Aspergers. There are many forums, chatrooms, and mailing-lists for Aspergers online, including some specifically focussed on Aspergers at universities. Perhaps there is a autism meetup group at your campus or in your city. As Asperger's, we need to adapt to a neurotypically-dominated world. Based on my personal experience, at this stage in life, I think this is more productive than therapy. Online or offline — sharing experiences with people with similar neurological wirings is no doubt helpful.

¹In this case, by similar, I mean: any misunderstanding that can be attributed due to an Asperger sender intending a literal content, but a receiver interpreting a non-literal content.

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    As a probabilist, the OP might like the following interpretation: "might" literally means "with nonzero probability", but most people use it to mean "with probability significantly greater than zero" or "significantly greater than baseline". "Will" literally means "with probability 1", but most people use it to mean only "with very high probability". – Nate Eldredge Feb 15 '15 at 2:57
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    Being rational, the reason for communication is the conveyance of information. Hence, a rational listener would interpret “I might be dead tomorrow” as containing a non-zero amount of information. Thus, a rational communicator does not state the obvious, precisely because no information can be conveyed by it. – MSalters Feb 16 '15 at 15:32
  • @MSalters That is a good point. I did not think of that. My answer is somewhat oversimplified. I have edited to point out that, indeed, if a listener assumes the statement must have non-zero information, the logical conclusion in this case is that there must be non-literal information conveyed. – gerrit Feb 16 '15 at 16:29
  • Now that I think of it, that "Theory of Mind" idea is somewhat flawed as well. I wouldn't like to play poker against someone with Asperger. It's way too easy for them to have a logically correct ToM. I think the real problem is that not a "model how information is perceived" but the handling of a multitude of models how information might be received. It's almost Schrodinger's cat: you can't look into someone's head to see how the information is received, and until they open their mouth you won't know ;) – MSalters Feb 16 '15 at 17:51
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    I somehow tend to see a large difference between "I might be dead tomorrow" and putting this into a likely context: "any event is likely including I die". I'd even say this is a literal difference. – cbeleites Feb 24 '15 at 23:07

You wrote:

I met a student asking me for quiz contents tomorrow and who makes the quiz, because the ones I gave tend to be more difficult. I responded that any event is likely including I die because of traffic accident or suicide because of depression, and in the above case there will be no quiz to prepare for. And another quite unlikely event is I won Megamillion tickets and decided to quit grad school, so there will be no quiz too. Similar to this I also quoted possibility of me being late or there is a class cancellation due to snow storm. When he pointed out that no one can foresee these events, I suggested that is why having health insurance that enable me to see a therapist as well as covering physical diseases is important.

This is a very odd response - if I had a teacher say something like that I would be alarmed as well.

First of all, suicide, depression, personal health, and therapists are all private topics that are personal, alarming, and intrusive to bring up out of nowhere. These are things you should be very careful about discussing with others, especially in a professional context. When you're talking to students, you have to have different boundaries than when you're talking to a friend - you have to be professional and not bring up personal and private things, especially concerning and alarming things like therapists and depression and suicide.

What were you thinking when you said that? Why did you bring that up? It's important to be aware of people's boundaries and how they might react when you say something, especially as a teacher.

Second, it's not in any way relevant to what he asked - he was asking for information on the test and none of what you said has anything to do with that.

I'm not sure if anyone's linked to this yet, but it would be good for you to read and study this and follow it when talking to people: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_principle

I suggested that he should prepare for anything that might happen with the quiz, and take consideration of the probabilities to maximize his performance of quiz with the time and energy constraint available.

This is oddly and very formally worded, but it's at least an answer to the question. Why not just give a simple and direct answer like "Everything we talked about in class could be on the test." I thought people with Asperger's were often very direct - doesn't that strike you as a clear and direct answer, whereas talking about winning the lottery or snowstorms is off-topic?

I also told him real life events often do not follow Bell curve and central limit theorem has limited value for random variable with no expectation exists.

Well yes, but again what does that have to do with anything?

To make sure he is not confused, later at night I sent an email to the class repeating my points and suggested everything in the book we learned so far can be tested, and the bonus problem content can be coming from anywhere.

Saying "everything in the book can be tested" is a fine answer, but I hope you didn't "repeat the points" about suicide - that's the kind of thing you could easily get fired for.

Later I received an email from the instructor of the course, claiming that the student was so unhappy that he suggested to remove me as an TA, because I made him "extremely uncomfortable" and "a bit scared".

