I often see writers focusing on the social aspects of autism in high school, which I think is awesome and important. But for me, although I was a mess, socially speaking, the issue of schoolwork was far graver.
In this post, I’ll recount my high school experiences (in embarrassing detail) in the hopes it may shed a light on the kinds of problems autistic characters may be likely to encounter in school–both the practical issues and the emotional ones.
I entered high school at the age of eleven, one year earlier than usual, due to being picked on in grade school. I was instantly faced with two problems.
The first problem: one boy decided I made a great target. The rest of the class followed. I was consistently picked on throughout the entire first year. After that first year, a teacher cracked down on the class like a goddamn superhero, and I was no longer picked on. Still, I resigned myself to being a permanent outsider; I barely had friends, and though I would hang out with one or two people during school, I never met up with anyone outside of school hours. In retrospect, I was far too stuck in my other problems for my social skills to develop normally.
See, the second problem was that schoolwork had been a breeze all my life. Now, it no longer was. With upward of ten subjects–expanded to a mind-blowing nineteen later on–I had to learn to study for the first time ever. Notably, my best subjects were the ones that required memorization. Languages? Vocabulary was a snap. For grammar, it depended on how the rules were structured. Memorizing case inflections in Latin? Sure! Memorizing standard rules about sentence order? No problem. Anything more complex and nuanced than that? I crashed.
The same applied to maths: give me a few rules to memorize and I excelled. Enter nuance, and my frustration levels racketed. I’d stare at problems in my textbook and nothing made sense, which frustrated me to tears because I knew I should be able to do this–so why wasn’t it working?
History and geography were just as bad. I had to read long, complex narratives, when at the time I had no earthly idea of how to single out the most important aspects. I would read, and read, and read, and nothing would stick.
This was a big deal for a perfectionist like me. Homework took ten times as long as it ought to. I flailed my way through the first few years with the worst study habits possible: I procrastinated, got distracted, moaned and complained and agonized, never scheduled … Homework was basically my beating my head against a brick wall and wondering I was getting such a headache.
Eventually, even the thought of homework made me burst into tears. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to go to sleep at night knowing that I’d have school first thing in the morning. My bike rides to school were fuzzy with tears, and I had constant thoughts of flinging myself into this canal or in front of that truck. I had panic attacks. One of them was set off by a bad grade for a German test.
In short: I was hella depressed.
But I still got decent grades. I managed.
Up until I entered the fourth year, when a different homework system was introduced. This system promoted independence and discipline. Instead of teachers saying, “Memorize these words by Tuesday, study this maths problem by Wednesday, do all the assignments on pages 78-85 of your Chemistry textbook by Thursday,” we’d get assignments like, “Oh, make sure you’ve completed chapters one through fifteen by January.” We discussed certain topics during class and were left on our own outside of it.
I crashed and burned.
Before, the constant looming deadlines of homework had kept me agitated, frustrated, and without any sort of free time, but they also made sure I got at least some things done. Now, having distant, abstract deadlines, and each subject being nothing but nuance rather than rote memorization … Nothing got done.
My depression got worse. I’d skip class, sitting in the school library and staring at the computer screen in a film of tears, and then I’d have a panic attack because oh god I’m skipping class what am I doing this is not me this is not me. I couldn’t conceive of any sort of future outside of school school school for years to come, and after that, there’d be college college college. I wanted to curl in on myself and never wake up so I’d never, ever have to deal with homework or school or obligations or anything ever again.
A couple months into this new school system, we called it quits. The only classes I attended were English and Art. I spent the rest of the time working in the school cafeteria, since I still had to be on school grounds.
And for the first time in years, I had peace.
After being strung along by an incompetent doctor for a couple of years, we finally gave him the finger and went straight to a psychologist specializing in children’s mental health. We’d read a book about Asperger Syndrome, recognized a lot of symptoms, and explained our suspicions. They tested me. Not long afterward, I received an official diagnosis.
And I was so, so relieved.
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t dumb for not succeeding. I wasn’t a failure.
Everything crashed into place. My social skills, or lack thereof. My obsessive focus on certain hobbies, to the exclusion of all else. My dislike of eye contact. My picky eating. My repetitive movements.
And my study skills.
Autistic people, as it turned out, often struggled with vague, abstract deadlines. Autistic people thrived on clear instructions. Autistic people had a hard time moving from one activity to another. Autistic people couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff when reading narratives.
If we’d known sooner, we could have avoided so many problems. Instead, what we had was a traumatized fourteen-year-old tentatively recovering from depression, a brand-new diagnosis, and a mother determined to find the right place for her daughter. We found one. I enrolled in art school at the age of fifteen. I had barely homework, I filled my days with something I loved, and I flourished.
At twenty-three, I was diagnosed with ADD. Another few pieces of the high school puzzle clicked into place. (Why was I distracted so easily during homework? Why did I zone out during explanations and classes? Why couldn’t I write more than a sentence in my notebook before feeling the urgent need to doodle in the sidelines?)
All in all, the story has a pretty happy ending. I’ve taught myself a lot of the skills I lacked, I’ve embraced my autism, and I’ll have a book on the shelves this June.
But despite that happy ending, over a decade after leaving high school, I still have recurring nightmares of going back. In the dreams, I’m not worried about facing the bullies. I’m not self-conscious about being unpopular, or not knowing how to act. Instead, I’m back in the classroom after all these years. I look at the blackboard or my textbooks, and I panic. I’m back. I don’t understand. I’m behind on everything. I’m never going to be able to catch up. I’m never going to understand.
I’m back, and I’m going to be a failure all over again.
And it’s so odd to see that something that left such lasting scars on me is rarely even mentioned.