My experience: Supporting autistic students
24th October 2019
By Dean Beadle, international lecturer, trainer and former journalist
I attended sixth form college between 2005 to 2007. I had good teachers, a great friendship circle, who I had a good laugh with, and I was doing well academically. All was seemingly well. Nobody would have guessed that I was quietly going through one of the most traumatic periods of my life.
As an autistic teenager trying to make sense of myself and the world around me, I was experiencing huge anxiety and emotional challenge. At the age of 16 I found myself in an emotional whirlwind and I was seemingly always suppressing a sense of bleakness, panic and overwhelm. I was clinging on by my fingertips. While nobody around me had a clue, because I hid it so well.
This summer I was due to attend a wedding of an old friend from college. I knew I would be seeing many people I hadn’t seen since our time together at sixth form college, and I was nervous. I had spent many years rebuilding myself, recovering from those intense years of anxiety. I didn’t want those old feelings to be dredged up. But as we laughed and joked at the reception, I realised that the anxieties I was once so consumed by had marred my enjoyment of all the happy memories that we had been reminiscing over.
It has always been a firm belief of mine that academic success is immaterial if the emotional needs of students are not being met.
Here are some of my tips around how to support autistic students with anxiety:
- Always take anxiety seriously. Our concerns may not always be easy to relate to, but they feel very real to us. Telling us to ‘not be silly’ will never help. A compassionate response is the only way forward.
- For some of us, speaking about our anxiety can be challenging. It is a good idea to look at other ways for students to express their anxiety.
- Structure and routine are everything. Predictability is crucial for many of us autistics. However, it is also crucial to prepare students for when the usual routine falls apart- because life has a habit of doing that.
I will be covering these points, and much more in my keynote on 10 December at AoC’s SEND Conference. In a time when ‘behaviour’ is seemingly such a fixation among educationalists, this session will work from my key belief that behaviour is a sign of an unmet need. For me, focusing purely on a behaviour misses the point. The key is to look at what is causing anxiety and overwhelm to students in the first place. This session will go some way to helping staff understand those needs and how best to meet them. I am hopeful that my keynote will give greater insight into how best to support autistic students so that college is exactly what it should be – the best time of their lives.