What a New School Year Felt Like as a Person on the Spectrum


Growing up, I always found the last week of summer to be a bittersweet experience. I relished the freedom, yet I felt terrified about the new school year ahead. I’d start to build up an overwhelming amount of anxiety that would travel with me into the classroom.

If you had asked me what I feared the most, I probably would have said the social challenges that I always struggled with. But there was another difficulty involved, one that I didn’t understand until many years later: the sensory onslaught that a new school year represents.

Back then, I didn’t understand that I was on the autism spectrum and had sensory sensitivities. The world just felt like… well, the world. I didn’t know how to disentangle the reality I was perceiving from the individual senses that were piecing that reality together. It took a long time to figure out how it all worked — not just my senses, but their patterns and the different ways habit and change can impact them.

Today, I can look back and understand why going back to school was stressful: being at home during the summer meant being somewhere so familiar that I had long since acclimated to the sensory data of the surroundings. The lighting, sounds, tactile variations… my mind was used to it all and did not have to work as hard to process the never ending stream of incoming data.

The familiar is peaceful.

Change is the opposite. Change means the senses are raw and exposed and under attack.

And school was always that opposite after a summer immersed in the sensory familiarity of home.

A new school year would mean not just a different setting, but one that included a huge number of different rooms and activities. The classroom had one set of sensory experiences (the sound of pencils being sharpened, the peppery scents they caused, chair legs scraping floors, etc.). The hallway had another set (rowdy kids, their echoing voices). The playground had its own range of sensory experiences, as did the lunchroom, the bathrooms and so on.

It takes my mind quite awhile to acclimate to any new environment. And school was a dozen new environments all rolled into one.

At the time, I didn’t understand why I found simply being at school to be so overwhelming. Today when I go places, I immediately feel run down and I understand: my mind is just having to sort through a huge number of unfamiliar data points. The lights are different, and this can be painful until I acclimate (which can take many months). The sounds are different, which can feel strange and disorienting… again, I need time to get used to that.

If it is unfamiliar and it filters through one of the five senses, it can take quite a bit of time to acclimate to that newness.

For me, school was just layers and layers of confusing input that shifted throughout the day and intensified as we were shuttled from one activity or room to another. It felt like being inside of a giant sensory kaleidoscope that spun too fast — that I had no control over, that never stopped turning.

I mention it now because at the time, I never had words for any of this. I just stressed and felt overloaded and I couldn’t understand why.

I don’t know what could have made a difference, what sort of interventions might have been helpful. I just think understanding it would have been nice. Understanding it would have removed a lot of that confusion. And these being sensory issues, they were invisible to others. I wish the impact of school had been better understood by teachers and other students.

I think with kids on the spectrum, people see the discomfort and sometimes the outbursts. They can see the results. What they don’t see is the internal chaos that is being caused by factors most people aren’t even aware of.

Pencil being sharpened. Echoing voice. Chair scraping floor.

Simple things for some. Chaos for others.

Your reality can get thrown into that kaleidoscope and start turning and turning.

Follow this journey on Invisible Strings.

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