Unintended Consequences of School Rules – How you may be hurting your autistic students and not even know it.

Pretty soon, I’m going back to school for the last time before I am an adult. It’s the start of my senior year of high school, and by the end of the year I will have completed the journey of public education that I began thirteen years ago. For essentially as long as I remember, my life has been a constant cycle of a school year over changing seasons, fall transitioning into winter as the leaves fall from the trees. The spring comes in slowly, and then all at once, and the drudgery of the second semester falls quickly into the promised land of a two-month summer vacation.

That’s enough poetry for the day, I promise. It’s just a strange feeling, knowing I’ll be coming up on my last first day of school. I’m super anxious about it, as I always am with school. I’ve never had a great time with school. I’ve attended five different schools or other educational institutions, including doing school at home for a year due to having great difficulty in a school setting, and then finding confidence again by taking classes through a local community college. I’ve had teachers that have gone far to try to help and understand me, but I’ve also had teachers that seem to have done everything they could to make my life difficult. I’ve had schools that have been willing to work with me, schools whose only interest is getting me out as soon as possible so they no longer had to “deal” with me, and schools who didn’t even want me to attend.

Thankfully I’m now attending a private high school that has been fantastic at being flexible and actually listening to what I need, likely because private schools don’t have to go through the special education red tape and bureaucracy that public schools often do. Whatever the case may be, though, there are a few things I have noticed occurring at my school that have presented accessibility challenges, even though most people wouldn’t think of them as barring accessibility. These are simple things about everyday school life that can be challenging, and despite this they aren’t the type of thing that would generally come up in your average IEP meeting.

For example, take my smartphone. Some would say I’m addicted to that little glowing box of limitless information, and perhaps that’s true, but for me the iPhone is also an important accessibility tool. I use it to keep myself regulated. Music plays a big role in this, but so do simple little games like Minesweeper, Flow Free, and my color-by-numbers app. They help me keep my brain focused, distract me when I’m overwhelmed or anxious, and just overall help me process the world. A well regulated mind and body is essential. I also use my phone to learn more things, as I am infinitely curious about so much. I love to learn. I keep up on a lot of the latest science in some fields by reading journal articles from Google Scholar. I read more than that though, I read through forums, blogs, and Reddit as well. It keeps me grounded in the world. My phone also has more obvious accessibility features on it, like a GPS to make up for my zero sense of direction and my phone works in multiple ways as an AAC device. Also, my school has an app that allows one to log on and see every assigned piece of homework and when its due, lesson plans, grades, material lists, and other things of the such. Given that I struggle with executive functioning and organization, being able to consistently check this app is pretty much the only thing tying me to academic success at school.

Person on Cell Phone
A stock image of a person using a smartphone. For me and many others, a phone is an important accessibility tool.

My phone is an accessibility tool, and one that I rely on for school. However, that was almost threatened my sophomore year of high school. That year, my school instituted a “no phone policy.” Of course, at first this sounds fine, even to me, as I recognize that looking at a phone can be distracting when the teacher is giving a lecture. But what my school went to was not a simple “no phones out in class” rule, but a total phone ban. Phones aren’t even supposed to be on campus. From the time you get to school to the time you leave, you can’t have your phone out at all. Not during passing period, not during study halls, not during lunch, not before school when you arrive, never. Right before sophomore year, I was understandably pretty upset at the prospect of losing such an important tool in helping me navigate the world. Luckily, due to the fact that the school is so flexible, I managed to get an accommodation so I could continue using my phone as I always had. A few teachers still gave me a hard time about it though.

I was lucky in this case. You see, when the school made this rule I’m sure they didn’t think of the accessibility challenges it would present to some of its students (there are several other disabled/neurodiverse students at the school that I know also had serious issues with the phone policy). And, honestly, I doubt most people realize that something like a phone could be so logistically important. It’s not something that’s immediately apparent as an accessibility feature to people who don’t understand disabilities. There’s also this idea that seems to be prevalent that disabled students should be accommodated as little as possible so that they’re not getting “special treatment.” It would be easy to say “listening to music during passing period isn’t an accommodation, it’s entertainment,” or “doing color-by-numbers at lunch isn’t an accommodation, it’s entertainment,” and then not give the disabled students who need it an exception out of fear of giving “special treatment.” The thing is, both of those activities I just mentioned are necessary for sensory regulation, emotional regulation, and also controlling anxiety. They’re just as much valid accommodations as more obvious things such as noise-cancelling headphones and picking your seat. Yet I promise you that somewhere an autistic student has lost these non-obvious accommodations because they didn’t get written in the IEP out of fear of giving “special treatment” or simply because the people involved didn’t realize its potential as an accessibility tool. And what happens if a rule like this is instituted mid-year before there’s time to get formal accommodations? Schools will often make rules that are excluding their disabled students, and they don’t even realize it.

