For someone on the autistic spectrum, the early years of school are some of the most important, and I firmly believe that autistic people can thrive at school if they get the right support. In this blog post, I will talk about the main challenges autistic people face whilst at school, the challenges schools face when it comes to supporting autistic people, as well as my own personal experiences of school.
Some of the main challenges faced by autistic people when it comes to navigating school include:
Coping with change
Most autistic school kids find coping with change difficult. Every school kid will have to navigate numerous changes during their time at school, no matter how good the school is. Some changes could be expected and known in advance, for example moving from year 6 to year 7. Other changes could be unexpected with very little notice given, for example a last-minute cancellation of a school trip. Autistic people find coping with change challenging, and one of the main reasons is that change can sometimes involve a change in routine and structure. Most autistic school kids thrive on routine and structure, and having to adjust to a new routine can cause high levels of anxiety. One big example was the pandemic. When at school, things such as playing with friends at playtime, starting lessons at a particular time as well as after school activities were all part of the routine of an autistic school kid. When schools moved to online learning, all of that was disrupted and a completely new routine had to be adjusted to. This caused huge stress and a strain on the wellbeing of autistic school kids.
Making and maintaining friendships
In school, social communication happens everywhere, whether that is in the corridors, the classroom or the playground. A big part of socialising involves picking up on social cues and adapting to different social situations, and these are things which are difficult for a good number of autistic school kids. This can make it hard for autistic school skills make and maintain friendships, which can lead them to feel isolated. Furthermore, autistic school kids sometimes stim, for example by flapping their hands. However, children of primary school age are usually not mature enough to understand why autistic people stim and can find it weird. They can also find it off putting, which unfortunately causes extra barriers for autistic school kids when it comes to making friends.
Lack of awareness of autistic behaviours among teachers
It’s understandable if students of primary school ages don’t really understand autistic behaviours such as stimming and talking about special interests, as that is normally due to a lack of maturity. However, a bigger problem is when teachers show a lack of awareness or tolerance when it comes to autistic behaviours. For example, a teacher may get frustrated when an autistic school kid is stimming, or struggling to understand what is being taught. If teachers don’t have awareness of the autistic spectrum, then they may not be willing to work with the autistic student to ensure they get the support they need. This can lead to a reduction in morale for the autistic student and they can fall behind as a result. However, this is so avoidable if teachers have an understanding of the autistic spectrum and work with their autistic pupils.
In my opinion, there are two main barriers faced when it comes to autistic school kids getting the support they need. The first barrier is identifying that a student has autism, and therefore needs tailored support when in school. The current waiting times to get a formal diagnosis in the UK are ridiculously high, unless you go privately. The second barrier is identifying the specific support that an autistic school kid needs and putting it in place so that the needs of the autistic individual are met. In the UK, there is the SEN (Special Education Needs) system that is used for this. However, the SEN system is currently flawed and needs significant improvements. In a lot of schools there isn’t a streamlined and efficient process when it comes to assessing a child’s needs, putting a plan of additional support in place, and then implementing that plan. This leads to things such as delays, a poor-quality plan of additional support put in place as well as schools being unable to implement the plan put in place. Ultimately, this all leads to good number of school kids with special educational needs such as autism not getting the support they require.
My experience of school was a really positive one. I was fortunate to have been diagnosed at the age of 3, and my primary school was quick in putting in place the support that I needed. This meant that I was supported from a very early stage. This helped immensely when it came to middle school and transitioning to adulthood. Upon reflection, I certainly feel that the support that I received at primary school provided a base for me to grow and develop which put me in a good position when it came to transitioning to adulthood, and even beyond that. It is from my own experiences that make me strongly believe in the importance of autistic school kids getting support from an early stage, as this support can put them in good stead in the long run.