Post number two for Autism Awareness Week. If you missed the first one, I’m trying to write one a day for the whole week (minus the first day because I didn’t get my arse in gear), because frankly being autistic during AAW pretty much gives me carte blanche to rant about autism and stuff, right? Ok, maybe not quite that, but you get what I’m saying.
Today’s post sort of follows on from yesterday’s, and is mainly about how the world goes about integrating people with autism, particularly in schools, but also elsewhere. It’s a laudible thing that we’re no longer just separating all the “different” kids and packing them off elsewhere, for sure. My Brother was in the first school year of full integration, which meant that in our area, schools had to be willing to accept kids with special needs if they came. Obviously, for some children, this was never an option, but for kids like my Brother, it was brilliant. Without the integration move, he would probably have gone to a specialist school for autistic children, which we’re all pretty sure wouldn’t have been the right thing for him at all (though it is, without question, the best place for lots of autistic kids). As it is, he went through mainstream school just like me and my sister, came out with GCSEs and A levels just the same, and has a degree. There’s no question for us that it was a great thing that he’s been able to do this sort of thing, and all the family are unspeakably proud of him. There was at least one child in his year who came to the school on the same integration grounds as my Brother, but in the end it was decided that it was better for him to be in a more autism-tailored environment, and from the little I heard later on, he did very well there too. Integration has its limits, or rather, some kids have their limits (as opposed to limitations, which just sounds mean), and a mainstream environment falls outside them, and it’s good that that’s being recognised. One-size-fits-all, as anyone who’s tried to buy cheap tights with such a label will tell you, is bollocks, and usually doesn’t fit anyone.
However, for those who do go through the main stream, there is still a lot of one-size-fits-all mentality to get through. As someone who went through the main stream with a hidden neurodivergent thing going on, I can definitely vouch for its limitations, and I’m far from the first in line to do so. That said, I too have come out of school and University, just like my Brother, with GCSEs, A levels, and a degree. But the thing that really gets difficult is when the places that are doing the work towards integration don’t talk to each other, and recognise that they’re going to be passing stuff along to each other. The University were excellent at sorting out the special arrangements I needed to sit my exams, complete my work, access everything I needed to, but also have provisions made so that these things didn’t cripple me mentally (which, frankly, the whole degree experience did anyway, but that’s not their fault). However, these things were practical, and relatively easy to sort – I was having the same things as other people, just for different reasons, and in a different combination. The thing that my College, in particular, seemed to struggle with was the idea that I could present so well, be articulate, and not show what was going on in my head. It made it very hard for some of the higher-ups who dealt with my support to work out what was going on, because I was so well-adjusted in some ways, but utterly unable to cope in others.
This combination of factors is where I think the problem with integration lies. Universities are getting more and more students coming to them who might not have gone to mainstream schools under the old system, who are perfectly capable, academically, of accessing a University course, but need more adjustment than ever before. The gap between disabled students’ ability and their needs can be huge, and looking at how both me and my Brother fell into that gap, it seems that Universities have been somewhat caught on the back foot as to how to deal with the students they inherit.
This gap will get bigger, I’m pretty sure. As integration gets better, and more children are enabled to capitalise on their mental and intellectual capability without being hampered by limiting diagnoses, or schooling approaches that put them in environments that don’t allow them to be entirely who they are. Things would have been very different if my Brother had gone to an autistic school, I’m pretty sure, and I doubt he would have racked up the achievements he has. He’d have got different ones, for sure, and my parents would have been no more or less proud of him, but hypotheticals are something my A level history teacher warned me about, so let’s not go there.
After University, the gap is only set to get even bloody bigger. The hunt for jobs where autistic people can work effectively, dodge the various complicating factors we encounter that others may not, and be truly ourselves without having to conform to a damaging extent is just about less comfortable and risky than walking across a minefield without a metal detector. If we are able to get through school, college, and University, but then fall at the hurdle of getting a job afterwards, integration still has a way to go. Obviously, it can’t happen all at once, but there’s a lot of catching up to do before the rest of the world becomes as inclusive as schools have to be. The moves between school and university, university and life, are big enough to begin with, but when you are moving between two vastly different ideas of inclusivity, and from an environment where you are who you are without question but with encouragement and equal treatment to one where you’re just expected to muck in with everyone else without support, it’s no wonder that falling in the gaps is so easy to do.
Integration into the main stream is a good thing, like I said above, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not easy or simple, and there is still a long way to go after only 15 or so years of trying to get it right at all. The main stream goes through life, and if the acceptance and support that autistic people like me and my Brother, who don’t need huge amounts of “care” per se, and can function on our own as adults (for example, I live alone, and even do my own laundry when I get round to it) suddenly evaporates at the age of 21 when we leave University, we’re kind of buggered. I know there’s the school of thought that says “belt up, get on with it, we all have to do it too”. If you’re one of the people who’d say that, you’re entitled to your opinion, but I’m also entitled to ask you (politely, because I’m a polite person) to shove it. Transitions are notoriously hard for autistic people, but when we’ve been guided through them our whole lives because we’ve been given the support we need up to that point, the fact that we can’t suddenly magic our brains into being able to cope with not only the transition itself, but also the move from support to no support, isn’t actually that surprising.
I seem to have got a little angry there. I’m not sorry. The world is disabling to autistic people, and people with all sorts of other neurodivergent things going on, all of which I couldn’t possibly hope to name, but are equally worthy of integration, support, love, and help. The world is learning to work with us, and that’s awesome. People are learning to see us as people first, labels second, which is also amazing, and gives me hope. However, it’s not happening fast enough to catch up everything all in one go. That would be too much to ask, but it’s not too much to ask that being treated like equal human beings can continue out of the schools where we learnt to treat ourselves so. I was integrated without even knowing I needed it, and I wouldn’t be where I am without that. I was taught to value people, see who they are, walk in their shoes, make things easier for people where I can, even if it means a bit of inconvenience to me. Integration is for everyone, not just employers, universities, and schools. Realising that people have been integrated, rather than whitewashing over what makes them different, is the key. You can’t help my difference by ignoring it (I’m sure I’m quoting that from somewhere, please comment if you know where!).