– by Imogen Warner

My name is Imogen, I’m 14 years old and in year 10. I was unfortunately traumatised during my primary school years and diagnosed with PTSD, which led to attendance problems for over a year and a half during year 8 and 9 – although ‘attendance problems’ may be an understatement, as I literally did not attend my school at all during that time. I’ve written this because I feel very strongly about attendance and how it is taught to students as something absolutely crucial, despite these ideals being unrealistic and oppressive toward neurodivergent students, such as myself.

The biggest problem with the UK government’s attendance campaign is that the whole idea targets and belittles the struggles neurodivergent youths regularly face while attending school, more specifically secondary/high school years. I have also written about the lack of knowledge and compassion a large portion of the education system has for these youths.

I’m constantly shocked at how uneducated the vast majority of students and teachers are with the idea of autistic/neurodivergent peers. Teachers, especially. So many students live their school years with autism, and yet they are completely oblivious.

Amongst many things, an educator’s duty is to look after their students and to notice signs that they are struggling. This is obviously not properly recognised when it comes to autism. I went through my primary school years knowing that my mind worked very differently to those that surrounded me, knowing that I was experiencing life on a much more viscerally confusing level than my peers and yet – I could find no explanation or term for this. I was the child playing with the younger children/years because my classmates could not understand me, I was the child laughed at and mocked by a few of my teachers, I was the child who was so much more deeply affected by matters such as insults intended as humorous remarks. Most importantly I was the child with such a strong sense of justice and equality – and I could not for the life of me understand why those I was growing up around didn’t see things the same way. Thinking back to those times now I really can’t understand how I wasn’t suggested for an autism assessment sooner, though I’ve had to face the frustrating reality that it’s because – particularly in girls – the education system isn’t properly equipped for spotting these now incredibly obvious traits. My mother worked as a teaching assistant for a few years, and after gaining a great deal of knowledge on the subject of autism she was able to identify these traits in a few of the students she worked with, something that had been useful toward how she supported and taught these students. If only more of this understanding was shared amongst teachers, especially those working in primary schools, autism and neurodivergent traits in children would be so much more likely to be diagnosed in early years.

A diagnosis is something incredible for someone with autism, it’s not only an explanation but it’s also a way to seek support. I can clearly remember the moment I was officially told I now had a diagnosis, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. My exact thoughts were; “I’m not weird. I’m not abnormal, and there’s nothing wrong with me. And it feels amazing to know this.”

School attendance and the push for students to attend is both unrealistic on some level and harmful. For example; a slogan published by the UK Government reading ‘This morning she was worried about school… but look at her now!’ is implying that students should push themselves toward something that fuels their anxiety significantly, and may even be encouraging students to mask. Masking is a survival skill autistic people very commonly develop in order to hide their traits, usually to avoid mistreatment or mockery. Although the term ‘masking’ is something frequently associated with autistic people this can also be applied to those with mental health disorders, and other conditions that fall under the neurodivergence umbrella. Masking is NEVER the solution to anything, especially when it comes to mental health and anxiety/fear surrounding school. Therefore schools should encourage students to accept and work with their worries rather than support the suppression of these matters. From experience, I can confidently tell you that you can never suppress/mask something forever. A common problem amongst autistic students is that they will return from school and ‘explode’, as an unfortunate result of feeling pressure to mask- this is something that greatly contributes toward extended absence, might I add. My overall point for this slogan is; it’s worded wrong, and conveys the dangerous idea that the suppression of anxiety or fear is a good thing. As I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this section of this document, that is far from the truth.

Another of these slogans reads ‘This morning he had a stomach ache… but look at him now!’. Stomach aches are a very common symptom of anxiety, something I can heavily relate to. This point is similar to my last; masking/suppressing symptoms. However, this is dangerous on a different level. Stomach aches can be anything, the possibilities ranging from anxiety and viruses to something severe such as appendicitis. And again – what this slogan is encouraging students to do is to hide their pain all for the sake of attendance, despite feeling physically ill. Something I would like to bring into my point here is menstrual pain. Students experiencing debilitating pain during these few days often need time off from school for a part of these few days each month, myself included. To tell a teenager to ignore their cramps to attend a school day is asking something that’s almost impossible to do, especially as period cramps are often unpredictable and too uncomfortable to focus on anything else. Masking any form of physical ailments is not only unfair to do, it is literally dangerous given that even a simple stomach ache can have so many possibilities behind it.

This point is very similar to the last, so I won’t write much on it. Another slogan reads ‘This morning he had a runny nose… but look at him now!”. Not only is this once again encouraging children to pretend they’re healthy, it’s quite frankly really unfair toward those the student interacts with. While something as mild as a runny nose seems barely anything to most it is something unpleasant to endure, and a lot of hassle for parents of younger children. Something lesser known is that some autistic individuals struggle greatly with the symptoms of a common cold, whether that’s due to routine changes or the discomfort of an obstructed nose or blocked ears that will likely feel like something much bigger and invasive to an autistic person.

The mainstream education system is not built for students with autism/similar disorders. Many students are sadly traumatised by this system, through similar events. This trauma has slowly destroyed me over the years, and the same goes for thousands of other autistic students. This attendance campaign feels so oppressive toward us – as we tried to mask and ignore our concerns. It may have worked for a while, until it didn’t. Not only did I have to deal with school work, I had to deal with my own masking experience; perfecting facial expressions, learning how to react appropriately, learning how to laugh when needed even though it grew exhausting. It’s like an extra workload. And even though no one was asking me to do this, I hadn’t gotten my autism diagnosis – leading me to believe that I had to blend in with social standards at the risk of being deemed weird or unapproachable. Perhaps had I been diagnosed earlier I may have felt differently. Attendance may seem easy to a lot of students and those part of the government enforcing the attendance campaign, but it isn’t for all of us.

Biography

I’m Imogen, I’m 14 years old and discovered that I was autistic at the age of 13. Until last September, I had not attended school for two years. I am an avid writer and artist and I enjoy music, voice acting and playing computer games in my spare time. I live in South Wales with my parents, younger sister, two house-rabbits and a tortoise. I aspire to be a writer in the future and I feel it is important for people to see and understand the reality of being a young autistic person.