Abstract

This article draws on qualitative interviews with one autistic student about his experiences accessing higher education, focusing on disability disclosure as a time-based rhetorical practice. I explore how Mike exploits the kairotic dimensions of autism disclosure in risky and contradictory ways to pursue his larger educational goals. Autistic students are often assumed to be unacceptably awkward, incapable of intentional stances, and fundamentally not rhetorical. These assumptions, however, obscure the complexity inherent in their rhetorical practices; this complexity is particularly salient in the timing of disability disclosure. I argue that Mike embodies a temporal expertise that expands the concept of crip time – often conceived as a delay or extension of normative time frames – to encompass time as a rhetorical resource for disabled rhetors.


When students with disabilities enter higher education, their relationship to disability disclosure changes dramatically. Unlike primary and secondary school, where a medical diagnosis that affects learning entitles a student to a somewhat customizable curriculum, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), post-secondary education is comparatively void of protections and assurances of appropriate accommodations. Students with disabilities in higher education must decide when, where, and how to disclose their diagnosis in pursuit (or avoidance) of a range of educational outcomes, including accommodations like "time-and-a-half" for tests. These choices involved in the act of disclosure in higher education make it a complex rhetorical performance 1 (Kerschbaum, Vidali), and one that significantly determines access to disability resources and to the spaces of higher education in general.

In this article, I present a case study of one self-identified autistic student's experiences with disability disclosure. As a college student on the spectrum, Mike 2 understands his choices about where, when, and how to disclose his autism diagnosis as significantly affecting his access to higher education and to the corporate business world. Disclosing at the right time and in the right place can allow Mike access to both standard and non-standard accommodations. However, the choice to disclose (and how) is one of great risk, as significant stigmas could follow those who disclose their autistic identity in normative contexts. What is significant about Mike's disclosure choices is his rhetorical sensitivity to time and timing, and his perspective that being autistic allows him to access time in enhanced, opportunistic ways. This kairotic approach to disability disclosure is a crucial example of how the concept of crip time (Kafer, Price, Samuels), or the alternative timing and time frames disabled people follow in their everyday lives, might be expanded beyond delays or extensions to normative time frames to encompass time as a rhetorical resource for members of the disability community.

Given the steadily rising rates of college students with recognized disabilities (Lewiecki-Wilson et al), scholars at the intersection of composition studies and disability studies have called for attention to (mis)understandings and tensions around disability in the college classroom, which contribute to assumptions that students with disabilities "cannot do the work or that they do not belong in college" (Lewiecki-Wilson et al 4). This scholarship has identified concepts from disability studies that are pertinent to composition instructors, particularly those of "claiming and naming" disability and "social stigma and the…representation of disability" in the classroom (Lewiecki-Wilson et al 1). In a 2001 issue of College Composition and Communication, Brenda Brueggemann and others called for the "enabling" of the field of composition, in order to "make it more possible in the future for students with disabilities in our writing classrooms…to be their own best advocates, their own authors, and their own representatives" (391). A number of scholars have responded by examining how composition instructors might teach disability-related content in the classroom (Price "Writing from Normal"; Brueggemann "Enabling"; Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson "Third Space"), while others address exclusionary norms within academia that function to deny access to the spaces of higher education (Price Mad at School), or approaches to disability accommodation that operate under the misleading assumption that students with learning disabilities only need to "try harder" (Dunn). In this article, I expand scholarly notions of crip time, particularly as the concept is applied to educational spaces, by connecting it to disability disclosure as a time-sensitive rhetorical practice. In this article I call attention to the disclosure choices of one student as risky rhetorical work (Vidali, Price, Yergeau), which I argue comes down to discerning kairotic opportunities for leveraging a diagnosis or for strategically withholding a diagnosis in order to avoid stigma. The fact that students like Mike are exercising rhetorical skill in this way suggests that crip time should not be thought of merely in terms of delay or a slowing down of normative time frames; instead, it should include a concept of time as a rhetorical resource that individuals with disabilities access through their own embodied, temporal expertise.

In light of recent data that suggests that students with autism experience significantly lower graduation and employment rates than other students with a recognized cognitive impairment (Singh), it's clear that the current configurations of disability accommodations – access to which in part relies on students' disclosure choices – is not helpful for, and may even be harmful to, students like Mike. Yet little is understood about when, why, and how autistic students choose to disclose their diagnosis, and how students themselves understand their disclosure choices to affect their access to higher education. Only by exploring real-life approaches to disclosure and self-advocacy from the perspectives of the students themselves can disability accommodations be adequately revised to work for, not against, the students that seek them out.

What makes it so important to consider the firsthand experiences of autistic students in conversations about the rhetoric of disclosure and cognitive inclusivity in higher education is the fact that they are often invoked in discourse that positions them as uniquely incapable of rhetorical performance. In the following case study, I explore the idea of autism as a "profoundly kairotic" embodied condition (Yergeau Authoring). I argue that my participant Mike calls upon his own experience of time as a rhetorical resource in negotiating the normative constraints of higher education, which both create and deny opportunities for disclosure. Mike stretches the concept of crip time by framing his diagnosis as a superability that allows him to sustain longer periods of work than neurotypicals. He both shares and conceals his diagnosis in pursuit of non-standard accommodations, learning neurotypical commonplaces from mentors who act as normative informants to help him "assimilate" into work environments. Mike's choices reflect a keen sense of timing and appropriateness applied with considerable rhetorical skill, supporting the assertions of other disability studies scholars that autistic individuals possess and exercise rhetoricity in ways not fully recognized. I recognize these choices as rhetorical work: Mike's experiences show us that kairos is a crucial rhetorical resource from which he must draw as part of the work of navigating a stigmatized, normative space like that of higher education. For individuals with disabilities, particularly students, kairotic skill is an under-recognized component of crip time, and suggests that crip time is as much about seizing opportunities as it is about challenges when intersecting with normative time frames.

