Autism: When Awards Can Be A Negative Thing…

There was recently a thread on Twitter started by Claire Ryan who tweeted:

“When is giving a child an award at school, not an award at all?” – along with this excerpt about an autistic boy called Jack.

Jack reported being anxious recently in assembly as school were giving out awards. He would sit thinking ‘don’t pick me’. When he was picked he was very anxious and worried about which way to walk to the front of the hall with all people watching him. Jack was able to describe how this made him feel saying “my bones were brain was mush..if I could curl up into a ball and fall into a hole 50 feet deep”

A thought provoking tweet which stirred up memories of sitting in the school hall DREADING being given an award because of having to walk up to the front to receive it. You could bet your dinner money that somebody would stick their foot out on route to ramp up the humiliation factor and when you crave invisibility this is the LAST thing that you want.

My infants school had a ‘star’ system where children were awarded gold and silver stars for good work/behaviour. We also had black stars, which are sort of self-explanatory. Nobody wanted one of those. I liked the gold and silver stars because they were aesthetically pleasing. I like shiny stuff. What can I say? Maybe I was a cat in a past life. However, I did NOT like going up to the front of the class to receive one because it meant that everybody would look at me so I deliberately underachieved in my favourite subjects in order to avoid it..

For example, I purposely made myself read slower in order to avoid going to the teacher to get a new book. It seemed like I was below average but in actual fact I was an early self-taught reader who could easily read an entire book in a couple of hours at home. I was also reading books way beyond my age group but as far as the school was concerned, I was slow.

Despite my avoidance strategies, I would sometimes forget myself like when I ran a 100 meter sprint in the school sports. I didn’t realise how fast I could run and to everybody’s surprise, including my own, I won the race.

So, there I was, face down on the grass (dying) when I got an overpowering whiff of Paco Rabanne. This could only mean that my class teacher (and head of sports) was close by and sure enough he was standing over me with his mirrored sunglasses on looking like something out of Top Gun.

Actually, this anecdote story predates Top Gun but you get my drift?

He grinned at me.

Temporarily blinded by the glare off his whitened teeth, I gasped ‘Alright Sir?’

‘Well done young lady!’ *pats me on the back but I’m highly-sensitive so it feels more like a thump*

Then came the kick in the metaphorical flaps.

You’re in the athletics team and practice starts Thursday after school.

Shit. Shit. SHIT!!

Didn’t say shit, obvs.

Instead of feeling euphoric as I imagine most other children would – I felt sick to my stomach.

I didn’t want to be in the school team.

I didn’t even like sports except for watching football and Wimbledon. Plus, I did enough nervous sweating at school without having to work one up in my own time. The problem was that I couldn’t verbalise my feelings. I didn’t understand that I could have said no so I found myself turning up for athletics practice and the next thing I knew I was on a noisy coach bound for the local athletics stadium. Can you imagine how sensory that was? I was that anxious, I forgot how to hand the baton over for the relay race. That occasion was for town. Next came running for my county – by which time I was totally stressed out and visibly so. My mum asked me why I was doing it if it made me so unhappy? So I simply stopped turning up. Needless to say, Sir wasn’t pleased.

I don’t hold a grudge. How can I? He had no idea what was going on inside my body and mind as I wasn’t able to verbalise any of it. I suppose from his point of view it just looked like I was messing him about? He misunderstood me but then being misunderstood has been the story of my life.

Then there was the time when I got 98% in my history mock exam..

Teacher read out our scores. She read everyone’s name out except mine. That’s when I started to feel sick because I figured that I had either done exceptionally shit or exceptionally well.

Either way, it wasn’t good.

She read my name (and score) out and looked pleased for me. What she didn’t understand was that it reminded the class dickheads that I was there and that it had been a few minutes since they’d thrown something at my head. Needless to say, any sense of pride was obliterated by the feeling of wanting to die.

That 50ft hole that Jack described? I know it well.

I underachieved on purpose and the main reason was that achievement equaled anxiety.

The majority of replies that came from #ActuallyAutistic people (including myself) were that receiving awards causes distress and anxiety.

This isn’t to say that autistic people don’t want awards. Most people appreciate recognition when they have worked hard on something. It’s the social aspect of it that is the problem. For me, opening my book and seeing a gold star would have made me happy. It would have been enough. Having to face the entire class took the pleasure away and turned it into something very unpleasant. Just as being picked for the athletics team took away my pleasure of winning. For a child to purposely underachieve has a detrimental effect on their present and their future. No doubt Jack’s teacher meant well but despite their good intentions, the child was distressed.

It’s impossible to get things right every time but when teachers get it wrong they really need to learn from it.

The Boy likes to get rewards at school but he doesn’t like going into assembly to receive them. On a VERY good day he will go and get his award but will have to leave immediately. It’s all about gauging how anxious he is and if he is up for it or not on that particular day.

    • The thing with autism is that normal rules don’t apply.
    • Each child is different with individual needs.
    • Some autistic children are unable to verbalise their feelings.
    • An autistic child might be able do something one day but will struggle with same task the next.

To clarify. Autistic children like to feel a sense of achievement but how the recognition of that achievement is undertaken must be carefully thought out or irreparable damage could be done.

Teachers, take note.