Just Doesn’t Fit In?

Over many years of working with families and school I have come across such an abundance of children with autism who appear to be highly vulnerable – ironically, as a direct result of being intellectually able enough to do a sufficient job of seemingly ‘fitting in’ at school while the reality is very different.
The profile of these children is that they may be academically able, and have the skills necessary to hide their autism ‘characteristics’ (often this is in the form of keeping a lid on behaviours that they might display in other situations, e.g. at home) and are able to use considerable intellectual effort to ‘conform’ to a degree that their actual needs may be overlooked. Many of these children, it should be noted (though, of course, not all) are female – and many may not have a diagnosis (again ironically, for similar reasons as outlined). Very often, these are children who would not appear to qualify for an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP – what used to be a statement) and would not usually be considered for an educational placement outside of mainstream school.
From an educational perspective this is absolutely understandable; why would schools seek to create a problem that does not seem to exist? However, in my view these are some of the most vulnerable children on the autism spectrum. Talking to parents as well as autistic adults (very often who have been diagnosed in adulthood) it becomes apparent just how traumatic school life can be for these children. Individuals report that they spend a huge amount of both intellectual and emotional effort simply to be as inconspicuous as possible; being ‘in the spotlight’ or drawing attention to self is reported as hugely stressful and anxiety provoking – hence the very reasonable rationale of wanting to avoid any kind of unwanted attention. This, though, leads to two key issues:
1. With such a degree of conscious work going into reducing anxiety by trying to ‘fit in’ the pupil may be at a considerable disadvantage in relation to their academic studies;
2. With any kind of success at ‘fitting in’ the pupil may be masking very real problems that teaching staff might otherwise be aware of.
The result of the above could be that a student ends up being intellectually drained without reaching their academic potential while at the same time leading educational staff to believe that there are no underlying problems – a double whammy that can last throughout a whole education (including Further and Higher educational experiences). I have met so very many adults who suggest that they would have been able to get far better grades had they not felt the need to make such an effort at pretending to be someone else at school.
One of the major problems with this situation is that very often high levels of anxiety remain with the pupil/student. While ‘copying behaviour’ (echopraxia – in this case, conscious) may alleviate the day to day confrontations that the pupil seeks to avoid, it does not necessarily reduce overall anxiety. The pupil still has to work up the courage on a daily basis to enter into an environment that they find confusing and chaotic, while at the same time working up the energy to put on a fa├žade to reduce any unwelcome attention. Imagine you know that you have to do something that causes you stress – perhaps a job interview, or an exam. When you wake up in the morning, how do you feel? Would you prefer not to have to do it? Are you dreading it? Are you wishing it was already over? Having spoken to many children and adults with autism I believe that similar feelings of dread are felt by pupils accessing mainstream schools – but they have to put themselves through this every single school day. Some days are even worse than others – having a lesson (e.g. PE) that is less structured than others, or having a day that it outside of the ‘norm’ (e.g. non-school uniform day) can add to overall anxiety, sometimes to an extreme degree. There is little research into lived experiences of ongoing, long term, consistent levels of anxiety for school children with autism, nor the subsequent impact; research does suggest, though, that levels of anxiety for school-aged children are higher than their peers.
Autism has been referred to as ‘invisible’ – I suggest that even within the ‘invisible’ autism population there is an even more hard to reach group; children who are in desperate need for understanding and support, but whose at-school presentation does not indicate any particular issue with attending school. Sometimes, it’s the hardest to reach group that are in the greatest need.