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Navigating the education system as an autistic child

In her second blog in an occasional series writing for Brandon, Lauren Cook describes her experience of navigating the education system and the challenges she faced.

Lauren CookIn this blog:

  • Transitioning from primary to secondary school
  • Dealing with change
  • Social and academic struggles
  • Receiving an autism diagnosis
  • Dealing with a lack of understanding
  • Changing the educational system

Navigating the education system can be difficult for any child, as it can be challenging adapting to a new environment and new social situations. However, for an autistic child these challenges are magnified significantly. The education system in this country takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach to educating children, which simply does not work for many children as it does not cater to their individual needs and different learning styles, and this is particularly true for autistic children.

Transitioning from primary to secondary school

For me personally, my struggles with education started during my time at secondary school. During primary school, I was able to mask my autism more and so it went mostly unnoticed by my teachers. I believe this was because the expectations in primary school are a lot lower, and I was also at a small primary school where I was familiar with all the teachers and my peers, and so it had become my comfort zone. Things changed when I eventually moved on to secondary school. The transition from primary to secondary school is hard for any child but especially so when you are autistic. I no longer had the comfort blanket of knowing all my teachers and peers and being familiar with my surroundings. Suddenly everything had changed, and I was expected to just cope with it.

Dealing with change

I found everything very overwhelming as there were a lot of changes to deal with, such as different teachers, and I had a lot more classes and work to do. I did manage to make a few friends but they weren’t in all my classes. I found this hard. I became quiet and withdrawn in class and struggled to talk to new people. I started to question why I felt so overwhelmed by everything and why I couldn’t deal with things easily like everyone else seemed to be able to. It never crossed my mind that I could be autistic. At this time, autism was something that wasn’t well known about, and I had no knowledge of it myself. I thought, maybe I was just shy and I’d eventually grow out of it, or maybe I had social anxiety.

Social and academic struggles

A pile of school booksI never did grow out of it though and I continued to struggle both socially and academically in school. Things seemed to get worse as I got older rather than improving like I thought they would. The teachers started to notice that I was struggling. I would consistently fail to meet deadlines and was very quiet in class. Eventually, my mum took me to the doctors to see if I could get an autism diagnosis. She had suspected that I was autistic for a while and thought that if I were to get a diagnosis, it may help me to get more support in school and may also help me to feel better knowing that I wasn’t crazy and there was a genuine reason behind my behaviour.

Receiving my autism diagnosis

Getting an autism diagnosis was not an easy process. I had multiple assessments and doctors’ appointments before I received a formal autism diagnosis. When I eventually did get the diagnosis, rather than feeling relieved, I felt quite conflicted about it. On one hand, I was relieved to have a label and an explanation for why I had struggled in life for so long, but I also felt very ashamed that I was not ‘normal’ like everyone else and that I never would be. I knew that society had preconceived ideas about what autistic people are like and I was worried that if I told anyone, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me because of it, and so I kept it to myself which ultimately caused more harm in the long run.

Teachers’ lack of understanding

I had hoped that informing my school of my autism diagnosis would enable me to be more supported at school and therefore help me to do better at school. I could not have been more wrong. Some teachers were supportive but some were not, and it was clear that they lacked an understanding of autism and had no interest in learning about it in order to help me. I think that some of them viewed it as inconvenient for them, that they had to make adjustments to their teaching styles rather than trying to better understand my needs and my learning style.

One example that sticks out in my mind, is when one particular teacher who also happened to be the head of Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the school at the time, told me that he thought I could ‘recover’ from my autism, as though it was nothing more than a common cold that would go away with time. Maybe it was just poor choice of wording on his part, but you would assume that a SEN teacher would have more understanding of autism than anyone else in a school.

Changing the educational system to be more supportive

School children looking at their teacher during a lessonI never felt fully supported or understood at school and because of this I did not achieve as much as I could have done if I had received more support from my teachers. This is just my own personal experience of education as an autistic person and I realise that some autistic people may have more positive experiences of education if they received the right support and had people around them who had a better understanding of autism.

I am also aware that there will be a lot of autistic people who share similar experiences of school and it saddens me that many autistic people do not achieve their full potential because of a lack of support and understanding. Autistic people cannot change the way that they learn and think differently, but the education system can change to be more supportive towards autistic students and better understand their needs.

Lauren Cook

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