All new students who register for doctoral study at the University of Exeter within the Faculty of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, are required to register initially as MPhil students, with the expectation that they will transfer to PhD study subject to having met certain requirements and having made satisfactory academic progress. These factors are measured by the milestone known as the Upgrade, wherein a student is required to submit a portfolio of work via My PGR which forms the basis of an informal oral examination (viva) conducted by two academics who are not the student’s supervisors, usually from within the Faculty.
This process is intended to be formative to the development of the thesis and of the student’s professional skills. In particular, the oral examination is intended to help familiarise researchers with the process of speaking about and defending their research to an academic panel in preparation for the final (and far more rigorous) viva voce which is undertaken after thesis submission. There are a number of factors, however, characteristic to researchers on the spectrum of ASD, which may contribute to difficulties in navigating certain aspects of the Upgrade at this particular stage in their study, where concepts, ideas, and the long-term direction of a project may not be as well versed as inevitably would be the case when defending a completed thesis. The following supplement seeks, by highlighting a select few key considerations, to mitigate some of the more common obstacles which could arise in both the collation of the constituent portfolio documentation and the defence of these materials at the mock viva which together comprise the MPhil – PhD Upgrade.
Reflecting on Some of the Strengths and Limitations of Bottom-Up Thinking in the Context of the Upgrade
There is a well-established corpus of literature which associates the autistic brain with a unique model of cognitive processing, termed as the ‘Bottom-Up Method’. Most of the time, most neuro-typical people, when it comes to formulating a hypothesis (however simple or complex), will isolate a concept, and then justify or elaborate that idea with details; however, for many autists, the reverse appears to be true – the constituent details tend to precede the concept. This is one among several fundamental differences between the neuro-typical, and the autistic brain, and one which many autists may not be aware of unless they are well versed in the relevant psychiatric literature. The Bottom-Up Method tends to manifest uniquely in autists because they are, cognitively speaking, far more influenced by the senses. Events and circumstance are processed in a complex sensory-based fashion, as opposed to what is more ordinarily the case for a neuro-typical person, where the same processing appears to be more automatic or instantaneous. Since the autist is prone to taking in a multitude of stimuli simultaneously through multiple sensory channels (often, more than the brain is able to process in a given moment, resulting in a crisis response called Sensory Overload), their mind tends to function by processing a mass of fragmented details. The details are gathered, structured, categorised, and only then is an induction made from this body of information.
There can be tremendous advantages to this style of associative thinking, when it comes to problem solving, complex analysis, or to technical innovation. One need only look at the disproportionately weighted demographic of autists working in Silicon Valley or at TU/e Eindhoven for examples of this. In fact, today a rapidly increasing number of corporations all over the world are making a concerted effort to recruit Bottom-Up thinkers into highly specialised roles because of the way in which they think (Microsoft, for example, has operated its Autism Hiring Programme since 2015).
There may be aspects of the Upgrade which can facilitate the Bottom-Up thinker to excel, such as the more specific components of the portfolio like providing a chapter-by-chapter outline of the thesis, situating the project’s potential to contribute new knowledge to a corpus of scholarly study or critical thought, or writing a compelling abstract. Where difficulties are to arise for the autist at this point in their study, it will likely be when they are required necessarily to communicate the broader scope of their ideas to others, either orally or in writing, at this early point in their research, at a time where the preponderance of evidence indicating the progression requisite to passing the Upgrade might largely be those fragmentary details which characteristically precede the final induction. The Upgrade process is, in this sense, well optimised for neuro-typical thinkers, but badly optimised for Bottom-Up thinkers, since it assesses the extent of satisfactory progress where an induction has already been made. For those who do not think in the same way as many autists do, the more abstract elements of the Upgrade portfolio – particularly the draft chapter – may be found to be difficult to follow or lacking in clear direction. The characteristic body of finite detail which might make up the majority of the draft chapter, for example, could easily be dismissed as tangential because the fragments which precede the final induction may only make sense or seem relevant to a reader in hindsight, rather than – as is more common and as we tend to expect in academic writing – in situ.
It would be, realistically, impractical to write a wholly Bottom-Up thesis when our aim as researchers is to not only discover but also to widely disseminate new knowledge – it is in our interest that our writing is accessible. It is equally unrealistic, though, to expect a neuro-divergent researcher to optimally think, write, and be able to express themselves in a way that is fundamentally unnatural to them. Forcing the presentation of diverse perspectives such as this into uniformity could well stifle that which makes the thing to which we place value unique and gives it its (increasingly recognised) purchase.
