Writing anonymously, an autistic former teacher reflects on their career and argues that schools can be traumatic places for young people and adults.

I have just read Emily Bulcraig's article about her experience of school (twice) and am now sitting typing this through tears. I almost never comment on articles but felt driven to it on this occasion.

For context, I am a 63 year old man, diagnosed autistic at 59, and retired early from secondary teaching 7 years ago. In light of my diagnosis and what I now know, I am astonished that I survived 35 years of teaching in city schools without a meltdown, although I felt it was getting close in the run up to my retirement. I recognise how lucky I have been - I think only 18% of autistics find any kind of employment. I cannot imagine that many of them will be teachers.

Schools are brutal places. They have become more brutal, both mentally and also now physically. In their current form, they are no place for an autistic young person. The mental and emotional energy burnt up by an autistic person just to get through a typical day outside school is huge compared to a neurotypical person. Being in a building alongside 1000 or more others is, without hyperbole, a prolonged nightmare to be dreaded.

I have huge empathy for Emily Bulcraig as I recognise everything she describes.

I do not know how big Emily’s school might be, but she is from the Highlands so I’m guessing perhaps smaller than those I have worked in. I had the interesting experience of once working in a school with a roll of over 2000. Autism was not a thing back then, but it clearly existed, so that must have been terrifying for those who were.

Those numbers certainly terrified me as a young inexperienced teacher, but I somehow just got on with it, in blissful ignorance, not realising my terror was not shared by my neurotypical colleagues. To a degree, that terror never left me, but it became easier to manage with experience, and I think I may have channelled it into productive creativity in my teaching in an effort to give my best.

I realised after my diagnosis that I had been masking for my entire life - quite a shocking thing when one considers it. How much of myself did I ever reveal? I honestly have no idea, even now. Only as I got older and more easily tired did it become harder to mask, until eventually I realised I had to get out of teaching.

Large organisations are not autism friendly, no matter how hard they try, and schools are not really trying or succeeding effectively despite all they say and do.

I now work in a small family-run company of 6 people, 3 of whom are the family. What a transformation! Here, as an added bonus I can use my autistic traits to positive benefit. Even better, these traits are recognised and appreciated by my employer, and frequently deployed deliberately when it suits the task. It feels good.

Throughout my teaching career, I now realise that I had an affinity with the autistic pupils I came into contact with, even though I didn’t understand why at the time. I made sure I was always watching them at least peripherally, and tried to keep the classroom or workshop quieter and calmer for them (which suited me anyway for now obvious reasons!). I also offered them a quiet place in the classroom at lunchtime if they wanted it, and tried to keep that exclusive to them unless I needed to use the room for seniors catching up with exam submissions.

I am happy that Emily is no longer having to suffer being in school. It is far from ideal for her education, as she will clearly miss out on some learning and social experiences, but I believe her mental health is more important in the long run. Learning can happen at any point in her life as long as she has motivation, and for now, she needs protection from the terror of a large busy institution along with a better understanding of how to deal with her autism. She seems to be getting this through her online peer support group - long may this continue and hopefully develop.

At the risk of repeating myself to the point of boredom - schools are brutal places!

Money, compassion, and a complete change of thinking are needed to improve this. Probably some deliberately recruited autistic teachers in the right posts and who are truly listened to also. A tall order indeed.

I found that classes of up to around 15 pupils would allow true attention to each of their needs. I was luckily close to that as a practical subject teacher with a maximum of 20, but my heart sank to my boots when I had to cover a non-practical subject as it was almost without exception a complete bunfight.

We need a MUCH more civilised means of educating our children, especially if we are to have presumption of mainstreaming. I hope it comes sooner rather than later.