Autism At Private School

It surprises people to learn that I went to private school.

It might be the bright blue hair, the piercings or the sex blog, but I take comfort in knowing that people don’t get a private school vibe from me. I know plenty of kids who really enjoyed the privilege of private school, but I was certainly not one of them and I was certainly not alone in that. 

I was in a difficult position as someone who, yes, was paying fees – but who was paying those fees from a tightly-controlled trust fund that could pay fees and little else. We were never loaded, and things got worse throughout my five years there, until Year 11 (which, for non-Brits, is when 15- and 16-year-olds sit their GCSE exams, which determine which colleges they can get into and which are hyped up to the kids as being far more important than they actually seem to have been). In Year 11 we fled domestic violence and ended up in probably the coldest house in Staffordshire, and that’s what widened my eyes to the bubbled nature of private schools and other rich-people institutions, how they existed in their own reality that seemed truly ignorant to the shit that normal people experience and how I had, somehow, found myself on the outside of the bubble.

I’d felt Other for as long as I could remember, but (thanks in no small part to my mum’s excellent parenting) I started out proud of my oddness, considering “weird” to be a badge of honour. I didn’t mind being the weird kid at all until private school, at which point it became clear that I wasn’t supposed to be there, being weird. When people ask me whether I was bullied in high school, my honest answer is, “I don’t know.”

Private school kids, in my experience at least, don’t hit you, and they rarely yell slurs at you. Instead, they create an atmosphere of hostility that you can either co-create with them, or fall victim to. It’s insidious, all whispers and giggles and social media posts and questions with no correct answer (like when I came out as bi and was grilled for what felt like hours about which of the popular girls I fancied the most), and it’s impossible to point to singular instances of them making you feel like shit because it’s pervasive, built into the culture of private school much like other bits of ableism are. 

Oh, which reminds me: my private school was not well-equipped for disabled students at all, which I hear is not uncommon of private schools. The buildings were big and old with brutal staircases and very limited elevator access, sprawled across a campus that was big enough to require a ten-minute gap between lessons. When I was diagnosed with autism, the school – already dismayed at my self-harm and chaotic energy – was at a loss, and the only autism-specific resource I remember receiving was a set of laminated flashcards from the Autism Outreach Team (which were of no use to me as flashcards but which I stimmed with until they fell apart). The rule was that you couldn’t eat outside of the canteen, but I won permission to go, with one friend, outside of either canteen (yes, we had two. No, we didn’t need two) to eat somewhere quieter and with fewer bodies to bump into. Unfortunately, I had to explain that I’d been given this permission to almost every staff member I encountered, since apparently word had not got out that there would be a weirdo permitted to eat their Nutella sandwiches in the wild, and I hid in my form room whenever I could, no matter the nice weather or the presence of rambunctious boys, who kind of defeated the point of quiet lunchtime. I also ended up exempt from PE, and allowed to drop Latin, which meant that there were several hours a week I had to be accounted for. Now, in my school’s defence, they started out by putting me in the library to do some schoolwork during these hours, which seems pretty reasonable. What did seem unreasonable was their objection to my writing fanfic on the library computers (not even smut – I didn’t and don’t understand why they saw no benefit in my writing things that were not strictly school-related, but I’m not a teacher). The librarian snitched on me, and I like to phrase this next part as dramatically as possible: I was shut in a cupboard for my library crimes.

Phrased less dramatically, they decided to put me somewhere with no computer access. When they said “Learning Resource Centre” I perked up, thinking perhaps there were actually some resources in this godforsaken school. Instead, I was led to a cupboard in the Maths building, coated in cheerful blue paint but still, a cupboard. If it wasn’t a cupboard originally, it was being used as one, with a desk and a chair dwarfed by shelves and shelves of stationery.

They put me in the stationery cupboard for getting distracted from my schoolwork.

(Hilariously, this was when I wrote some of my better fanfic, because I handwrote it in the cupboard and then actually proofread it as I was typing it up. Also, I listened to a *lot* of MCR and Fall Out Boy, because nobody was checking on me to see that I’d slipped an earbud in. I’d go so far as to say that some of my favourite hours were those quiet ones in the fucking cupboard, away from the constant hum of kids talking and the paranoia it could induce. I wrote and watched clouds out of the window and probably recharged my sanity a great deal before having to go back to the chaos that was home.)

There are plenty of other moments I look back on and am filled with emotions on the resentful-to-horrified spectrum. One that still lives as a thorn in my sided is that I was told explicitly that I couldn’t put in an Extenuating Circumstances claim for my DT coursework, because fleeing domestic violence isn’t acute in the way a bereavement is. This was false, and my claim probably would have been accepted, raising my grade (I got a C overall, having scored an A on the exam but been dragged down by my D-grade electronics project). I don’t know whether I was lied to or simply a victim of the ignorance that comes of only letting a handful of the most socially-acceptable disabled kids into your school. 

(There was also the blackmail incident, but I’m so tempted to put that story on YouTube that I’m not going to detail it here, except to say that I don’t think any laws were broken.)

I truly don’t believe there was any explicitly-discussed, agreed-upon agenda to treat disabled kids like shit. I don’t think they cared enough about us for that, to be honest. They simply refused to engage with the notion that some of their perfect, posh little students could be disabled, and as a result they had no resources at the ready for kids like me, no policies or alternatives or anything, just a cupboard. I felt distant from my neurotypical peers and forgotten by my school, and other private school kids I’ve talked to can relate, whether they’re autistic, otherwise learning-disabled, or any other kind of disabled. 

I would like to end this blog post with the sentiment that private schools should do better, but my experience there shaped my angry leftist belief that actually, private schools shouldn’t exist. I didn’t manage to get a better education through money, but I did access the privilege of having a more prestigious education that looked better on applications. Schools have the power, I believe, to really level out the playing field for all kinds of kids and to unify them under the banners of equitable education and community. I don’t think private schools are going to do anything more than further distance kids from each other, imbuing the sense that they’re either distinctly superior or distinctly inferior to other kids. Education should be at such a high standard across the country that the only additional benefits money can get you are a comfier seat, but we’ve got quite a while to go.

If you’re a current or ex-private school kid, my sympathies to you. Please follow Baby Morgan’s example and be subversive at every opportunity, run for student council and be as loud as you safely can about the beautiful ways in which you’re different. (Also, if you’re a current private school kid, please click away from this blog, because I assume you’re not yet 18/21/the age of consent in your location. You’ll have plenty of time to look at weird sex blogs when you’re older, but right now please try and enjoy being a kid. Kids should get to enjoy being themselves.)

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