Notes on Crazy – Proud To Be A Grad School Drop-Out #AutismPositivity2014

By Nattily

Let me take a moment to express some posautivity. Ahem…

I Am Proud To Be A Grad School Drop-Out.

And here’s why.


In November of 2013 I was a master’s student in one of the top speech-language pathology programs in the United States.

I had graduated from the University of Chicago more than three years earlier with a degree in linguistics. I had taken two years to work in a psycholinguistics research lab, and had been inspired by the study to get out from behind a computer screen and actually offer help to disabled children struggling to communicate their needs.

Fast forward through four semesters, nearly forty-five credits, and a hundred or so clinic hours…

And in November of 2013 I decided to drop out of my program.

I am twenty-five years old. I am a National Merit Scholar. I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. I have overcome a life-threatening eating disorder. I have managed a ballet company. I have performed leading roles in packed theaters. I created my first web site when I was fourteen. I have completed and thoroughly enjoyed Infinite Jest, Les Miserables, Atlas Shrugged, and The Brothers Karamazov. I have studied four languages (three spoken, one signed) besides my native English. I have held down a full-time job, managed my taxes, paid my bills, kept a budget, and monitored my credit score. I have become open and vulnerable in a healthy, trusting, romantic relationship. I have made and maintained friendships with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

Dropping out of graduate school is my proudest accomplishment to date.

Not “I tried and failed, but because I tried, I couldn’t fail.”

No. Not that. Sure, I’m proud of taking the risks I had to take to get into the position I was in when I decided to leave. I had to endure the agony of the application process. I had to work my ass off for classes I didn’t care about, and work even harder for classes I was really inspired by. I let myself be vulnerable and made friends as well as enemies – peers and professors alike. So sure. Taking all those risks, for me, is a huge source of pride – whatever the outcome might have been.

The outcome was that I dropped out. It is the dropping out part that I am most proud of.

And no, not “I knew what I needed to do to take care of myself, and my program wasn’t making me happy, and it wasn’t meeting my needs, so I took care of myself by leaving.”

Yes, that’s definitely, absolutely, completely, perfectly accurate. Every word of that statement is true. And I am proud of that – of my ability to see my needs and attend to them. I’m also proud of how I attended to my needs when I was raised with the idea that it was shameful to do that.

More than anything else, I am proud that I dropped out. Dropped out. Left. Quit. Walked away. Refused to participate any longer. Distanced myself from my program. Distinguished what I wanted, what I cared about, and what I believed to be best from the wants, cares, and beliefs of the people I was surrounded by. The people with whom I vehemently disagreed. The people I was battling daily. The people I was losing the war to.

I am autistic. It is who I am. I knew when I started graduate school, though I was far too terrified of it to ever let the words escape my lips, even in private.

I majored in linguistics not to become fluent in the world’s languages. Not to start esoteric and obnoxious debates about whether Russians see more shades of blue because their language has more words for shades of blue. Not to perfect my already superb grasp of language.

My natural language skills are shit. They always have been. I majored in linguistics to indulge my preoccupation with how language could come so naturally to everyone around me, to learn tricks to mask my own verbal uncertainties, and to validate the idea I had that our culture values words above just about all else, and that I could become a worthwhile member of society if I could just learn to speak…right.

I decided I wanted to be a pediatric SLP because I wanted to help “kids with autism” (as I was so deliberately taught to refer to them) to cope with a society that valued the naturalness of language above any meaning behind it.

In my master’s program, I did not find the tools to reach my goals.

Instead, I found a profession dedicated to helping people filled with professionals dead-set on fixing people. I found an ideology and a pedagogy that couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t, distinguish between offering support and checking the box for “sufficient improvement.”

I found hordes of well-meaning classmates, colleagues, employers, administrators, professors, and caregivers who were so busy conferring with each other about what was best for the patient that they never thought to just ask the patient.

I found criticism and outright mockery of Deaf culture. I found denial of Autistic culture. I found stigma and tragedy and disability porn with every new textbook, every new supervisor, every new fundraiser, every new case study, every new patient.

And then I found a few other things.

I found my love of learning, cultivated so beautifully by my favorite teachers growing up and six years studying and working at the University of Chicago, that had been completely buried under classes dedicated to how to fill out paperwork and tell someone that their problems weren’t nearly as bad as they were claiming they were.

I found a person who loved me, entirely, including every atom of me that cried out in rebellion to the people who were educating me – the first person to make me feel worthwhile as a human instead of a laundry list of checkmarks and performance reviews and GPAs.