Here’s another example I’ve personally experienced. My math teacher has a rule that homework assignments must be turned in at the beginning of the class period. However, students are simply expected to remember to do this, it’s not prompted, and I tend to not do so well at remembering to do something if I’m not prompted. So, several times a week every week I will have my homework completed, in my folder, and ready to go, only to forget to turn it in and realize later in the day that I still had it. Luckily again, my math teacher was flexible with me and let me turn it in before the end of the day. This is another rule I generally understand the point of, but I promise you that when the teacher created the rule she didn’t have in mind the students that would be unable to get their homework in unprompted at the correct time due to poor executive functioning cognitive skills rather than just laziness or “I didn’t do my homework.” But again, this is a classroom specific rule and so is something that is unlikely to come up when discussing accommodations. Had my math teacher not been more flexible with me, I would’ve been utterly screwed over by this rule because of an aspect of being autistic. Another example of a rule that unintentionally excludes and reduces accessibility.

Or how about the teachers who decide not to outline their rules at all, but instead expect students to toe-around in grey area? Grey area is most definitely responsible for the frequent occurrence of autistic students getting in trouble and not having any understanding of why they got in trouble. Similar troubles arise with teachers who assign homework or projects without clear instructions, expecting their students to figure out what to do based on context. Very difficult for autistic (and I imagine all kinds of other) students to learn and function in an environment in which expectations are presented this way, yet these sorts of things are incredibly difficult to nail down when specifically looking at accommodations, and so they go either unnoticed or unaddressed.

Exams Test Student In High School, University Student Holding Pe
Stock image of a student taking a multiple choice test. Some rules and expectations at school can have unintended negative consequences for autistic students.

When brainstorming for this post, I also wrote down the issue of unannounced fire drills, which can obviously be a big obstacle for a student with both sensory processing differences and who struggles with anxiety. I also wanted to mention grading based on handwriting, as in teachers who require their students to write everything down by hand and then give part of the grade based on the quality of the handwriting. For obvious reasons, this would be a living hell for someone with fine motor skill difficulties (such as myself) or a disability such as dysgraphia. Luckily, both of these issues actually are generally recognized and accommodated for in autistic and other disabled students, but I thought it would be good to bring them up for the sake of awareness.

Schools and teachers seem to love making rules, some of which are better than others I must admit. However, so often a rule or expectation is made that can become unintentionally exclusionary for some students. This problem only compounds when it is not easily recognizable how exactly it could be a problem, or it’s difficult to accommodate. Because of this, there is often a lot of unintentional exclusion that goes on simply because of ignorance.

The first thing that may help negate this problem is for teachers and administrators to simply think deeply about what unintended effects or consequences a new rule change may have for disabled students. Now, obviously everyone cannot be an expert on how every disability may impact someone in every way and sometimes a rule is necessary even if it may pose problems for a minority of students. It is therefore necessary that teachers and administrators practice patience and flexibility. They must keep in mind that valid exceptions may exist for some people, and that accommodating these does not constitute “special treatment.” It is always important to stay flexible, and especially so here. Have the flexibility to recognize a student’s difficulties and know that the strict following of every rule to the letter of the law may not be beneficial for every student at all times, and may even be incredibly harmful.

4 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences of School Rules – How you may be hurting your autistic students and not even know it.

  1. I agree.

    Modelling patience and flexibility for all students and staff is important and it comes from the top.

    “Whatever the case may be, though, there are a few things I have noticed occurring at my school that have presented accessibility challenges, even though most people wouldn’t think of them as barring accessibility. These are simple things about everyday school life that can be challenging, and despite this they aren’t the type of thing that would generally come up in your average IEP meeting.”

    Yes. Anything that is not immediately seen to bar accessibility is not even considered, let alone when we are thinking down the line.

    And so many students start their educational journeys at 2 years and 9 months or three years.

    Very likely lots of kids’ first memories would be school memories.

    And you want this to go through to their last memories and imagination – loved the poetry here Quincy!

    Yeah, lots of people get grief about special treatment. It takes a mindset shift – the things you want to access which are the same as other students or those in your general group and those which are unique to you.

    And interaction with other systems and the community that holds these systems to account.

    At the beginning of the class period? That can help to clear decks, though you might have to prepare at the end of the last class period and mark Maths in for that reason.

    Will definitely keep the mobile phones as access in my mind. This worked well for lots of students in the early 2000s especially those who had jobs and busy lives to propel themselves into.

    Modus is another good relaxing emotional regulator/calmer.

    And putting students in fear of interruption; disruption; intrusion – is something you should never ever do. That is my first point of advice to teachers who want to accommodate their autistic students.

    Liked by 1 person

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