Not surprising, seeing as you brought up suicide and seeing a therapist. That tends to make people uncomfortable and scared.

However, to be a responsible person I am confused what exactly went wrong. Is there anyway for me to avoid this kind of unwanted events in future? There is no prospect that I can "convert" to a normal person. And I do not want people to be unhappy with me for trivial events like this in future. I could have dismissed the case as the student being irrational, but I think there might be something deeper into it.

In a word - boundaries. Be aware of what boundaries people have, what they expect and don't expect, what they are comfortable with and uncomfortable with. This isn't trivial or irrational - it's a big deal. When people's boundaries are violated, the way you violated that student's boundaries, they feel very uncomfortable and it will cause you a lot of problems.

Suicide and mental health are an extreme example - that's the kind of thing people only talk about with people they're close to. Same goes for sex, religion, and politics. With people you don't know well, or people you have a professional relationship with (like students you teach) make sure you stay with "safe" topics of conversation.

I would suggest finding a therapist or social skills group or someone who can talk to you about this and help you get a better understanding of people's boundaries and expectations and how to relate to people in a professional setting.

By the way - this isn't just you. It's very difficult to figure out how to comfortably talk to people you don't know or people you have to be "professional" with, and this is true for everyone, Aspergers or not.

  • This is a very good answer. +1 for the link to the Cooperative Principle / Grice's Maxims. – Corvus Feb 17 '15 at 5:27

Certainly many mathematicians are strange in one way or another. In some departments to the point that not being so makes you stand out. In one very prestigious department I worked in, it was quite common to make statements like " he was strange even by the demanding standards of this department."

So I wouldn't rule out a mathematics academic career. That said, I think it's unwise to become a lecturer/professor if you don't actually enjoy teaching.

I would echo what others have said regarding seek professional help. A large part of teaching is trying to understand the learner's point of view and this is roughly what Asperger's syndrome makes you bad at.

One coping strategy I would suggest is that every time something goes wrong, make a note of what happened and work out what the correct response should have been. Then remember this and use it the next time the situation arises.

  • Mark Joshi! I used to work through your book in distributions in the summer before grad school! I know you are a student of Melrose. How are you! – Bombyx mori Feb 17 '15 at 1:30
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    I am doing fine. I switched to financial maths in 99. – Mark Joshi Feb 17 '15 at 3:14
  • Thanks! My advisor is a student of Melrose. So I know about you. – Bombyx mori Feb 17 '15 at 3:14
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    I'm curious why you chose this as the "accepted" answer? What about it strikes you as more informative than the other answers provided, from your perspective? – Paul Feb 17 '15 at 3:39
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    @Paul more likely, (and rather quite clearly) the OP selected this answer above Anonymous Mathematician's answer (which was unarguably the best answer provided) because he/she knows (of) the answerer in real life. But then again, you knew that when you asked, didn't you? – CuriousWebDeveloper Feb 17 '15 at 4:43

(posting anonymously, so can't make this a comment)

The first piece of advice I've been given is to accept that the majority of students are not really interested in learning, only in passing the exam. They are, in my experienced, obsessed with meaningless details like how many questions there are on the exam (who cares, when you don't know how long a question is?). Tell them exactly what they will be asked and when, so they can get marks with as little effort as possible (and repeat it every time they ask, even though you've already told them multiple times), and a good proportion of the students will be happier.

The second piece of advice I've been given is to not care about student feedback.

I don't think either of these fit well with being an Aspie.

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    You can only not care about student feedback if your employer doesn't. – Mark Joshi Feb 16 '15 at 23:32
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    @MarkJoshi, it is certainly true that some institutions will choose hype-up their attention to student evaluations, but I think more serious places realize that there are very serious limitations (statistically) to (especially lower-division, but not only) students' perceptions of their own welfare and how well a teacher serves it. Yes, of course, it is possible to "fail to communicate well", but that is (sometimes subtly) different from not having high student ratings. – paul garrett Feb 17 '15 at 0:17
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    I am very aware of all the arguments against student evaluation and I have made them at great length. However, that does not mean that I have won the argument against administrators. Some institutions love them. – Mark Joshi Feb 17 '15 at 0:34

This probably would be better as a comment, but I cannot comment yet so I have to write this as an answer:

I work with children with high function autism/ aspie. I think the "trolling" part was Aspie learned it is not good to just say "no I won't tell you" so OP do not have the intention to be rude, indeed a lot of Aspie would say a lot of weird things when they are learning how to deny a request in a more socially acceptable manner. And saying no is somehow difficult for 'typically developing' person, so yes it is really hard for Aspie to do that in a proper manner.