Abstract Thinking, Literal Interpretation, and Introspection
A common – though usually well-meaning – question to which many autists have probably been asked many times since having received their diagnosis, is the following: how, or to what extent, does this condition affect you? This is, at the same time, unquantifiable and manifestly unhelpful, since we have only ever been ourselves and cannot possibly know what we might otherwise have been like if our brains had been hardwired differently. This question is a classic example the sort of abstract thinking that autistic people characteristically struggle to disseminate, or even in some cases, find themselves entirely unable to engage with. Because of the fragmentary way in which they tend to process things, autists think in, and learn by specific examples. Another classic citation which tends to appear in the corpus of diagnostic literature – and which might better explain this – is that when a neuro-typical child is tasked with drawing an object in the world which they are likely to know such as, say, a church, they might draw something approximating a pentagon, with windows, a door, and a steeple. This is, in fact, not a church at all, but rather, a symbol which is culturally understood in a society where churches are common to represent a church. Evidence has shown that when tasking an autistic child to do the same thing, they are overwhelmingly more likely to draw a church which they have seen – not a church, but the church. Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, an acclaimed industrial agricultural designer, and a leading authority in the study of the autistic brain (Grandin is herself autistic), has written that she perceives her own brain to be like a search engine which, whilst encyclopaedic in its scope and capacity for storing information, can only function when specific data are input.
For someone who thinks in and learns by the specific, recognising the expectations of abstract tasks or lines or questioning may be difficult, and in some cases the nuance behind a question that might appear obvious to other people might go altogether unrecognised by the autist, because they have dealt only with the instructions that have been literally provided. A topical example might be the timeline that students are required to submit as part of the portfolio, which details key milestones, dates of proposed research trips, and ultimately a deadline for thesis submission. There are no specific instructions here which invite researchers to consider any extraneous circumstances which might affect their timeline – say, the ongoing implications of the outbreak of a global pandemic on the prospect of archival research or on the student’s mental wellbeing, to name only a few potential factors – but such reflections are absolutely expected. Although the task is, as stated, to provide a roadmap of one’s PhD, the primary lens through which an examiner will view this document is not the intrinsic clarity of the researcher’s planning, but how far they have considered extraneous circumstances which might affect their proposed plan. Here therein lies the imperative that the autist communicates the extent of the difficulties which they are aware of and perceive to potentially affect their progress in the portfolio itself. By doing this, any nuance or abstract line of questioning which might be missed in the portfolio, or which might later arise in the viva, could be addressed and reframed to the researcher in a more accessible way by a simple adjustment of language.
Pre-Empting, and Navigating the Interpersonal When Orally Defending the Upgrade Portfolio
The final section of this supplement accounts for the mock viva, which is intended to facilitate discussion of the submitted portfolio materials between the researcher and their examiners, and summarily decides the outcome of the Upgrade. Many of the difficulties which the autist might encounter here could be mitigated by having written about their particular idiosyncrasies (where they are aware of them, which may not always be the case) where given the opportunity to do so in the portfolio. Even where the individual has written about this, it should be noted that the navigation of the social and interpersonal aspects of the viva may well represent one of the more challenging aspects of the Upgrade process.
Due to the particular way in which the autistic brain processes information, individuals who fall under this spectrum will often find that parsing such a multitude of detail, especially under stressful or anxiety-provoking circumstances, takes considerably longer than might be considered typical; this can often be mistakenly identified as ‘slow processing’, but – according to the consensus of the more up-to-date psychiatric literature of the last few decades – the operative process is entirely different, and therefore not comparable only in terms of efficiency. When it comes to writing, the evidence of such a delay can be well disguised, because one is usually afforded the luxury of being able to take much longer to complete a task, and can additionally return to it at a later date where needed. In a real-time social interaction, however, there is far less time to take in and process details, and far more risk for, say, social cues (which autists tend to have trouble recognising already) to be misread or overlooked – and, of course, these cannot always be returned to or revised. A raised eyebrow from an examiner, inviting the candidate to elaborate further, for example, could easily be lost in translation, and the same could be said for an abstract or open-ended question like “what does your research bring to the table?” For examiners to adjust their language, from the non-verbal to the verbal, and from the abstract to a high resolution of specificity will certainly help to mitigate this, but this is not always a perfect solution.
Even if the autist (to offer an unusual example) might find the navigation of the social or the interpersonal to be acceptably comfortable to them personally, evidence has indicated that autists’ capacity to effectively navigate their social milieu actually tends to become more entrenched, rather than improve, as that milieu becomes more complex over time and the sum of their surroundings become more challenging. In other words, they may not always be aware of these difficulties, or (to highlight the etymology of the word autism, autos – meaning self) they may simply not place a great deal of importance on the notion of interacting with others for its own sake. For autists, the issue of navigating social cues can apply both to those of others, as well to themselves. In the same way that they might find it difficult to recognise the meaning behind an interlocutor’s non-verbal cue, tone of voice, or facial expression in a particular moment (though it may become apparent later), they themselves may naturally exhibit these signs, but with a relative disconnect between the accepted consensus of their meaning, and the individual’s intention.
The operative word in the mitigation of this final component of the Upgrade must be communication. The greater awareness that an examiner has of the candidate’s idiosyncrasies, the more accommodating they can be and, in relative terms, the smoother the process. The best course of action to employ across this process is, without doubt, to show a willingness to open up dialogue between all involved, to curate a comfortable environment for themselves, to allow themselves enough time to reasonably process events and circumstance, and to insist that the language of the viva is both straightforward and specific.