By Sam Chown-Ahern
School is different for everybody and I mean that. You can either sail through without any issues, have a tight knit friendship group and an overall positive experience. Or there’s the other side of it (in fact there are many), which is very difficult. I for example, did not get good grades, don’t have a tight knit group of friends, or think of my experience as positive.
It is likely that many autistic people and those who are neurodiverse will have had a shared
experience to myself. This is for various reasons and it may differ depending upon who you ask, but I think I can safely say that the overall experience of school for the majority was not pleasant. It might surprise you to learn, that I was bullied purely for being myself. I stuck out like a sore thumb, at school. I had a very prominent under-bite, which not only made me look physically different, I had a speech impediment, which made communicating and eating difficult. Another thing to note, is that I have glorious red hair, and when school uniform was introduced, I felt much more comfortable wearing trousers than skirts. Add to this the fact that I am autistic (which adds a whole different layer when socialising) and have learning difficulties that made learning throughout school difficult, and you have a pretty good idea, of things that might have been said to me, or what the experience was like. I won’t delve into the archives of any of that, as most of it is very inappropriate and not why I am writing this.
Teachers for better or worse, didn’t really know what to do with me. I was normally positioned at the back of the classroom with a teaching assistant who (if I was lucky) would be able to support me. For several reasons, this did not really go to plan. One was the fact that most of the TAs I had, either left after a year, or were swapped with someone else. This was not good for me, as I needed to be able to build up a relationship with them. In addition to that, change is something that autistic people find difficult, and if something does not go according to plan such as having a different TA turn up to class rather than the one you are normally used to, then this can increase anxiety. I did not necessarily require 1:1 support from the subject teacher, but I was expected to complete the work that most of the time, I didn’t understand. At the time when statements were around, I was requested to sit at the front of every class, so that I could see the board due to me having nystagmus (an eye condition that makes your eyes flicker) In many lessons, as already stated, they would only realise if I said something, or if a fellow pupil pointed it out.
Nearly every day after school, I would come home completely burnt-out and have to lie in bed. I spent the majority of the unstructured time at school (break and lunchtimes) either hibernating in the SEND department, or masking my way through conversations that I had absolutely no joy in taking part in. Most of this, consisted of copying mannerisms, trying to understand the plot of some very crude jokes and following various different types of gossip which I had no care for. In many ways I am and was very lucky. I wasn’t expelled, or put in detention for ‘bad’ behaviour, I didn’t even have to move schools because they didn’t know what to do with me. I had a certain amount of support put in place, I stayed at my secondary school for fair longer than I wanted to, because it was safe. In fact, if you asked many teachers, they would have said that I was a model student, in terms of my behaviour and (bizarrely) attendance. What I was not good at however, was the learning or socialising. If you sit a quiet young person at the back of the class and see that they are doing the work, then of course all seems to be going well for that individual. They are the ‘perfect’ student to teach, because they always follow the rules and complete the tasks set. What is not seen is everything else. I did not have melt-downs or test teachers patience whilst at school. What I did do, was pretend that everything was okay, when it really wasn’t.
For various reasons, school is a safety net for people, due to it providing structure, support and
education. It should not be a place where children and young people are excluded due to their needs not being met and more importantly not wanting to be met. If the last 20 months has taught us anything is that education is vital for students of all learning abilities and ages. Therefore, I ask you to consider what that feeling would be like, if you were excluded from school, due to adjustments that were not met, or for feeling overwhelmed by the sensory environment, where the answer could have been that you were provided with a pair of noise cancelling headphones to reduce sound.