Well, folks, it’s official. I am a high school graduate! Well, technically I’ve been “graduated” since May, but the school held the actual ceremony this week. Despite the delay, I walked across the stage and got my diploma last Thursday on the school’s football field.
I think that for everyone a high school graduation is a moment of relief and achievement that has come at the end of a long and tiring journey. For me though, this is especially surreal given my background. School has been generally very difficult for me. Simply being in the classroom every day was too much. There was a period of time five or six years ago when the narrative was that I would never graduate from high school. In fact, school counselors and therapists (supposedly people who were supposed to be on my side) explicitly said this several times.
Well, they were wrong, because here I am very much a high school graduate. I’ve hinted at my story regarding school before, but I’ll elaborate on it a bit more here. In middle school, the school administrators (and many teachers) took the approach of focusing so much on what they deemed “disruptive behaviors” that they didn’t bother to try and actually work with and teach the “challenging kid,” or figure out why it was I couldn’t get through a school day without some sort of “burst-out.” There seemed to be this culture of low expectations for anyone who couldn’t go through a school day just like the other kids. And honestly, it wore on my mental health. I became so anxious and depressed from constantly getting in trouble for not being able to control my body and impulses, from having most of the other kids in the middle school seemingly resent me, and from overhearing hushed conversations through closed doors that I would never amount to anything.
Every day felt like a roulette wheel; a random roll of the dice as to whether I’d have a meltdown, or be sent to the office and spend the rest of the day in a little room with nothing but a desk (because I was being “disruptive”), or be punished for running out of the classroom from being overwhelmed, or be verbally harassed by other students to the point I was uncontrollably sobbing. The principal once called my mom and said she had to pick me up early because she thought I looked too agitated. It’s not like literally every day ended in a major catastrophe, but it was enough that it sure felt that way.
I wanted so badly just to be “good.” What I think I knew deep down but couldn’t apply or articulate is that I experienced tsunami-sized Big Emotions that I couldn’t process or handle, and that my sensory system was constantly overloaded or out of whack. I also simply needed someone, anyone, to believe in me, to treat me as a valuable student with potential rather than just a Problem to be dealt with and sent away as efficiently and conveniently as possible.
Unfortunately, the public school system is largely unaccommodating and inaccessible to autistic students, especially since what passes as “support” for autism is often just behavioral therapy that attempts to try and make the autistic student appear less autistic rather than teach actually useful regulation and life skills. Actually, this is true for more than just autistic students (it’s a problem for any student that the administration labels “Difficult™”), but it’s especially true for autistic students. I remember being taken out of class every day down to the school counselor’s office where we’d look at picture after picture of people with cartoonish facial expressions and I was supposed to say what emotion they were feeling, or we’d read a story where I was supposed to fill in the ending with an “appropriate reaction” from a character, or we’d learn little songs (with hand motions!) with lyrics like “Stop / Name your feelings / Calm down” (buh DUM BUH dum)! I had a school counselor tell me that more people would like me if I didn’t talk about insects so much. What I needed though wasn’t “empathy training,” I needed regulation techniques other than “take ten deep breaths,” I needed a better support network, and I needed to understand myself and my body and mind better.
Initially my parents went with the philosophy that it was best to go with what the school counseling and administration team said, because they’re supposed to be the experts. And though my parents (like everyone else) made a lot of mistakes, in the spring of my seventh grade year they did the best thing they could have done and removed me from that school, and as it would eventually turn out, from traditional public school entirely.
You see, when a flower won’t grow you don’t try and manipulate the plant into blooming, you move the pot to a different location or environment. And just a change in philosophy, support, and location made all the difference. That eighth grade year I did online school and I also took a few community college courses (yes, as an eighth grader). This was also the year that I learned about the neurodiversity paradigm and found the blogs of other autistic people online, and through reading those I began to develop a better understanding of myself, and from there begin my journey as a self-advocate.
In my story though, it wasn’t only the middle school teachers and counselors who were wrong about my future. The first high school I was going to go to was a charter school, a school I was accepted to via a lottery system, but that summer upon attending what was supposed to be an IEP meeting the principal informed us that I would not be enrolled at the school, because I wasn’t the “kind of student” the principal wanted at his preppy little charter school. So yes, I was denied entry into a school on the basis of being autistic because the principal didn’t want a kid with autism at his school (and yes, apparently it is legal for charter schools, but not public schools, to discriminate against students in this way in Colorado).
The happy ending though is that this caused us to enroll me in a small private school, where my parents and I were able to advocate for an actual, real useful support system, and high school has overall been by far the best years of my K-12 experience. It was the neurodiversity paradigm, rather than the behaviorist paradigm, that got me through high school.
So, I say a rhetorical “thank you” to Mr. Charter School Principal who didn’t want me, because though he was wrong about me his ableism led me to the place where I was able to bloom, and because of my experience I will hopefully soon be testifying in favor of a Colorado State House bill that would make charter school discrimination on the basis of disability illegal.
That overview of my story ended up being longer than I intended, but hopefully now everyone can have an idea of why receiving my diploma was particularly meaningful to me, so much so that I just about cried when I walked across the stage.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that I graduated #1 in my class! That’s right: Valedictorian! Now to be fair I didn’t actually have straight A’s, but the high school assigns a higher weighted GPA to honors and college-level classes taken by students, and since I took so many college courses online and through the school I ended up with the highest weighted GPA in the class. So there’s a win for my alternative learning plan!
Part of me wants to scream off the figurative rooftops “You were wrong! The autistic kid graduated #1 in the class! That kid you said couldn’t do it did it!” And that’s because I know that there’s an autistic student out there just like me who hears the same narrative every day that they are incapable of reaching their goals and who is not getting the support that they need. In schools across the world it seems there’s this culture of low expectations for students who can’t just do it the same way as everyone else the first time, for disabled students. And there’s so much misunderstanding about autism out there, myths and misunderstandings that are actively harming autistic people. That’s why I’m telling my story, and blogging generally: to help people understand autism, provide a resource for other autistic people, and help build a culture of presuming competence so that every person can reach their highest potential. I’m not trying to say that you have to be academically gifted or whatever to be reaching your potential, I only want the autistic people out there to know that they are valuable, are worthy of being believed in, and are worthy of being understood.