Helpful and Unhelpful School Experiences
Content Warning: Bullying, school system, mental health
School can be a challenging place, especially when those around you don’t take the time to understand your diverse abilities. Teachers are one of the most important aspects of education and their acceptance and understanding often set the tone for the rest of the class. As we return back to schools, we wanted to share Jake and Janette’s experiences, both positive and negative, so we can all work together to make school a rewarding experience for everyone.
Accommodations vs. Supports: Many autistic individuals prefer the word supports instead of the word accommodations. Making an accommodation suggests that society is doing people with autism a favor by providing us with supports when those supports are our right, not a privilege!
“Inclusion in the classroom means providing the necessary support to empower students to have a positive, equal, and successful learning experience.”
Give us the supports, not the accommodations, to thrive and succeed.
Jake: I believe that looking at how educators can support students with diverse abilities, rather than accommodating them is helpful. Many teachers weren’t too happy about the idea of having me in their class. They said it would be “too hard to adjust [their] lesson plans for one student” or complained that “[they’d] have to completely change the way [they] teach.” Inclusion in the classroom means providing the necessary support to empower students to have a positive, equal, and successful learning experience. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to identify and support people in areas where they’re struggling.
Janette: One of the supports I received was from my principal who granted me unlimited time to finish my tests and exams. That change was extremely helpful because my strength is more verbal than written, so when I wrote my tests it would take me four times as long as the average person. After discovering that, my principal ensured that I got a reader and a scribe so I could finish tests faster. Having a reader and a scribe was also helpful because I sometimes misunderstood directions so the reader rephrased the directions so I would understand what to do. I’m truly blessed that I had that principal while I was in high school.
Take the time to learn who we are and how we think before judging us. Try to “walk a mile in [our] shoes.”
Jake: I really wish that more teachers and students had taken the time to get to know more about me before judging me! My sixth-grade teacher was convinced that my needs and way of expressing my emotions as a person on the spectrum were just bad behaviour, or me trying to “de-rail her class.” When another student assaulted me by body-slamming me into a cabinet, she justified it by telling the principal that “[I was] annoying [and] deserved it.” If I had done that to another student, I would have been suspended. Because this teacher defended the student’s actions, the student was simply warned not to do it again. In grade eleven, I was moved into integrated English with other, neurotypical students. Right from the start, the teacher complained that it was “unfair to integrate me into the class because of the extra work [it would] create.” She also said she was worried that I would “hold the rest of the class back.” She clearly saw me as a burden, an inconvenience, and a totally incapable person. Let me tell you, she made no effort to hide her misguided judgment nor her resentment towards me for half of that school year! Finally, my mother, who was also my greatest advocate, was done with me coming home from school in tears each week after her classes. My mother arranged for me to be moved into another teacher’s integrated English class. This teacher was much more welcoming, kind, and supportive. It never should have got to that point. Unfortunately, because of an unfair, snap judgment by a teacher my diverse abilities were a struggle.
Janette: When I was 11-years-old at acting camp, my teacher pinched me because I had a hard time standing in a ‘neutral position.’ It literally traumatized me. From then on, I was scared if a teacher caught me out of ‘neutral position.’ That experience conditioned me to dislike the little quirks I used to have. I used to sway whenever I stood up and I would often slouch. Now, I stand perfectly straight and shoulder-width apart pretty much all the time.
“Up until then, if teachers didn’t understand me or my autism, they would just leave it up to educational assistants to support me.”
Don’t assume and do nothing. Ask and provide support.
Jake: When I was halfway through high school, I finally had a homeroom teacher who asked me the question I had been waiting for since I started in the school system. She said “I don’t know a lot about people with autism. Will you teach me about you, how your mind works, and let me know when you’re struggling so I can support you better?” I was so moved because I had never had a teacher who cared enough and took the time to ask that question! Up until then, if teachers didn’t understand me or my autism, they would just leave it up to educational assistants to support me. I was so lucky to have this same homeroom teacher from grade ten until I graduated from high school. So even though it came late in my journey through the school system, at least I had finally found a teacher who was truly there for me!