Methods and Issues of Representation

Mike's stories are part of a larger, longitudinal qualitative research project that captures the experiences of five college students who self-identify on the autism spectrum and who are navigating the normative expectations of a university designed without them in mind. My research took place at a large public university in the Midwest from Fall 2011 through Fall 2016. I designed my study to allow me to recruit undergraduate or recent college graduates from my institution or other four-year universities in the United States who self-identify as having an autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger syndrome, to participate in a series of three to six semi-structured, one-to-one interviews. I recruited participants through three channels: 1) through the clinical psychologist working at the disability resources office at my institution; 2) through the program coordinator of a local community advocacy group; and 3) on three national listservs for scholars, students, and activists in disability studies and composition and rhetoric (DS-RHET, DS-HUM, SDS-Discuss).

My participants' stories reveal what self-advocacy looks for neurodiverse learners and writers in the context of an academic culture that promotes "normalcy," both in mainstream best practices and in approaches to disability accommodation. Three of my guiding research questions are: How do composition scholars and instructors define rhetorical and compositional ability, beyond labeling certain writers as rhetorically disabled 3? How does current writing and rhetorical scholarship serve to consolidate and reinforce an understanding of intellectual ability that excludes neurodiverse learners? How are neurodiverse students negotiating their identities within the normative, exclusive spaces of higher education? To find the answers, my research engages the perspectives of a community of students who I argue are limited not by their diagnosis, but by mainstream assumptions about learning, writing, and academic achievement in college. I employ frameworks from disability studies, particularly social or embodied models of disability, which help shift attention from individual student deficits to disabling practices and pedagogical norms. When we apply a disability studies framework in educational contexts, our attention shifts to how our teaching practices might contribute to a disabling environment for some (if not all) students.

The methodology I follow is a mix of feminist and disability studies (DS) approaches to qualitative research. I use the term "qualitative research" to align my work with a "tradition of inquiry concerned primarily with meaning and interpretation," and an approach that is committed "to the idea that full and adequate knowledge of social behavior cannot be grasped until the researcher has understood the symbolic world in which the subject lives" (Barnes "Qualitative" 115-6). I am most interested in understanding how my participants understand their own worlds, and how they interpret everyday experiences as students on the spectrum. I have designed my project to access and represent this emic, or insider, perspective. From feminist methodologies I borrow an emphasis on self-reflexivity and collaboration. I aim to examine closely my positionality and political commitments as a researcher, and to offer my own transparent account of the "effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated" (Price "Qualitative" 3). In terms of collaboration, I have designed my study so that it includes my participants "in the knowledge-making potential" of my research (Kirsch 199). This spirit of collaboration is reflected in my analytical approach, which involved giving over a lot of control in interviews to my participants and the topics they most wanted to discuss, and then letting my analytical approach follow from that. Such principles are my ethical guidelines in a project that poses many challenges and complexities due to the socio-political positioning and identities of both my participants and myself. My support for disability frameworks that emphasize disability as a social construct and a political movement meant that my project would ultimately not focus so much on autism, but on autistic people, and that my methods would prioritize speaking directly to autistic people and privileging their perspectives and embodied expertise.

Within disability studies, one of the more dominant qualitative research models of the past twenty years has been that of "emancipatory disability research," which requires "researchers to fully involve disabled people…in all aspects of the research process" (Barnes "Agenda" 5), but also requires that researchers be "openly committed to advancing disabled people's political struggles" (Barnes "Agenda" 7). In other words, political outcomes for disabled people should matter to researchers operating under the emancipatory model. This approach closely follows the tenets of the social model of disability, which treats disability as a socio-political category much like gender, race, or class, and recognizes disability as a quality of personhood. In recent years, researchers in disability studies have pointed out the limits of such a model of disability; namely, that it "oversimplifies" individual differences in the experience of impairment, or that it ignores material bodies. These emerging critiques have put pressure on the emancipatory model of disability research, particularly on the imperative that research be "socially progressive" (Barton and Marback 17). In "Ethics from Praxis," Barton and Marback critique the emancipatory research model as "unethical" because it is "unattainable" (17). The emancipatory imperative runs the risk of having the researcher decide for others "what the ethics of the situation are," rather than working through complex ethical questions in "truly rhetorical interaction" (18). The debate is over the ethics of researchers importing their own understanding of ideal political outcomes into a situation, and how doing so might skew the kinds of experiences researchers choose to represent in their work.

I bring up this debate over the emancipatory model to highlight one complex feature of my methodology: that of my own relationship to and political views on autism, as well as how I choose to represent the political views of my participants. At times throughout my project, my participants have expressed views on autism, or autistic people, that are very different from my own. Margaret Price captures the complexity of this political representation when she asks,

What are, what should be, our roles, as teachers and researchers…when we perceive participants' or students' views of disability to be regressive, even self-destructive? Do we have some sort of "liberatory" obligation – and if we can move beyond simplistic conversion-oriented understandings of liberatory, what might that look like?" ("Methodology" 177)

