Let me tell you a little story about being an autistic kid attending public school.
Lots of us have these stories. Lots of us share them, and they are shared amongst lots of us. Some of them, we dearly hope, are unique, that only we had to endure the tribulations of which we speak and no other Neurodivergent Nickie had to deal with them as we did. Such is my hope for this story I want to share, but hope must too often yield to realism.
As most of us did when we were rolling down the hills and splashing in the puddles of our youth, I knew there was something about me that everyone else considered odd, different. Something “not quite right,” to paraphrase politely.
The teachers were as bad as the kids, and some family members were almost on the same level. Throughout elementary school, I was subjected to one academic evaluation after another, one psychological test on top of another, and a constantly revolving door of special-ed teachers trying to get a handle on what they were seeing, to divine the answers for which the mainstream teachers were desperately clawing.
This was public school for late Generation X. The philosophy was: If you think and behave differently from the rest of the kids, you’ve got no business blatting around here as if you’re King Henry the Fifth and making our jobs more difficult than they already are– unless you CONFORM and CONFORM NOW, YOU INSUFFERABLE LITTLE BRAT.
(That, I will reiterate, was elementary school; I’ll revisit it later on in this post.)
In high school, the tests and evaluations abated, and ineffectual school counselors replaced the special-ed teachers. Nonetheless, I recognised some of the teachers from the special-ed department as they, too, moved up in their careers.
There was a period of a couple of months when I started to notice them sitting in the back of my classrooms, and nearby during lunch period. Always near me. Just far away enough to be inconspicuous, but just close enough for me to notice.
A duck, wise enough to know a hunter’s blind when it sees one, would experience a flare of survival instinct not far different from what I felt at the sight of those –those GROWNUPS, lurking in the mock-up backgrounds of the theatre that was high school.
They always had a legal pad and were jotting things down. I could never get close enough to see what they were jotting: but once in my Junior ROTC class, I was able to sneak a peek at the pad. “ROTC” adorned the header, but I couldn’t make out the inscription that filled the rest of the sheet.
For this entire period of a couple of months, I grappled with the feeling, the dread almost, that they were sitting in to watch me, to observe my behaviour, to ascertain whether I was paying attention, because I was not a conformist. For all anyone knew, I was a troublemaker and had to be closely watched to make sure I didn’t disrupt the common peace with either adverse behaviour or some imaginary firearm that never crossed the threshold of my ancestral home.
Was I just being paranoid? Maybe so, but those special-ed teachers possibly observing my every breath made me feel like I was considered a genuine threat to the future of western civilisation. And here I was, just a lone kid trying to survive mockery and beatings and victim-blaming on the daily, not wanting to hurt anyone but just to be left to my own private solaces.
This is what it was like being autistic (albeit not knowing it at the time) and attending public school with no accommodation or support, at least not that which would have done me any good. I would hate to think public schools still treat neurodivergent kids this way, entirely a quarter of a century after I spied the machinations of these special educators looming over my shoulders. If so, they need to do better — much better.
Now, to return to that point about the forced-conformity culture in elementary schools of my childhood:
This is something I know is still happening today, thanks to reading the stories of fellow autistic activists on Twitter, NeuroClastic, and elsewhere. But now what I want to gather from school administrations is, here you are identifying a kid who acts a little differently, who learns a little differently, who’s interested in unique things and doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the herd. You’re forcing them to go to counseling, therapy, special education, etc. thinking that it’ll help them. But you fail to understand a crucial item.…
IT IS BACKFIRING.
Do you understand what I’m saying? It doesn’t help neurodivergent kids when you try to make them pretend they’re “normal” so they can “fit in.” It doesn’t work that way. Autistics and others flaunting a neurodiverse identity don’t exist that way. In your zeal to “fix” what is perceived to be “broken” in them, you are ACTUALLY BREAKING THEM.
I say again, two short, to-the-point, unequivocal and easily-understandable words: DO BETTER.
In public education, support for autistic or otherwise neurodivergent students needs to shift away from assimilation, from conformity, from attempts to force them to “fit in for their own good.” These attempts backfire with such severe consequences as rampant, systemic schoolyard bullying and victim-blaming.
These are stories that every autistic person should not have to share, but nevertheless can, because we’ve all been through it. The effect of force-fitting on a neurodivergent student’s mental health is fallout, not only akin to the fallout of a spectacular explosion but falling out of their education, their motivation, whatever social circles they attempted to be part of.
Instead of forced conformity and in-fitting, educational support for neurodivergent students needs to shift toward coaching them; identifying that which holds their attention in a vice grip and draws it like a cat to a laser pointer, that which gives them focus and develops their talent. That which unlocks their future and releases their potential.
Autistic and neurodivergent youngsters deserve the life they want, the same as any living creature of good intentions. To enrich life, they deserve a chance to define it. To define it, they deserve some security, some reassurance that judgment and atrocity will not be visited upon them as they acclimate to the world around them so they may contribute to it in their own individual way.
But one thing they do not deserve is legitimized abuse at the behest of school administrators who have forgotten what it was like to be a kid surviving the public education system.
- Autism in Mainstream Education: A Survivor’s Story — March 4, 2020