In the Lab with Autism – How My Professors Can Work With Me

Wednesday I went to my chemistry lab class. I’m an undergraduate student, trying to get my BS late in life. The reasons for my delayed education are myriad, but autism is certainly part of the constellation of reasons that I’m a 30-something student in a room full of people born after I’d had my first kiss.

General Chemistry is the most intellectually challenging thing I have ever taken on. I didn’t anticipate how much I would struggle with this material, but I have now spent nearly a whole school year battling with baffling homework, confusing lectures, and frustrating exams. The material is just simply hard. The labs are hard too, but in a totally different way. I haven’t struggled with the procedures much. I’m good at following a set of instructions closely, with precision. Unlike some of the less mature students, I really do make sure I understand the processes expected of us before coming to the lab. I’m clumsy, so I’ve had to re-try a few things after dumping too much of a chemical into something, and once spilling a beaker all over the bench, but I honestly don’t mind doing the experiments in lab.

After we’re done with the procedures, we are expected to stay in the lab for awhile, working on the problems we will need to do in order to complete our lab reports. We’re not able to leave and work on our own, the professor wants to see that we can do the problems before we head home. In concept I see how this could be a good idea. In practice, it’s torture. The room is loud. Everyone is finishing the procedures at different times. People are finishing experiments, cleaning up, talking, working on problems, and asking questions. There is no room to sit, no way to be completely out of other people’s way, and no access to resources like textbooks or handouts. It’s not utter chaos, but it might as well be.

We’re more than welcome to ask questions of the professor or TA during this time. In fact, that is the whole purpose of this. But in order to ask a question I must first know what the question is, and then communicate it in a way that he understands, and then understand his answer. All while other students are watching, listening, and usually interrupting. If my question is stupid, they will know.

And thus, my brain shuts down. It’s hard to explain this sensation to other people. There are cliches, like thinking through fog or cotton wool, but honestly those don’t really communicate it well. When I’m struggling to understand something, it can feel fuzzy but I’ll get there eventually. This is totally different. This kind of shut down is more like trying to start a car that just won’t go. It doesn’t matter how much I turn the key, I’m not going anywhere.

Usually I have managed to either avoid doing the problems in class by running out the clock or by having a very helpful lab partner who I can follow along with. But this most recent class was the worst time. There was an entire hour left after we finished the procedures and my lab partner was enthusiastic to leave so she scratched out her required problems in about five minutes while I cleaned up our glassware. I was left on my own, confused and exhausted.

I just couldn’t do it. I stood listening to the professor explaining to the other students, but he may as well have been speaking Klingon. He asked how I was doing, and because I was panicking I told him I couldn’t do the problems here, I needed him to let me work on it later. He said no, he wanted me to get some of them done before I left the lab. Nearly in tears, I went to the furthest corner of the lab, put my head down, and stared at my notebook for a long time. I accomplished nothing, mentally working to push away an impenetrable block while noise and confusion reigned around me.

Eventually most of the other students finished and left. My professor came to find me, still frozen in the back of the room, and sat with me individually. In a quieter situation, with a little patience, and without worrying about other people seeing me, I managed to understand what was expected. The problems were not actually hard. The material was manageable. I got through the first three problems and he signed off on my lab and let me go.

I cannot expect my professor to sit down with me for ten minutes when he has 30 other students to manage. But what else could he have done to make this class more accessible to students like me and helped avoid a frustrating mental collapse, with the cost of a loss of confidence? Obviously it is not only autistic students who may struggle a lot with this classroom situation, but also those with ADHD or anxiety disorders, and probably many other students even without those problems.

Well, one thing he could have done is to provide the slides he was using in the front of the class in a hand-out format. That way, students who needed that resource to work on their own would have been able to use that instead of having to move around the room and deal with multiple students trying to move back and forward in the slideshow, all trying to find different information. Handouts with the same information would have eliminated that chaos for everyone.

Another option would be to allow students to sit somewhere else, like the classroom next door or the couches in the lobby right outside of the lab, to work individually on the problems. This would require also allowing us to have access to either handouts or our textbook, but would decrease stress and allow a less distracting learning environment.

A third option, and probably the one that would have worked best for me, would be allowing students who could not finish the problems in class to get their paper signed off during the professor’s office hours the next day. This would eliminate the frightening time pressure I felt, and would meant that the professor would have an additional opportunity to help students one on one if they needed it. If this option was available to me, I absolutely would have taken it. In fact, I would probably have taken my notebook to the library right then, and used my textbook and notes to do the problems over the next hour or so, accomplishing more work than I actually did without the frustration of shutting down.

I wish professors would do more to consider the needs of learning-disabled and otherwise challenged students in their classes. The options I listed here are like curb-cuts – they’ll help not only disabled students but likely many others to learn better. For those of us who have these challenges often, we’re smart enough to do the work, we just need the learning circumstances to work with us instead of against us.

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Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes

Benny Vimes is a queer polyamorous transman, curious skeptic, and enthusiastic seeker of knowledge. He's an undergraduate student in his 30's and loves teaching people about alternative sexuality and gender issues.


  1. […] From our sister site Skeptability: a college student with autism discusses in the context of a chemistry lab how professors can impro…. […]

  2. May 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm —

    This is indeed exactly like my experiences with my severe ADHD, Benny. I suffer from the same sort of brain block in numerous situations, especially under pressure and when there are distractions. It’s like a black-out curtain descends over your mind. I get that with auditory stimuli, as well–a mental Cone of Silence. I remember as a young kid worrying that I might have a hearing problem because when I was concentrating on something like crafts, I wouldn’t hear my mother talking to me. I was relieved when I tested normal at school. I later learned that’s common with ADHD. Timed tests were the worst; all the questions would jam together in my mind as the curtain descended.

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