I wish my teachers knew: No one had any idea how hard things were for me.
If there's one thing I wish my teachers had realized while I was in school, it's just how hard I was working to get along in class and in the social environment. I was smart in some ways, and that covered up my difficulties in others. I was book smart, I read voraciously, I had an extensive vocabulary – though I never learned some of the words properly, even though I used them with enthusiasm.
I was quick in many ways, with a sharp wit and sense of humor, and that really covered up the difficulties I had with slower processing speed, as well as confusion about social roles and relationships. If anything, I used humor to cover up my confusion and fill in the gaps, so I could “buy time” to sort out what was happening. By slowing down the social interactions with a joke or a smart-ass comment, I could get a few extra seconds to figure out what was happening between people and come up with a way to respond to them.
Most teachers understand just how cruel kids can be to each other, but I'm not sure anyone ever realized the anxiety that I felt, just walking into a classroom at the beginning of the day. I was terrified. Each and every day, from the first day of Kindergarten, to my final day of high school. I couldn't stand the thought of going into class, so I'd hang around in the hallways beforehand, talking to friends, while everyone else went into the classroom on time. The classroom was an open cauldron of deafening chaos, and with the combination of overhead lights and bright light streaming in through the windows and all of the movement and activity and talking, it was next to impossible for me to stay present to what was going on around me.
I spent an awful lot of time shut down, blocking out intrusive noises, smells, feelings, and always the bright lights, to the point where I didn't have many cognitive resources to spare on what was actually taking place in class. I suppose, on the surface, I looked normal. If anything, I looked above normal, because I was smart in obvious ways. But beneath the surface, I remember a constant sense of doom and borderline panic always at the edge of my attention. It was like living with a split personality – on the outside, I was one way. On the inside, I was having a completely different experience that I didn't dare reveal to anyone, for fear of ridicule. Or disbelief.
None of this was ever acknowledged, either by me or by anyone else. When I didn't perform academically or socially, when my grades were not what one would expect from someone "with my intelligence", I got a lot of finger-wagging and tut-tutting from teachers and parents alike. They never failed to make it clear, just how disappointed they were in how I'd done. And they never thought to ask if there was something else going on underneath the surface.
It apparently never occurred to anyone that I was actually struggling.
I wasn't even fully aware of how difficult everything was for me, till years later. In school, I was just dealing with it as it came. There was no concept of autism when I was growing up, and there was no understanding of sensory processing issues. I literally had no way of conceptualizing my own difficulties, but I naturally took on the accusations and suspicions of my teachers and parents. I was lazy, they said. I wasn't trying hard enough. I wasn't living up to my potential. I have heard those assertions so many times, I've lost count. And they didn't stop, once I left school.
If there's one thing I want teachers to understand, it's that if there are unexplained difficulties that a child is showing – they're not living up to their potential, despite certain excellent test scores – there might just be something more going on underneath the surface. I know that teachers don't have a lot of extra discretionary time to look deeply into the situations of each and every child in their classroom, but if there are unexplained gaps, there might be something behind that. It could very well be that the problem isn't with the child's attitude or willingness to work, there might actually be some other hidden challenges they have, which they themselves are not even fully aware of.
I wish that people would be less eager to jump to conclusions about character flaws or rebellious behavior or some other chosen form of conduct, when it comes to explaining away inconsistencies in kids' behavior. I wish that there had been a more balanced and more inclusive view of what it means to be smart and what it means to be challenged, and what it means to be both. We shouldn't have to trade our dignity for support. For those of us who want with all our hearts to do the right thing and get it right, coming up against our limitations on a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment, basis can be frustrating, humiliating, even debilitating. And the effects can last a lifetime.
Being constantly told by the adults – whom you implicitly believe and trust, because they are adults – that you're getting it wrong on purpose, sets us up for a whole world of hurt later on. It's not the sort of thing that we can just grow out of, just as autism isn't the sort of thing we out-grow. Those messages set the stage for all of our internal thoughts, all of our internal disposition towards ourselves, and once those messages become part of our own self-image and self-talk, it's extremely difficult to route out those conceptual weeds and replace them with mental crops which produce more than just a tangle of toxic confusion.
School was extraordinarily difficult for me, but it was also critically important. It was the one place on earth I really, truly loved (other than the top branches of the oak tree I used to climb beside my house). School was a refuge for me. It was the one place where I could perform specific tasks, be measured quantitatively, and know at the end of the day how I had actually done. The rest of the world didn't give me grades to show me how well or how poorly I'd performed. The rest of the world didn't give me goals to meet, a schedule to follow, with a start and an end to each day, each quarter each semester, each school year. Life outside the classroom was just a vast and undifferentiated series of confusing demands, without any indication of how to succeed or whether I had been successful. Academics gave me the quantitative measures I needed to understand my place in the world, it offered me an agenda to follow every single day, and that was magical for me. So, all of the challenges that I faced in school I could easily overlook, in the face of the benefits I gained from its structure and feedback.
In the end, I really feel for teachers dealing with autistic students, because you don't get much support, there's not a whole lot of reliable information out there, and there is so much fear, anxiety, and drama infused in modern concept of autism, that it's all but impossible to think clearly about the topic. But think clearly we must. One step at a time, one improvement at a time, one challenge at a time. We have to keep moving forward, because I am not the first autistic student whoever struggled in school, and I will certainly not be the last. If we can simply increase understanding and compassion and build appreciation of the wide range of variabilities in our lives, that will be one step in the right direction.
At least it would be something.
Of course, identifying issues like autism only helps if there are supports in place... if there is a viable approach to remedy or mitigate the impacts of our neurological differences. And those kinds of supports are too often not available. My hope is that teachers will pro-actively increase their autism awareness as well as autism acceptance. Just as important is autism appreciation, which would be a tremendous boon to so many of us. We have so many unique skills, so many unique strengths, and if we can focus on those and strengthen them, it offsets our difficulties. Experiencing our own expertise can really build our self-esteem and give us the opportunity to appreciate our individual strengths, rather than being perpetually demoralized by every single non-autistic challenge that comes along.
It does take a shift in orientation, a change of both mind and heart to fully appreciate the capabilities and challenges of kids on the spectrum, but I do believe that day is coming. We have faced bigger and more daunting challenges in the past, so competence in the area of autism spectrum conditions can certainly be achieved.