Disclosure in College

By Scott Finkelstein

Scott was one of two student panelists at AANE’s spring 2012 “Perspectives on College Life” program.

My name is Scott Finkelstein and I just graduated from Brandeis University. I actually finished a semester early and am currently looking for a job (in case any of you are hiring…), but I will walk with the class of 2012 in the spring.

One of the topics that people are really interested in is disclosure so I thought I would talk about that today. There are four places where disclosure comes up when thinking about college: the essay, with professors, with friends, and with significant others.

Should you talk about Asperger Syndrome in your college essay, or not?
Your main goal is to produce an essay that convinces the admissions directors that you should go to that school. To do that you need to produce a strong narrative that shows you in a good light and shows good writing skills. Guidance counselors advise that your essay should demonstrate personal growth or overcoming adversity. AS can be good for that if you can show how you overcame a challenge or turned your disability into an asset. At the same time, unless it is the focus of your essay or is an important part of the narrative, I think you should leave it out as you would other superfluous information. Basically, you want to produce the strongest, best-written, and most compelling essay you can.

I thought it was important to show that I thought of Asperger’s as an opportunity, not a disability, so I chose to write about it in my college essay. I also felt I had a compelling story to attach to it. My essay was about Temple Grandin. After the part where I disclose my AS, I wrote:

“Temple Grandin has autism too. She writes about how she thinks in pictures, not in words like other people. This has been a huge asset to her career. I also tend to think differently from other people. Sometimes, my thought process has surprised my classmates with some clever insights and unorthodox solutions that had not occurred to them.

As a consequence of her unique abilities, Temple Grandin is a world famous expert on animal behavior and an authority in livestock handling and animal management. She overcame the limits of her autism and was able to use her differences to her advantage. I see myself as similarly advantaged. The fact that she has autism and has succeeded in my field of choice shows not only that my field is viable as a career, but that it is viable for me.”

How did I talk about my AS with my professors and TA’s?

I did disclose to my professors at the beginning of each semester. Because I was approved for accommodations at Brandeis, the college’s disability services office would issue letters to each professor stating that I had a disability and needed extra time for tests since I am a slow writer. Although the letter did not specifically list my other challenges (like my tendency to talk too much if I think I have something important to say) the letter signaled them that I had AS and I think they supported me in many other ways.

I did not talk specifically with my TAs (teaching assistants) about my disability, but I think my professors did. Sometimes I had trouble with my TAs. I was a biology major and many of the TA’s were from another country and had strong accents. I often have trouble understanding accents and found this challenging. Most of the time, the TAs were willing to put something in writing so I could read it instead of hear it. I got them to do this by self-advocating. Sometimes, I would ask them to repeat it and after the third or fourth time they would write it down. Other times, I would write them an email asking a specific question.

In general, I do not ask for special treatment I think of the Asperger’s label as an explanation, not an excuse, and I strongly prefer to do things just like everyone else. At one point, I nearly got into serious trouble with one of my classes. I was having a terrible time with organic chemistry. My parents finally convinced me that even regular students struggle with orgo and hired me a tutor. This made all the difference and I ended up doing fine, but I suffered needlessly because I was so stubborn about asking for extra help.

Did I disclose to my classmates and friends?

In general, I do not tell anyone about my AS unless there is a compelling need for them to know. I don’t want to be known as the guy with Asperger Syndrome. However, I think roommates or suitemates should know if your Asperger’s tends to express itself in a way that could be grating or annoying. Since the lack of ability to discern what others are thinking or feeling when you have Asperger’s often looks like what non-aspies are like when they just don’t care, you want them to know you are not inconsiderate.

Most of my friends I made in my clubs. I joined clubs like the BORG club, which is a geek club for science fiction and fantasy readers and most of the kids were pretty accepting. I did not disclose in any of my clubs. However, I think a lot of those friends know.

Did I disclose to my girlfriend?

I have been dating my girlfriend since my sophomore year. I met her at Hillel services. I went there because I had noticed that reform Hillel had mostly girls and I figured that we would have some common interests. I told her pretty early in our relationship. This was probably smart, since she has noted in retrospect that a lot of the stuff I did when we were first dating were things that she otherwise would have dumped a guy over. She told me that she didn’t know that I had AS by the time I told her, but that she immediately knew she should have. She remembers that at lunch one day I continued talking about a subject she was not interested in for a really long time. I am much more aware of her reactions now, and don’t do that anymore. She has been very tolerant and supportive. She tells me directly if I am doing anything weird or annoying. Also, she has taught me some very useful social skills, so that I am much more comfortable in social situations and can get along with her friends. I made a lot of friends by parasitizing her social circle!