I found a secret thrill in challenging professors’ anecdotes about suffering autism moms and families who couldn’t afford cochlear implants with my own anecdotes about humans thriving by embracing their identities, whatever they may be, and backing them up with citation after citation after citation of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, then giving a cute smile as if to imply that I just know that we’re on the same page.

I found the very deepest part of my unhappiness, the decision that seeped in somehow and could have been the end, and the freedom that came from living beyond that single moment.

I found the courage to whisper – then shout – the words: I am autistic.

I found my identity. I found my community. I found myself.

And I told my grad program to go fuck itself.

I love myself. I’m proud of who I am in addition to everything I’ve done, not instead of it, and not in spite of it.

I dropped out of my graduate program because I was being asked on a daily basis to treat disabled people –

autistic kids
elderly stroke victims
adults with cognitive impairments
toddlers receiving cochlear implants and being deprived of visual cues
singers with nodules
infants with feeding disorders
middle-aged people dying too soon of neurodegenerative disease

  • like they were less than typical, less than adequate, less than projected, less than their peers/siblings/parents/spouses, less than what everyone had always assumed they would be, less than what the world wanted of them, less than loved.

I was being asked, being encouraged, being expected to treat my patients the way my family had treated me. The way my family had emotionally abused me. The way my family had stunted me somewhere along the line, with the emotional limits of a frightened child and the expectations of the salvation of humanity.

And I said no.

To some – those I respected – I told them what I saw. I told them how wrong it was. How hurtful it was. How I couldn’t be a part of it. How I hoped things could change.

I got varied responses. Everything from “yeah, it’s seriously disgusting, that’s why I started my PhD in neuroscience before I even finished my clinical fellowship year” to “there are good people and bad people in every line of work” to “who told you that you’re autistic? you’re not autistic, oh, I mean, you don’t have autism.”

To some I just said, “this isn’t for me.”

To most though, I said nothing at all.

(That’s the whole protecting myself and meeting my needs part. One of my biggest needs is “not being shamed for what I am most proud of.”)

No, speech pathologists are not evil. I’d say very few of them don’t want the very best for their patients.

Some speech pathologists even have the decency to ask their patients what might be best for them. For those professionals out there (and I had the privilege to work under a truly remarkable one), just…thank you. Thank you so much.

But speech pathology, allied health generally, maybe the entire medical field is populated with proponents of the medical model of autism. The idea that a lifelong disability is a subhuman tragedy.

I don’t believe I’m going to be the one to change whatever hive mind seems to be at work there.

But as an autistic adult, as a student of science, as someone with a genuine desire to make a difference in the lives of people asking for help, as a human being conscious of at least some of the effects of some of my actions on at least some other human beings…I can make the decision to not be a part of the problem.

Am I part of the solution? Maybe. Maybe not. But my graduate program was part of the problem. If not the program itself or the people themselves, then the mentality that acts as its driving force.

I will not be a part of that problem.

I will embrace my autism as my identity. The whole of who I am. Every quirk I love about myself and every frustration and internal limit I hit that I work to get past. Every single part of me that adds up to the sum of who I am: a person I am proud to be.

I will embrace autism in the people around me. Whether I love them or hate them. Whether I work with them professionally or bond with them socially. Whether I see them every day or go my whole life without meeting them.

I am proud that I chose to respect myself and people like me instead of modeling my misguided professors.

I am proud that I stood up for what I care about, and found ways to choose my battles.

I am proud that I stopped arguing with people who weren’t listening.

I am proud that I sought, and continue to seek, guidance and inspiration from the people who share my values, instead of the people who hold my degree hostage.

I am proud that I base my decisions on my health, my happiness, my values, and my passions.

I am proud to be a grad school drop out.

And for what it’s worth, I fucking love being autistic.


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Filed under Autism Positivity 2014, Autism Positivity Flash Blog, Expressions of PosAutivity

2 responses to “Notes on Crazy – Proud To Be A Grad School Drop-Out #AutismPositivity2014

  1. Love this. ❤ Thanks for sharing it with everyone. It needed to be said.

  2. I dropped out of school for this very reason too but for me it was Sociology and psychology…Sociology being the better of the two but still the whole way the educational system was set up bothered me. My husband ( who is NT but ADD so we can relate on some things) just quit too so I read this to him and we both finally felt understood. Quitting school is one of the most looked down upon things in our culture and it is so good to meet others who see it as brave, good and true…plus intellectually sound! Thanks for sharing!

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