Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Struggles With School - by Kristin N.

I want to share some of my story about my struggle with being on the spectrum in school and how I felt I wasn’t accommodated. This was also because when I was growing up, they didn’t have very much information on what Autism actually was, especially when it came to women, so I was never diagnosed. People have this idea that those who are Autistic are one specific way, but we all have differences as well. Not all of us are male and enjoy things like Science and Math. Some of us are very much female, and as for me, I’ve always done better with English. Before I started school, my Mom would take me to the library, where she taught me the alphabet. She read some stories out loud for me, but I learned very quickly and was able to teach myself how to read after only learning a few basic words. 
By the time I got to school, I was already reading way beyond my years. I always had my nose in really thick books with language that the other kids hadn’t picked up on yet. I would get these reading certificates for being the best reader in class. I also taught myself how to write, but my handwriting wasn’t always the best so my teachers would struggle with being able to read it. I wouldn’t put enough space between the letters and words, and my ‘a’s looked like ‘o’s. They could never tell that my check marks were check marks. I still have sloppy handwriting at times to this day, and even run off the lines so that’s why I prefer to type. My teachers would try to teach me how to do it, but I couldn’t get it right. I could tell they got frustrated with me, and just didn’t know how to approach the situation. 
I was in speech therapy for stuttering for the first two years of school. I started being able to speak better, at least enough for them to understand, but I still had trouble with certain words, and because they sounded as if they were well spoken, my teachers didn’t realize I had trouble processing these words before they would come out of my mouth. It took everything in me, taking away a lot of the energy I had, just to get these words out that I struggled with, but because the issue wasn’t visible to them, they never thought it was a problem. For example, I was in the 2nd grade and I asked my teacher if I could use the “potty”, so I got in trouble for using that word, was told that it was inappropriate, and I should use the word “restroom” instead. I remember how frustrated I would get trying to say it, I tried to explain that it was difficult for me, but she just assumed I was being defiant, and forced me to say the word that was harder for me to process and get out. 
I feel as if I got in trouble for a lot of things my teachers didn’t understand. I had difficulties with many things, so they thought that it meant I was being a bad kid. I had trouble with sleeping during nap time because of my sensory issues, I would just lay there the entire time with my eyes open, and if they saw me awake, they would yell at me to go to sleep. I was asked to stay after class to discuss my behavior, especially when it came to my disorganized desk, and constantly forgetting things like my textbooks at home. I didn’t mean to be this way, I just didn’t think the same way as the other kids. I was constantly searching my desk through wads of papers stuffed in there, so I could barely find anything. No one tried to teach me how to get organized, at least in a way I could understand, so I got punished. Because of the constant sensory overload and social anxiety, I would do things like balance the back legs of my chair, rocking back and forth, because that's how I felt comfortable stimming. I was told I needed to stop what I was doing because I was distracting the rest of the class, but I had no clue what else I could’ve been doing differently to help me focus better.
I remember being in class for an exam one day and being allowed to chew on a candy necklace. It was the one day I felt like I was actually being accommodated for the way I was, occupying myself with the candy necklace made it so it was much easier to take the test. But of course, it never happened again after that. I loved writing on the inside of my desk which obviously had my teachers upset, so I had to spend the entire class once scrubbing it off. I didn’t know that it was wrong, because it made me feel better to carve things into desks and draw in them, so I saw no problem with it. I tried wearing these leather gloves to class a few times but the teachers got furious once again because it was strange to them, they didn’t understand that it helped me. I tried to do many things differently, and felt very misunderstood because of it. I loved to vocally stim the most out of anything and that made people think I was just being rude. I interrupted class a lot because I would get super anxious, yelling out random words I liked, making sound effects, humming, and repeating things over and over that made me feel good. This always caused the other kids to laugh of course, but they weren’t really laughing with me like I thought, they were laughing at me. 