As a researcher, my "agenda" is influenced by my alignment with the principles of the neurodiversity movement, which both borrow from the social model of disability – by recognizing neurodiversity as desirable – but emphasize the material body, or brain, as well. However, I must recognize when my participants choose not to echo this view, and instead express an understanding of autism that is more deficit-oriented or medicalized. While I don't believe any of my participants wish to be neurotypical – they squarely resist ableist ideologies on this level – they have expressed support or desire for therapies that help them move more comfortably through neurotypical contexts, ranging from advice from so-called neurotypical informants to psychiatric medication. In addition, many of my participants have invoked the controversial rhetoric of "high-functioning autism" to distance themselves from others on the autism spectrum, in part because they want to be accepted in neurotypical contexts 4. As a researcher with no psychiatric expertise whatsoever, I fully support any of my participants' interests in pursuing psychiatric treatment that they find helpful. In terms of therapies or forms of social training, in the context of this research I read this as a very understandable desire to manage stigma. At times, these views have put me at odds with other scholarship that foregrounds participant experiences that are more politically disruptive, or activist in nature. While doing so admirably showcases important work being done to disrupt regressive views of disability and dismantle stigma, it also obscures what I understand as a wide gap between members of the disability community who have access to activist, politicized vocabularies for talking about disability, and those who do not, or who, for a variety of different reasons, don't identify with disability activism. Only representing the moves, choices, and risks of particular participants within the disability community results in an understanding of the everyday lived experience of disability that is partial and distorted. My participants do what they have to do to get by, and my role is not to judge how they go about doing so. In fact, understanding exactly how they get by offers us significant and crucial insight into individual experiences of disability. Ultimately, my aim is to render a life "visible to a [wider] public" (Couser 140), and that entails representing the views of a participant even when I do not agree with them. I look for insight into what the participant is saying, and recognize, in the words of Price, that there are "many different ways to survive in an ableist world" ("Normal" 70).

Kairos and Autism Disclosure

Disability disclosure is a rhetorical performance that demands kairotic expertise: In higher education, the timing of disclosure can both create and deny opportunities for students to gain educational advantages. Two pieces on disability disclosure in higher education – Stephanie Kerschbaum's 2014 "On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing" and Amy Vidali's 2009 "Performing the Rhetorical Freak Show: Disability, Student Writing, and College Admissions" – indirectly invoke time, or kairos, as a crucial component of disability disclosure. I pair these pieces with Margaret Price's work on kairos in her 2011 book Mad at School to make a case for naming and unpacking the centrality of kairos to disclosure and to highlight the current limits of this scholarship. My case study adds to this conversation by illustrating how kairotic disclosure can be a rhetorical opportunity – in addition to a challenge or a liability – for disabled people.

Kershbaum's work focuses on deaf disclosure and Vidali's focuses on learning disability (LD) disclosure in higher education; together, their approaches indirectly invoke time as a central feature of disability disclosure. Kerschbaum defines disability disclosure as a "deeply agentive act" (69), while elaborating on the complex and sometimes compromised agency that disabled rhetors enact when they disclose in particular contexts. Kerschbaum offers examples, including from her own life, of how the agency deployed in disclosure is often limited or compromised, since not all rhetors can or desire to "pass" as able in all contexts, and since stereotypes of disability influence how an audience might respond. Vidali applies a rhetorical practice framework to three case studies of student disclosures of learning disabilities in personal statements for college admissions. Disclosure in higher education is a difficult rhetorical performance, one in which the majority of students who disclose will avoid risk by deploying disability tropes that stay within "tight discursive parameters," and in which some students will risk more by invoking a vocabulary of disability activism to disrupt narrow expectations for acceptable disability identities. Vidali singles out her participant Christine's personal statement as an example of "rhetorical savvy," due to its frank discussion of disability politics and willingness to make readers feel uncomfortably complicit with the marginalization of students with learning disabilities (629). Both Kerschbaum and Vidali indirectly invoke kairos in their work on disclosure: Kerschbaum highlights the fact that disclosure performances emerge "over time," as rhetors consider both "past" and "present" experiences and contexts in recognizing "opportune moments for action," while Vidali's study is concerned with the particulars of time and place that influence audience expectations for disability disclosure. In this sense, the timing involved is determined by the college admissions cycle and the various opportunities it presents to disclose a disability. While my work proceeds from these scholars' projects, I am interested less in debating how much agency Mike possesses across various disclosure situations, and more in calling attention to his disclosure choices as time-sensitive rhetorical work. I specifically use the word "work" to highlight rhetorical action that may not be commonly recognized as labor, or even compulsory labor in some contexts: Students like Mike take on this work every day in educational contexts, and it should be accounted for as such.

In Mad At School, Margaret Price explicitly connects kairos to the performance of (dis)ability in higher education in a way that resonates with Kerschbaum and Vidali and confirms the centrality of time to disclosure. However, the collective account of kairos and disability offered by Kerschbaum, Vidali, and Price doesn't quite capture how kairotic disclosure can be a rhetorical opportunity. Price's description of such "kairotic spaces," in which "the moments are fleeting, the timing is precise and quick, the cues for appropriate behavior both rigid and subtle," (73) highlights the kairotic burdens that function to exclude the non-neurotypical rhetor who navigates these spaces. Price, citing Cynthia Miecznikowski Sheard, suggests that kairos goes beyond a sense of "the opportune or appropriate time" (306) and instead "carries ethical and contextual as well as temporal implications" (60). Price then turns her attention to how students and faculty with cognitive impairments or mood disorders navigate these ethical and contextual implications, including when they choose to disclose particular diagnoses. Price asks, "What about a student on the autism spectrum who has difficulty apprehending the subtle social cues that govern classroom participation, the difference between "showing engagement" and "dominating the conversation," the sorts of spontaneous oral performances that are considered "smart"? What does "collegiality" mean for a faculty member who has these same difficulties?" (6). While all three of these scholars confirm the centrality of kairos to the rhetorical performance of disclosure, I argue that their focus is either too limited to account for the particularities of autistic experience, or so focused on difficulties and challenges that opportunities go unnoticed. Price, for example, is chiefly concerned with the students and colleagues who are excluded from academia because they don't successfully embody neurotypical behaviors; it's important to consider the autistic student or colleague who is already passing as neurotypical or demonstrating "smart" qualities through careful, kairotic rhetorical performances.

