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We have changed our name! Kids on the Spectrum is now called Living on the Spectrum

School Trauma 101: Why School is traumatic for Autistic children.

Student sitting at a desk. Her hair is tied back and she is holding a sign that says Help. School Trauma 101: Why School is traumatic for Autistic children.

All stages of schooling can be traumatic for neurodiverse and autistic children because our education system traditionally caters to neurotypicals. School Trauma needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. We need to fix the system to ensure school is safe for our kids.

Schools are built for the neurotypical.

At school, children are placed in a strange new environment. It is then just expected that students understand the rules, both written and social. This can be a learning curve for all children. However, for an autistic child they are even more challenging to navigate. These seemingly ‘simple’ parts of schooling make it difficult from the start. It can contribute to school refusal, dropping out of school early, or ongoing mental health struggles.

National Autism directory - Information on School Trauma

The primary years

Picture this – on the first day of school for your autistic child; there is noise, chaos, new routines, and expectations. Teachers say, “Sit still, look at me, do not fidget,” asks a lot of them. If a child is stimming (rocking or making a sound), which is a coping mechanism, they are often told to be quiet. No wonder they struggle. Even if accommodations are made in the classroom, autistic children must navigate other aspects. Situations like navigating the playground and homework, when they go home. Sensory overwhelm. Altogether this can be exhausting. Add to that Autistic making, and BOOM! The perfect storm of trauma, stress and anxiety.

The secondary years

Trauma often peaks for neurodiverse and autistic students in secondary education settings, and school refusal can become a huge issue. Most schools are still heavily geared towards the neurotypical, and neurodivergent and autistic students are primarily taught to fit into the school mold rather than forge their own path. This is mainly guided by the school rules, curriculum, and an outdated education system.

What can be done?

Seventy-five percent of autistic people do not complete education beyond Year 12, which suggests the system needs to be changed. Some solutions include:

  • Alternative learning options, like homeschooling.
  • Education courses including a module on neurodiversity (with an estimated one in ten on the spectrum, this learning is imperative for new teachers).

Victoria seems to be the frontrunner for improving school trauma by Implementing the new Victorian Government’s Autism Education Strategy, which promotes inclusion at a whole school level; building the capacity of school leaders and teachers to meet education needs; involving the student, family, and experts in collaborative planning; supporting health and wellbeing, individual needs; and strengthening accountability and transparency. The Victorian Government has committed more than $19 million over four years to deliver the Autism Education Strategy. We hope other states will follow suit and address this issue affecting our students.

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