Posted in Catholic education, Self-Care, Teaching

Neurodiversopia: A School Where We Can Be Ourselves

When you’re in the middle of just running your school and living your life (and often fighting for the opportunity for your school to stay open), you forget sometimes to appreciate what you have.

I administrate and sometimes teach in a tiny Catholic school and my kids are in, currently, a one-room schoolhouse configuration, from Kindergarten through 8th grade.  There aren’t many of them, and they learn together and separately, on their own work, at their own paces.

At times, when people come to my school, such as the guy who comes to read the gas meter, he asks whether school is open.  Oh, it’s open.  They’re just upstairs and not that loud.

The thing of it is, it’s not that quiet ever.  My kids love to run and jump and play like everyone else.  My girls shriek, and I have a student who struggles with modulating her voice.  They can be very loud.

But it’s not really all that loud as compared to a school with mostly neurotypicals.  As it happens, I maybe have one or two neurotypical students, I think, and that’s not because I chose to have them; those are the kids who stayed after I became principal.  And the kid I think is neurotypical is a sibling of one or more Neurodivergent siblings, so he is growing aware of how to live Neurodivergently.

Anyway, we went to a very, very large Mass this past week, and it involved people from all over.  It’s helpful for young Catholics to see they are not alone in a highly secular world, so on a theoretical level, I was glad to go.

In practice, it was very overwhelming.  Here’s what happened, and what we learned from it.

We entered the arena together, with the kids staying close.  We paused at the doorway and I pointed out the bathrooms (thank goodness for large signs on the walls).  I said told them we’d head to the bathrooms first.  We moved together, taking a more sensory-friendly passageway, behind a set of bleachers, so they didn’t have to see all the kids, even if we couldn’t possibly block out the sounds, and got our bathroom visit done.  Then, we moved BACK behind the bleachers to talk.

“Why is it so loud?” said one of my girls, who is usually pretty flexible and can roll with things.  Meanwhile, one had so much anxiety she’d thrown up, and another was on the floor, overwhelmed with the sounds.  The rest, with the exception of my extroverted student with ADHD, were visibly uncomfortable.  One had very big eyes.  I did my best to reassure them.

After they acclimated to the sound only, I said, “Should we go out and look at where the altar is, and our seats are?”

They decided that, yes, they were ready, and came out to look around, and then we decided that we were okay enough to go up to our bleachers.  It remained loud, and got worse because the organizers had put up screens showing kids’ school names.  Some schools would cheer, loudly, when their names came up.  Of course they would.  It’s a neurotypical world.  I tried to explain how this wasn’t hurting the other kids, and pointed out how our extrovert was doing okay, even if the rest of us weren’t feeling too great, but that however we all felt was okay.  Though how much instruction went in since we were all dealing with so much sensory overload, I don’t know.

Not surprisingly, the situation didn’t get better until Mass actually happened.   Ritual and routine, we do fine with, and besides the other kids knew how to be quiet for Mass.

We ended up exiting the arena a bit early, after Mass, but before our bus would be ready, and making for a bench near where the busses would depart so my kids could decompress.  Since we’re a small school, we can do things like that without causing confusion or bottlenecking.

I made a note to write a grant for ear defenders for one and all.  We forget what it’s like to be outside of Neurodiversopia, and that we should be prepared to enter neurotypical territory.  My son leaves the house with ear defenders, sunglasses, a “good smell” (a Yankee Candle car jar ultimate, usually with a vanilla cupcake or peppermint smell that he likes), and often his game device so he can withdraw into that to “rest” his brain if he needs to do so.  He used to bring a blanket or a stuffed toy so he could rub his face on it when he felt stressed.  We do this without thinking since we’ve known he was Autistic since he was 4, so in six years, you get good at leaving the house.

But these kids aren’t so versed in Neurodivergent culture, where it’s okay to figure out what you need, and just take that out of the house with you.

Some don’t even know they’re Neurodivergent yet.

But I know them; the same way other Autistics knew me, I know my Neurodivergent students.  Some are Dyslexic, some have anxiety with or without Autism, and others, ADHD.  Most are introverts besides.  It feels good to know that I have built such a place for these students.

See, when we’re at school, we live in a world where it’s normal to be Neurodivergent in a wide variety of ways in a myriad of combinations.  We feel safe together because we made a world built for us.  And before you say, “Well, they have to live in the real world,” remember how high the incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is in Neurodivergent students which is, arguably, from the way schools tend to assault us with their neurotypical-friendly features.  Remember, too, how often many of us got into adulthood without a diagnosis that might possibly have given us a fighting chance of demanding accommodations for our needs.  Would it not be better to give kids safe places like this in which to grow up and then help, gently, to show them ways to navigate the neurotypical world as well as find quiet places where they can be themselves, even in a neurotypical world?

See, my kids (mostly) love themselves.  My one student who doesn’t came very recently from a public school where he felt bullied.  Over time, we hope, he will “find himself” and love himself again.  Many of us who grew up Neurodivergent and unaware of it, weren’t so lucky.  And even if we were Neurodivergent, what were the odds of finding a place where the school leader was Neurodivergent like you, and your teacher is an introvert who may or may not also be Neurodivergent?

Representation matters.  Seeing other Neurodivergent people working and happy to be in a setting that allows for Neurodivergence, more, is designed for it, can give my kids a chance to learn who they are in a safe, supportive place.

Of course, we are a small school, and therefore my school makes very little financial sense.  However, it’s a place where my kids can focus on learning because they are not stressed.  But we didn’t realize how good we had it.  Until we left our school to mix with “regular” kids, I had forgotten what it’s like to be in a neurotypical world since I spend so much time at school and my nice, quiet house.

I wish you all could have a chance to work in a place like mine, to heal from the stress of living in a world not created for you.

I pray you can build your own haven, and share it with others like us.  The more safe places like these exist, the better, since (as you can imagine) we can never really have too many students, or it will get too big to be useful.



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