Last night I had a terrible nightmare. I was out walking, just being myself and feeling grateful for the progress I’ve made in the last few years. Then three girls from my old secondary school walked in. I immediately panicked, feeling myself shrinking back into angry, depressed, anti-social sixteen year old Gwen. The girls took a step forward, never breaking eye contact with me. As they smirked and giggled I felt like I was being surrounded by a pack of ravenous wolves. I fled to the station, where I boarded one train, then another train, and another and another. But I kept seeing the faces of these girls in the crowd- a crowd was so dense every step was like swimming through tar. Then I woke up.
I’m twenty two years old and haven’t set foot in a school for several years now. Yet I keep on having nightmares about my time at secondary school. I suppose this is just my subconscious telling me what I already know: school was a stressful, unhappy time for me. I enjoyed the actual lessons, but as I have Asperger’s Syndrome, socialising with students my own age seemed like an almost impossible task. This lead to bullying, feelings of anger, isolation and eventually, a diagnosis of clinical depression.
I’ve got plenty of friends with high functioning autism, and when I ask them about their time at school I’m generally met by the same expression of blank horror I must have every time I wake up from a back at school nightmare. Things seem even worse for their parents. At the autism support centre where I work we often meet with the mothers of autistic teenagers when they’re at their wits end. They’ve tried everything, but schools just aren’t willing to change their strategies in order to meet the needs of an autistic child. All this has got me thinking: Why is school such a difficult time for students with high functioning autism. And more importantly, what can we do to make it better?
- Monotropic processing
Monotropic processing is when people with autism can only focus on using one sense at a time. Our other senses don’t disappear, they just fade into the background while the dominant sense takes over. This causes major problems in school, because teachers generally view a lack of eye contact as a lack of attention ‘look at me! You’re not looking at me when I’m talking to you!’ For a student with autism, a lack of eye contact could mean they’re focusing very hard on what the teacher is saying. When this student is told to look at the teacher, their dominant sense switches from hearing to sight, meaning they no longer take in what the teacher is saying ‘listen to me! You’re not listening to me when I’m talking to you!’ This scenario creates a kind of catch twenty two, resulting in the autistic student being dismissed as lazy or wilfully not paying attention, when the issue they’re having is actually sensory related. Teachers need to decide which is more important, the looking or the listening. Autistic pupils can’t always do both at the same time.
- Class sizes
Class sizes are currently getting bigger. More students means more noise, which could cause sensory overload and information processing problems for students with autism. Temple Grandin has discussed this issue in her book The Way I See It, concluding that the reason she did so well at school was that class sizes were much smaller back then and there was more focus on individuals. If she had been in one of the noisy overpopulated class rooms of today, she probably would have needed a class room aide. Another problem with increasing class sizes is that teachers have to opt for a more general approach. They can’t be expected to cater to thirty different learning styles at the same time. But students with autism have different brains and different learning styles… meaning they require different teaching methods.
- Lack of autism specific knowledge
Lack of autism specific knowledge is a huge problem because it results in teachers putting neurotypical (non autistic) motives on autistic children, for example: giving an autistic child detention for “answering back” when all they had done is respond to what they viewed as a literal question. ‘Can you put those pens away?’ ‘Yes I can Sir’ ‘I told you to put the pens away, why haven’t you done it yet?’ ‘Because you didn’t tell me Sir’ ‘Don’t answer back!’ If teachers just had a little more autism specific knowledge, misunderstandings like these could be avoided and environments could be adapted to meet the needs of individuals. Sadly, most schools don’t view autism awareness as their responsibility.
- Rigid policies
One problem parents have bought up repeatedly is that teachers are simply not prepared to adapt existing policies to meet the needs of autistic pupils. Here’s a real life example: an autistic child has a special pen that helps reduce his anxiety. His school brings in a rule that all students must use one particular type of blue pen, which is handed out by teachers. This immediately sends the autistic child into meltdown and he locks himself in the toilets for twenty minutes. Despite several more meltdowns, this school still refused to adapt their policy and allow this disabled child to write with his own pen, which only caused more issues for them later on. Some policies, such as keeping fire doors unblocked, remain rigid and unadaptable for good reasons. Other policies, like the blue pen rule, can and should be adapted to meet the requirements of students with additional needs.
- Not enough emphasis on social skills
For students with autism, the social aspects of school can be far more daunting than the lessons themselves. For me break and lunch time where a baffling cacophony of noise, I was often overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, causing me to retreat to the relative safety of the school library. Sometimes I’d remain there all break and lunch, skipping meals so I didn’t have to partake in any social interaction. I know this is something many students with high functioning autism can relate to, which makes me wonder: why isn’t there more emphasis on social skills in the school curriculum? Autistic students can benefit enormously from drama orientated social skills workshops, social stories and lessons in theory of mind, but this kind of support is rarely provided, making it much harder for them to integrate into the social world of mainstream education.
- Long waits for diagnosis and statements of needs
For parents who cannot afford to pay for a private appointment, the waiting time for their child’s diagnosis of autism can last several years. A diagnosis of autism is (or should be) a gateway to autism specific support, schools with a DSP (designated special provision) unit, essential benefits and other support with their child’s educational needs. Parents may be already be aware of their child’s disability and implementing all the appropriate strategies at home. But unless said child has a professional diagnosis teachers are often unwilling and unable to take an autism friendly approach in the classroom. Which, as we’ve already established, can have disastrous results.
It’s clear to me that some big changes need to be made in order to for schools to effectively meet the needs of their autistic pupils. From my point of view, the biggest problem is that most schools still follow the medical model of disability: Placing all the responsibility for their condition on children that are already profoundly handicapped, instead of changing their environment to meet their needs and thus reduce the negative impact of their disability. Instead of saying ‘this pupil is incapable of achieving x y and z’ teachers should be saying ‘what can I do to help this pupil to achieve x y and z?’