For some people, the classroom can be a place of fear and anxiety. Although I am a very academic person, and love learning, I wake up every weekday with dread in my stomach.
The sensory environment affects my ability to cope with the social aspect of the classroom. For example, the lights in British classrooms are horrible: big white strip lights that give me headaches and make my vision blurry. Even the chair I sit on can cause discomfort, especially if someone else is sitting in MY seat!
The classroom is a social space, so it adds another layer for an autistic person to navigate. Teachers and students love metaphors, humour and irony and use them for connection. But for someone like me, it can be incredibly confusing. I’m trying to keep up with the content of the lesson while also having to consciously separate a serious comment from a throwaway joke.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong, I love political dark humour, especially TV shows like The Last Leg. But in the classroom, out of context? I can’t tell if they’re being sarcastic. We had a lecture on Gandhi a couple weeks ago. There were some very awkward conversations…
The general unpredictability that comes from a college environment is distracting and overwhelming. Tests without warning, busy lunchtimes, loud and rowdy teenagers; even walking down the corridor can be difficult when you struggle with sensory overload. Because it’s so exhausting, I find it very difficult to keep track of all the tasks I’m expected to complete if we’re only told verbally at the start of the lesson – I need written instructions because then I have something firm to work with.
In order to cope with all of the above, I use up so much energy I come home incredibly drained. That’s why lockdown was so freeing, because I didn’t have to deal with the stress of the classroom environment. For the first time, I was actively involved in class, asking and answering questions on the Microsoft Teams chat in my live lectures.
While the classroom is not always instantly autism-friendly, there are a few things schools can implement. For example, encouraging communication between the teacher and pupil. I don’t want to feel like a nuisance or a burden to the teacher if I want to talk something through – I don’t want to feel weird for asking them to use clearer language and clarify what they said about Gandhi.
With just a few small changes made to accommodate the neurodiversity in school classrooms, the quality of learning would improve so much. That way people like me, who genuinely enjoy learning about things like McLaughin’s 4 categories of state crime, I wouldn’t wake up feeling sick and anxious, I would just be excited…
Your Autistic Friend.