In this study, by focusing on Mike's understanding of his own autism disclosure, I highlight the opportunities that exist for kairotically disclosing a diagnosis and connect this understanding of kairos to existing conversations about crip time. I argue that it is necessary to understand how autistic rhetors are enacting an expanded version of crip time that includes kairotic opportunities to gain power or acceptance in normative contexts. This is in part because autism stereotypes suggest that students like my participant Mike are incapable of discerning the appropriate time and place to share anything, let alone a significant medical diagnosis. Within rhetorical studies, some scholars have portrayed autistics as so rhetorically disabled that they are not fully human. Todd Oakley suggests that autistic people "lack the wherewithal to engage fully in symbolic action" and see other people as "bags of skin acting in very unpredictable ways" (103). In an article about an autistic student 5 in her writing classroom, Ann Jurecic outlines autistic writing deficits in her descriptions of Temple Grandin's work: "Her [Temple Grandin's] writing is "autistic" in large part because… she…cannot consistently define a line of argument, guide a reader from one point to the next, or supply background information for references that will otherwise be unclear," Jurecic explains (429). These damaging and inaccurate premises 6 about autistic writing seem to rule out the idea that autistic individuals are skilled rhetors, for one cannot be both incapable of "intentional stances" or "symbolic action" and a skilled rhetorician. Because of these presumed deficits, autism disclosure can present a rhetorical paradox in which the discloser is either too autistic to be capable of self-representation, or is not autistic enough to justify leveraging a diagnosis (Yergeau). Melanie Yergeau frames the rhetorical degrading of the autistic subject as proceeding from a rhetorical tradition that "promotes a compulsory sociality" (69) through rhetorical concepts like kairos. "Kairos," she writes, "is what rhetoricians and behaviorists both cherish and adore: Dissecting time, movements, and spaces in search of rhetoricity, and uplifting those bodies which deftly perform as pro-social, effectual bodies" (76). The strong link between timeliness and intentionality with audience comfort and effectiveness serves to validate an essentially normative, "pro-social" embodied performance that excludes other rhetors. Yergeau instead argues that the autistic subject exemplifies and embodies kakokairos (72), or a kind of fundamental awkwardness, that is poised to revise or "queer" notions of effective rhetorical action.

Yergeau's work, as well as work on crip time by Alison Kafer, Margaret Price, Tara Wood, Ellen Samuels, and Sarah Stevens, helps to expand understandings of crip time as a rhetorical resource. Crip time as a phenomenon is often understood as the notion that disabled people just need more time to do the same things, to get to the same places, or to think the same ideas as normal people. However, Kafer and Price caution against understanding disability merely as a delay of normative time. Kafer specifically argues for reframing the concept as time "not just expanded but exploded." In "Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time," Ellen Samuels addresses the "less liberatory" aspects of crip time, describing it as "a wormhole of backward and forward acceleration." Samuels notes that Price and Kafer want to "explore… [crip time's] power and possibility," yet they also want to "feel the pain of crip time, its melancholy, its brokenness." In particular, Samuels's theorizing of crip time as time travel, as an embodied experience of non-linearity, holds possibilities for crip time as a rhetorical resource in spite of, or perhaps because of, the "pain" and "melancholy" it comprises. In "Care Time," Sarah Stevens's relationship to crip time changes as she assumes the role of caregiver for her partner: She calls this new experience of time "care time," a "liminal place that shifts location between crip time and abled time in a complex, unpredictable dance." Stevens describes her experience as one of shifting between "time zones," framing this shifting as a newfound ability in the face of the interruptions and disruptions of crip time. Like Samuels's theorizing of crip time as time travel, Stevens's time zones suggests that the embodied experience of disability (or close proximity to it) is an experience of enhanced temporality, and that experience itself is a kind of resource. 7

My case study builds in particular on Yergeau's understanding of autism as a "profoundly kairotic condition" by exploring how one autistic rhetor navigates crip time's educational corollary of time-based accommodations in academic environments. The vast majority of students who request accommodations in higher education are at some point offered "time and a half" in testing environments (Wood); "time and a half" implies that the only significant difference between a normal student's academic performance and that of a student with a disability is that the latter will take longer to achieve the same results. In higher education, crip time should not only be about how little or how much time students take, but also about how they recognize time as a rhetorical resource as they pursue their educational goals. A recent article from Tara Wood explores qualitative interview data from disabled college students that suggests their experience of time exists "in contradiction to…compulsory measures of time" (261). Wood calls for composition instructors to re-conceive time in the college writing classroom by applying the concept of crip time to timed writing assignments in class. The vast majority of the examples Wood provides address students' desires for more time, or preference for extensions to short, timed writing exercises (thus reinforcing notions of crip time as an extension of normative time). However, she does offer a compelling vignette about a student named Justin, who finds that she often works too quickly, as her ADD "speeds up her ways of talking and thinking" (277). Wood argues that Justin should not simply be encouraged to slow down because "her expression of the desire for speed is tied to her identity (as an individual with ADD)," and should instead be better accommodated with alternative in-class writing assignments (278).

