My Experiences At School: An Insight Into Ableism

TW: Suicidal thoughts & self harm mentions

*Note: My school has been named X for privacy reasons*

My time at school was not the happiest – trying to navigate a world not designed for you with no support/accommodations is not easy. Now that I have left, I feel it is my responsibility to share my experiences and try to prevent others from feeling as lost and broken as I was whilst at school X.

I was so excited to start for sixth form; it was going to be a fresh start and I thought I would finally be accepted and happy. My psychologist at the time did warn me about X, she said that it’s not suitable for someone like me, but I took no notice as I had heard such great things from other people. That was my first mistake.

We were honest from the start about my autism, whilst filling out forms before the start of term we ticked the relevant box expecting that I would receive extra support. No one from the school reached out to me before I joined, I was offered no support or accommodations. When I queried this with a member of staff, I was told that I never ticked the box and that “I am not autistic” despite me having previously received an unofficial diagnosis by a clinical psychologist. It turned out that this box was just a formality, no one checks or cares. The school doesn’t even have a SENCO but then why would they, X doesn’t want someone like me.

I boarded during year 12 and every half term we had room changes. As an autistic person I found this extremely distressing and when I spoke to my housemistress she just said, “it’s only fair and everyone needs to share a room” and told me to move back to my old school if I wasn’t happy. She then put me in a shared room despite mine, my parents and the school counsellors concern which led me to experience suicidal thoughts again. Why couldn’t she have just listened? X doesn’t seem to understand that everyone is different, and you can’t treat us all the same way. I remember crying myself to sleep every night wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t fit in like the other girls in the boarding house.

I’ve always suffered with low self-esteem and self-confidence, and it seemed like all X did was lower it even further. I was the only girl in my house not allocated a sister, the reasoning was because “I don’t have anything in common with the other girls”. I also wasn’t appointed house sports prefect, instead a special position “house sports captain” was created for me. My housemistress couldn’t possibly appoint an autistic person to be a prefect so instead of 8 prefects there were 7 prefects and a captain. Why would you go out of your way to push me down again?

Academics has never been a struggle for me, and this was no different at X. In the year 12 exams I received 4 A*s and was top of the year both in chemistry and overall grades. I had never won a school prize before so I was really hoping I would be given the chemistry prize or even an academic prize given that 25% of the year is awarded one but yet again the autistic student is discriminated against. Nothing I did was good enough and this triggered yet another suicide crisis.

After the summer holidays I returned to school self-harming and severely depressed, but X took no notice. I remember crying to my housemistress, too ashamed of my cuts to go swimming but I wasn’t allowed to be excused as “it’s nothing the other pupils haven’t seen before”. Apparently, my cuts were all superficial and no big deal. That is until I cut too deep at school and only then was it an issue, but it was too late, I didn’t want to live anymore. I spent my lessons writing goodbye letters, I spent my breaks cutting in the school toilets. January 3rd 2021, that was the date I was going to take my own life.

This is an extract from a message I wrote to a crisis hotline:

“Please help me, I can’t cope anymore, my thoughts are too strong. I’m such a burden to everyone and I’m better off gone. I feel so broken and like I’ve completely lost myself. I don’t want this life anymore; I just want to die. Please help me, I can’t do this, I can’t go through another day here [at school X]”.

This is what X did to me, piece by piece it destroyed me.

Then the second lockdown came and I didn’t have to attend school X anymore, I was free. I received my official autism diagnosis and dedicated time to learning about myself. With the help of my loving and supportive family, I was able to enjoy life again. I learnt that being different is nothing to be ashamed of and that I have a right to ask for accommodations and these deserve to be met.

In Janurary 2021, a childhood friend of mine tragically took his own life. When I found out in March I was distraught and I remember telling myself ‘That could have been me’. That was the moment I decided to become an autism and mental health advocate. I have since gained a mass following, something I never expected, and discovered a community that is inclusive, supportive, and non-judgemental, unlike school X. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging and everything started to make sense.

All X cared about was their reputation and position on the league table; they didn’t care that a straight A* student was mentally ill and needed their support. As long as I got the grades and could be used in a statistic to plaster on their website, that’s all that mattered to them.

Although I did come out with 4 A*s, the trauma I have from my time at school X will stay with me for the rest of my life. But I am not alone in my experiences: on a recent Instagram poll in which nearly 5000 autistic people participated, 95% experienced ableism at school.

Schools need to do better. If they had the will to learn and be understanding maybe schools wouldn’t crumple autistic students, 72% of whom are in mainstream.

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