3 ways I have made my school experience better as an autistic student

Isabelle shares how she self-advocated to access accommodations independently as an autistic student in a mainstream Irish secondary school.

Written by Isabelle Blum

Last Updated: Apr-24-24


I am a Leaving Certificate student in an extremely mainstream secondary school, where the likes of disability and accommodations would be either taboo, unheard of, or kept very hush-hush. It took me a long time to accept that I needed support, and even longer to approach my school about it.

It was hard. Sometimes, I genuinely felt like I was fighting a losing battle. Being autistic means that I am nothing if not determined when it comes to achieving something which I am passionate about.

If it wasn’t for the help of a truly incredible support team (consisting of my year head, form tutor, the main special educational needs (SEN) teacher/coordinator and my mum ), who refused to give up on me even when I was at my lowest, I know I wouldn’t be where I currently am at school today.

I am now actively involved in advocacy with AsIAm, Ireland’s Autism charity, and have written several poems and speeches for them.

How I got support from school

1. I identified the areas in my school day-to-day life that I found difficult to cope with

I asked myself: ‘Are there classrooms that can often cause sensory overload?’ And if so, which ones and what could help me? Some examples of ways to help include having dimmer lights sitting next to the door or window, wearing ear defenders/earplugs, being able to complete the work outside of the classroom etc)

If I find the corridors when moving between classes/going to locker/going home too overwhelming I get permission to leave the classroom 3-5 minutes before the rest of the class does, to avoid the noisy/overwhelming corridors.

I found the textures and feels of my school uniform difficult to tolerate sensory-wise. A common solution that is often preached by school bodies is to wear a long-sleeved top of the material that you like underneath your uniform. However not everyone is a fan of this as it can cause overheating, and often some autistic students struggle with regulating their body temperature (myself included).

Another more realistic solution to this was asking to get a school jumper made with 100% cotton (most woolly school jumpers are made with horsehair). I have this accommodation because I still struggled with the texture of my jumper despite the barrier of the school shirt between it and my skin.

2. Identifying a member of staff or teacher(s) who I get along well with and trust the best

I arrange a time during the school day to meet with them and explain how I might be struggling and discuss some accommodations that would be of help.

3. Reading and educating myself

I found that one of the main things that has helped me advocate for myself has been reading and engaging in various forms of media about autism.

I took it upon myself to read the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act (EPSEN) 2004, an act which protects students who require special accommodations in all schools throughout the Republic of Ireland.

Some of my favourite books include ‘The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide How to Grow up Awesome and Autistic’ by Sienna Castellon and ‘unmasked’ by Elli Middleton. Podcasts I enjoy include ‘The Loudest Girl in The World’ by Pushkin Industries and ‘Live Label Free’ by Livia Sara.

Lessons I have learned on my journey with autism

Self-advocating when you don’t have access to a special needs assistant (SNA) or other SEN support can be very daunting and scary (it certainly was for me). However, I promise that it gets easier with time. I found that breaking it down into small steps helped: identifying the areas of the school environment that you find difficult or overwhelming and bringing it up with a person associated with the school whom you trust goes very far.

Educating yourself about autism and neurodiversity will stand to you when it comes to advocating. One of the biggest things I have learned is that we have far more rights than we think in terms of accessing support in a mainstream school. Learn to live with your brain as opposed to against it.

Remember that it is the system that’s broken; not you.

And finally, to all changemakers involved in education:

Hear our words.

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