For the most part I enjoyed my education. I enjoy learning and found my classes interesting. I can’t remember much about primary school, expect crying each year when I was given a new teacher – change!! I also remember the teachers giving the same feedback each parents evening – that I was a well-behaved, focused student but incredibly shy.
My Dad always disagreed with this. He used to say I wasn’t shy, that I was quiet by choice, that I was in fact very confident. This same feedback carried on for the first few years of secondary school. When the teachers referred to me as shy they weren’t implying that I was simply a quiet student – I was a mute student. I never spoke unless asked a question in class. I spent break and lunch times with some other girls but I wouldn’t have called it a friendship. I followed them around so that I wasn’t alone, laughed at their jokes or nodded along but never spoke to them. I say I averaged three sentences a day in school years 7 – 9.
I was an, ‘A grade’ student always winning awards for the standards of my studies but I struggled with the social side. I dreaded compulsory group work I would sit panicking not wanting to say the wrong thing. I managed to connect with a few people, a flamboyant boy named Lewis whom I’m still close to now – I couldn’t tell you why but I felt comfortable talking to him and would always try to partner with him in lessons, perhaps because of his judgement free aura I felt comfortable experimenting my social skills on him?
Something changed in Year 10, one random day, for no reason at all, I decided it was time to speak. I got a new group of friends, primarily boys who I was comfortable being myself around. I realised I could make jokes which made people laugh and speak to others about my struggles. I finally understood the whole communication malarkey.
Looking back I now know I was portraying a classic trait of Autism in girls. I was observing my peers taking in every detail and piece of information I could about how interaction works. I was teaching myself how to communicate. It took me 10 whole school years before I felt confident that I had observed enough and was ready to put it into practice. It makes me sad to look back and think I missed out on some much needed help. I got by on my own and those 10 years of observation paid off; I became a social butterfly. Without sounding too big-headed I had a lot of friends, boyfriends and was being invited out at weekends, to parties and social gatherings something which had never happened to me before.
By the time my A-levels came around I had stretched myself too thin. I got carried away in my excitement that I could socialise and do it well that I exhausted myself. I have spoken before about the toll communicating can have on those on the spectrum. It does not come naturally for us, we have to be three-steps ahead at all times predicting possible outcomes and analysing the conversation to ensure we say the right thing next. By school years 12 and 13 I couldn’t cope with it any longer. I shut myself away from a few, ‘friends’ focusing only on the handful which I found easiest and least stressful to socialise with. I felt bad shutting people out like that but I needed to or I would have made myself seriously ill – looking back it was the right decision.
Socialising wasn’t the only thing making my life difficult. Education had suddenly become a struggle. I got great grades in my GCSE’s and began my A Level’s with confidence. However, A Level’s are a whole different ball game. You have to teach yourself most of the modules and unless you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive teacher you are on your own. Teaching myself is something which I cannot do, I can’t read a piece of factual writing and process it to understand what I have read – whether this is an Autistic trait or not I am unsure.
I took Dance which was my one enjoyable subject it was my escape from the doom and gloom my life had become and I always achieved good grades without a struggle. I also took English which is where I was taught by the most wonderful teacher who was my support through all my struggles in sixth form. She was there for me when I was going through my Autism diagnosis and even helped me out after I completed my A Levels with some issues I faced. Without my English teacher I would have dropped out of sixth form at the first hurdle.
I also took History and this is where the problem lay. I love History, it was always my favourite subject. However, in A Levels the subject you study is British and American politics. A subject, no matter how hard I tried – and trust me I tried – I could not get my head around. My struggle was not helped by two un-supportive subject teachers. I always asked for help and guidance and was never given any, they preferred to help the students who were excelling instead. When they were informed about my possible diagnosis, which I hoped may finally make them see I need support within the subject, it did the opposite and they singled me out even more. Teachers need more training on Autism – it should be compulsory!
As part of the subject I had to write an essay answering a statement/question on American political history which I did not understand. It was like the words were not English, I had it explained to me and read it hundreds of times but I could not understand what was being asked of me. The question was too vague – it wasn’t direct enough for my Autism. My English teacher spent an entire day at my house helping me write my essay on a subject that she knew nothing about but had researched and self-taught just so I would get the help I needed. I ended up getting a grade B but this would not have been possible at all without my English teachers wonderful support. She deserves recognition, she is everything a teacher should be and more.
Overall, I think what I found hardest about my A Levels was that I had always excelled in education and suddenly I was failing. It was a change and I realised I had limitations. It was also around this time when everyone applies for universities. I had decided if I couldn’t handle self-teaching at A Level then there was no way I would cope at university. As much as a part of me wanted to I decided it wasn’t possible for me to go to university without support which I was scared I wouldn’t receive. I didn’t apply.
Not going to university was a hard choice especially when all my friends were so excited about the prospect. I knew, for me, it wasn’t possible. Not only would it be a massive change but I also didn’t have the confidence that I would be able to achieve a good grade due to my Autism. I know many people on the spectrum go to university and achieve highly, but for me this wasn’t a possibility I could comprehend.
I wish there was a support system for the Autistic community at university but I wasn’t aware of anything at the time – I think if there was then I may have gone. I hope for others in the future something is developed so that they are able to attend and receive the help and support they would require.