NEW EPISODE! School - No matter how smart an autistic is school can be challenging. Fitting in, bullying, dealing with unexpected questions, communicating with teachers can affect performance. Did you reach your potential in school? Hear one story.
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High school prepares you for the future. High school grows you into the person you are. Education is life itself.
All well-known quotes but are any of them true. In my case, not really.
This episode is about my autistic experience in school.
Finding out I’m autistic helped me feel better about things that seem to go wrong in my life, things I didn't have control over but thought I should, like school. The only way to explain how hard it was for an autistic person of my generation to get an education is to tell you what it was like for me. Here’s my story:
I spent kindergarten through fourth grade at a Catholic school.
In first grade something happened that I later realized was one of many early signs of autism. One day in first grade the teacher said “starting at the top of the page write one capital letter A.” I stared at the blank page wondering what exactly that meant. Finally I started at the top and wrote a giant letter across the whole sheet. The nun saw me, got mad and scolded me for being belligerent.
I was getting only average grades. I didn’t want my parents to be unhappy with me so on my report card I changed a C- to a C+ in one subject. I didn’t think to use the same color ink. I tried to erase my mistake but the eraser wore the beige outer layer of the paper through to a white layer. I didn't get away with my plan.
I was frustrated because I felt like I worked so hard for my grades yet didn’t seem to be more than average.
In fourth grade we had something called SRA reading cards. Each student worked on their own. We’d take a card from a box on the teacher’s desk. We’d read a paragraph and then answer comprehension questions.
I sped through them. I mean I could see the paragraph right there and I could pick from multiple choice answers. That was easy for me. When I finished a card I’d go back to the front of the room and pick another.
Again a teacher was unhappy with me. She thought I was somehow cheating because I got through the cards so quickly.
She made me go slow which meant I sat at my desk bored pretending to be working. I still got only Cs on my report card.
I felt like there was something wrong with me.
After fourth grade we moved. At the new school I was getting straight A’s. The teachers were nicer and the environment was not so restrictive. I started to believe in myself and my brain.
In 7th grade we took a statewide test but I’m not sure what the purpose was. The questions consisted of a pattern on the left side of the paper we had to match with one of 4 on the right. I remember thinking how obvious it seemed and wondered why we were even doing this. I mean, we could see the patterns and compare them so what was the point?
This time my mother was called to the school so the principal could find out if I cheated. She knew I wouldn’t and told them as much. As I think about it now I wonder how someone could even cheat on a test like that.
The principal told my mother I had achieved the highest score in the school and that it seemed too high compared to other students. She insisted and the school accepted it was accurate.
I read voraciously in grade school and my mother gave me books like Animal Farm and 1984, books normally reserved for high school students. I read and sounded like an adult.
My grades were great in high school. I did well in science and math. I admit to feigning illness the day it was my turn to dissect a fetal pig in Biology. I didn’t like history because it was just memorizing a bunch of dates with no context. My brain couldn’t absorb the information.
I was in the high school band, the source of my only friends. I played piano terribly and was adequate at the French horn and violin. Music was the way I expressed my feelings.
At my yearly meeting with the school guidance counselor she told me I was deficient in reading comprehension and suggested I try science fiction books to learn and understand more words. A Trekkie was born.
I didn't have many friends outside of band. While nearly everyone else was listening to the Beatles, my record player was playing the the Shirelles and the Chiffons.
I also loved classical music. It’s my earliest memory of music triggering my imagination. I lived in that magical world a good deal of the time.
At the end of junior year my best friend started dating the guy she knew I liked and I was crushed. I just wanted to run. When I found out I had enough credits I chose to graduate a year early just so I could get out of there.
I was accepted to University and moved into a shared room in the freshman dorm. It was painted pale purple, a color I found depressing. There was no one I knew there so every day I went to class, faced straight ahead, sat down and then left at the end of the class. I spoke to no one.
I don’t remember even saying hello. I thought I was supposed to wait until the other person spoke to me.
I didn't know how to study because I didn't have to in high school. I didn’t know what to expect.
I heard that in order to pass it was important to take notes. Notes of what? How was I supposed to take notes and listen at the same time. Why were questions on the test different from what I heard in class?
I felt overwhelmed, lost, frustrated and depressed. By the end of the first semester I didn't know how I could go on.
