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Autistic Teenagers and School

Why should I disclose my diagnosis to my school?

Telling your school that you are autistic is very important to ensure that you can get the most out of your education experience. Being autistic is a part of your identity, it is what makes you you, be proud of yourself. There is nothing wrong with you, do not be ashamed of your diagnosis. Autistic teenagers will not stop needing support when they leave primary school. If your school is aware that you are autistic they can provide you with the support that you need to make your school experience as good as it can be. Telling your school that you are autistic means that your education experience will be tailored to your needs. Your parents may have disclosed your diagnosis to your school before you began but it can be helpful for you to talk to a trusted adult in school yourself, that way if you are ever feeling overwhelmed you will have someone to go to who understands. Getting rid of any shame attached to your diagnosis is admirable and often can actually decrease bullying behaviours in school. Act as an ambassador for yourself!

How can I prepare to begin in secondary school?

One of the most important things your parents must prepare before you begin in secondary school is lots of paperwork! Your parents will provide your new school with information about you and your diagnosis so that the school can prepare the supports that you need. Before you start in a new school it might be helpful to arrange to meet with the special needs officer for the school or the SNAs of the school, giving them a chance to start to get to know you as well as you a chance to start to get to know them. Organising to take a tour of the school can be very helpful, as it will give you a general idea of the physical layout of the school, what the different types of classrooms look like and what the sensory environment of the school is like. Some schools have specific buddy or mentor systems in place focused on helping first year students transition comfortably into the secondary school environment. These systems involve being paired with an older student in the school and they will check in with you to see how you are getting on. If you have any questions you can always contact your assigned buddy for some help. 

What are some of the common challenges that autistic teenagers might experience in secondary school?

Secondary school can be a difficult time and you will encounter a variety of challenges in your school journey. Below are some of the most common challenges that students face in secondary school and ways that you can help yourself work through these challenges.

Confidence -comparison: Many autistic teenagers will struggle with self-acceptance or their self-confidence and this can be enhanced in secondary school: You are suddenly the youngest in the school population again and you could be feeling anxious about the new experience. Starting in a new school can be overwhelming as you try to navigate your new environment, learning your timetable, learning the new layout of the school and learning all your new peers and teachers names. Do not panic, these things will come with time, usually a lot quicker than you will expect. In secondary school it is important to identify a trusted adult, whether this is your class tutor, your year head, your SNA or even the secretary. It is nice to have someone that you can go to if you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Knowing that you have someone to turn to can help you feel more confident in yourself. Do not compare yourself to others, everyone is unique which is what makes us all so special. Remember, you are the very best person at being you!

Bullying: Sometimes, if you have unfortunately experienced bullying before during your primary school years you might anticipate that this will happen again in secondary school. Sometimes, the fear of bullying occuring can be almost as damaging as bullying itself. Remember, all secondary schools have in-depth procedures in place for combating bullying, even more so than primary schools do. However, unfortunately, sometimes bullying can occur as simply as sly or rude comments and often teachers will not pick up on this. This is especially relevant for autistic teenagers, whose sensory needs and desire for routine mean that actions which would be a mild annoyance for neurotypicals, such as repeated noise or rearranging of school items, can be very distressing.

If you feel as though someone in school is treating you unfairly, speak to the trusted adult you have identified in school or even to your parents at home. Having the support of an adult behind you can help you feel more confident in yourself and can help make the bullying come to an end. It is important that you can build up the courage to report any bullying you experience or in fact that you might see happening to other people. Bullying is never okay and there you are always deserving of support. See also our interview with expert Neil Kenny.

Development and Puberty: Naturally, all teenagers are going to experience challenges in relation to their development and puberty. Teenagers might be experiencing issues at home such as dealing with divorce, separation or grief, all of which are bound to add challenge to every aspect of your life. Additionally, teenagers might find that they are experiencing challenges surrounding their sexuality and might not feel confident to fully explore it. All teenagers will experience mood swings every now and again as a result of the hormonal changes that their bodies are experiencing. Autistic teenagers are no different and this can impact their lives inside and outside school.

