“I’ve been bullied at school for most of my life” How Siena’s helping other autistic young people like her

bullied school most of life How Siena helping other autistic young people

Tania's note: I really value being able to feature the voice of young people with SEND on SNJ, as we recently did with Lucy, from Ambitious About Autism. 

Today we're so pleased to bring you an article from another amazing young woman who, despite being only 16 herself, is also using her experience to help others.

Siena Castellon is an autism and neurodiversity advocate, and despite her young age, has already founded Quantum Leap Mentoring.  As a young autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic student, Siena felt there was not enough information available to support her and others, as most of the resources were aimed at parents. So, aged just 13, she created her own child-friendly website to support and mentor children and young people with learning differences and autism.

Since then, Siena has won numerous awards for her website and advocacy, including most recently winning the BBC Radio 1 Teen Hero Awards and being honoured with the British Citizen Youth Award. She was also invited to Kensington Palace to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Today, the start of Anti-Bullying Week, Siena has written for us about her experiences and her advocacy work...

Autistic students in mainstream education have a big target on their back

by Siena Castellon

Like many autistic students, my educational experience has been a rollercoaster ride. I have had some highs, but mostly there have been lots of lows. It would be easy to attribute my negative educational experiences to my autism and my behaviour. However, the truth is that my negative educational experiences are attributable to intolerance, lack of autism understanding and training and a system that lets us down at every turn.

Autistic students in mainstream education have a big target on their back. We are quirky, eccentric, socially awkward, literal. In short, we are different. Unfortunately, being different, especially in secondary school, makes us extremely vulnerable to being mistreated and abused. In a 2017 bullying survey of 10,000 students by Ditch the Label, 75% of autistic students reported being bullied. I have been bullied at school for most of my life.

Although schools have a responsibility to safeguard their students, many schools are letting down their autistic students by failing to protect them from mistreatment and abuse. I have had schools tell me that I should bring less attention to myself, that I should try harder to fit in and be less different. As if acts, such as defacing my belongings with disparaging words, spreading false rumours about me and hitting me, were a justified punishment that I deserved to have inflicted on me for the crime of being different.

Siena receiving her award from the Duke and Duchess of CambridgeWhen schools excuse and condone bullying, especially the bullying of their most vulnerable students, they are not only letting down their autistic students, they are also letting down the bullies. Schools play an important role in moulding the adults of the future. It is therefore hardly surprising that the latest police statistics show a 33% increase in disability hate crime across England and Wales from 2017 to 2018.

Many of my negative educational experiences are also attributable to school staff’s lack of understanding of autism. It has been my experience that most school staff have little, if any, autism training, especially in relation to autism in girls. In my experience, there is little understanding of our sensory processing issues, our social issues, are difficulties in working on group projects, our anxiety and our need to have a quiet place where we can escape and recharge. Instead, we are expected to camouflage, to mask our true selves. Schools do not appear to realise that by failing to support us and by creating an environment in which we must hide our autism, their actions are having serious consequences on our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Schools failing disabled children legally and morally

Many schools do not understand, fulfil or comply the legal obligations they have towards their students with disabilities. The Equality Act 2010 protects students with disabilities from being discriminated against by their school. However, many schools disproportionally exclude their autistic students for reasons that are directly linked to their disability. According to the Department of Education, in 2015/2016 there were 4,485 exclusions of autistic students, a 59% rise since 2012. However, this statistic is only the tip of the iceberg. Many schools informally exclude or off-roll students for minor autism-related behavioural issues. This statistic also does not include the large percentage of autistic students forced into home-education because of their school’s poor understanding of autism, lack of support and increasing levels of disability-based bullying.

Forced to appeal again discrimination

The SEND Tribunal is a national tribunal that hears disability discrimination claims against schools. The SEND Tribunal is intended to be accessible to parents and young people. A place where they can seek justice, without having to hire solicitors or having to spend thousands of pounds on legal fees. However, the reality is very different, because most schools will hire lawyers to represent them and turn the SEND Tribunal into a battle ground.

We filed a discrimination claim against a private school for 18 counts of disability discrimination. The First-Tier Tribunal judge found against us. We've been given leave to appeal to the Upper Tribunal on seven counts as we believe the ruling overlooked key evidence, and made legal errors.

You may be asking what we hope to achieve by this? If we win our appeal, the school will be required to improve the support they provide to their autistic students. For example, we have asked that they amend their bullying policies and that senior staff attend autism training. It is a sad statement, that instead of voluntarily agreeing to improve their understanding of autism and thereby the support they provide to their current and prospective autistic students, the school preferred to spend tens of thousands of pounds on legal fees to fight us every step of the way.

I hope that by sharing my educational experiences and shining a light of the types of issues that autistic students face at school, that schools will change their approach to how they deal with autistic students. After all, all students deserve to have happy and fulfilling school experiences, even autistic students.

You can follow Siena on Twitter and Instagram at: @QLMentoring and her #AlwaysBeKind Instagram campaign at: @AlwaysBeKindCampaign.

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