Should Professors with Invisible Disabilities, Such as Asperger’s, Reveal Them to Their Students?

Credit: wildpixel/iStock.com
Credit: wildpixel/iStock.com
Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning autism spectrum condition in which individuals tend to lack empathy with others, appear unengaged in discussions, speak in a monotone, limit eye contact, fail to connect names with faces, display some clumsiness, and maintain an excessive focus on favorite topics. They want connections with people but find it very difficult to attain them. Such characteristics are not amenable to great college instruction. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that Asperger’s affects between 1 and 2 percent of the population, it is suspected that professoriate has a greater percentage due to its research focus and the greater mathematical ability needed in fields such as economics, engineering, and science.

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Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning autism spectrum condition in which individuals tend to lack empathy with others, appear unengaged in discussions, speak in a monotone, limit eye contact, fail to connect names with faces, display some clumsiness, and maintain an excessive focus on favorite topics. They want connections with people but find it very difficult to attain them. Such characteristics are not amenable to great college instruction. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that Asperger’s affects between 1 and 2 percent of the population, it is suspected that professoriate has a greater percentage due to its research focus and the greater mathematical ability needed in fields such as economics, engineering, and science.

Late in my career, I was officially diagnosed with a “very high probability” of having Asperger’s syndrome. I have exhibited the behaviors listed above throughout my life. Julie Marks, in everydayhealth.com, notes that Asperger’s/autism appears to have a genetic component even though specific genes have not been identified. There also appear to be brain differences with more neurotypical (average) people. Accordingly, I likely will never not experience Asperger’s effects.

I have significantly improved my teaching ratings as I have decreased the number of monotone lectures and increased student interaction through case studies, games, surveys, and debates. Increased student interaction still requires me to actively communicate with my students. My Jeopardy!-style games for exam review must include understanding and responding to student answers.

My diagnosis, experience, and research on how to change my behavior has helped me understand how to improve those student interactions. But improvements are gradual and inconsistently displayed. I get frustrated because Asperger’s still affects my teaching.

Given that Asperger’s limitations are difficult to eliminate because of genetic and brain differences, should I reveal my Asperger’s at the beginning of the semester? On one hand, revealing it is awkward because I’m sharing personal limitations that directly affect teaching. Doing so might stigmatize me as an inferior teacher, making students less likely to approach me after my lecture or visit my office and more likely to treat me like an alien worth whispering about. If I didn’t share, I would join many employees who do not share nonobvious disabilities with those they work with.

On the other hand, if students know my limitations, I might exceed their expectations, and my teaching ratings might improve. Revealing appears consistent with the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act. With the act, individuals with a disability that limits their ability to do a job should ask for a reasonable accommodation. As an example of accommodation, I ask my students to at least recognize some of my limitations and try to focus more on the topic at hand.

I have revealed my condition to my students for the past two years. I felt I got better at doing it each time. As a result of this experience, I have several recommendations for others.

First, be confident in revealing your disability. My first time felt a little awkward and almost apologetic. But by my third try, it felt more like a matter of fact.

Second, don’t mention the disability at the very beginning or end of the first day of class. I feel that the beginning sets a poor first impression. At the end, it might appear to be an afterthought or an apology for what happened earlier in the period. I always have shared my disability after reviewing the syllabus and stating that the semester will include many case studies and other exercises related to human resource management.

Third, keep it short and simple. I don’t think students want to hear a dissertation about my personal issues. They care more about learning the material.

Fourth, define the condition but focus on only a few of your most class-related limitations and strengths. I feel that mentioning strengths such as advanced knowledge in an area might help students be more confident with me as an instructor. Asperger’s is considered a disability but has advantages such as honesty, attention to detail, rich vocabulary, self-motivation, and good cognitive skills.

Fifth, mention what you have been doing to handle encounters that are very challenging for you but that students may expect in their other courses. I mention that I reduce lectures and incorporate more case studies, games, and other interactive activities. At least the students might respect me for trying to improve and not giving up.

Finally, never mention the condition again. I feel that constant mention is a cheap way of trying to get away with poor teaching behavior, or at least what students might perceive as such.

After I revealed my disability, some students mentioned that they were on the spectrum or knew a relative who was on the spectrum. They shared stories related to my experience. I felt that I had a greater connection with them. Other than such connection, I felt that there was no difference in the behavior of my students toward me during the semester. But I think my teaching ratings went slightly up as a result of the revelation. There were fewer negative essay comments, especially concerning boring lectures. I did not change the number of exercises in class to reduce the quality of the result.

To back up my experiences, two of my colleagues and I developed an experiment about professors with Asperger’s and distributed a survey to about 400 college business students. Half received knowledge that the professor had Asperger’s and the other half did not. For both conditions, we described socially negative Asperger’s-like behaviors the professor had during the semester. We found that when a professor revealed Asperger’s at the beginning of a semester, it was is associated with a significantly higher teaching rating than not revealing. The effect was significant even though only about three sentences were used to describe the professor’s Asperger’s.

Here is the bottom line. Should professors reveal that they have Asperger’s syndrome in their classes? I feel the answer is yes.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Data & statistics on Autism spectrum disorder. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

Kaupins, G., Chenoweth, T., & Klein, F. (2020). Should college instructors reveal their high functioning autism in the classroom? Journal of Education for Business. https://doi.org/10.1080/08832323.2020.1716204

Marks, J. (2018). What are the causes and risk factors for Asperger’s? https://www.everydayhealth.com/aspergers/what-are-causes-risk-factors-aspergers-syndrome

Gundars (Gundy) Kaupins is a professor of management at Boise State University. His publications include five books and more than 80 journal articles in human resource management. He has three publications on the employment of individuals who have Asperger’s in professions. He is board chair of an autism-related nonprofit.