With a new school year quickly approaching, I think this is a topic a lot of autism families, especially with younger children are concerned about. My road as an autistic child was not easy. I was blessed to have incredible teachers and an inclusive school environment that allowed me to grow as a student. I was a different student than my peers. Here are the things that made me different, and strategies that helped me the most. I write from my own experiences in what I remember being most helpful in my earliest school years. Every child is different and has different strengths as well as weaknesses. I recognize that for many, the journey of special education and accommodations is a long and confusing one. But I hope this may give you a glimpse into my autistic childhood as a student and perhaps some guidance.
1. Accommodate me, but also prepare me.
I had a teacher in 5th grade that changed the seating chart at the end of every trimester. For me, this was my worst nightmare come to life. I simply had to sit in the exact same place every day with the same classmate neighbors. It was part of my routine. It helped me focus. I told my concerns to my mom, needing her to fix it. I would not be able to learn if I was constantly changing seats. My mom is a big believer of teaching self-advocacy skills, when appropriate. After all, I know my needs best and she won’t always be there to help me. I had to take charge. This was to be my first time self-advocating. We sat down with the teacher and I told him the problem. And here’s what happened: he accommodated me, but also prepared me. He allowed me to stay where I was for the year, but also said the rest of the students would continue to move. A compromise that still enabled me to concentrate in class but did not center the entire classroom structure around me as one person. I didn’t fully understand how this tactic was in fact one of my most valuable lessons that year. In the adult world I have found you never fully get accommodated. You can get what you need to perform a job of course, but you must also adapt where you are capable.
This compromise struck the balance of meeting my needs while also showing me how to become more adaptable, preparing me for real world unsheltered scenarios later down the road. I think it’s important to help us as much as you are able to in the classrooms, but to also teach us how to adapt as we become more in tune with what we are capable of.
2. Allow me to use accommodations at my own pace.
I needed periods throughout the day where I could take a break and “change my engine” so to speak. It took a lot of fuel for me to make it through a whole school day. Being able to have small breaks where other children didn’t surround me was imperative. It helped me remain calmer because I knew that if I began to feel a meltdown coming I had the option of going to this quiet space. In this space and even on my person I would have hard candies like starbursts that I could chomp down on with all my might. This proved to be an alternative to my self-harm way of coping. It created a similar sensation, without the injury. As I grew older, I did not use this quiet space accommodation because I wanted to accomplish everything the same way as the other children. I think that is only natural. We want to feel we belong. That we aren’t different. However, simply knowing I had the option if I needed was helpful to me. This gave me the confidence to try my way first with the comfort of knowing I had a safety net. Just because your child doesn’t always use the accommodation options you give them doesn’t mean they don’t require them. Perhaps, they simply want to try on their own first and then accommodate if they feel it is necessary.
3. Help me to feel like the other students.
I needed accommodations, but at my core I didn’t want them. I wanted to achieve the same way everyone else did. I did not want to be separated or made to feel differently. Integrate the best you can while also realizing there are situations where special help is necessary. For me, this was math. I had a smaller and more specialized math class in order to help with my math discrepancies. My short-term memory is incapable of remembering sequences of numbers or linear thinking. This meant spaces where I could have my multiplication tables out, or a digital clock were essential to my overall learning. Math was already so difficult; realistically to learn the core concepts of math I needed the multiplication tables and numbers in front of me.
However, I also had some smaller special classes for subjects I excelled in such as reading. I was able to join advanced reading groups, which made me feel proud and that I was achieving. It is important to focus and bring attention to both the strengths and the weaknesses. Addressing strategies for our weak areas without being made to feel we are different or less than the other students while also recognized for what we excel in.
4. I needed a different kind of supervision.
One thing I wish I had been brave enough to ask for was help in finding the people or places that others found easily. For example, my school had a big friends little friends program. Once a month all the elementary school children met with their big friends who were middle schoolers. Essentially, this was a type of mentorship program. We often met on the playground at recess. I vividly remember wandering the playground with no big friend because I could not remember her face. I went group to group just hoping to tag along. The stress and anxiety of finding my big friend was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to tell a teacher because it was embarrassing for me. I spent that first session without a big friend.
Another time a teacher sent me to the library in the next building to return a book, thinking it would be fun for me since I loved to read. I was found 45 minutes later wandering the halls of the complete opposite building with no idea where I was. No directional sense at all. These two tasks, finding a library and finding a person that seem so simple to you, were and still are near impossibilities for me. I now have strategies to compensate, but back then I did not. I was still learning. Give extra supervision and attention even if the task seems simple. If the child is like me, they may be too overwhelmed or unsure to ask for help.
5. Remember, I’m seeing a different classroom.
I am always bombarded by sensory. I don’t even see the face of the teacher. I can’t process a face and the information being lectured at the same time. The lights are bright. I hear every individual pencil that is writing on paper taking notes. Every whisper. Each piece of crinkling paper. Every color is too bright. I always liked the front of the classroom best. There I could imagine it was just the teacher and I. There, I had a chance of filtering out the other sensory. I still had the auditory sensory behind me, but at least now the visual overload was less. See if your child has a preferred placement in the classroom. There is likely a very strong sensory or processing reason behind it.
6. It’s OK if I don’t want to interact with other children.
I think to neurotypicals, autistic children look lonely. But you are imagining the experience through your lens. To you, social interaction is comforting. Not for us (not me at least). There did come a time where I wanted friends and grew to like having friends once I knew what they were and what they had to offer. But in my earliest school years this did not interest me in the slightest. Interaction with other children was an extra strain on my already overwhelming day of social and sensory onslaught that I didn’t need. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by sensory, I barely noticed other children. I only saw them as very loud and too close to me or too touchy-feely. I did not want to be touched; it brought sharp pain to my skin. And I did not want to be around anyone who was screaming or talking loudly while playing. I would venture to guess these are some reasons other autistic children stick to the edge of the playground as I did. Allow an autistic child to see the value of friendship. Create safe, nonthreatening situations for us to get to know another child. Once I saw this value, I did want friends. After reaching that point help guide with social strategies and cues for successful social interaction. I appreciated being gently guided and cued in the neurotypical language so that I could start to understand the foreign land I was in.
Always remember, we truly are learning a foreign language. Imagine you speak no Chinese and are placed in the middle of the subway in Beijing and told to socialize and find the correct train home. It would be overwhelming. You would need some guidance and cues for Chinese social culture. No matter how hard you tried to read Chinese you wouldn’t fully know it unless someone taught you the language, even if you became extremely good at guessing. Even then, some of you would be more proficient in guessing, maybe even learning the Chinese characters while others would not pick up on it despite endless lessons. I was one of the proficient guessing ones. Eventually able to better understand and guess your social language, and then at my own pace, join it. But to this day, never close to being fluent in it. All I’ve done is memorize the Chinese characters, hoping that I can figure out what they mean when presented in unfamiliar order.