The Education System Fails Autistic People

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.

My Sensory Box

IMG_2891I have a box that resides in a drawer. It’s my last stop before leaving the house on a rough sensory day. It’s my first stop when I find my hands itching to fiddle or messing with something that could be more dangerous. It contains things to occupy my hands, pretty colours to colours look at and earplugs for the louder days. Perhaps it is is best described as a coping mechanism. For those days when everything is too much or not enough, and every kind of sensory input is wrong. Or just for the days when I need the passively stim. It sometimes comes in the form of a black make-up bag when I’m on the go – but mainly, it is my sensory box.

Stimming is such a natural part of life as an autistic person and stim toys are tools that help me slim differently. Sometimes they actually things designed to help me, and sometimes their objects are required over the past few years that have helped me anyway.

Tangles are one of my favourite in toys that exists. In the picture at the top of this post there are three, technically four. They are the chains of plastic that make a great tools to fiddle with. The pink, blue, yellow and clear coloured one is textured on the outside, which helps me out on days when I’m more prone to scratching. They provide a tougher form of sensory input that’s not dangerous at all. The blue, yellow, green and clear one is also texted that I’ve got more of a squishy outer coating that provides a drastically different but also great kind of input. The metallic pink one is closer to the standard kind of tango, as it is smooth all over. Lastly, the deep blue chain in the picture is made up of tangle parts, I find it good to loop around my finger and stim with. As stim toys go, tangles about very discreet and pretty commonplace. There’s a reason I’ve got so many!

Chewellery – or chewable jewellery – is also a major important thing for me. It stops me grinding my teeth and biting things like the caps of pens and sometimes my hands. They’re made of food grade silicone, which means they’re safe to chew. The picture shows two of them- I have two identical dulcimer pendants from the amazing stim toy shop stimtastic. The pendants are designed for lighter chewers, and as my chewing has become a little more aggressive, I use two at once. They’re a little bit more of a discreet way to chew than other chewable items, and so far no one’s really questioned me on it.

Those are probably my most used sensory tools, but the picture shows a lot more. I have the somewhat universally recognised fidget cube (which is now looking a little bit dirty from its use), a smiley popper toy that’s good for some resistance, a toy that I have no idea what it’s called but it’s basically a bit of purple mesh with marble inside, a couple of different spiky things that can be pulled instead of my hair, ear plugs for when things get too loud and a couple of other bits too.

And there we have my sensory toys and tools that I use to cope with tough sensory days and they need to passively stim. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, it’s April and marks the beginning of my (hopefully) two monthly posts. I’m going to try and post a little more regularly about a variety of things, let’s hope I can stick to it this time!

A Guide To: Stimming

The flapping of hands, tapping of objects and biting things. The noises from the mouth, repetitive sounds and jumping up and down. These things tend to seem weird to neurotypicals, but for autistic people like me, they’re a fact of life. They – those behaviours that get glares and stares in public – are self-stimulatory behaviours, commonly know as stimming.

What is stimming?

The first – and probably most important – thing to cover in this post is what stimming actually is. If we’re going to be clinical, stimming is “Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).” That’s a quote from the common autism diagnostic criteria found within the DSM-5. Stimming is way more complicated than that though. To understand stimming, you can’t just hear one sentence, filled with medical terminology. You need to understand the seven senses, along with why we stim.

The Seven Senses

At perhaps the first opportunity in school, we’re taught the five sense:

  • Touch/Tactile
  • Taste/Gustation
  • Sight/Visual
  • Hearing/Auditory
  • Smell/Olfaction

All of these are important in understanding sensory experiences. I receive tactile stimulation from tapping, running fingers along silky fabrics and touching things. Eating smooth chocolate that slides down my throat and drinking tea at the perfect strength give me gustation input. Watching Christmas lights, snow falling and paint mixing provide me with the visual stimulation I need. I receive auditory input by listening to music at the perfect (fairly low) volume and repeating sounds and words just so I can hear them. I smell body sprays, and flowers and food to get olfaction input.

However, there are two more senses that are just as important. We don’t talk about them much, but we really need to. They are called the proprioceptive sense and the vestibular sense.

Proprioception is the sense of where your body is in the space it occupies, the way the body moves, the effort this takes and the force required to do so. My proprioceptive sense is some of what make makes me clumsy; I walk in to everything, misjudging doorways that have been in the house I’ve lived in my whole life, because I’m uncertain – on some level – about the space I occupy.

