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The school experience for the neurodivergent child

Most children dislike school for a variety of reasons. Getting up in the mornings can be a drag, staring at a blackboard for most of the day listening to your teacher ramble on about boring topics, and of course, doing homework in the evenings and weekends instead of partaking in activities that are enjoyable. However, most children enjoy socialising with their friends at school and most achieve average to high grades. School however for the neurodivergent child can come with many difficulties and the children are failed by the school system.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for any neurological condition that affects a persons’ social and communication skills, mental health, learning and/or cognitive development. Some examples of neurological conditions include- autism, ADHD, nonverbal learning disability/NVLD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and turner syndrome.

As someone who both has a learning disability and has previously worked with children with special educational needs I have experienced and witnessed loneliness. I very much struggled to make and maintain friends throughout my schooling, and I didn’t understand why I was being excluded or what I was doing wrong.

Studies have shown that loneliness is just as damaging for human body as smoking cigarettes and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Being excluded continuously can give a child depression and social anxiety and thus cause meltdowns. Other than being excluded by their peers, neurodiverse adults and children have meltdowns for a variety of different reasons. An autistic nonverbal child for example may have meltdowns if they cannot communicate why they are upset, if they feel unwell or why they do not want to perform a particular task. Miscommunication between the neurodiverse child and their caregiver can cause a meltdown, anxiety can mistakenly be confused for anger and the caregiver will become frustrated with the neurodiverse child. I have my own personal experience with this. As someone who absolutely despises mathematics and is terrified of maths, I used to have meltdowns both at school and at home when studying the subject. My parents often mistook my anxiety for anger, and they dreaded helping me with my maths homework as they knew a meltdown was coming and they didn’t know how to soothe me. Sensory meltdowns are very common amongst neurodiverse people and is very common amongst autistic people. Sensory meltdowns can be caused by loud sounds, bright lights, different and new textures, changes of temperature and strong smells. It is important for parents of neurodiverse children to try and avoid any sensory meltdowns, if at all possible, by recognising their child’s triggers and by giving the child sensory toys and equipment to ease their anxiety. Noise cancelling headphones are helpful when you are travelling and out and about with your neurodiverse child and visiting stores which have quiet hours.

I spoke with two university students about their experience in the education system.

D, a young man who has ADHD quotes,

“As a student living with ADHD I often struggle to start and complete some tasks. I have issues with being organised and I find it difficult to remember my assignments and specific tasks, I always seem to struggle with particularly long essays and exam papers.”

A, a mum of three children who has autism and ADHD quotes,

“When I was at school, I often had meltdowns because I felt overwhelmed by the environment, even the smells, noise and uncomfortable chairs would affect me daily. I could not control my emotions when these issues became too much for me which resulted in me shutting down and stop talking. Sometimes, small things like a change of routine or a rule being broken would also trigger me and my teachers and classmates did not understand why I had meltdowns or how to help me. This made me feel more frustrated and stressed. I did not know how to manage my emotions or cope with social situations, and I felt anxious when I did not meet the expectations of others, blaming myself when I had a meltdown. I felt like no one understood me and this affected my learning and my friendships throughout my education and into adulthood “

I would like to thank A and D for sharing their school and university experiences with me. Many girls with autism go undiagnosed for a long time, thus A’s meltdowns were not understood by her schools and D has not received the academic support he needs at university. Sharing neurodiversity experiences with others is a great way to become friends with people as it is a form of bonding and you are likely to understand your new friend’s struggles and difficulties thus be more patient and empathetic with them.

By Alexandra Farnese

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