I think I got away with it...

Written in May 2024

The other day I came across a post from Chris Bonnello (Autistic not Weird) about his experiences in education, with some prompts that inspired me to write this blog. The post was a slide from an upcoming presentation; a picture of Chris as a schoolkid with the quote “I was autistic in mainstream education and I totally got away with it”. This sentiment caught me, because I've felt something very similar, especially when talking about how I got so far through life unrecognised as autistic. You can read his original post here but Chris' first prompt is “How come I was so palatable to the education system as a child, but had to fight tooth and nail to be valued as an adult?”.


This stirred a response in me; I too didn't struggle academically, and was seen as a fairly “model” pupil (I was even a prefect in year 11). It is due mainly to my academic ability that I was not diagnosed earlier (dyspraxia wasn't really known about at the time, and anyhow autism was still a “boy thing” in the 1980s). Without any behavioural issues at school (being quiet, enjoying the library and doing terribly at PE aren't seen as a problem) there was no reason to assume my brain was working any differently to the typically developing kids, indeed my intelligence was seen as a positive thing.


In the school system if you can understand what you're taught, complete the work and get a good grade you're never going to be seen as a problem. You're buoying up the results statistics and doing all the things expected of you by the staff. Primary school was a breeze, ish. I could do the work with minimal effort, spend most of my days in my own dream world, and spend many breaktimes with the unpopular or lonely kids because I couldn't bear to see them excluded. Knowing what we do now about autism, this is pretty textbook stuff, apart from the lack of social stigmatisation.

On that subject, though, I am not actually sure if I was bullied or not. I was laughed at for being clever, for hanging around with the unpopular kids, and for being rubbish at PE, but I never read any of this as bullying behaviour. Maybe I didn't recognise the signs directed towards myself (although I could see it directed at others). Maybe it just didn't get through my oblivious outer layer.


At secondary school I struggled a little more. Not with the academic work, but with the organisation and the constant transitions from lesson to lesson, and having to ensure I had all the right stuff for that day. I remember the dread I felt about having to know a timetable, and where all the rooms were. The school ran on a two week timetable, so it wasn't just a single set of 5 days I had to learn, but a fortnight. I spent a long time memorising the timetable and locations until I felt “safe” about it. Nobody saw this, and my pre-occupation with lists and timetables looked like the signs of somebody with excellent coping and time management skills.


What I heard about me all the way through education, from primary school to college (5 – 18) was that I was intelligent, organised, clever, capable, witty, friendly and other positive things. When I went out into the actual real world I was not prepared for the multitude of transitions and tasks expected of every day, for there to be more emphasis on the social side of life than on the academic, and for my intelligence to count against me socially (more than it had done at primary school).

At University the workload was no more burdensome than at college, and I got on well with the self-directed nature of the study thanks to my curiosity and focus.  This played against me a little, because I found it very hard to engage woth modules or material in which I had no natural interest.  That, I now know, is due to the ADHD aspects of my neurology.


What I did find more difficult was the importance placed on social conformity, not by my fellow students (who I got on with well for the most part) but by the faculty.  At the end of the first year I was told explicitly by the faculty head that no-one in the department liked me, and that they would like me to transfer to a different course.  When I asked why they didn't like me, the only reason given was that I "answered [non-rhetorical] questions in sessions".  This has happened many times throughout my life, some people instantly take against me as I am, and treat me negatively because of it.  It's sometimes called "thin slicing", if you want to read up on the phenomenon which adversely affects autistic people.


We can see why I was so palatable to the points-based education system, but the education system is no reflection of the real world. It did not prepare me for real life, and the fact I managed at all is entirely down to my excellent upbringing by parents, who accommodated me and taught me many valuable life skills. Not everyone is so fortunate, and many autistic or neurodivergent people struggle a lot more when they leave the relative safety of academia and find that the world they now have to function in bears little resemblance to the structured environment they have left.


Chris' second prompt “Why were my social struggles at school assumed not to matter because of my academic intelligence?” is a theme I still see in adulthood. I frequently find myself met with “but you can...” “how can you struggle with X when you can...” and all sorts of phrases that I like to call The Justification Game (humour helps me take it less personally). People find it impossible to believe that I struggle to cope with loud work environments because I have been into pubs. They don't get how I can find organisation and task initiation a challenge because I've done project management. People disbelieve my social awkwardness because I have an excellent mask.


It is as if I'm not allowed to struggle with things because I'm clever, like I can somehow “think” my way out of challenges on a sensory, emotional or physical level. Being able to understand languages has no bearing on my ability to ride a bike, but the way some people play The Justification Game with me, you'd think they were the same skill.


I don't know how to fix the system. But I do know how individuals can start to make a difference. It starts with self awareness, understanding one's own strengths and limitations. When someone can truly recognise this in themselves they may be able to see the same dichotomy in others in a less judgemental way. They may understand that different people need support with different things, and that nobody's challenges affect their personhood. If turning inwards and reflecting on your own limitations is too much to start with, let yourself be guided by being more tolerant and accepting of others first.


We need your consent to load the translations

We use a third-party service to translate the website content that may collect data about your activity. Please review the details in the privacy policy and accept the service to view the translations.