“I've become expert in camouflaging myself”

Nathalie Bui © Alain Herzog / EPFL 2023

Nathalie Bui © Alain Herzog / EPFL 2023

Nathalie Bui, a first-year Master’s student in EPFL’s chemistry program, has Asperger’s syndrome – a mild form of autism. She’ll take part in a panel discussion on 9 October as part of the 2023 Health Days.

Her gaze doesn’t falter as she answers my questions, yet her rapid breathing betrays her anxiety at being the focus of attention. Unaccustomed to speaking at length, Nathalie keeps her responses short and to the point. Yet she has a lot to say! At times she attempts, before shying back. “Over time, I’ve become expert in camouflaging myself,” she says.

Nathalie has Asperger’s, and she’s involved in the EPFL Without Barriers initiative, which aims to improve accessibility and foster inclusion at the School for people experiencing a range of challenges. The panel discussion, titled Work Environments for Neurodiverse People, will be one of the events taking place at the Health Days, put on jointly by EPFL’s Mental Health and Well-being Task Force, the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and the UNIL-EPFL sports center.

She admits to being “a little stressed about it – but I’ll do my best!” Why did she agree to confront her anxiety and speak out? “To build awareness among professors, other higher-ups at EPFL and students. I also hope to reach people with the same condition I have, and maybe give them advice to help them cope more effectively.”

Nathalie is keenly aware of the many things she’s capable of doing, and of the effort they entail. “Those of us with autism tend to look away when we’re asked questions directly,” she says. “But ever since I was a child, I’ve forced myself to look people in the eye.” Does that wear her out? “Yes, I get tired and feel paralyzed, and also a little shattered.”

Those of us with autism tend to look away when we’re asked questions directly. But ever since I was a child, I’ve forced myself to look people in the eye.

Nathalie Bui, Master’s student in chemistry program, member of the EPFL Without Barriers initiative

Schooling on the sidelines

When Nathalie was little, she was placed in an integration class for children whose native language wasn’t French – even though she was born and raised in Lausanne. “I don’t think the school officials really knew what to do with me!” she says. At school she generally kept to herself and, like many people with Asperger’s, she sometimes repeated sentences compulsively. “But now, my subconscious tells me not to and I’m able to control the impulse after I’ve already said something.”

Nathalie was kept in special classes throughout her Swiss mandatory schooling and then completed high school in regular classes, albeit in a private school. There, she took an advanced math track – where she excelled. That’s what prompted her to enroll at EPFL as a math major. Her first semester, in 2014, proved difficult, and she went into burnout and withdrew. The mise à niveau (MAN) review course hadn’t yet been introduced. “A lot of people dropped out,” says Nathalie .

Special arrangements

She started back the following school year, but switched her major from math to chemistry – “a less abstract and more tangible subject,” she says. “The first year was really hard and I didn’t know about the special arrangements available at EPFL for students. But then someone told me and I applied.” Thanks to these arrangements, Nathalie could carry out her studies on a part-time basis, get 30% more time on her exams and have a teaching assistant help her during lab sessions. It took her eight years to complete her Bachelor’s degree.

Nathalie is nowhere near the stereotypical autistic person who’s immediately gifted with numbers. Instead, it takes her a while to adapt to new situations. “I do better when I’m faced with things I’ve already experienced,” she explains. “But I tend to struggle the first time around.” For instance, she easily falls for trick questions on exams. But over time she’s learned to ask her teachers more questions, especially when she’s retaking a class.

I do better when I’m faced with things I’ve already experienced. But I tend to struggle the first time around.

Overcoming loneliness

Another aspect of university life that can be hard for Nathalie is building social ties. “People have always seen me as odd,” she says. “But I try to reach out. I served as a student coach in the second year of my Bachelor’s degree and was a class delegate for a year during the pandemic. I also sit on the Council of the School of Basic Sciences. I was first appointed in 2021 and this is my third term.”

Nathalie tried joining various student clubs, “but that wasn’t for me,” she says. “They took up a lot of time and weren’t good for my mental health.” Her parents had to come with her on a group trip, for example. “My level of autonomy wasn’t where it needed to be.”

Being extremely sensitive to noise also doesn’t help with socializing. Now, however, Nathalie has “very close friends – we all get along really well. They’re people from a range of backgrounds. Some are homosexual and transgender, and they’re all okay.” Does Nathalie see herself as disabled? “I’d say more like neurodivergent.” She has the added challenge of being a second-generation immigrant. “I’ve had problems being accepted because of my ethnic origin, and sometimes people speak to me in English instead of French.”

A new kind of mentoring program

Through the EPFL Without Barriers initiative, Nathalie hopes to promote a new kind of mentoring program for people with “all kinds of conditions, including sensory ones, as well as chronic diseases,” she says. She’d personally like to mentor first-year Bachelor’s students who are also autistic. She’d encourage them “to work in groups, make friends and speak with their student coaches.”

The initiative’s working group issued a call for contributions this summer, and Nathalie is looking forward to seeing the results. She may learn about other people at EPFL in her same situation, who she’d encourage to contact her if needed.

You have to be honest with yourself, and I don’t want to sit in a corner anymore. My effort will surely help other people.

Nathalie also hopes she’ll one day be able to use the contributions received under the initiative for her PhD thesis. She’d like her psychiatrist – Dr. Nadia Chabane, a professor at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) – to be her supervisor. Her topic would be about “the social aspects of being autistic: the feeling of being lost, the loneliness, and so on.”

For now her main goal is to help people better understand what life is like for autistic people. That’s why she didn’t just agree to speak out, but actively wants to. “You have to be honest with yourself, and I don’t want to sit in a corner anymore,” she says. “My effort will surely help other people.”