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Keeping Neurodivergent Students Safe at School

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

This Autism Acceptance Month, the Mission Society is featuring a series of conversations about how we can evolve our education system to work for all students. Lyric Holmans, writer and educator at Neurodivergent Rebel, reflects on their time in school, and what it meant when educators looked past the surface to truly understand their experience of the classroom. For more from Lyric, follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

I'm Autistic and ADHD. I know that fact about myself now, but I did not understand this critical self-truth for most of my life. Because my autism diagnosis came a few months shy of my thirtieth birthday, and my ADHD diagnosis wouldn't come until a few years later, I went through the education system with most of my needs unsupported.

Most people who knew me before I started school expected that I would do well because I had taught myself to read early in life. When I struggled, I was labeled by onlookers as stubborn, difficult, lazy, and rebellious because I "had so much untapped potential" and failed to "apply myself."

Though I had always enjoyed learning at home on my own, I found the classroom environment overwhelming. When I tried to soothe myself by moving, singing, humming, and stimming, I was told to stop, as it bothered others. My sensory issues (hiding under my desk to avoid bright lights), anxiety (selective mutism at group reading time), and need for movement (inability to stay in my chair) were "behavior issues" that were often punished. Sometimes they punished me by taking away the thing I needed most - recess. I needed more movement, not less.

I was doing my best to survive a system that wasn't designed with my needs in mind.

Often when young people "act up," their behavior means something. The answer in these situations is not to focus on the "behaviors" you see, but to look deeper, assume good intentions, and identify the needs that influenced those outward expressions. For example, for many years, I struggled with remembering to bring home the tools and supplies I needed for my homework at the end of the day. Some adults took this as an intentional refusal to do my homework until, finally, when I was twelve, one teacher assumed good intentions and realized I had poor organizational skills. Teaching me how to use calendars, organizers, planners, watches, and reminders changed my life. That teacher saw that I wasn't lazy, stubborn, or apathetic. Someone had finally seen my struggles for what they were – needs that weren't being met.

Teachers who approach students with compassion, curiosity, and understanding are crucial to the success of children with invisible differences, especially as we navigate a system that is often poorly suited to our learning needs.

Realize that your neurodivergent students will likely experience things that you will struggle to understand, especially if you do not share that same experience. When I was in school, I didn't need "more discipline"; I needed understanding. I needed someone who understood sensory processing differences and overload to fix the classroom environments, removing bright, harsh lights from areas in which I worked.

I needed to be allowed to access my coping strategies and tools to help block out the overwhelming world, and more ways to get my energy out – more breaks, standing desks, sensory seating options, and freedom to move about the room.

I needed teachers who understood that my direct questions and literal interpretations of things were not jokes or me trying to be difficult. I needed teachers who didn't make me sit still or look at them during class, when looking at someone can make it hard for me to process information naturally.

Most of all, I needed teachers to ask me questions and try to get to the bottom of the ‘why’ behind my actions. People have made assumptions about me throughout my life based on the false idea that we all think and experience the world the same way. It has led to painful misunderstandings and communications over the years. But I wasn’t a bad kid. I wasn’t a difficult kid. I want people to take this away from my story instead - we should expand our ideas of what it looks like to engage with the world successfully, take the time to look past surface behaviors when a young person is struggling, and welcome them as they are with compassion.

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