I think one safe approach would be just say no to the students, as in a teacher and student relationship, being direct would be okay, students may say you are strict (or even unkind), but at least they won't say you are weird. (But I won't suggest you to do so to your peers...)


Just to add to the ocean of answers:

When people ask something, there's the literal question and the actual problem. Usually they have surprisingly little to do with one another. This counts double when it comes to students.

I imagine the student was worried about not passing the test, and the uncertainty of what the test would contain was creating stress. They were looking to relieve this stress by obtaining more information. This is the kind of subtext that your condition blinds you to. I guess it's no use telling you to empathize with the student, since that's not really an option, although an analysis of the way people deal with uncertainty and stress might help you to understand some of the patterns.

I think a good thing to do is to be up front about it. Tell people about your condition and what they can expect from you. Your student was already stressed by the test and her own uncertainty, so an unexpected response form the TA exacerbated the issue, and made her lash out (albeit through your professor). If your students know about your condition, and know how it works, they can help the communication from their side. They can be more explicit in their questions, and when you respond in a strange way, they'll know where it comes from and how to deal with it.


Let me add some formulation suggestions, mainly in addition to mhwombat's answer and some feedback to the dialogue in the question.

I think an important assumption of "normal" communication is that the words are meant to transport an information content > 0.

  • Refrain of adding irrelevant sentences: do not talk of generally known but typically irrelevantly low risks (car accident, suicide).
    People may interpret things into them that you never intended to say. In particular, the fact that the risk is important enough for you to state it will be interpreted as being substantially above the known general negligible risk. I emphasized negligible because negligible translates to both negligible wrt. preparing for the exam and to neglecting to mention these risks in everyday spoken communication.

  • If you keep a conversation going, people will probably take this as a hint that a) you want to keep the conversation going and b) you want to communicate some content. So, if you don't have a relevant statement to make, do not make a statement. No not make irrelevant statements (there are uses of this, also in exams, but maybe you should leave this to teachers who have a very keen perception of whether communication goes well, and who also know how to rescue failing communication).

    The dialogue you cite leaves the impression with me that you actively kept up the conversation. Yet below you state that it was extremely boring to you. Such a contradiction between predicted (impression) and literally stated desire/emotion/communicaton aim will mainly tell people that they cannot successfully recognize/predict what you want. Logical conclusion: they don't know what you want and the expectation shifts towards difficulty as in possible failure in communication also in the future. Plus: expect it to be hard work to communicate successfully with you.

  • If you are not able to judge the students' emotions very well (with very well I actually mean a perception that is well above the average "normal" person's ability to judge emotions!), the time around exams is not a good time to try being funny or communicate by subtle hints.

  • In contrast to what other people suggested, I don't see for the described situation that being short, direct, honest and to the point with the answers about the exam ("I will prepare the quiz, and it can cover all the topics we had in the lecture so far.") would make the students unhappy or anxious or upset. In particular: this is not upsetting at all as I'd consider this the "default-value" for the answer and therefore totally expected.
    But then I'm from a culture that has a reputation to be very direct.

  • Even if the student realizes that you probably don't mean what they would usually expect to be the meaning, they will (possibly emotionally/unconsciously) conclude that they cannot properly communicate with you - and that is highly alarming to students facing an exam: the failed communication leads them to fear that the communication in the exam may go wrong as well. This is completely rational: they conclude from a failure that failure may occur - though at the same time it is not comprehensible to you if you cannot detect the failure in communication. And in exam situations the acceptable risk of failed communication is very low.

  • You emailed

    bonus problem content can be coming from anywhere

    a "less alarming" formulation (assuming this covers the meaning you wanted to transport) could be

     To solve the bonus problem, you'll have to transfer techniques covered in the lecture to solve a new type of problem.

    This will be less alarming than "can be everything" because it is a positive and more precise statement of what the bonus question is about.

  • In a comment above you told me:

    I do not want to give the false impression that they can prepare for the quiz.

    This was a highly unexpeced statement for me. In particular, the dialogue you described in the question did not suggest to me that this was a possible intention of yours. And I still find it slightly (situatively) contradictory to your statement "before a test [...] spend more time to review". I'm aware that I implicitly assumed that this statement would apply to the current test as well.