Mike's kairotic disclosure practices contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the many different experiences that disabled individuals have of crip time. Price and Kafer make the point that crip time is not simply "extra time," but the majority of current examples of how crip time manifests, including Woods's study, primarily address extensions or delays to normative time frames. Outside of disability studies conversations about crip time, too, educational understandings of time-based accommodations still overwhelmingly conceive of disability in terms of delay. In educational contexts, crip time should not only be about how little or how much time students need, but also about how they recognize timely opportunities for rhetorical action in pursuit of their own educational goals. Crip time can and should incorporate this notion of kairos, or time as rhetorical resource. 8

Exploring Mike's Disclosure Practices

I turn now to my case study of Mike, whose framing of his diagnosis and experiences with disclosure offer an interpretation of autism not as difficulty or delay, but as rhetorically powerful and kairotically responsive. I show, through Mike's experiences, that time is a rhetorical resource Mike leverages in order to manage his diagnosis for a neurotypical audience.

Mike is an upperclassman majoring in Communication who self-identifies as having Asperger syndrome. He is part of the last generation to receive a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, which first entered the DSM in 1994, and which was phased out as a qualitatively distinct disorder from autism in the DSM-V, which came out the year of our interviews. 9 This detail adds another layer of kairotic complexity to autism disclosure, as a generation of college-age students now carry a diagnosis that no longer exists, at least not as it did at the time of their diagnosis. Mike has not embraced the diagnostic collapsing of Asperger syndrome into autism spectrum disorder, and elects to identify as having Asperger's in spite of the fact that it has been phased out. Claiming "high-functioning" status is often a strategy employed to manage the expectations of a neurotypical audience, though it also functions to divide the autism community along vague and ultimately normative notions of intellectual functioning.

Mike spent the majority of his time with me describing his plans for the future: He hopes to graduate, eventually get his MBA, and build a career on Wall Street as a financial consultant, and he spends his time very purposefully in pursuit of these goals. Mike schedules his day around the stock market, tracking its movement online through fee-based trading chat rooms. He walks me through a typical day: "Stock market…opens at 8:30, and that's my goal is to be up for that," then "[I look] through some graphs. Or, [I] look through some stock charts" to "see if there's any opportunities." Around 11:30 am, Mike heads off to work at an internship with a healthcare-focused non-profit in town. "The stock market closes at 3," he explains, "after that, um…[I'm] reading [financial articles], and spend[ing] a lot of time online." Mike's everyday life is structured by the stock market, a relentless and high-stakes site of temporal activity. Tracking the activities of the stock market creates an experience of time that is simultaneously rigid and chaotic, demanding the ability to process large volumes of information quickly, and rewarding those who have the stamina to endure long hours.

Mike believes the rigors of the financial industry create opportunities to showcase his abilities as afforded by his autistic brain, which he portrays in terms of time. "Unlike most people," he emphasizes, "I have…the ability to sit down for twelve hours at a time and look at stock charts, or…information that I can…digest in long stretches of time." Mike credits his autism with allowing him to exceed normative time frames for focused intellectual activity. His notion of "extra time" does not correlate to delay but rather to achievement. Mike often references Michael Burry, "one of the better hedge fund managers of all time," because he is reportedly self-diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and widely credited with predicting the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 10. Mike credits Burry's success to his autism, telling me, "he got to where he was because he has astute attention to detail. He saw things and patterns that no one else saw." He claims Burry is one of his only positive role models, because Burry demonstrates that an autism diagnosis can lead to a successful future 11. Mike's admiration of Burry indicates how he views his own autistic embodied experience as allowing him access to time in ways that exceed that of neurotypicals.

Kairotic Burdens

A diagnosis is a way of processing the passage of time. Diagnoses are often conceptualized as encompassing the pre-diagnostic past, usually portrayed as a time of struggle and seeking answers, disrupted by present diagnostic revelation, and a future inflected with meaning by diagnostic predictions. An autism diagnosis is often portrayed as the tragic loss of a real future – national advocacy campaigns have portrayed children as having been permanently abducted by autism – and invokes a sobering fate devoid of cultural milestones like marriage, a career, or friends. However, Mike's framing of his Asperger syndrome diagnosis resists this narrative. Unlike my other participants, Mike sought out his diagnosis on his own, as a legal adult, after entering community college, and has not shared the news of his diagnosis with his family. Since Mike did not grow up with an official Asperger syndrome diagnosis, he did not have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, created for him in primary or secondary school. He is accustomed to a mainstream educational path, with neither the accommodations nor the stigmas that come with an autism label. Mike first began to suspect that he was autistic in community college, after what he vaguely claims was "a period of social failures," such as "thinking you're flirting with a girl, and she's not flirting back," and "not having proper facial expressions, not making eye contact with people. Being weird, being different in a social context. And then realizing that." He declined to offer specific examples. With the exception of his decision to withhold his diagnosis from his parents, which I will discuss later, Mike frames his diagnosis almost solely in positive terms, especially when it comes to his education:

I: Has that [diagnosis] changed the way that you think of yourself as a student at all?

M: Good question. Yes. It gives me the confidence that I can be just really successful and excel at it. And that's, I don't think that's common among autistic students. I think they really harp on their negative traits. They don't focus on the positive aspects of what the autistic brain can do.

I: So your diagnosis came with a, a huge confidence boost?

M: Surprisingly yes, that's very rare. I don't think you'll hear a lot of people say that. An autistic mind in finance is a needle in a haystack. It's coveted. People need it. You need someone who's very analytical, willing to, to sit at a computer for twelve hours in a day, go over figures, go over stock charts. And, I'm really hoping that it pans out in the coming years. And it gives me confidence. It does.

