Most kids go to school to learn things such as reading, writing and math. Additionally, they may pick up important executive functioning skills, social skills or enjoy some extra-curricular activities. School can teach children a lot of useful tools and prepare them for life.
But what happens when school becomes less about learning and more about survival? As someone on the autism spectrum who wasn’t diagnosed until tenth grade, that’s what happened to me. While all of my classmates were trying to figure out how to solve homework problems for math, I was trying to figure out how I would live through yet another traumatic day of panic attacks.
My mornings would begin with the sound of my alarm. It was a sound I had learned to dread, because it meant I had to face another day. After hitting the snooze multiple times in an attempt to avoid the terrifying feeling of anticipation, my parents would finally wake me up themselves. I was already running late.
I usually had to walk to and from school, which was about a mile each way. But by this time, I was so stressed out that my mom offered to drive me. Once I arrived, I began to sob. I didn’t want to go in. It was torture to me. But I had no choice. I dried my tears and got out of the car. I could hear the flag banging on the flagpole. That sound still haunts me to this day.
There were so many people in the building. The mixed smells of body odor, sulfur from construction on the building and commercial cleaning supplies were overpowering. I could hear talking, laughing, shouting, lockers slamming and the bell ringing, but I couldn’t hear myself think. My first class hadn’t even started, and I was already in panic mode.
My heart pounded. My breathing quickened. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. The teachers kept telling me I was fine, but I went straight to the counseling center, which I was very familiar with by that point. They knew me well there. I remember the crisis counselor coming over to me and merely asking if I wanted to go home. I nodded, and they called my house for my mom to come back and pick me up. They knew I couldn’t learn anything in this panicked state, and I had been in this state every day for nearly two years.
It took quite a few months more from that point for the school district to finally allow me to transfer to a school better suited for my needs. A place where I didn’t have to worry about surviving sounds and smells, let alone misunderstandings. A place where I could begin to recover from the daily trauma and finally learn. I eventually graduated from this school in 2007 with a class of fewer than 20 other students.
Education is important, but no one can learn in the panicked state that I was in. It was all I could do just to survive. Our kids deserve better than this, and in some aspects perhaps we have changed for the better. But we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding and providing for students with differences. Let’s make sure that no more students fall through the cracks. Let’s make school a place where students can focus on learning — not just surviving.
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