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5 ways autism helped me earn my doctorate degree

This post was written by Lamar Hardwick, a church pastor who was diagnosed with autism at age 36. It's part of an initiative called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives.

Summer is my favorite season of the year. The weather is warm and beautiful. Summer time is vacation time. Summer time is full of fun, good food, and family. While I love this time of year the thing I love most about summer is celebration of accomplishments. This is the time of year when we celebrate the high school and college graduates and their families.

Over the next few weeks social media will be flooded with pictures of smiling students and parents. We all have the opportunity to live vicariously through our family and friends as we admire the pictures of students in their caps and gowns crossing the stage as they receive their diplomas and degrees.

I am reminded that there was a time when I didn’t always feel this way. Growing up I loved to learn. I was an excellent student until I reached middle school and then something happened. I began to struggle tremendously not just academically, but socially. My grades began to fall and by the time I reached my freshman year of high school I became so overwhelmed that my first semester of high school I was kicked out of school for not going to school. It was at that time when pursuing my education became more of a burden than it was a blessing.

There is a saying that “Hindsight is 20/20.” At age 36 I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Aspergers syndrome). This revelation explained why my social struggles became so pronounced when I entered into high school. Just one semester into high school I found myself so overwhelmed with the size of the school and classes as well as the severity of my social anxiety that I just stopped going to class. In one semester I had tallied over 20 unexcused absences and was facing truancy charges, but thankfully I had parents who insisted that I be allowed to stay in school.

In the early 1990’s there were far less educational resources available to parents of autistic children. I wasn’t even diagnosed so all of my struggles were related to behavioral problems instead of a developmental disability. Over the course of my freshman year in high school my love for learning became smothered by my inability to manage a new set of social expectations. For the next four years I would limp through high school eventually graduating, but without the passion for learning I once had as a young child.

Fast forward nearly 20 years and the person that I have become is a stark contrast to the path that my life was on in 1996. Last year I graduated with my doctorate degree and as I reflect on a few reasons for my success I am reminded about the impact that autism has had on my successful pursuit of a terminal degree.

Here are 5 ways that autism has helped me to earn my doctorate degree.

1. Resilience.

Most people on the spectrum have a tendency to become extremely focused on whatever they are engaged in. Personally speaking, when I begin something I am compelled to complete it. I have only quit three times in my entire life. This is the reason why I did not quit high school even though I had tremendous difficulty socially. I went on to college and finished because I am not a quitter. I pursued and earned a masters degree because I am not a quitter. Last year I graduated with a doctorate degree in 3 1/2 years despite having major surgery, having to relocate, see my wife through a major surgery, and having a major employment transition. Autism has given me the drive and tenacity that I needed to overcome major educational hurdles in life and it is all do to the simple fact that I always want to finish what I start.

2. Relationships

Growing up I never had a ton of friends. This was my biggest struggle in middle and high school. When you’re young socialization seems to be the primary objective of school, however when I finally matured and when I finally received my autism diagnosis, I learned that autism has actually helped me in me educational pursuits. When pursuing a doctorate I learned that meaningful relationships were more important than having many relationships. Earning a doctorate degree doesn’t allow for much socializing, but it does require having meaningful relationships with people you can trust and people who will support you. The higher up the educational ladder you climb, the more important connecting with the right people becomes.

3. Routine.

My autism sometimes causes me to be extremely rigid. I'm very predictable so I like my environment to be predictable. I live within the lines and I like to know what is expected from me. I like deadlines and due dates. I develop routines that work to my advantage and I actually gain emotional energy from being able to predict outcomes and perform to predetermined standards and expectations. When pursuing a doctorate degree developing a routine becomes a high priority, especially when having to continue the business of being a husband, father, and still working full-time as a pastor.

4. Reflection.

I am not overly social and I’ve learned to be ok with that part of my personality. I’m not always up to hanging out and socializing but the upside to this trait is that it has helped me to develop into a clear thinker. When I do spend time alone it is normally spent processing decisions, processing discussions, and processing direction. Pursuing a doctorate degree requires deep reflective thinking and a sense of critical curiosity. These are traits that I have discovered that come natural to me because of my autism.

5. Reading.

Growing up I took to reading to substitute for my lack of a social life. I can remember nights that my mother would have to come into my room and take books off of my face because I would fall asleep reading almost every night. To this day I am still an avid reader and I will read 4-5 books a month. Since learning about my diagnosis I have literally read dozens of books on autism. Reading has been the one gift that has helped me to achieve almost every educational and employment success. Growing up I learned that if I wanted to be successful at something I had to read and research how to get better. This approach worked for me with everything from sports to more recently autism spectrum disorders. Pursuing my doctorate required nearly 5000 pages of reading per class on average but because of my autism, it was not nearly as difficult to accomplish.

Although I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, I have discovered that ASD doesn’t always have to be an obstacle. Life with autism does present its share of challenges however when we learn how to leverage its potential strengths it can help us reach our full educational and employment potential. 

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.

As autism awareness has grown dramatically in recent years, many young adults and adults have learned the signs and felt there may be a connection between their feelings and behaviors and the symptoms of autism. Is It Autism and If So, What Next? A Guide for Adults was designed to help adults who suspect they may have autism, as well as those recently diagnosed with the disorder. You can read more about this tool kit here.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.