Mike's rhetorical framing here – largely disassociating from the autism community and finding a kind of ethical fault in their tendency to "really harp on their negative traits" to their own detriment – is evidence of the pervasive kairotic pressure on autistic students to appropriately interpret and act on their diagnosis, or otherwise risk failure or marginalization. Mike responds to this pressure by rhetorically framing his diagnosis through a lens of exceptionalism, praising the "autistic brain" for its "immense dedication, skill, work ethic" and using the word "rare" to describe both his particular autistic expertise and his perspective on his own diagnosis. Mike rhetorically positions himself as different from (or better than) both neurotypical students and from other autistic students. His framing also implies that being autistic is not the issue; instead, it comes down to the personal shortcomings of autistic individuals who fail to "focus on the positive aspects of what the autistic brain can do." from Mike's comments in this excerpt demonstrate how an autism diagnosis is a rhetorical burden: On the one hand, it can be a kind of shorthand for a multitude of desirable traits and abilities, all related to an enhanced temporality. On the other hand, it can be a liability for those who fail to correctly interpret their diagnosis for a normative audience.

While the view that Mike expresses here –autism as a superability rather than a disability – may seem idiosyncratic, it has been similarly articulated by a handful of public figures with autism, most famously by Temple Grandin, in support of more purposeful hiring of autistic employees in the workforce. This view relies on a different kind of stereotype than the autistic as awkward loner or sociopath. In this case, the autistic may be quirky, but is obsessive and never misses details; he or she is suited for long workdays and repetitive tasks in which even minor errors cannot be tolerated (Grandin uses the example of inspecting airplane parts for structural quality in a factory). The autistic employee imagined here works all day long, doesn't take vacations, and disregards antisocial or antagonistic company culture that would demotivate neurotypical employees. The temporal experience that Mike describes here is decidedly not "disability as delay," or even "disability as flexibility;" it's about locating ability in rigidity and endurance, and attributing ability to a non-social disposition, or to the unique, embodied expertise of autistic individuals. Some disability studies scholars have critiqued this view for its deference to capitalist notions of productivity and self-sufficiency (Erevelles). Yet Mike is incredibly motivated by the idea that his accomplishments and ability to pursue his desired career are entirely dependent upon his individual efforts, and he believes that his autistic mind will help him to prevail. Mike's description of his role models and characterization of the "autistic brain" suggests that for him, crip time is not experienced as a delay of normative time frames, but as a kind of embodied relationship to time that affords Mike several advantages.

Disclosure as Kairotic Skill

On top of understanding autism as a kind of superability, Mike believes that revealing his diagnosis at the appropriate time and place will give him an edge over neurotypical students. He often withholds his diagnosis as a kind of competitive strategy. In fact, Mike has never requested classroom accommodations, because he believes he is not fairly entitled to compete for jobs if he takes them:

I: What does accommodation look like for autism?

M: It's more time for tests. It's, extensions on papers because they clearly tend to procrastinate at a really high level, so there's, there's really no set deadlines. I, I believe they just give them all the material and say, 'here's the end of the class.'

I: Wouldn't you want an extended deadline on a paper?

M: Nope. If I want to be treated equally, then I deserve to go through the same rigor as everyone else. That's just a personal belief of mine, and I'm fairly high-functioning so I don't really need it, so. You know, I'm, I'll be competing with these people for promotions in the future, for jobs, and I think it's just wrong for me to, to get any advantage like that.

Notably, all of the accommodations listed here are based on delay and fundamental deficits in timeliness. Autistic students need "more time" and "extensions" because they "procrastinate at a really high level." Mike goes so far as to guess that autistic students require the abandonment of any and all time constraints – instructors just "give them all the material and say, 'here's the end of the class.'" These are all examples of both the "time and a half" philosophy of accommodations and the assumption of autism as the absence of timeliness and intentionality. While Mike is registered with disability resources and has been assigned to a campus psychologist, this excerpt suggests that he doesn't think college is an appropriate time and place for disclosure or for pursuit of accommodations. This poses challenges for typical classroom approaches to accommodation, which of course are predicated on disclosure.

Mike justifies his choice to decline available accommodations out of a concern for equality in the eyes of neurotypical employers. His justification comes down to a "personal belief" that it would be unfair for someone as "high-functioning" as him to get "any advantage" or "special accommodations" when competing with mainstream students for jobs and promotions after college. Here, Mike disassociates from others in the autism community based on degree of intellectual functioning. Following this logic, autistics who are "high-functioning" possess greater ability than those who are "low-functioning," and, despite sharing the same diagnosis, inhabit completely different worlds in terms of their acceptability as students. It is on the basis of this functioning rhetoric that Mike positions himself as an outsider to the world of disability accommodation, and therefore as a viable insider in a largely neurotypical workforce.

I read these moments as an example of how Mike demonstrates an understanding of the paradoxical rules of disability disclosure in higher education. Disability is acceptable, as long as one can overcome that disability. Special advantages are unfair advantages. Many disability studies scholars will recognize this logic as central to the myth of overcoming, in which the responsibility lies with the disabled subject to "make up for" disability through strict bodily discipline. Mike certainly seems to be partially invoking that myth here, yet he also clearly wants to claim autism. Autism makes him different, but he doesn't want anyone to notice a difference in the classroom. In this instance, Mike is choosing to withhold his diagnosis until a later time in his career trajectory in order to avoid the stigma of accepting accommodations while he is still in school. Such a decision is just as sensitive to timing as the decision to disclose and seek accommodations, and should be considered part of the rhetorical work of disability disclosure. As described next, Mike fully plans to disclose his diagnosis later, when he senses it will enhance, rather than limit, his opportunities.

