Isolation at school
Time without classes, such as breaks and lunch times, is challenging for students on the spectrum, just as any other time without task, assignment or structure. Over all, around one-third of the time spent in school is spent outside formal classrooms, e.g. around school, in the cafeteria, corridors etcetera. How youth on the spectrum may experience this ‘empty time’ is, for instance expressed by Donna Williams:
“On lunch breaks I would wander through the school watching various colors which disappeared under my feet and I would stop sometimes and stare at something for the entire break, like the polished floor of the gym or the reflection in the curved tinted glass windows.”
Gunilla Gerland described how, during play-time, she experienced everything around her as a tangle and how it hurt to make sense of all her sensory impressions. She would retreat against the school building, against a wall. She would retreat into herself.
A highly intelligent autistic acquaintance told me:
“At elementary school, already in third grade, I stayed in class last, while the other students ran out, relaxing for a moment; then went outside, finding a quiet spot and then when the school bell rang I stayed out much too long until everyone had entered again and then I would sometimes look up the facade and tell myself ‘three more years to go, I’ll never make it’ and then I’d sit in the toilet for a long time just to have an excuse.”
Of his schooldays, Daniel Tammet writes in his autobiography that he didn’t understand anything about his emotions. All he knew was he wanted to be close to someone. Because he didn’t understand closeness is primarily something emotional, he would walk up to someone and stand so close to him that he would feel the others’ body warmth on his skin. He writes he had no idea of ‘personal space’ and didn’t realize he made others uneasy with his presence.
Research by Wainscot et al. shows that 33% of the high-functioning autistic students spend their breaks alone, as opposed to none of the non-autistic pupils. For lunchtime these percentages are 27 to 4. Thirty percent of the autistic kids had their lunch by themselves, compared to 11% of the others.