After more than thirty years as an academic, including stints at the University of Freiburg in Germany and the National University of Rwanda (not counting the courses I taught as a graduate teaching fellow at Vanderbilt), yet with the lion’s share at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, I’m prepared to say that virtually all of us academics are somewhat autistic, or at least give strong indications of being so.
The “absent-minded professor” is a caricature, but one with deep roots.
We live the life of the mind, after all—enclosed in ourselves, following topics of little interest to others. This is a problem given that, paradoxically, we’re almost always required to be actors too—presenters of information we think is interesting but most others don’t. The two sides of what we do don’t mix. Austistic people can be mainstreamed by explaining to them social situations they don’t grasp intuitively. We too need to be much more aware of the social situations implicit in our jobs.
One of the most striking signs of autism is what is called, revealingly, the “little professor” syndrome—the child who knows all there is to know about, say, trains, and carries on about them—and only them—incessantly. I knew a scholar of Gregorian chant, now sadly descended into dementia, who in her better days would respond to small talk about children’s school issues at the dinner table with a lecture on paleographic variations in specific chant manuscripts. Little professors may grow up to be big ones.
Big professors typically labor under the misapprehension that what is coming out of their mouth or the readings they assign are the most fundamental facts of the course. Wrong. A classroom is most fundamentally a strange combination of performance and coercion. Many students have to take the course, and all are subject to the power of the grade. In any case what we decide to talk about is what is considered, what we say is what the Professor says: it’s not a democracy. The room can be as small as a seminar table with a handful of students, it can be a lecture hall with hundreds of busy note-takers, or now increasingly it can be the moving image of a person on a screen with many individuals unseen to each other able only to ingest what is said, not talk back—unless they can do so online by typing to a tutor. The students all have to play the game the professors sets for them, and please him or her in order to get a good grade—life or death for some.
This power can be exercised bluntly. All of us probably have stories of the professor we disliked. Me, I’ll never forget the course I took as an undergraduate in the 70s that was divided into thirds: one third was taught by a visiting academic from Tanzania, who was a fervent advocate of the now-discredited collectivist agricultural theories of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, and which formed the subject matter of this part of the course. My paper was critical. I got an F, and, pragmatism kicking in a bit late, realized I had to go to the man and convince him I’d “misunderstood” and could he please give me another chance, which he graciously deigned to do. Even Western academics, with perhaps thicker skins than a visiting small fish from a Third World country, have their fetish-authors, the Positions No Student May Take on Pain of Flunking. All of us have squirmed under the professorial whip, yet how many of us fail to realize that we have it in our own hands?
I know what real autism looks like: my daughter is officially diagnosed as PDD-NOS, Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Not Otherwise Specified, which is to say, somewhere close to the normal end of the autism spectrum. For a time she was labelled Asperger’s, to indicate high-functioning autism (she’s a long way away from rocking wordlessly in the corner, as in Rain Man, the film with Dustin Hoffman)—but now that diagnosis has been retired, leaving only people somewhere on the “autism spectrum.” There’s high-functioning and less high-functioning. The spectrum this has a place for geniuses who are mildly asocial, a category that an increasing number of Great Women and Great Men are said to have belonged to, such as Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein, as well as a place for the severely impaired at the extreme end, as well as for everybody in the middle, those people who seem strange to you because they drop their gaze or just don’t seem to get the point of the joke.
You don’t think we have to be educated to maintain eye contact? The MLA job list tells candidates at interviews (who want to be professors) to:
• Silence cell phone.
• Be aware of body language (your own and interviewer's).
• Project interest and enthusiasm, speak up clearly, listen attentively, and avoid using terms such as "you know," "like," and so on.

• Maintain eye contact with interviewer.
How many professors acknowledge that they are the object of a lot of eyes and ought to try and look as if they knew they were? My 27 years working for the military have made me conscious of what the military is explicit about and what the civilian world dances around, when they address it at all: what you look like in clothing, demeanor, and style of speech determines to a large degree the effect you have on the people you’re talking to. What you say is usually far less important than how you say it and what you look like when you say it. How are people who believe in the primacy of their discipline to understand this?