I was prompted to write this particular blog following a discussion with Eileen Murphy who told me about a follower on Twitter who had tweeted “My son, with Aspergers, has just been telling me how lonely he feels in school, no friends, being called weirdo, freak of nature etc” .
This story brought back many memories for me: I attended secondary school for two years before things got too much for me. I had just had a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) and the written diagnosis came with a warning that Depression often goes hand in hand with AS in adolescence. A recent study found that 70% of us Aspies develop mental health problems – often whilst in secondary schools. The place that is supposed to open doors is so stressful for many of us that it actually shuts them instead. This is due to our increasing awareness of our difference, the rigidity of the curriculum with its focus on exam success, and the lack of empathy from our equally mixed up peers. For most of us the exam success that is the holy grail for teachers ends up as useless – it’s difficult enough finding work with AS. But having AS and depression or anxiety or OCD makes it impossible.
Many teachers do not see the big picture – a geography teacher wrote on my report that I did not understand 6 figure grid references whilst a PE teacher shouted ‘Hey Spaceman’ when I couldn’t line up properly. And we are going to get bullied by other kids too – just because adults do not see the pushes and hear the insults does not mean they aren’t happening. And then, having had all this pressure during the day we have to do homework in the evening when we should be resting our brains and de-stressing with our interests. Is it any wonder many of us are really thin?
All in all mainstream secondary schools are the most dangerous environments we will ever be put in. Asperger Syndrome guru Dr Tony Attwood talks of ‘perilous times’ We are all different – no two people with AS have exactly the same strengths and passions. Some will get work – some of the brainiest of us do become engineers and physics teachers. But one thing that applies to all of us is the need to get stress levels down and our self-esteem up. Being different as a teenager can be sheer hell.
It could be better. We are usually very good at something or very interested in something. If only this “thing” could be given equal status with ‘six figure grid references’. If only teachers had the Big Picture. If only we had a 100% personalised curriculum – with built-in ‘time outs’. If only we were allowed to rest up in the evening.
For our part, we Aspies have to be open about the condition in order to get teachers and peers to accept us for who we are (but that involves sitting down and talking AS through with us first.) The form group should be educated because they’re going to be sharing a classroom with us for the next five years ( many of us don’t get this far – 1 in 4 are excluded, some like me just leave). Ignorance is not bliss.Non-disclosure is not an option. We have to be allowed to take ownership of our condition so as to to take the sting out of it.
Inclusion is when a school adapts to meet the individual as they are – using an awareness of both the huge potential we have and the pitfall of mental health problems
Schools have banners outside saying how good their exam results are. There are no banners saying how well they nurtured Sean Foley’s special interest with a personalised programme or how they talked irrational fears through with him – again and again and again. Or how the PE teacher and the Geography teacher and the form group were educated about Sean Foley – not just AS.
My Dad has taught Economics in secondary schools for over thirty years. In his opinion most schools are full of dedicated subject specialists who unfortunately cannot be flexible or creative enough to make mainstream the best place to educate most adolescents with AS. The costs are greater than the benefits in most cases.
I am a mentally healthy 23 year old who is still very much an ‘Aspie’. Autism is part of who we are. I live independently and give talks on AS at conferences and schools. Had I stayed put in the system I might have a few more GCSEs – I do have a grade A in History Leaving Cert(A level) – but I might also be unable to cope with life as well as I can. By the time I left secondary school aged 12, I was in tears 2 days out of 5.
What if all that energy spent on helping us to cope with this stressful institution were applied to us directly – in a low stress learning environment.
If a school cannot really ‘include’ a child it is time to try plan B.
Just as we ‘aspies’ are all like ‘swiss cheeses’ ( I can do analogies now) – totally unique, so too will our Plan B be unique. In my case it was moving to the Dingle Peninsula and home education.
But whatever the Plan B we should never have a Plan A which exposes a vulnerable child to high stress and deep failure and cutting insults day after day after day.
As children we do not have the power to choose how we are educated.Adults have to see the Big Picture on our behalf. Adults have to get the damaging stress levels down. Adults have to focus on what we can do well – and nurture it.
Parents have a difficult decision to make – but as my dad puts it… ‘there comes a time when you have to stop trying to ‘nail jelly to the ceiling’.