    I met very few exams for which no preparation was possible or reasonable. Preparation for me means increasing the understanding of the subject and connecting it to other subjects rather than being able to repeat stuff from a list. So if you really and literally mean the students cannot prepare for the exam, state it. Logically, if the students objectively cannot prepare, they also need not prepare - and because that is a very unusual situation, state this as well and in addition explain why they can and need not prepare for this exam - they'll be suspicious and not take your statement at face value otherwise:

    You cannot and need not prepare for this exam. Don't worry, this exam is meant to be taken without further preparation, because [reason].

    with [reason] e.g. being "you can solve all questions by logical thinking"

  • My points on extreme cases was a hint.

    I wouldn't have gotten that hint. I may have gotten such a hint/nuance by someone whos communication I can judge very well. In the dialogue you quore, I'd have dismissed your sentences as weird/inadequate and possibly-to-probably irrelevant and my major conclusion would have been that I do not understand you reliably. Therefore, I would not even have looked for any hidden meaning: the chance of hitting the right hidden meaning [if there is any] would have been too low compared to the "noise" of obviously failed communication.
    My guess is: just as you cannot judge the nuances of what the students say, they (and I) cannot judge the nuances of what you say. Or maybe you overestimated the amount of "guessing" that goes on in "normal" communication.

    But the result is anyways a communication problem that goes both directions. I think the solution here again is to go for very clear and direct subject related sentences without hints or other kinds of hidden meaning, keeping in mind the "> 0 information" criterium. Plus building up a reputation of having such a direct style of meaning literally what you say. If people can trust that they just need to take you literally, things may be much easier for both sides.

So, if it is not wise to restrict the world-view to bell-curve only, you could say:

 It is not wise to restrict yourself to bell-curves.

Although, personally, I'd have not said anything at all. (Which, by the way may be taken as a hint or not, but this does not matter particularly - you are safe either way)

(resorted statements)

  • I want to let them know real life is often random and one has to make reasonable guess at times.

    While this is true in a narrow and literal sense, I have the suspicion that you may experience life (particularly where other people's reactions are concerned) as far more random than I do. E.g. most communication with other people (including their reactions) is highly logical and even predictable to me. I am not used to perceiving everyday life as random, although I professionally do lots of statistics and I often take the role of the one who points out what cannot be concluded due to randomness/noise.

    In the context of exam, I'd call randomness arbitraryness (of the examiner) and see it as totally inadequate. This would not be the "narrow randomness" of having different versions of the exam populated with random numbers to avoid cheating in the calculations, this is rather the randomness that means that the student has to be very knowledgeable in the subject in order to be able to guess what the examiner is driving at/wants to hear.

    In other words, be clear about the separation of different layers of meaning in the exam and don't mix them. The topic of the exam being randomness does not imply that questions or grading should be arbitrary. On the contrary: questions still should yield a reliable and reproducible measure of the students' abilities wrt the topic of randomness.

In this case the student would have to make an educated guess what might be on the quiz, and if he failed to do that he would have to study very hard in advance like I did, or more likely a combination of the two approaches.

Well yes, but again on a "normal" level this is obvious - also for the student. The "> 0 information assumption" means that explicitly stating this emphasises this educated guessing, so you transport a meaning that this is far more relevant in the present situation than usually.

Neither solution is optimal but it would help out him much more this way than giving a few fixed topics and ask him to review these topics.

I don't agree, although I see your point. I may be thinking of a list of much broader topics than you think of, though. But IMHO the more general connections to other topics can only be made after one has mastered the narrower points and only the general level allows informed guessing. Otherwise the guess is not educated but wild.

And again, there should be no need to guess "what topic did the teacher have in mind here?". But asking good exam questions is an art that few people master.

Emotionally mature students are probably able to "buffer" some or even most of the "weirdness" due to your Asperger's in normal lecture situations (in particular if they know about your condition). But they are probably unable to do so in stressful situations like before/during an exam. So exams (including some time before and when handing back the exams) are a time where you need to be extra careful.

As explained, failed communication will increase their stress/nervousness as in addition to the subject they realize they need to prepare for an additional psychological stress test.

Last but certainly not least I want to point out that the nervousness of students before an exam may include conditions like exam anxiety. The combination of student anxious because of the fact that they are facing an exam (which can be totally independent of their ability wrt. the topic of the exam) with your Aspergers is IMHO just heading for trouble.