Janette: In grade eight, I was badly bullied. People constantly taunted and harassed me. Some people treated me like a frenemy and pretended to be my friend and then the next minute, treated me like chopped liver. For example, I was at my dance class when one of my peers arrived to pick up their sibling and saw me dancing. The next day, they held up their cellphone at school and sarcastically said “dance for us Janette. Come on dance for us.” Then they began to laugh at me as I walked away and said, “no. Not today.”. When I told my vice principal about what happened, he took action and told me that he was going to take care of it. The next day, those peers were nothing but respectful towards me. It was very helpful.
“We have IEPs for a reason, but it’s not useful nor helpful if it isn’t followed.”
Understanding and acceptance can’t happen without education.
Jake: My mother and my behavioural consultant offered my teachers basic, plain language reading materials about autism so that the teacher and class could gain a better understanding of me as a person. Unfortunately, most of the time these resources were just shoved into the teacher’s desk drawer and forgotten. The result was me continuing to be misunderstood, and in some cases, mistreated by others in the school. It was really frustrating, because if the teachers had made the effort to educate the other students in the class about autism, maybe I wouldn’t have had these problems.
My IEP is a form of support. Not following what is outlined in it is unhelpful.
Janette: We have IEPs for a reason, but it’s not useful nor helpful if it isn’t followed. In grade eleven, my teacher screamed at me and accused me of plagiarizing. As she started screaming at me in front of everyone in the hallway, I shut down and began to tear up. Then, she started yelling at me for crying and said I could get cancer for simply crying over something that didn’t even matter. Eventually, I woke up from the trance I was (I felt I couldn’t talk because I froze), and I stood up for myself and reminded her that she allowed me to copy the textbook word for word because as part of my IEP (Individual Educational Plan), I was allowed to do that for school purposes only. After I stood up for myself, she then apologized, and her demeanour changed.
“I really enjoyed getting to connect and work with other students when we did group work or projects.”
Group work and getting to work with as many students in the class as possible are very helpful.
Jake: I really enjoyed getting to connect and work with other students when we did group work or projects. I found that helping others get to know me better was a lot easier when we’d rotate into different groups for each assignment. That way I was able to spend some time with and make a connection with every student in the class. I found that experience also helped me get to know and understand my classmates better as well.
Respect us when we assert our boundaries.
Janette: Sometimes when I wrote tests in the Resource Centre, the Resource Teacher wouldn’t let me leave unless I finished the test. That caused problems for me because I would be forced to skip my next class in order to finish my test. When I tried to tell them I could finish my tests after school, that didn’t suffice. Eventually, I spoke with my principal and she said that if the Resource Teacher didn’t let me finish the next test after school I had full permission to use the principal’s name. That really helped me out as the next time I had a test and used the principal’s words, the Resource Teacher finally respected my boundary and I was able to finish my test after school.
“I was told to “ask my question through my educational assistant.””
Allow me to talk to you directly, not through another person.
Jake: I found it really upsetting and insulting when, instead of being allowed to raise my hand to speak or ask the teacher a question, I was told to “ask my question through my educational assistant.” I was denied the opportunity and right to do what every other student was allowed to do. It was essentially the teacher telling me that I “[wasn’t] capable of speaking or asking questions for [myself]” or simply that “[my] voice [wasn’t] important enough for to listen [to].” Luckily, this only happened with a few teachers, but even those experiences were enough to make me not want to participate in the classroom. I didn’t feel welcomed or valued!
Don’t insult me and think it won’t impact me or that I don’t understand — I do.
When I was in grade twelve I was in dance class when my jazz dance teacher called me stupid. It was unhelpful and upsetting. When I didn’t do what she asked or simply couldn’t get the move she would say “what are you, are you stupid?” By saying that, she singled me out and made me cry. Her demeanour changed, and she flipped from one extreme to the other and then said, “do you want me to come with you to get some water, bud? Are you ok?” She seemed sincere but now that I think about it, I don’t think she was. I even told her at the beginning of the year that I have a learning disability and that sometimes I won’t get the moves the first time and she seemed like she understood. I wish I knew about my autism back then because then I would have told her that too. I found out about my autism a year later, when I turned 18.
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