Schools have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for students who otherwise are at an unfair disadvantage to their peers due to a disability or mental health condition. It is important to note that students do not need an official diagnosis in order for these to be put in place. A needs-based approach looks at the child’s needs rather than the overarching diagnosis. This involves looking at the barriers to learning, what the child finds difficult, and what may enable them to have the same opportunity to succeed as their peers.
I think it is also important to note that I am not a professional. I am simply a young autistic person who had a lot of reasonable adjustments at school. Not only did this help me to stay in school, it also helped me to reach my full potential. I received many of these adjustments from the age of 13/14, due to being highly anxious, refusing to go to lessons, running away from school and having regular panic attacks. I was not suspected to be autistic until I was 16. Hence, I know it is possible for students to receive these adjustments without being autistic or having a diagnosis.
For parents of anxious children struggling at school, it can be difficult to know what help to ask for. I hope by me highlighting some of the reasonable adjustments I had at school, you are given more of an idea of what you may be able to ask for for your child.
- I was allowed to miss PE and sit in the library instead.
This was because I found the PE changing rooms too crowded and loud. The smells were too strong. This often triggered panic attacks. The anxiety of contemplating doing PE was too much. Sitting in the library instead helped a lot. I was able to catch up with other lessons I had missed due to anxiety. This also gave me a break from the anxiety of lessons and gave me time to recuperate, which meant I was more likely to be able to cope with the rest of my lessons that day.
- I didn’t have to go to assemblies.
I found assemblies very difficult because I felt trapped. Even if I sat on the edge of the row (which was very hard to ensure and normally involved singling me out in-front of the year), I still felt like I couldn’t leave if I felt a panic attack coming on, because if I did the whole year would see me leave. I sat in the library instead. (Through this post you may see a common theme in the library!)
- I had fortnightly mentoring sessions.
Not only did I have these sessions, I was also able to choose my mentor. In year 10 and 11 my mentor was the pastoral support officer. In year 12 it was one of my English teachers. In year 13 it was the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Coordinator). This was very helpful as it gave me a regular place to be able to talk about my mental health, discuss how I was managing school work, and also helped the school gauge how I was doing. It helped build a strong support network which I needed.
- Exam adjustments.
For exams I had 25% extra time (this was only in sixth form after I received my ASD diagnosis), rest breaks and I did them in a small room. I managed the exams in the big hall in year 8 and that was the only time. After that, even the thought of the hall was enough to send me into an anxiety attack. Rest breaks helped if I needed a few minutes to breathe and re-focus. Extra time helped me because it can take me longer to process things. I am also quite obsessive over being neat, so being able to take longer to write neatly alleviates some anxiety. In year 10 I ripped up one of my exam papers and threw it in the bin because it was messy and I refused to have it marked.
- I had a time out card.
This meant I could leave the lesson when I needed to, just by showing the card to the teacher. Though I left lessons so frequently that I didn’t really use if after the first few times! It did help though with new teachers or cover teachers who didn’t know that I could leave. I was able to go and sit in the library to calm down. The library became my safe space.
- An agreement that I wouldn’t get given the grade/mark of my work.
This is definitely more of a personalised adjustment. When I re-integrated back into school after being in hospital for my mental health, we had an agreement that my teachers wouldn’t give me the grade or mark of my work. This was because I used to get so obsessive over my grades/marks needing to be 100%. Instead, my teachers would just tell me what I did well and what I could work on. I think every time I went up at the end of the lesson and asked for the grade anyway, but just knowing I didn’t have to have it relieved a bit of pressure.
- Tangles and other fidget toys!
I was allowed my tangle or fidget toys in lessons. They were banned for the rest of the school, other than for specific children. It was good I was allowed them because I needed to be able to fiddle with them, but I did hate being singled out and other kids knowing that I was allowed them.
- I didn’t have to join in with school events.
Most of these school events, such as themed days, sports days, drama days etc, would just cause me to have panic attacks. They tended to be very loud, noisy and chaotic, and unstructured. On sports days I had the day off after year 8. Any year group meetings or activities I didn’t tend to go to. I found them too much to manage.
- Seating plans sitting me with a friend and by the door.
We had seating plans in lessons, but I was allowed to pick a friend to sit next to. This helped me to feel a lot less anxious and more comfortable in class. I was able to leave the lesson easily if I needed to as well.
- Being allowed on my phone at specific times.
We weren’t allowed to use phones at school or listen to music, but I was allowed to listen to music in the library to help me calm down. This didn’t always work. I remember once a teacher trying to tell me off for listening to music and when I tried to explain she told me I was talking back to her. The librarians weren’t around to explain. I ended up running out and having a panic attack. It was also agreed that I could text my mum in the toilet if I needed to. I found this reassuring as I often needed to go home because I couldn’t cope, or I needed to talk to my mum about something that was making me anxious.
- Uniform adjustments due to sensory issues.
I struggled hugely with wearing tights. They would itch my legs and my legs would come out in rashes. I wasn’t able to sit still in them. I was allowed to wear leggings instead, but again this often got me in trouble which made me extremely anxious, despite carrying a note around in my pocket from my head of year.
- Extensions on deadlines and homework.
I think this only really happened in sixth form, because of my mental health. They knew I always tried my absolute best, but sometimes I couldn’t cope with the work and needed time off. Other times I was so low I couldn’t even force myself to complete it.
- I had a reduced timetable.
At GCSE level, I didn’t do PE and I did one less GCSE. At A-Level, I didn’t have to come in for form, and I could leave in between lessons or after they finished (which the rest of the year couldn’t). I came in late and went home early. This helped me manage my tiredness a lot, and in year 10 and 11 meant that I could have a tutor at home to help me catch up with the lessons I missed.
I’m sure I had other adjustments too, but these are the main ones I can think of. My school overall was very, very accommodating and helped me to stay in school. I was very close to being pulled out in year 10 due to my anxiety, and they also helped me return to school after being in hospital in year 12. I would not have been able to stay in school and return from hospital without their unwavering support.
I hope that this has been helpful, and I hope that this has given you more of an idea of what reasonable adjustments you are entitled to ask for in school.