Although similar questions have been asked before, I hope this is not a duplicate as I'm not asking about whether I should inform my advisor (that's already decided), but how and when to do it.

My situation is a little different than most in that I'm a biology major, and hoping to study autistic spectrum disorders for grad school. Aspergers almost became my "special interest" in a way, and so I'm trying to incorporate that into my work. Under these circumstances, I would expect my advisor to be a little more sympathetic to my condition. However, because I'm not officially her grad student yet (doing a summer project before lab rotations in her lab, with the possibility to become a permanent student made clear), I'm not sure exactly when to tell her. Specifically, should I do it before or after officially joining the lab? I'm leaning towards before since if any problems arise because of this, I'd like to know beforehand and seek out other advisors. But I'm wondering if this could also create an awkward situation since she can't legally discriminate me?

Also, how much should I disclose about my struggles? Should I be matter of fact and just state that I have this disorder (assuming she understands the implications), or actually outline some of my challenges.

  • I cant be sure, but I wouldnt worry so much about creating an awkward situation because she cant discriminate. Unless she accepts you first, and then you tell her, then she fires you, or says specifically you cant join because of Aspergers, it will be hard to prove it has anything do with her situation. In other words, there are many ways she can get around not hiring you regardless of your condition, and in that regard, do you even want to work with someone who has that attitude? Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 1:38
  • @user1938107 that's actually one of the main reasons I do want to tell her before, I'm even tempted to directly say that she can not hire me for other reasons. I'd rather look for other opportunities than have this become a problem later on. To be fair though, she is a very nice person, and I don't really see this becoming a problem. I just think that disclosing this information would be beneficial to our mentor/trainee relationship.
    – Cornyvita
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 1:54
  • A two-step approach might work well in this case. You could give her the short version now, and shortly after you've started to get to know each other, you can give her the medium version. My son's Tourette Syndrome Association advocate advised me to create a succinct description of my son, in outline form, maximum one page, including both challenges and coping mechanisms. This has worked well, because I always have it handy and can give it to select people easily. You included in your Question much of the material for such an info sheet. After she's read your info sheet, hopefully... Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 17:18
  • ... she will take the initiative to follow that up with a chat. --- You and she will want to collaborate with a department administrator to get you a more comfortable work space where you won't feel sensorially bombarded. Also, you'll want to decide together how much information you'd like to be shared with your lab mates, and how it gets shared. Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 17:22

1 Answer 1


Most scientific places (at least in the STEM) are nerdy, or at least, nerd-tolerant. I have yet to see a physics or mathematics department where mind-reading or maintaining eye contact are required.

The contact with your (potential) advisor is always a tricky thing, so it depends much more on your common ground than your individual personality (for some advisors you may be better than a neurotypical). I wouldn't be afraid that she rejects you only because you say that you have Asperger syndrome.

But, to be honest, most people do not distinguish lack of social skills from rudeness, insensitivity, ignorance or showing off - even if they are told beforehand.

If you want to tell your advisor that you have Asperger syndrome (or to be precise, high-functioning autism), be sure to explain how does it impact your needs (and in which other you can cope well). Letting her guess won't do any good (either she will ignore it (~= not telling at all) or take wrong cues (especially as the spectrum is quite broad, and coping skills vary a lot)).

The sound-sensitivity thing may be the hardest part - it depends a lot on the place (both in term of the building and culture). But even there you might get some adjustments (e.g. being put in a room with reasonably quiet lab members).

Before getting admitted, I would ask about adjustments you need (e.g. it is possible that there is no quiet enough place for you). I wouldn't bother telling about any personal struggles (unless she is your friend or she asks and you want to tell).

How to start? It depends on her. But since her topic is autism, it should be always on topic, so you may start with "As you may have noticed, I do exhibit autistic traits. (Actually, I am diagnosed with ...). [the content ]". Use any moment she is not busy.

Source: I am into the topic (see links and collected research papers). I did my undergraduate course in a nerdy place, and my PhD in a nerd-tolerant place.

If you want to read a success story, I really recommend The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo (see a nice review/summary).

  • Thanks! Those are great advice, and your links provided a very interesting read!
    – Cornyvita
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 2:27

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