Hello, my name is Casey Hall! I’m a 19 year old in my first semester of college, working towards an associates degree in Information Technology. I really enjoy writing in my spare time, and since I’ve been working as an intern at the National Inclusion Project, I wanted to share my own story about my experiences with inclusion in the school system to you all.
As an autistic person, my path through grade school was a rough one. I was considered partially successful academically, but I often struggled to meet the expectations of both my mentors and peers, and this only compounded over the years, leaving me doubting myself and feeling excluded from social groups and big opportunities. However, I had several people throughout those years who made an active effort to be understanding and inclusive of me, particularly three of my teachers, and I’m thankful to them for giving me the strength to continue forward and guiding me to the path I’m on now. To explain their impact, though, I need to guide you through the struggle itself.
I had my first stumble when I was 7, in 2nd grade. Before then, I’d been a nice, easygoing kid who was pretty happy going to school everyday, but one thing changed that: my teacher. She only understood autism through her limited experiences with it, and was confused when I was different from her understanding. Her reaction was to believe that my needs and behavior were a problem that she couldn’t, or even shouldn’t, try to work with. This made me upset, and I vented this in ways that kept getting me in trouble, which only made me more upset as adults and my peers began to make the same assumptions my teacher made and push me away socially. A cycle began, and enough loops of it turned an easygoing kid into someone moody, aggressive, and uncaring.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t eager to start 3rd grade. However, my teacher that year managed to turn that around for me. Despite my initial distrust and unwillingness to engage, she still took the time to gain an understanding of why I acted how I did, what I needed to move forward, and generally be supportive and kind. My strongest memory of her is how we managed to bond over an inside joke we had, which I believe was the biggest push towards me softening up and being receptive to her input. Over that year, with her help, I took the steps to get back on a better path, and regained my interest in learning.
I remained steady for a little while, but would start stumbling again in 5th grade. I think a distinct lack of explicit inclusion of autistic people, both in our academic setting and in our general social environment, prevented my peers from gaining a proper understanding of what it means to be autistic or what that looks like, let alone that it’s okay, and this came to a head that year. I started getting bullied by a good amount of my peers, and thus fell into a similar headspace as what I had in 2nd grade. Then, in the following year, I started procrastinating on math homework, which over the years became an intense anxiety around homework which, when combined with executive dysfunction, made it quite difficult to get anything done.
Once I entered high school, carrying everything that had built up with me, I was completely overwhelmed and depressed, and felt alone in it all. It’d been a slow struggle to get adults around me to understand my situation, and most simply didn’t know where to start with helping me. A key exception was my 9th grade English teacher. Again, he took the time to understand why I was struggling, was supportive of me at my lowest point, and then, he went above and beyond. Near the end of the year, when I met with administrators to discuss my status in school, he was there to lay out exactly why public school no longer worked for me and how moving to online school would benefit me, where my mother and I struggled to do so.
After that, I was permitted to move over to online school. I think this was a very important decision, and his help in making it happen frankly saved my life. I did struggle with it at first, though, as it requires a self-discipline that I hadn’t quite developed. Getting an IEP applied made the bigger assignments more approachable, but the biggest change came from my 11th grade English teacher. For all those years, the bane of school for me had been essays, to the point where I could barely start on them, but she took the time to break down how to write an essay into bite-sized chunks, even giving everyone in the class templates for constructing them, and they finally made sense to me. They weren’t suddenly easy, but after feeling like I just couldn’t do them, having them feel doable meant the world to me, and I finished high school doing better academic work than I ever thought I could do, all because one teacher considered and included the potential needs of everyone in her class.
I’m now pushing through college, and have gotten involved in working with others several times over this semester, including a self-advocacy project and a support program for autistic people called T-STEP. Most noteworthy to me, though, is that I’m writing this post in the first place. In the process of middle school up to high school, my long-time passion for writing was stamped out, and I lost my confidence in my ability. Having extended support from those two English teachers, though, and being shown that I can have a place among others, revived my confidence and passion, and here I am, sharing my writing with others. It doesn’t exactly come easily, but I’m able to tell myself I can do it and push forward while keeping the people who have my back in mind, because of those who had hope in me when I had none.