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Take “Interpersonal Skills” Out of Grant Applications

Autism inclusion takes more than just words

As anyone who is currently in or is applying to a graduate program knows well, the fall semester is also funding application season. Whether you’re applying for provincial, federal, or external funding, most of the application requirements look pretty similar: a CV, a research proposal, transcripts, et cetera. And these things all make sense to me (for the most part) in a grant application, as they speak to your academic abilities and research experience (though, as many grad students are saying, there should be a better understanding of how the pandemic has impacted the ability to obtain experience and publications).

However, when looking into the referee forms and evaluation criteria for some of these grants, one begins to see something strange: students are being evaluated on their interpersonal skills. This first came to my attention when a professor told me that the referee form for my Canada Graduate Scholarship application (offered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, or SSHRC) included a question about interpersonal skills. Obviously, I don’t have access to this form, but the webpage about Canada Graduate Scholarships for Master’s students includes a breakdown of the selection criteria, in which “Personal Characteristics and Interpersonal Skills” (e.g. leadership experience, project management, and involvement in academic life) is weighted at 20 per cent. After doing some research, I also found that the University of Waterloo weighs “Communication and Leadership Abilities” at 10 to 20 per cent (depending on the faculty) in making decisions about the Ontario Graduate Scholarship. Similar criteria are reported by other Ontario universities, including the University of Guelph, Carleton University, Ontario Tech University, and Trent University.

Maybe this sounds reasonable to you. However, as an autistic student, this is worrying. As long as I have been in school, I have heard people say that we need more neurodivergent and disabled people in academia, especially in studies about their own experiences. However, I’ve been finding out more and more that despite claiming to want us at the table, universities don’t want to make the effort to actually include us. 

You might be lost right now. “How does the inclusion of interpersonal skills in scholarship criteria have anything to do with autistic people?” you might ask. Autism is characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction.” This definition is highly situated in the medical model of disability, and I don’t necessarily agree with calling them “deficits,” but my point stands – autistic people have difficulty socializing and communicating in the way that allistic (non-autistic) people expect us to. This can lead to our professors seeing us as having poor interpersonal skills, resulting in fewer opportunities to participate in student organizations and leadership roles.  Therefore, it’s much more difficult for us to get grant money that will allow us to pursue graduate studies. When put this way, it becomes clear that the inclusion of interpersonal skills in funding application criteria leads to the exclusion of autistic people from academia. On the other hand, expectations to have good interpersonal skills often cause autistic people to mask. In this context, masking refers to how autistic people hide their autistic traits and mimick their allistic peers to better fit into neurotypical society. Masking is very difficult and draining for autistic people, and can lead to burnout and mental health issues.

One response to this may be that students should self-identify as autistic in their applications. This may be a safe and reasonable choice for some, but considering the widespread ableism that still exists against autistic people in our society, this can be risky as well. This is especially true for autistic people of colour, who face more discrimination and stereotyping than white autistic people. Further, both people of colour and those who were assigned female at birth often receive autism diagnoses much later than their cisgender white male peers, if they receive them at all. These systems might be posing barriers for people who don’t even know they’re autistic – and they deserve to be included too.

I believe improving autism inclusivity in graduate school and funding applications involves changing the evaluation criteria altogether. What value does including interpersonal skills in  research grant applications have, anyway? I vote for taking it out completely to focus on the important thing: doing meaningful research. 

That being said, autism inclusion does not stop at the application process. While reducing the barriers to entry is important, schools also need to commit to supporting students and researchers once they arrive. Students at McGill have consistently reported barriers to accessing academic accommodations through the Office for Students with Disabilities. Students at McGill have also reported facing discrimination based on their autistic traits. These problems are not unique to our school, and addressing them is an important part of making academia more accessible to autistic people (as well as all neurodivergent and disabled people).

Overall, universities need to do more to make academia accessible for neurodivergent students. Taking interpersonal skills out of the application is a start, but there is much more to do. And it’s important to remember, as Kala Allen Omeiza said in The Mighty, neurodiversity inclusion like this does not just help autistic students – it can help everyone.