That’s when the bullying really started. I would make these animal sounds in particular, getting completely animated mimicking different animals, barking like a dog, etc. The kids called me ugly, weird, and stupid, among other things. They made fun of the way I walked. I constantly struggled with keeping my shoes tied so I was always tripping over myself. I hated that I could never get the shoelaces tied just right, so I started wearing high heels to school a few times because I grew tired of being made fun of. I would end up being late to class because I would struggle getting up and down the stairs. I would have to take it step by step very slowly until I would get to the top. It wasn’t comfortable to say the least and it just ended up making it so I got made fun of even more. My Mom would pick out my clothes not realizing a lot of stuff she picked out didn’t match or would end up being see-through or something. I got teased a lot for the way I dressed.
I accidentally started a rumor about myself that I was a lesbian because I had kissed my friend and told another friend so word got around. I went along with it thinking guys liked lesbians based off of what my friend said, so I was tortured for years because of that. They had something else now they could use to get under my skin, and it was actually my fault that it happened even though I wasn't aware of what I had done. I would stare down guys I liked and people in general, which had people constantly talking trash about me, making me feel as if I was a sick person because I stared people down and couldn’t help it. I hated lining up at the door with all the other kids because of how close we were while standing there together. It sent my anxiety through the roof and I always got this sense of relief when the line would start moving. From the very moment I started school, even at the orientation, I hated being in groups of kids. We sat down for story time, and I grew very uncomfortable sitting there, so I just broke down crying, begging my Mom to take me home, at the orientation before kindergarten. Most of the kids didn’t want anything to do with me because I was so different.
I would play on the playground by myself a lot and ended up getting physically hurt from doing really impulsive things like standing on the pull-up bars and jumping off, smacking face first into the concrete. My favorite thing was the monkey bars, anything where I could dangle myself, feeling that pressure in my legs. The other kids would be playing on the slide and jumping rope while I was hanging upside down. One of the guys I had a crush on used me in this tag game they made up. I was so excited to play with the other kids for once, especially a guy I liked, so I didn’t realize that they turned me into the big, ugly, scary monster that chased them around the playground. They would tell me how gross I was when I would come close, but at that age I had no clue that it was a bad thing what was happening. I truly thought they just liked to play with me, but I was very wrong.
I’m pretty sure my grades started to drop most of all due to the bullying, and due to the fact that nothing was ever done about it. It became much harder to concentrate with all that anxiety. The sensory issues and problems with interacting socially caused me to get physically ill, so I ended up in the school office a lot laying down, waiting to get picked up to go home early. I did have a few times where I had faked it, but most of the time I was truly sick. I couldn’t ever handle being called on. I absolutely hated being surprised, getting caught off guard to give responses to questions being asked, because I couldn't process it quickly enough. I didn’t mind if I was ready to give the answer by raising my hand on my own accord, but my teachers constantly targeted me, putting me on the spot when I wasn't ready to give an answer. So many times I would just say “I don’t know” or nothing at all which caused people to think I was slow. I would tell my Mom I needed help with my homework, but she was always more concerned with my sister because the teachers stated she had ADD, so my Mom spent the entire time helping her, telling me I was smart enough to figure it out on my own, because I was able to focus better than my little sister. Little did she know I struggled with comprehension, simply understanding what I was reading. It would take me a long time to figure out the answers, sometimes I would sit there for hours on one problem, and just eventually give up. Luckily a lot of homework assignments got graded on completion instead of accuracy, so that kept my grades up for a while. I was always confused how I would get some of the answers. I never knew how I was doing it, I would just do it. I did the pronoun reversal thing as well, always switching the point of view of the person while writing, and I still struggle to this day with it and have to go back and edit my work constantly. I continued to vocally stim in middle school when I first got there, but because they kicked me out of class so much, getting all these lunch detentions, I stopped doing it for a while. So I began taking my pens and pencils and poking my arms over and over to offer that stimulation that I needed. 