Non-standard accommodations and neurotypical commonplaces

Though he certainly doesn't appear to take advantage of any of the standard accommodations made available to autistic students, including "time and a half," Mike seeks out what I understand to be non-standard accommodations. When Mike goes on the job market he plans to disclose his diagnosis in order to take advantage of federal mandates to hire employees with disabilities as part of diversity and inclusion initiatives. He believes this is the most opportunistic time and place to disclose in order to increase his chances of either getting a job or being accepted to an MBA program:

M: There are a tremendous amount of job opportunities for people with disabilities. Federal sector, corporate level. It's because diversity and inclusion is something they predicate pretty heavily. So um, there are far more apps to hire people, so when I think of job prospects I think, given my talents, past experiences, and my disability, that I, I probably could get fortune 500 employment fairly easily. You know, I'm kind of an outlier in terms of the autistic spectrum, and my past work experience. You know, really qualified, competent employee.

Timing is everything for Mike, it seems. When he enters the job market, he plans to claim his status as a Series A employee in order to access a "really lucrative track" to employment. For Mike, though, it's not just about finding work opportunities based on having a recognized disability. He says, "I'm kind of an outlier in terms of the autistic spectrum, and my past work experience." It's that he both has a recognized disability and "past work experience"; this work experience, along with his educational achievements, demonstrate that he is "really qualified" and "competent." Mike's disability status here is predicated on his own positioning as "kind of an outlier." He is both unlike normal applicants because of his Series A status, and unlike other Series A applicants because of his work experience and educational accomplishments, most of which are likely related to him passing as neurotypical, or at least declining standard accommodations. Mike believes that timing his disclosure in this manner allows him to appropriately claim disability while maintaining a competitive edge with neurotypical applicants. The paradox Mike inhabits here is evidence of the incredibly narrow range of acceptable identities available to non-neurotypical students, and what it actually looks like to navigate those identities in pursuit of educational goals. His sometimes contradictory articulations of disability identity reflect the expectations of an educational system that simultaneously claims to nurture neurological difference and eradicate all signs of it.

As part of his transition out of college, Mike has sought the advice of mentors on navigating the corporate world as an autistic. Mike tells me he has several mentors, or "a cabinet, I should say." He communicates with them frequently, via e-mail, where they discuss both his "aspirations" and "how to assimilate into work environments." Here, I argue that Mike's mentors are offering prescriptive advice for working with neurotypicals. They are acting as normative informants, spelling out the unwritten rules that govern business transactions:

I: What do you mean 'how to assimilate'?

M: Well, I mean how to make it in business. Business is a game that, you have to schmooze, you have to ask people how they're doing, find a common interest. Essentially get past 'How are you?' Be friendly. And for me that's something I'm not very apt to, so I make it a, a predication to ask people about things that I know about them on a personal level.

I: So you're learning about social relationships.

M: You could say that. I would say 'how to schmooze and get ahead.' Which is probably more relevant. It's an acquired skill, that fake smile, and the laugh. And I say this because, you know, this is who I really am. I'm just a weird robot-talking autistic kid, but.

Through his mentors' help, Mike is learning the rhetorical function and art of feigned social responses. He cites "that fake smile" and "the laugh" as embodied performances of "schmoozing," and has learned that the unwritten rules of conducting business are to "find a common interest" and "ask people how they're doing." These, I argue, are neurotypical commonplaces: encounters or performances that are governed by a tacit cultural script and that conform to normative understandings of timing and appropriateness. Mike understands that the end goal of acquiring these skills is not merely to get along with neurotypicals, or to make interactions as comfortable for them as possible. He insists that it is "more relevant" to name this performance in a way that calls attention to the gains he can make through faking a particular social response. It's important to point out, too, that Mike understands neurotypical individuals to be faking it as well ("that fake smile"): everyone, it seems, must be trained to participate in an encounter that appears real or natural on the surface. Mike's relationships with his mentors are a kind of non-standard accommodation that help him cultivate a sense of appropriateness. His pursuit of non-standard accommodations is a radical act of self-advocacy and a demonstration of his ability to discern appropriate opportunities to get the help he actually wants while protecting himself from unwanted attention or stigmas that tend to accompany standard accommodations in the classroom. Mike's mastery of neurotypical commonplaces such as "schmoozing" require him to rehearse the subtle, neurotypical timing and cues of such an interaction. This could be read as a kind of toggling back and forth between his own understanding of crip time and normative time frames. Such a demonstration of kairotic skill can be considered an example of how crip time is not simply a stretching or shrinking of normative time frames; instead, it can also refer to a kind of embodied, temporal expertise.

Conclusion

Throughout our conversations, it was clear that Mike sees the rhetorical work of disability disclosure as enabling him to construct an autistic future that is successful, not tragic. 12 While certainly a confident student, Mike's perspective at times reads as unsympathetic to others who inhabit different autistic futures, and unaware of the limits of individual striving in the face of powerful cultural norms. Mike carefully manages his disclosures of autism as part of his larger goal to achieve mainstream success, and in doing so he avoids stigma and claims autism as an asset. This claiming of autism involves significant rhetorical maneuvering, and can be understood as a demonstration of kairotic skill that disability scholars should endeavor to better understand and account for, particularly in our understanding of crip time. While Mike's experiences may read as unique or idiosyncratic, I argue that evidence of rhetorical work like this already exists in all of our classrooms. We must be more attentive to when, where, and how students like Mike are navigating these spaces, and how they are using time as a rhetorical resource to manage normative expectations. Future research might also endeavor to understand how gender and other identity categories influence the rhetorical work outlined in this article.