You need to be easy on yourself. Life can be stressful and we are all going to experience a variety of challenges throughout our teenage years and our school experience. Speak to a trusted adult or to a close friend if you are feeling stressed or anxious. Remember, it is very likely that a number of others in your class feel the very same way!

Stress: School can be a stressful experience, from socialising to managing your workload to studying for exams. It is important that you identify a way that you can destress, whether that be taking some time to chat with friends or family, going for a walk or exercising, speaking with a counsellor or spending time engaging with something you love to do. If you feel like your school workload is too much for you, speak to your teacher, see if they have an alternative option for you or they might be able to provide you with an extended deadline. 

It is important that you do not allow stress to become overwhelming for you and know when you need to take a break. 

What is the sensory environment in secondary school like?

Secondary school is quite different from primary school for a number of reasons. In secondary school you will move from class to class much more frequently and are likely to eat your lunch in a much larger cohort of students. There are new classroom environments to adjust to such as a science classroom, a home economics classroom and a woodworking room which all might have new smells, sights and sounds. In secondary school, typically the entire student population will eat lunch at the same time in one room called the cafeteria or the canteen. This environment can be overwhelming for some students so there should be an alternative option available to you. It is important to be aware of your own needs and not to be afraid to speak up if a sensory environment is overwhelming for you. Your school should make accommodations to help make the experience easier for you.

What are special accommodations and why might I need them?

The exam environment can be a stressful time for all teenagers but being autistic means that school exams can be even more difficult. You may need assistive technology to complete your exams, or perhaps you find it difficult to sit still for a consecutive amount of time. Special accommodations allow you to alter the exam environment to better suit your needs. For example, maybe you will sit your exams in a different room to the rest of your peers, or perhaps you will get extra time to finish the exams. Other special accommodations include the use of assistive technologies or maybe you might even need a scribe to help you during your exams. A scribe is someone who will write your exam paper for you based on the verbal answers you give them. You can apply for special accommodations through your SNO (special needs officer). Ensure that you apply early for your accommodations to give yourself the best chance of receiving the support that you need. 

How can I feel organised for my school day?

The acronym BUSTLE is a great way to remember what you need for the school day ahead of you and to feel more organised.

B for Bag: Remembering to have your bag packed with the books you need for the day ahead. Is your homework complete and ready in your bag?

U for Uniform: Have your uniform organised in advance of your school day. Maybe you could lay it out at the end of your bed before you go to sleep. 

S for Sports or Science: Think about your day at school tomorrow. Do you have P.E. tomorrow? Do you need to prepare your P.E. uniform? Or do you have a science class tomorrow? Is there any particular equipment you need to have organised?

T for Travel: If you use a form of transport to get to school do you have your travel card, your bus pass or money for the bus ready? 

L for Lunch: In the morning do you have your lunch ready to go? Sometimes you can prepare your lunch in advance and leave it in the fridge so that it is ready for you in the morning. If there is a canteen in school, do you have lunch money arranged if you need it?

E for Extras: What else do I need for my day at school tomorrow? Is there anything different about my day tomorrow? For example do I need a parents signature on my school journal or do I have a permission slip I need signed?

Following these 6 steps should make sure you are ready and well organised for the school day.

What should I do if I find I am becoming overwhelmed in school? 

Everyone can feel overwhelmed or stressed in school every now and again. If you feel like you cannot manage these feelings then it is important that you look for some help. Again, it is important to recognize how important it is that you disclose your diagnosis to your school. When people feel overwhelmed in school you might feel it manifesting in different ways, whether you feel more quiet than usual or whether you feel angry and as if you are acting out or whether you might experience a meltdown, it is important to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.

Acting out is not a healthy way of dealing with anxiety or negative emotions and could be perceived by teachers as being a problem that might need disciplining. Instead, try and identify when you are beginning to feel this way and tell a trusted adult in school. Ask for some time off if you need it and allow yourself time to unwind. 

Can this be improved? Contact webeditor@asiam.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.