What saved me was running into an acquaintance from high school who needed a roommate.
She took me to parties and clubs. It was outside of my comfort zone but at least the music was so loud that it was OK not to talk. And I loved dancing.
We eventually met and hung out with some architecture students who were nerdy like us and never had dates like us.
At that time it was cool to hang stolen street signs on your dorm room wall. Wanting to have the best one, we hatched a plan to take a freeway sign with the name of our university. The guys insisted they do it alone without our help and my roommate and I waited to hear about their adventure.
Freeway signs look small as you pass them at a high rate of speed. No one had anticipated that. Our friends tried to load the sign into their van and it wouldn't fit. They were spotted and arrested. I guess you could say they weren’t cut out to be criminals.
My roommate and I went to pick them up. When they were brought into court their hands and legs were shackled. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
We left the court and as we reached the parking lot I screamed at how they were treated saying it wasn't fair, it was unnecessary, where was the justice, it was nothing more than a prank and look, shackles!
There was silence for a moment and then my friends erupted in laughter, “wow this is wonderful! we've never seen you express emotion before!”
That was a shock. I had feelings all the time and I thought people knew it because in my head my emotions were loud. I was oblivious to the fact that even at my most emotional moments my face looked blank.
In my sophomore year I took an advanced calculus class by mistake. This was an example of misunderstanding what other students seemed to get. I should have been in an introductory class so I was struggling. For the first time in my life I didn't understand math.
I sat in class faking like I knew how to do the equations. One day the professor announced “Some of you seem to be having difficulty so here are my office hours.”
I was so naive. What were office hours, I thought? Does he expect me to go to his office? Would I admit I didn't know what I was doing? What would I say?
I avoided class and finally stopped completely. Now I realize I was burned out. Because I didn’t officially withdraw I got a D in the class.
That was the end of math and my dream of becoming a chemistry teacher.
I lost whatever confidence I had left and dropped out of school telling myself I just wanted to see what it was like to have a job and live in the real world.
After having a few unsatisfactory jobs like reservation agent or working in a call center I decided to re-enroll.
I decided to go in another direction and enrolled in a few art classes. I did great in advertising design and drawing. Then there was art history where I needed to memorize dates, artist names and different periods in history.
It seems like I couldn’t keep all of this straight in my mind. I’ve never heard of these artists or things like romanticism and representative art. Who was Monet or Manet or Vermeer?
When I took the art history final exam my memory did not cooperate. As a visual thinker I could see what I’d learned but I could not match it with the text on the test. I would discover years later that I actually knew a lot about art history. It was buried there until I had no anxiety about it.
I dropped out again. Since I left in the middle of the semester I got incompletes or F’s in my classes. I met with my drawing teacher who was disappointed I was leaving. It really hurt to go. I had been unable to ask for help, after all in first through fourth grade I had teachers who looked down on me. And then there was how shy and quiet I seemed.
I got a job in a training program in a hospital. I was learning new things that were math and science oriented and making a little bit of money. I even spoke to my fellow employees.
Eventually that justice and fairness trait pushed me to complain to the boss about one of the rules. I was barely making enough money to live so cutting expenses was important. The men at work were allowed to wear any color shoes they wanted so they wore their street shoes. The women were required to wear white shoes which meant I had to buy a pair just for work. So one day I walked in with brown shoes.
That was my first experience being bullied by a boss. He had to change the rule. I had not predicted that I would pay for it later.
I was feeling stressed and restless. I faced that I was stuck in that job until I got a better education.
I went back to school. This time I enrolled in business and recreation classes. Business classes weren’t challenging. The homework seemed like busy work.
In a camping class, yes there was a camping class, one of our projects was to go on an overnight camping trip in the mountains. I dreaded the very thought of it.
It meant socializing with people I didn’t know. A whole class of them. I pictured everyone else being friends and knowing everything there is to know about camping and me being my usual quiet, shy, blank face and blank mind self.
There was no way I could go. Absolutely no way and now I know it’s because I’m autistic.
I was feeling so stressed about it that I said I was sick that weekend.
At the end of my junior year I dropped out again. By that point I don’t remember how many times I had left school.
Every time I left my family would say “just take one course at a time. Don’t give up. Eventually you’ll get your degree.”
