Autism, neurotypicals and online university

This post comes with a trigger warning for mention of suicide.

I’m working my way through a postgraduate certificate in online teaching, funded by my employer. And it’s really, really eye-opening to be privy to the discussions the other students are having about their experience of online learning.

Let me tell you. Neurotypicals hate it. They really, really hate it. They’re always commenting on how much they hate not getting feedback from others’ non-verbal cues. It’s really distressing for them.

Me. Well aside from the fact that catching Covid followed by a cold with a mountain of marking and two essays due has put me weeks behind schedule. I’m fine with it. I’d take distance learning over face-to-face any day of the week. And it’s not because I’m shy. I’m told (my husband says) I give off ‘shy’ vibes. But I’m really not. It’s autism. And it’s not knowing what to say and how to say it to construct the kind of friendly interactions that neurotypicals take for granted as part of ‘networking’. And it’s a lifetime of interactions where I’ve tried my hardest and it’s all blown up in my face and I no longer have the spoons left to even try.

So you have a group of people (neurotypicals) for whom a face-to-face university learning experience is the gold standard. And you have another group of people (autistics like me) for whom distance/online university experience is the gold standard.

I’d really like to do a research project investigating this, or an aspect. Is there some way you can make the face-to-face experience more survivable for autistic students (because it currently isn’t very good at keeping us alive, studies suggest that almost half of all suicides may be by undiagnosed autistics)? Can you make distance learning less unpleasant for neurotypicals? Are we doomed to gravitate to different institutions or fail in our academic endeavours?

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