Unfortunately, I cannot give any good advise on this: such a student would probably anyways try to not let you (or other examiners) know of their anxiety, particularly if that is triggered by a fear of examiners being unfair and arbitrary and taking advantage of their power [so it is tactically bad to show weakness]. If the communication with you does not work as with other people, this may trigger lots of suspicion and anxiety. And I guess this is a situation that you will basically be unable to recognize - most examiners may not be able to recognize it. For this, your only safe bet is to behave always as extremely reliable and fair and as predictable as possible.
Personally, I'd think it much preferrable to have direct, honest, to the point and expicitly logical communication than failed guesses how a fancy communication could be.

  • Hi! Your long response is appreciated, but I just want to point out that "review" before a test is reviewing all relevant knowledge related to the purpose of the test, not just going over lecture material the instructor covered in a limited amount of time. I thought this was the norm, as most real life tests I had was similar to this. I did not know this would be a confusing point for people. – Bombyx mori Feb 25 '15 at 2:19
  • @Bombyxmori: thx for the appreciation. a) this site is quite international, and there are definite cultural differences in how teaching/lectures "normally" work e.g. between the US and central Europe. b) In my university context, the "list of points" will list the relevant knowledge, e.g. "derivatives and linear algebra" (as in: test ist not about statistics) c) This whole question is about communication problems, so better be very explicit and literal. d) In addition, English is not my mother tongue, so I'm anyways not sure I get all nuances. Confusion potential may be lower for others. – cbeleites Feb 25 '15 at 2:27
  • Hi! This is okay as I am not a native speaker as well. But I saw little point to give a boring test ask students to recite material they memorized from lecture notes and after the test they would totally forgotten. I thought a real test have to test their understanding of the material. And this kind of test one cannot just prepare by going through section 3.1, 3.2, 3.5 of the textbook. But I do not know how to show this to my students, that what one learned is what one understand after put away the textbook and formula sheets. – Bombyx mori Feb 25 '15 at 2:31
  • @Bombyxmori: There are recommendations around here of how much of an exam should be mainly repetition, how much should be applying stuff directly to new problems and how much should be transfer to new problem types. I'd say how to prepare a good exam is a totally different question. And judging from the exams I wrote and corrected, a generally difficult task... – cbeleites Feb 25 '15 at 2:44

My child was diagnosed mild Aspergers 2 years ago, and I found I have the same syndrome though I'm too late to be diagnosed. I'm in IT line which requires less communication more calculation. I prefer work/social/play with familiar people, nervous otherwise, good in maths, poor in language, communication. But people describe me nice, shy and smart. You'll be a good teacher in future, just need time to gain experience. Or do researching instead of teaching?

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    “I'm too late to be diagnosed” – I am no expert but I am not aware of any age limitation for diagnosis. (Not that I would suggest that you must have this tested – that’s something you have to decide.) – Wrzlprmft Feb 24 '15 at 6:41

Good for you for trying to find out what went wrong!

What did the student went through? Why is he unhappy? I did not use any profane language or threatened him in any way. I think what I said are largely "abstract nonsense" everyone knows

Talking casually about death, dying, and suicide is a social taboo. Some people may interpret this as frightening. As someone with Asperger's, you may have to memorize certain social norms. Temple Grandin has noted (see her TED talk) that one thing that she thought was helpful is that when she was a child, social norms were taught to children ("children were taught manners"). Nowadays, most children are expected to pick up on social norms intuitively. I found this book helpful (even if you aren't a girl): "A Smart Girl's Guide to Knowing What to Say" by Patti Kelley Criswell (Author)

Is there anyway for me to avoid this kind of unwanted events in future? There is no prospect that I can "convert" to a normal person. And I do not want people to be unhappy with me for trivial events like this in future.

One thing you might want to do is just tell the class that you have Asperger's. You could start out a tutorial session with something like:

"Before I start talking about the material this week, I think I need to just let you know that I have Asperger's. This means that I don't pick up on social cues very well. So sometimes I might say things that are odd to you. I am sorry. I am trying to interact better with people, so if I do something odd, please feel free to tell me, and I will listen and take note. If you want to learn more about Asperger's, you can watch this great TED talk at this URL. Now let's get on with the material."

In my experience, students are much more willing to accommodate someone if they know what is going on, and if they know you want to improve. It might make them happy that they can teach you something.

protected by Alexandros Jan 26 '18 at 19:25

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