I got a full-time job and went back to school again. I took one course at a time in the evenings. I earned enough credits for my degree. It took me 10 years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
Due to so much dropping out, incompletes and failing grades I had a grade point average of 2.6 out 4.0 which is equivalent to a C+
After a few jobs I was hired by a law firm as a paralegal and realized I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought it was a way to right all the wrongs in the world.
Only A students were admitted to law school. I didn’t care that there was no chance of being accepted, I applied.
I was lucky. One of the partners in the firm put in a good word for me at his alma mater. I was waitlisted and when there was an opening the week before school started I got in.
If only that were the end of the story. Two things most challenging about law school are the Socratic method and the ability to write essays.
The Socratic method is a method of teaching which uses progressively difficult questions to improve critical thinking. In practical terms the professor called on a student and asked for an explanation of an appellate case.
Once the student answered, the professor would challenge the student by asking more questions, usually about legal issues a law student wouldn’t have thought of. Often it took the form of the professor saying sarcastically to the class “Does anyone else think that’s true? Who knows what the real issue is?” The brave soul who responded would be put through a similar version.
A well-known autistic trait is difficulty answering unexpected questions. A stressed autistic brain has a tendency to go blank. Add a social environment.
I could hardly sleep, had chaotic dreams, felt depressed and lost a tremendous amount of weight. I wasn’t the only one, most students struggled with stress.
I still had a problem with reading comprehension. I understood what I read. Getting it from my brain to the paper when test-taking didn’t go well. I checked out extra books from the library, taped the lectures, made outlines and notecards. This was in addition to the 100 pages of reading for class that we did each day.
My writing wasn’t the greatest. I have an autistic trait that keeps me from understanding things that are obvious to others. Knowing that, I argue with myself over meaning. There were times when I didn’t understand what the professors were looking for in the exams.
My grades were average, just Cs. I knew future jobs depended on my grades. In fact, to this day when I apply for a job I sometimes have to provide school transcripts.
After graduation I took the bar exam, a 3-day test to be licensed to practice law. We were in a ball room at convention center with 500 other people. Can you imagine how wonderful that is for an autistic person?
During the test we were supervised by women with intimidating, disapproving looks on their faces. I had to get permission to use the restroom and if you did that too often it was presumed you were cheating.
When I finally got my turn I went to the women’s restroom and threw up. I was terrified. I felt a migraine coming on.
I did not pass the bar exam.
Maybe you can imagine by then my college and law school experiences tanked my confidence. I was a long way from the A’s I got in high school.
Through a friend I found a class designed for people who had failed the bar exam. It taught us how to take the test and how to understand what the questions were really asking for. The second time I took the bar exam I passed.
Now when I tell people it took me 10 years to get my bachelors degree I feel pride in the fact that I didn’t give up. I use to feel shame about it and hide it.
I thought I was smart and motivated enough to get a degree in four years and I expected that of myself. When I learned I’m autistic I finally had an explanation.
I know now why school was so hard for me. I often wonder what school would’ve been like if I’d had the support I needed.
What I would tell you if you asked is that if you’re struggling in school don’t give up. That may seem easy for me to say but I’m going to say it anyway.
The one thing that made a difference was someone telling me to keep going, to take it just a bit at a time and eventually it would happen. You might need your energy and time to deal with isolation, depression, expectations and lack of the kind of support you need.
One of the great strengths of being autistic is our persistence. It keeps us believing in ourselves and our goals when the odds are not in our favor.
If I’d had the support I needed things would have been easier. I wouldn’t be the smart person who couldn’t succeed.
Here’s something I can’t explain. Years later I was surprised to find out that the many things I thought I hadn’t learned about I had learned about. I’m not sure if there is a word for that phenomenon.
It turns out that I did know who Vermeer is and I can tell you about the romantic period. Physics seemed irrelevant when I studied it in college but now I remember it, understand it and am fascinated by it. When I lived in Costa Rica I remembered most of what I learned in Spanish classes I took in high school and college.
My autistic brain thinks differently, learns differently, stores and retrieves information differently than what the world expects.
I am both inspired and in awe of autistics who have or are getting their PhDs. I understand how challenging that is. If an autistic person drops out of school it’s not because they aren’t smart enough.
I believe that when schools are finally designed by and for autistics we will thrive.