Our education system is fundamentally failing. It failing autistic people, more broadly neurodivergent people and even further, anyone who does not fit the social norms of a typical student, whether that be due to physical or mental health, neurotype or disabilities. I’m not here to blame the teachers, or any individual staff, who do an incredible job on a daily basis – like my mum. I’m here to say the education system system is failing the hundreds of thousands of autistic people in education here in the UK today.
I effectively dropped out of school – attending four half days (three/four hours each) was an absolute miracle. I think in the time I wasn’t attending, the only time I got 5 days in a row was when I had exams. Normal for me was two or three of those, regularly though, it could just be one. That was for about the final year and a half of my compulsory secondary school education. I would come home from those days – sleep, cry, have a meltdown, if not, at the very least, lay down in a dark room for a couple of hours, dreading the next day. I was suffering autistic burnout, feeling utterly depressed and struggling with two anxiety disorders. I couldn’t leave the house, let alone attend my education. My incredibly huge love of learning died for that period. The school system did not fit my autistic needs and I did not have the neurotype for its “one-size-fits-all” philosophy.
This is a weird scenario, right? Surely, it’s just me – at the very least a minority? No.
I know of so many people, autistic people, going through the same struggles as I did. And let’s be perfectly clear – my status as a ‘good’ student with parents willing to fight for me meant I had accommodations made, like half days and a lack of serious consequence from missing school. But others don’t. I know of autistic people who are homeschooled to avoid the anxiety and chaos, I know of autistic people trying as hard as they can to just enter the building and struggling and I know of autistic people who’ve pretty much given up on change, and subsequently their education.
Just living in a world that not made for you is tough enough, but trying to be educated in a system that is so clearly not made for you is a hundred times harder. Schools are too loud, too busy, too complicated, too fast, too chaotic and too full of people. And you’re too small, a singular voice that needs everything to change but the school system can barely imagine the resources, let alone implement them, to help you.
It’s an inflexible and inconsiderate system that I know irritates those – teachers, support staff, teaching assistants and so many more – within in it. They don’t have the power to change this system, despite its clear failures of so many. Some autistic people gain access to accommodations – which is amazing – but the lack of funding to support the future of a huge community means you have to be deemed to be ‘autistic enough’ first. Autistic people are considered to be ‘outsiders’ and ‘strange’ by most of the world, and despite the unanimous hatred of these terms from autistic communities, when it comes to schooling we’re left alone and deemed to be unworthy of additional support, like any other students. The world, the system and the government should not be using our identities in anyway they want to. You can’t decide we’re unworthy of support and then see our failures as inadequate teaching. You can’t put us in a classroom made for neurotypicals because it’s rare for autistic people to get into specialist education and see us as an issue when we can’t cope and have meltdowns. You can’t pick and choose when you see us as autistic.
The staff within schools try their hardest to help us with the limited time, energy and resources they have and I thank every person who’s tried to accommodate us with what they have. As I said, my mum is teacher and I have incredible amounts of respect for how they try to help us develop as individuals. But because they system is set up for neurotypicals – and we’re seen as a problem from those who’ve never met us but give orders to schools to ensure we achieve everything in inadequate environments for us – the overall impact on autistic people struggling to remain in education is still huge, because the education system – the government and not the teachers – is failing us.