We can’t go on like this


Dr Annie Clements provides insights into why secondary schools can be so stressful for some students and how small changes can really help.

For those of you teaching in secondary schools, trying to get your head around my Neurodivergent Community, I salute you. You’re trying to support us in environments and curriculums that are not accessible for us; you’re under pressure to meet tough targets. To explain, I have ADHD and have a completely neurodivergent family and staff team, so as well as over 30 years’ professional experience, I really do live it every day and understand that the system isn’t helping any of us as we would wish. Exclusions are on the rise, alongside school avoidance and requests for alternative education packages. It isn’t sustainable, is damaging a huge number of young people and staff, and things need to change.

Four foundation blocks
Giving you a way to understand what we need, in straightforward language, is a bit of a thing of mine: you are not medical professionals, so I don’t need to use lots of clinical words to help you. So along with my team, we have spent a long time creating what we like to call our ‘Four Foundations Blocks of Autism & ADHD’, to provide an assessment framework and solutions.

Block 1: Emotional Overwhelm
Now we can all become overwhelmed, so we all know how it feels to be scared and out of control when it happens. Young people feel the same and need us to stay calm, quiet, and empathetic. We talk about it being like a fire, one that we want to go out, not grow bigger, but our natural reaction to someone is to tell them to calm down, sit still, or go and find support now! However, no-one has ever been calmed down by someone telling them to calm down; it just makes us more frustrated—like throwing logs on the fire. Better to stay calm yourself, listen, try to help them, for example by slowing down their breathing. That way things can get calmer faster and the young person starts to trust that you have their back. Ultimately, we want these moments of overwhelm to decrease, both in frequency and intensity. We need to understand the triggers, which can be difficult for you and the young person, but the four blocks help with that. The flip side of overwhelm is masking, and we put that ‘different us’ mask on as soon as we leave our home. The way secondary schools operate, in terms of the environment and expectations, makes It harder and harder for us to hold that ‘mask’ and the smallest thing, such as not being able to find a pencil, will remove that mask and you will be very aware of our full levels of frustration, fear and hurt. All of us can only hold it together for so long when we are feeling that way, and school throws multiple challenges at us. Every day we face teenage relationship issues, often harsher language and stricter behaviour expectations, combined with large sites, different classrooms and teachers, with no respite from people and noise. Current problems and delays in assessments mean that many are unaware they may be neurodivergent and even if they do know, explaining what is making them feel anxious can be really difficult. Why? Well that brings us to:

Block 2: Imagination Fracture
We use our imagination for anything that hasn’t happened yet—we imagine the future when we make plans or make a choice ‘Should I do this or this?’. We risk assess the choice and imagine the alternative consequences. We imagine time and how long we have to do something, we use it to self-reflect on things that have happened and how we are going to change this the next time. We also use it heavily in our relationships—how someone feels, boundaries, what is the right or inappropriate thing to say. For ASD & ADHD young people, their imagination can get stuck, focusing on everything going wrong, previous experiences, only thinking of one possible choice, or 100’s of them, so we need a bit extra to help us out. What schools can do is make a lot more things visual and avoid assuming that because you have talked to us, that we have understood what you meant. We need information and instructions written down, instead of expecting us to remember or conceptualise what is meant. By drawing out a problem or timeline, so we can see what happened, we are able to change our thoughts and make decisions. To be clear, this has nothing to do with our academic ability, but with our executive functioning. Visual choices and options, and clear and concise written instructions are a game changer. The reason for this is that another thing we use our imagination for, is interpreting language.

Block 3: Language of Assumption
This is where we communicate something, but we don’t say all that we mean, and we assume that the other person will be able to work it out by using their imagination. Our language is full of assumptions, in fact there are more and more places such as, text messages, social media, conversations and emails. When a teacher says, ‘I am expecting good behaviour from everyone today.’, this can cause us huge anxiety and give us a much lower chance of succeeding. The teacher understands
the assumption, but the possibilities for us are endless so we get stuck on being able to work out what you want. “I want everything done by Friday” What, everything? “Write me an essay on the war.” How? One page or six pages? Which war? It’s pervasive in schools but all we need to do is think before we speak or write something down.

Block 4: Sensory processing difficulties
This is a huge topic, but just looking around your school, consider losing those bright primary colours on the walls; red, yellow and orange can be very distracting. Walls covered in resources and art can create huge visual stress and windows with slatted blinds make the light feel like glass going into our eyes. The materials surrounding the media boards you want us to concentrate on can really distract us, as do glaring lights, untidy rooms, shiny floors, noisy dinner halls and the sound of ticking clocks. We know it’s not possible to change everything, but you can change some things, and the most important thing is you can take it seriously—these sensory issues cause pain and fear and are a big part of school avoidance.

Inclusion: Making Real Choices
To finish, we all know what it feels like to not feel included—it’s a very unpleasant feeling—so BE inclusive. The power is yours, that power to make a difference to someone who is already feeling on the edge of it all. Neurodivergent people don’t need fixing, and when we are in an inclusive, accessible space, we are able to show our true selves. An inclusive space isn’t just about the environment, it is also about people and attitudes. It is all about creating a neurodivergent learning experience, because that makes it accessible for everyone. Be mindful about how you talk about differences and stop expecting our brains to somehow magically change how they work. No-one would expect a visually impaired young person to suddenly be able to see the board if they just tried harder. It’s just the same for us, we are already trying harder than you know. It really does just take some thought and care and taking some personal responsibility to listen, learn and make that change.

Dr Annie Clements
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Dr Annie Clements is the founder and CEO of the not-for-profit social enterprise Autism & ADHD. She has a completely Neurodivergent staff team and family, and is ADHD herself. She is passionate about developing resources and training that take away the stigma and complexity of Autism and ADHD.



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