a neurodivergent perspective  – Sarah E Boon

School attendance policies have always been a sticking point with many neurodivergent people, as lots of us could not attend school for reasons beyond our control. Some of us (and our parents) would have faced unfair consequences as a result of low attendance during school. However, often it’s not due to us “skiving”. 

Fresh after the Christmas break, the UK government published propaganda around school attendance, which rightly made a lot of neurodivergent people angry, as it was completely ignorant of our experiences in the education system. Below are some examples of the propaganda put out by the UK government. I will then explain why the propaganda is problematic for many neurodivergent school children, as it may not be obvious at first glance. 

Caption for Image 1: “This morning, she was worried about school…but look at her now!” Caption for Image 2: “This morning, he was worried about school…but look at him now!”

The picture above shows children who are happy at school with the caption saying “This morning, she was worried about school…but look at her now!”. Of course everyone wants children to be happy in their schools. However, many neurodivergent children are unhappy at school, but they have to perform happiness and act like everything is okay to stay safe in school. Many schools in the UK will have a one size fits all approach to school and education, meaning that anybody who diverges from the norm and/or is not neurotypical can face additional barriers at school. 

Many of us who are neurodivergent learn from a young age that if we express our natural way of being (or show the distress many of us experience at school), that there are severe consequences. Teachers often interpreted us as being “naughty” and punish us, and other kids often bullied us for being different – which puts our physical and emotional safety at risk. School is also difficult for many neurodivergent children due to inaccessible learning environments and many of their needs not being met. 

As a result, some of us do something called ‘masking’ where we pretend to be normal to stay safe. Click here to read more about masking if you are unfamiliar with the concept. However masking is exhausting and draining – leading to a deterioration of our mental health if we mask a lot over a period of time. So although we may look happy or content in a school environment, often what many neurodivergent children are experiencing on the inside is the complete opposite. For some of us, we are unable to express our true emotions until we are out of school and in a safe environment. For me this meant having meltdowns lasting several hours daily after school (and I know I am not the only one who went through this). That is one of the reasons the propaganda above feels like a slap in the face, as it is very dismissive of the struggles schools put many neurodivergent children through. And often once we enter the school environment, the fears we have about going into school are confirmed, rather than fading away throughout the school day like the images above suggest.

These experiences can lead to trauma, meaning that neurodivergent students can’t go to school anymore due to the debilitating anxiety that comes along with the prospect of school. It is far more than just being worried as the images above imply, and often we are still pressured/forced into school, when in those moments it is the worst thing for our mental health to be in school. Especially when schools are often not adapting to meet neurodivergent students’ unmet needs. If underlying issues at school are causing debilitating anxiety for young people are not addressed, then going down a punitive route (which the UK government has done for a while) will only make things worse for children and their families.

@AusomeCharlie on twitter shared how the impact on school led to her son taking his life.

I doubt Charlie’s son will be the first young person in this position, but if drastic change does not happen (including the government’s views on school attendance) then sadly I don’t think this will be the last young person to take their life because of school. 

Often parents are threatened with fines and criminal prosecution if a child has a long period of absence. The government usually does not care for the reasons why, even if long term absence and low attendance is due to health reasons and/or disability. So even if both the parents and the child know that attending school is not in their best interest on that day, they can still feel compelled to go to school because of these laws. Many children and their families are severely impacted by forced attendance and the system does not care about the personal impact this has on people. They only care about the attendance statistics. 

I had a high attendance in school. I felt I had no choice but to put up with the discrimination, bullying and lack of care, as my parents would otherwise face consequences if I didn’t go in (and I didn’t want that to happen because I love them). As a result I was suicidal while I was still primary school age and it still impacts my mental health today, despite leaving school 13 years ago. I can almost guarantee that my mental health as a child and now as an adult would be a lot better if I went to school less, or not at all. Education does not have to take place in school, and there are other ways to access education outside of school such as EOTAS (linked below) and home education. 

Ultimately, the government’s approach to attendance is harmful and fails to consider that attendance is low for some people due to issues at school. If we don’t deal with the issues at school that prevent people attending, then we cannot expect young people to be in school. 

If you enjoyed this post and like to support my writing, I would be forever grateful if you could buy me a coffee (or tea in my case).

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