This is when I really started becoming more mute, because I was always on guard with the other kids, and also wasn’t allowed to do the things I needed to do in order to cope. I switched middle schools halfway through my 8th grade year, so I began vocally stimming again in class, but this time I wasn’t really interested in learning anymore. I was purposely trying to turn it into a joke because it made me feel good to express myself that way, I just didn’t care about anything else anymore. I would mostly shout out random words, I believe my favorite one was “Cookie”. I do the same thing now with the word “Butts” where I just repeat a certain word I like over and over again. My grades started dropping more drastically where I had failed a couple of classes for the first time in my life, but I still managed to pass enough to get to high school. I became disruptive because either I suffered in silence filled with all my anxiety and sensory sensitivity, or people thought I was a complete weirdo shouting and making noises to make myself feel better. My teachers always saw me as a problem instead of trying to figure out solutions to help me. I think that’s the biggest issue with the way these educators treat the students in general. They automatically assumed I was acting this way as a way to act out, but I was just doing what I needed to do to survive school. They had no clue what was going on with me and neither did I. I believed what they thought about me, which made things really depressing because I saw myself in a negative light instead of seeing myself for who I really am. I couldn't figure out why I felt I was doing everything so wrong. 
I feel a lot more at peace now that I’ve discovered that I’m Autistic, having figured out that society is the problem. I absolutely dreaded presentations, they tried to get me to do a lot of them. It was easier for me to do as a small child but the older I got, the worse it got. I even backed out of a presentation, taking a zero on it knowing that if I didn’t do well on the midterm, I wouldn’t have graduated high school. I was so scared of getting up in front of the class, that everything I had worked for meant absolutely nothing to me. I skipped a lot of high school but still managed to get by. I ended up dropping classes immediately in college where they tried to get me to do presentations as well. I also had this one teacher who purposely saw I was the quietest in the class, so he called on me over and over, and even used me as an example for sexual harassment which made me very uncomfortable considering all the sexual abuse I had endured in my life.
I felt like I was always singled out because I tried to fade into the background, so I wouldn't be noticed. I would’ve much rather worked on my own instead of constantly being concerned with whether or not my teacher was going to force me to communicate. I ended up skipping college as well and would get picked up by friends as soon as I would get dropped off. But many times I didn’t have a ride, so I would just walk around the school while class was going on. I would sit out in the hallway and read. I also sat in the bathroom when I started feeling weird because I was out in the open, I got paranoid I was going to get caught, or someone in my class was going to see me walking around school, noticing I had been skipping class. 
Little did I know that no one in college really cared or paid attention, because I barely said a word. I ended up not going back to class when I would get let out for bathroom breaks. My teacher even called it out one day, and said that we weren’t going to get those short breaks if people didn’t stop leaving for the day. He also tried to make it so we would have to take tests after the bathroom breaks just so people like me would actually come back to class. I would memorize the review sheets right before taking the quizzes but forgot all the information immediately after I was done. I didn’t learn much of anything. It was just memorize, take the test, repeat, because I wasn't interested anymore. I feel being in school didn’t utilize any of my strengths, especially because I’m such an abstract thinker. I need to think outside the box and do things my way in order to do well. They don’t offer the right tools so people like me can function better in a classroom setting.
I never knew how to cope. I was never properly taught, and I was never given any guidance. It also didn’t help that no one was really informed of my autism or anything else for that matter. They turned a blind eye to me and I suffered greatly, thinking I was stupid for many years because I couldn’t do things the same as everyone else. I did things with my intuition and from the heart instead of using a more logical approach, which made things even more difficult for me. I eventually figured out the answers but it took a very long time for me to get there, and I had to do it all on my own. Our voices need to be heard and we need to be recognized for who we are, instead of allowing them to mold us into just one way of thinking, since there's never just one right way of doing things. I think and learn differently as an Autistic woman, so that should be accommodated for. I feel we definitely need to put an end to all this stigma around kids who seem like they're being disruptive when they actually need help. It’s also another reason I’m afraid to ask for help to this day, mainly because I never got it as a child. We all deserve the same kind of treatment any other kid gets, and that’s why I'll continue to let my voice be heard so we can prevent this from happening to anyone else ever again.

-Kristin N. 

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