Jurecic argues that the rise in students with Asperger syndrome and autism in college classrooms challenges composition and rhetoric scholars to consider what it means to accommodate and respect neurological difference in the writing classroom, suggesting that "conventional narratives of learning" might not be effective (423). She offers that writing "will be a particular challenge for students on the spectrum" because they lack a "theory of mind," or the ability to understand and predict how another person (mind) might behave or react (426). What Jurecic 13 misses is that Theory of Mind, which she adopts uncritically throughout her article to describe the deficits of autistic writing, is exactly what drives the "conventional narratives of learning" that she implores instructors to move beyond. Many of these conventional narratives of learning consolidate notions of ability solely through the production of disability, and are complicit in the unnecessary marginalization of neurodivergent students. In a 2011 article in College English, Melanie Yergeau and Paul Heilker take a more disability positive approach, suggesting that autism is its own rhetoric and autistics are minority rhetors (487). We are thus "beholden to respond…with cultural sensitivity, ethical care, and pedagogical complexity" (487). Understanding autistics as minority rhetors requires abandoning the deficit framework so often used to position autistics as rhetorically unable. Addressing this population of rhetors solely in terms of deficits or difficulties, even if well intentioned, is a failure to recognize the rhetorical skills they practice every day. Understanding autism as a rhetoric in this way can help expand the notion of crip time so that it more fully encompasses the relationship disabled rhetors have to time and account for the time-sensitive rhetorical work required to navigate a normative world.

Finally, Mike's experiences demonstrate Yergeau's argument that our handling of rhetorical concepts like kairos consolidate notions of rhetorical ability in part through the production of disability. Kairos is not a neutral concept, and conventional readings of kairos are exclusionary and contribute to the marginalization of diverse rhetors. In expanding the concept of crip time to include kairotic skill and in foregrounding the experiences of a minority rhetor, I hope to contribute to the dismantling of field-wide norms about effective rhetorical practice and the minds and bodies that produce it. While these norms present challenges for students like Mike, they also preclude rhetorical possibilities for all rhetors because they limit our understanding of what rhetoric can be. It's not just that students like Mike are also "doing rhetoric"; it's that their skill renders our very definitions of rhetorical ability null, because those definitions were built from the idea that some are incapable of rhetorical action. Our definitions of rhetorical ability must change accordingly, and in ways that recognize the remarkable diversity of rhetorical practice.

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Endnotes

  1. Here I use the term "performance" and not simply "work" both to echo Kerschbaum and Vidali's vocabulary for talking about disability disclosure and to emphasize the role that audience plays in disclosure.
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  2. All participants in my research project have signed consent forms under an approved IRB protocol. Mike is a pseudonym used to protect the privacy of my participant.
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  3. Here, I use "rhetorically disabled" to reference the treatment of autistic rhetors as incapable of effective rhetorical practice, or rhetoricity (Prendergast). The boundaries of rhetorical ability are implied largely by the mapping of rhetorical disability, and the identification of those who do not (or cannot) possess such ability.
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  4. Based on my alignment with the neurodiversity movement, I recognize how the rhetoric of functioning functions to divide the autism community into so-called "acceptable," or high-functioning, autistics, and those who are more profoundly impaired. Many autistic people employ the rhetoric of functioning to connote a kind of status that helps them mitigate stigma but marginalizes the implied "low-functioning" portion of the autism community. I recognize this act of rhetorical marginalization as harmful, but understand my role as a researcher as one of inhabiting the worldviews and interpretive frameworks of my participants in a way that doesn't judge them or their choices.
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  5. It should be noted that Jurecic's student did not actually have a diagnosis of autism, nor did he disclose any difficulties with writing to her. Jurecic offered behavioral descriptions of his interactions in her classroom as proof that he had autism, an ultimately normative move that has been thoroughly critiqued by disability studies scholars, including Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jay Dolmage.
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  6. Theory of Mind and other psychological theories of autism have been widely and thoroughly critiqued by rhetorical scholars, including Melanie Yergeau, Jordynn Jack, and John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner. Yet, I believe it still circulates in everyday institutional settings and among many of the audiences autistic students encounter in higher education.
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  7. Christine Miserandino's "spoon theory" is also useful here, as it visualizes energy as a finite material resource that one must spend in strategic ways.
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  8. While there is not adequate space to discuss fully here, this revision to crip time would arguably contribute to Jay Dolmage's conceptualizing of a "metis epistemology" within our education system, which he suggests has always functioned to identify (and sometimes exclude) difference (289). Dolmage forwards an understanding of metis, an ancient rhetorical virtue embodied largely by the Greek god Hephaestus, as "an embodied rhetoric" that accommodates understandings of disability as generative of, rather than an impediment to, rhetorical meaning (149). Metis is "cunning, adaptive, embodied intelligence" (156) and "can be a way to recognize the need for flexible, embodied, responsive rhetorical movement" (160).
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  9. Critics suggest that the revised diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-V are narrower and could exclude some of those who display autistic traits at the "high-functioning" end of the spectrum. It's possible that students like Mike would not receive an autism diagnosis based on today's criteria.
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  10. Burry is portrayed by Christian Bale in the 2015 movie The Big Short.
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  11. While there isn't sufficient space to address it fully here, it's important to note how Mike's gender performance influences his relationship to disclosure as a rhetorical resource. His references to Wall Street and Michael Burry fit within culturally accepted expressions of masculinity and afford him a kind of privilege that may not be available to other autistic rhetors, particularly those who identify as female or nonbinary.
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  12. I'd like to briefly acknowledge here that Mike's perspective on disability could be interpreted as uncritical of the discourses that function to marginalize people with disabilities. This I argue is less a character fault of Mike's than it is evidence of a gap between activist, disability-positive vocabularies and many people with disabilities who don't have access to those vocabularies.
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  13. Jurecic's article has been thoughtfully critiqued in a more in-depth way within disability studies, most notably by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Jay Dolmage, Paul Heilker.
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