A lot of autistic people receive proprioceptive input in a similar way – weighted therapy. This is using heavy things – usually specially designed weighted blankets, lap pads or shoulder pads – to help calm down. They help the sympathetic nervous system – the system that determines your fight or flight response (the thing that causes meltdowns in autistic people). If your body is calm, so your heart rate isn’t racing and your blood isn’t pumping way too fast, it’s easier to calm yourself down mentally, to think things through carefully and work things out.

The last sense that needs mentioning is the vestibular sense. This also plays into my clumsiness; it’s to do with balance and movement. The vestibular system is responsible for me fall over at the slightest movement and plays into my somewhat poor motor skills. Vestibular input will come from activities such as rocking and flapping – anything to do with movement, really. This is why the majority of my stims at vestibular – clapping, flapping, rocking and jumping.

Stims aren’t limited to one sense, though. I could be clapping for the tactile input while also enjoying the auditory input.

Why Autistic People Stim

There are many reasons autistic people stim, but here, I’d say, are the top three:

  • To calm or sooth
  • To deal with emotions
  • To cope with sensory input

At the top of the list is calming and soothing. If you’re neurotypical, think of something you do when you’re stressed. You might come home and have a bath, read a book to relax or have a lie down. These things can clear your mind and help you deal with the future, whether that’s later on that day or the day after. Activities like these are forms of self-care and ways of coping with stressful situations. Stimming as self-regulation – soothing if you like – is just this, except it’s a solution in the moment. It’s a behaviour that can have this impact. It feels like a natural response.

Dealing with emotions is a very similar idea to calming – if you’re overloaded with emotion, you’ll want to calm down and thus use strategies. Stimming doesn’t always equal an emotion, it can be a passive activity, but I’d say it is quite often an emotional response. It’s similar to how you’d cry if you’re sad. The thing with autistic people – as I mentioned in this post – is that we have complex relationships with emotions. Whether this is alexithymia or just difficulty in reacting in a ‘typical’ way to a scenario, it’s clear we won’t react the same to neurotypicals if we don’t interpret emotions the same way.

Coping with sensory input comes down to the two common types (within neurodivergent people) of sensory experiences, that aren’t typical to neurotypicals. They’re called hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They look and sound similar, but they’re polar opposites. Hypersensitivity is being oversensitive to sensory stimuli while hyposensitivity is being under-sensitive to stimuli. Which category a person falls into can vary from sense to sense from day to day, and they may not even have a atypical sensory experience with a specific sense. I tend reside around hypersensitive for most part.

It’s not usually clean cut, someone is hypersensitive and someone is hyposensitive, but for the sake of simplicity, say it is. Person A is hypersensitive and person B is hyposensitive. Person A reacts to loud noises by trying to cover their ears and biting their hand in distress. They are trying to receive input in another way to calm them down. Noises are louder for them than most people around them, and even though their neurotypical friend says ‘it’s not that loud!’, it is to them. Meanwhile, Person B is in the same room. It doesn’t seem that loud to them, so they put on some headphones and listen to music loudly. They’re now receiving the input they need, so they flapping contentedly along to the music.

Like always, no autistic person is the same in this respect, but I hope this example illustrates how sensory input is linked to other senses and how reactions to it vary.

Self Injurious Behaviours in Stimming

For the most part, stimming is completely harmless and should not be stopped at all. If people are staring, it’s their problem. It’s not an embarrassing thing, it’s just a natural part of autistic life. However, if the stims are self injurious then they need to be replaced.

Self Injurious Behaviours – or SIBs – in stimming usually occur during meltdowns and what I said in my post, A Guide To: Meltdowns, still stands here. I talk there about redirection, changing the stim so it’s not harmful.

‘Headbanging on a hard floor or wall can be redirected to a pillow, which will obviously cause a lot less damage. For biting, chewable silicone can be a great substitute. It can be brought in a variety of toughness levels and is often found as jewellery as an on-the-go solution.  Long lasting lip balm, or moisturiser for skin, might helping with picking and having hair tied back are other solutions.’  – A Guide To: Meltdowns

Other than SIBs within stimming, no one and nothing should stop you. Stimming is a helpful coping mechanism that comes naturally to autistic people.


Thank you for reading this A Guide To post, I’ve been working on it for a few months now. I’d also like to thank everyone who’s been commenting on and sharing my posts – it means a lot and is helpful in reaching a wider audience!

A lot of this post came from knowledge I’ve acquired, but below are a few sources from which I’ve found some additional information that proved helpful to this post:

https://biologydictionary.net/sympathetic-nervous-system

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23073629

http://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder/human-balance-system