High school isn’t for everyone

It’s been over three years since I left high school… at the age of thirteen. At the time, I was lost in a haze of anxiety and depression I was sure I would never escape and were it not for all the support I received, I don’t think I would have.

Now that I have moved past this part of my life, I can reflect on how it shaped me to be who I am today, and why, despite how painful it was, I would go through it all again to get to where I am now.

I followed the pattern typical of girls with autism; I have always been very shy but performed well academically so everyone just assumed that I was quiet. I had difficulty making friends and understanding how to socialise; it felt like everyone except me had been given a rule book that explained how social interaction works. I had to figure it out by myself through imitating what everyone else did and pretending to be interested in what my friends were; this is called masking and is something that autistic girls commonly do to fit in. Though I didn’t know at the time, I was already struggling with anxiety; I found speaking out in class and any sort of presentation or performance terrifying which led me to overthink and become severely anxious. I would never put my hand up; instead of paying attention to the lesson, I panicked at the thought of being asked to speak and would focus on clearing my throat. When reading as a class, rather than read along, I would count the paragraphs to see if I had to speak. Everyone thought I was shy but overall doing well; in reality, I was consumed by stress and anxiety. Towards the end of primary school, this worsened, and I began withdrawing from the few friends I had, becoming more and more isolated. I didn’t understand why I was so anxious or that it was even a problem I should tell someone about so no one knew how much I was struggling.

When I began high school, it was like somebody had flipped a switch; everything I had struggled with in primary school had been amplified and I was overwhelmed by the sudden change. If you were to take many of the things that make life difficult for people with autism and put them into one place, it would be high school, where we’re forced to go for most of our week. Again, I had difficulty making friends and while I still had some from primary school, I never felt truly connected to them. My anxiety around being asked to speak in lessons had worsened; class reading sessions in English felt like torture and the performance aspects of PE, drama and music were especially anxiety-provoking. I began to have panic attacks, sometimes at the mere thought of being asked to speak; they were agonising, and I often had to go home because of them. Looking back, I also experienced sensory difficulties, a common trait of autism; the lights were always too bright, hallways too busy and noisy. When going through the halls I remember the phrase “RED ALERT” racing through my head; it felt like if anyone even slightly brushed against me, I would explode.

As the days progressed, my anxiety and depression worsened; I felt completely miserable and I couldn’t focus on my work because I was so anxious all the time. Eventually, I began to investigate how I was feeling and learned about mental health; while this didn’t fix anything, it did bring some clarity. However, I couldn’t understand why I felt this way; I thought that only people who had been through difficult circumstances could be depressed and I felt guilty for not being happy when I had no reason not to be.

It was the day of the first class presentation I’d do in high school and I was extremely anxious. When my mum came to wake me up, I couldn’t contain my panic and began crying. She wasn’t going to let me stay off unless I explained what was wrong, so I got a piece of paper and wrote down how I’d been feeling. I could hear her crying as she read it in another room; this was one of the hardest moments of my life, but in hindsight also one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. She booked an appointment with the GP and before long I had my first therapy session; I had finally begun my road to recovery.

Despite beginning therapy, I continued to struggle, becoming increasingly withdrawn from everything and everyone, consumed by a black cloud of depression and anxiety. As is common for people on the spectrum, I began avoiding school, eventually missing more days than I was going. By the end of Easter in my second year, I couldn’t take it anymore; I refused to go to school. This was one of the most difficult times in my life; every day began with my parents begging me to go while I cried and shouted until they let me stay off. One of my biggest regrets is how angry I was and how I took it out on them. We now have a great relationship, but I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for them; they thought they could get in trouble which worried me as well and made me feel more guilty… but I just couldn’t do it.

Eventually, a social worker came to ask why I wasn’t in school and I was worried my parents would get in trouble. Thankfully, because I was in therapy, my school was understanding about my absences. At this time, I had no friends and felt extremely depressed and isolated. I barely left the house; the only things I enjoyed were gaming and spending time with my rabbit. However, I kept attending therapy and, after a while, my therapist brought up the fact that she thought I might be autistic. I spent hours reading about the condition and felt like it had all been written about me. For me, the potential diagnosis of autism felt like an epiphany; I finally knew what had caused me all this suffering and to me, it made complete sense. I was diagnosed shortly after at the age of thirteen which is relatively young for girls. Being diagnosed helped me to stop feeling guilty and brought me clarity; I felt like I finally understood myself and that it helped those in my life to better understand me too. It opened the doors to help that could better support me now that we knew what the underlying cause of my struggles was; there was still a long road to recovery, but I now had direction.

I began attending a day service for young people with mental health struggles which helped me become comfortable around other young people after being isolated for so long. I also began seeing a teacher and worked towards my maths and English qualifications.

Eventually, I found a service that is focused on young people with autism, #JunX10n, where I have been for the past two years. It allows me to socialise while also self-studying and I can honestly say it has changed my life. It’s been a long road and I still struggle at times, but I now have the support to get me through it. I am extremely grateful for how understanding and supportive my family and support workers have been.

When I left school, my parents and I were worried I would spend the rest of my life hiding from the world in my bedroom; now I am doing things by myself I never thought I could like using buses and speaking to cashiers and servers; I finally have close friends and have achieved multiple qualifications. While these may sound trivial, and seem like what I should be capable of, for me they posed real challenges and I am proud of myself for overcoming them.

I am not alone. My high school experience is shared by many, particularly other girls with autism, and, unfortunately, not all their situations end as positively as mine did. While I appreciate how difficult teaching can be, the mainstream school system doesn’t work for everyone; people should know there are other options out there and support you can receive so that they don’t have to go through what I did alone. However, looking back, I’m grateful for the way things happened; this experience has made me a stronger, more empathetic, self-assured person and, in some cases, I’m more independent than others my age.

Despite how painful these years were for me, I wouldn’t hesitate to relive them if it meant I would end up as I am now; the happiest I have ever been with close friends, a strong support system and a future I’m looking forward to.

Josie Low