I didn’t receive my autism diagnosis until the age of 27 but that doesn’t mean that I suddenly became autistic. I have been autistic my whole life, I just didn’t know it. I also know that I am far from being alone in this situation and the school experience is such a difficult experience for autistic children in general, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. I wanted to use this blog to highlight my experiences of being autistic in school.
Going to school was one of the most difficult experience I have ever had. Starting school can be difficult for any child but this was how I felt all the way through school. Transitions between schools were always the most challenging for me and it meant that I would often miss large amounts of school as I became so distressed about going in. This was perceived by school as my mum needing to do more to get me in, including one group of staff who told her to physically drag me out of bed and into school. The idea of this being the support offered is still shocking to me as it didn’t address any of the reasons about why I was finding it so difficult to come into school.
The sensory experience within a school is extremely challenging, from loud, busy corridors to bright displays in classrooms. There are opportunities for sensory overload in all areas of the school day. I feel this is often misunderstood by teachers as not paying attention to them, when the reality is that I used to be completely overwhelmed by everything else in the room. I would often spend long periods of time reading all the displays around me several times. One of school reports even points out that I needed to learn not to be distracted by noise, but even then, my teachers didn’t realise that I was autistic. I would frequently come home from school unable to do my homework as I hadn’t been able to concentrate due to other people talking near me. This continued even into my time at university but still my autism went undiagnosed.
I also found doing my exams to be an overwhelming experience. I knew that all my focus needed to be on the exam I was doing but my focus was on the number of people I was in the room with, the invigilator walking up and down and the sound of the clock ticking at the front of the exam hall.
Something that many autistic children experience throughout their time in school is bullying. I was always aware that I was different to the other children in my year and as I got older, they became more aware of these differences too. The result of this was being bullied by other children and losing friends because they didn’t understand what was going on for me. This wasn’t always dealt with properly by my school which only served to make the problem worse.
Lessons require understanding of so many social constructs in order to be able to work through them. I didn’t understand when to put my hand up and was too scared to ask for help. For this I was described as every teachers dream simply because I was quiet. This is common amongst autistic girls but still went unnoticed by all my teachers.
There seems to be an obsession within schools to reward those with 100% attendance at the end of the year. This is one of the least inclusive practices and is still used in schools today. This punishes children with disabilities, including autistic children, who may have hospital appointments or have genuine reasons for not being at school every day. I used to hate sitting through these assembles knowing that my name was never going to be called, feeling like I had done something wrong for not coming into school on my challenging days.
The school day was exhausting for me, and I would often be drained at the end of every day. Not only was I having to deal with all the triggers surrounding me, but I was masking as well. My teachers would see that I was tired but would just tell me that I shouldn’t be tired.
Looking back I don’t think my teachers had a good understanding of autism as there were so many traits that were clear to see. However, I still think that this is the case in some schools and too many autistic children are being missed.