How I Try to Learn With Autism
A young woman outlines her daily struggles as a student.
Autistic spectrum disorder is a social disorder that affects one's ability to take in sensory information and influences how they understand and react to the neurotypical world around them. I was diagnosed with ASD a year and a half ago, at age 16. Since I started school, I have had classes with boys who have ASD (one in 34 boys do), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, or any combination of the above. There was always at least one guy in my year at school who was neuro-diverse (not neurotypical).
But during my education, I have never met a girl who I knew had ASD. That makes sense because only one in every 144 girls is identified with it. Statistically, there were fewer than half of the necessary number of students in my year groups to have even one girl with ASD. Twenty-five percent of boys with ASD are diagnosed before age six, while only eight percent of girls are. By age 11, half of boys with ASD have their diagnosis compared to 20 percent of girls. There are fewer girls than boys with ASD because there are fewer girls than boys diagnosed with it.
For those of us who have been missed (including myself, up until the last year and a half), living without a diagnosis means living without the necessary support.
How It Feels to Have ASD
On a good day, my ASD can feel like a bouncy ball bouncing inside of me, giving me energy and motivation to be hyper about everything. On a bad day, my ASD feels like my brain is made of macaroni and an ant is traveling through tubes making the inside of my head itch. On the worst days, my whole body turns into macaroni tubes full of ants. It's unsettling, stressful and exhausting.
Most of these feelings make it very difficult to learn at school. When I'm in a good mood, I have too much energy to focus on the lesson. When I'm in a bad mood, I don't have enough energy to focus—or even be awake.
My ASD means that my brain runs 24/7. I’m always thinking about something: usually multiple things at once. As a result, I struggle to sleep at night, which means that I have disturbed sleeping patterns, which affects my concentration and energy levels during the day.
On a typical school day, I can only really focus and give my full attention to something for about half an hour before the other thoughts get too loud. That means in the rest of my classes, I am distracted and not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, or else it takes me considerably longer to get through a task than everyone else.
So, long story short: I'm not very productive in classes.
My ASD makes me feel the need to plan everything. On my way to school—on the bus—I'll plan conversations with people I know I'm going to see. If I am given a task at school, I will spend a lot of time planning how to do the task instead of actually doing it. In my German class, that means taking five minutes to just sit and figure out how to approach a textbook exercise before starting. By the time I'm ready to do the exercise, the rest of my class has finished. Because I spend a lot of time on planning, the plan becomes very important and unchangeable to me, so when someone wants to change something—or something comes up that prevents me from fulfilling the plan—that can be really stressful and make me feel stuck.
One of the Things I Find Difficult Coping With Is Change
It can be as little as one of my friends wearing something I've never seen before to finding out I'm getting a new teacher. The former will be distracting for the remainder of the day, but not get in the way of me doing anything, while the latter is extremely stressful and makes me very angry. Significant changes exhaust me and take up all my energy, which prevents me from doing anything else, which can be super problematic when I am at school and have to get things done. Changes can make me want to isolate myself and give me a nasty attitude toward the activities I enjoy and the people I like.
My ASD makes me very set in my ways and very sure of my opinions. This can become challenging when I don't understand or agree with something or someone in class. It’s not that I think the other person or what they are saying is wrong. I just can’t understand, and I become super fixated on digging into the topic until I finally do understand. People can often get frustrated with me because I can come off as argumentative when I'm just trying to work out the differences between what I'm thinking and what they’re thinking.
In terms of schoolwork, if I don't get something, I usually won't bother going through the process of trying to understand it—it can feel like a fight. Consequently, I don't understand parts of my courses.
Socially, I find if someone says something I disagree with, I have trouble accepting it. One time a teacher told me they thought Mozza was better than Pizza Express. I didn't like it, but I was able to move on. Another time a classmate told me they felt uncomfortable about trans people. I struggle to talk to them about anything other than schoolwork now because I find it impossible to accept their stance on the topic.
In every class at school, I have my own chair, and if I don't get to sit in it, or someone else is sitting in it, I can get extraordinarily stressed-out and uncomfortable. I also have routines at school that I keep. Every Friday, I have pizza for lunch with a friend and when others come along, even just once, I get furious. The whole experience becomes horrible for me. It’s not necessarily that I don't like the person, but because I feel like they’re not meant to be there. They’re not usually there, so why are they now? It makes me confused and agitated.
Some of the ways I feel towards certain situations can be confusing for others. They often dismiss the case as not a big deal, and my behavior as childish, immature or unreasonable. Others’ attitudes in situations that I find stressful can often be more stressful than the situation itself. If a teacher doesn't understand how anxiety-inducing I find doing classwork in a group or pair, or if they think I only need to sit in a specific chair because I’m difficult, I feel guilty, self-conscious and angry at myself—on top of the anxiety.
My Challenges as an Autistic Student—and Woman
ASD in women isn't a big conversation or portrayed much in the media. As a result, when I talk about my ASD at school to friends, I am met with skeptical comments like, “You don’t seem autistic.” One girl even went behind my back and told my friend she thought I was lying about my diagnosis.
I don't “seem” autistic because of something called masking. If I don't know how to behave in a situation or what to do with myself (most of the time), I subconsciously hide my natural behaviors by imitating others around me, which can make me appear neurotypical.
I don’t see my ASD as a problem.
It doesn't impair my ability to achieve things, particularly in areas that interest me. In fact, if I'm interested in something, I will focus on it until I know everything about it (and I will end up knowing everything about it). Because of my ASD I look at, and engage with, the world around me differently than a neurotypical person, which enables me to ask questions which might not occur to a neurotypical person.
When I was first diagnosed with ASD, it felt isolating and limiting. I really didn't want it. But over the last year and a half, I have realized that my diagnosis explains my reactions and feelings toward a lot of things, which allows me to understand what I am going through and why. Learning about my ASD has also taught me that it’s not limiting—it's empowering.