It was a pleasure to meet Dr Anna Kennedy and share my views about autism and education on Women’s Radio Station. I’m 21, I live in North Somerset and I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism aged 12. I am currently a distance-learning student, studying for a degree in special education with University East of London and am passionate about supporting young people with autism. I have also set up a monthly social group for young people with the condition and volunteer for a local disability charity, organising social activities and fundraising.
Anna and I discussed our current work in the autism field and what I aim to achieve. We shared the importance of advocating for more effective support within schools and colleges and highlighted how support should be tailored towards individual needs.
I shared my personal experiences of school. I would often put up a fight as I didn’t want to attend school; Mum had to do a 100-mile trip everyday to take me to school and back as I was unable to get on the school coach. I faced huge social challenges in the mainstream environment.
I had selective mutism for a couple of years, I didn’t understand the social expectations, I struggled to develop and maintain friendships and was bullied by three girls who I considered to be my friend.
Unfortunately, the teachers did not understand my needs, nor did they put any reasonable adjustments in place. I struggled with heightened anxiety which prevented me from expressing myself or contributing to lessons. I also had lots of sensory issues and did not eat lunch for six weeks because I was fearful of the canteen. Generally, I think the anxiety, sensory issues and social difficulties were more problematic than the actual learning. As I had a very negative time, particularly at secondary school, I am now aiming to improve the education system and make it more inclusive for all.
Even though Mum continually fought, I did not receive much support at school, however the outreach team was called in eventually and I was placed on a reduced timetable, which helped. I was then referred to an alternative provision where I received one to one support.
It was here that I flourished, gained confidence, developed friendships and was awarded six GCSEs. I think peer awareness, a mentoring system, autism-specific teacher training, social skills interventions and structured lunch-time support can be beneficial.
I strongly feel that teachers do not have enough time to learn about their individual students, as the emphasis is on teaching the curriculum. Restricted funding and a lack of appropriate teacher training are key limitations that can impact teaching and learning. With mental health issues being on the rise, I feel that there is so much pressure on teachers to provide not just lessons but emotional support, however there is a lack of support for staff. I feel that in practise schools rarely reflect what they preach. Anna and I discussed how a lot of students are still struggling, and it is heart-breaking to hear that the school’s attitudes are still not changing, and the support is not in place.
I feel that schools should embrace neurodiversity and students should stand up for their rights. I think it’s important for students to be themselves, stand up for what they believe in and be open about their difficulties so that other people can be supportive.
During the interview, we talked about my ambitions for the future. I explained how I aim to use my experiences to support other vulnerable young people. I have written a poetry book entitled Tick Tock: It’s Time to Listen which captures the intense emotions I experienced and the challenges I faced at school. I am now working towards writing my second book detailing more of my experiences and offering strategies for students, teachers and parents.
I am also organising my second autism networking day in my local area to connect those with autism and their families and teach others about the support that’s available. Overall, my main ambition is to set up an autism awareness business, providing one to one support for students and delivering training to school professionals.
Lauren Smith advocates for autism awareness. She runs the website A Different Perspective.