Successes and Struggles of the High School Experience for People with Neuro-Differences

Steph Geheran

This article is the outline of a talk Stephanie Geheran prepared and delivered at a meeting of the Pathways Parent-Faculty Program at Brookline High School. Their mission is to educate, inform, support, and help students, parents, and faculty to prepare for and make smoother transitions from the K-8 schools to the high school.

Steph also addressed our wider community at the 2004 Autism Awareness Day last April.


My name is Steph. My “diagnosis” is Asperger Syndrome. I am 19, and a graduated last spring from Wellesley High School. I am currently working part time while attending classes at Mass Bay Community College.

My aim today is to address the struggles & challenges a student with a neuro-difference may encounter, and ways in which they may be transformed into successes. I can only speak and provide advice/guidelines from my own personal perspective. Please bear in mind there is an extensive variety of neuro-differences and experiences out there, and different methods prove effective for different people. So these are only very loose, general suggestions and concerns that you will hopefully find enlightening or helpful.

Adjusting to High School

High School can have a vast and overwhelming atmosphere; there are few places a student can evade human contact, other than a bathroom stall!

“Homebase,” or a safe, isolated space which is accessible for escape at all times, is essential, and should be equipped with a source of calming stimulation such as music, food or candy, and perhaps something akin to “stress balls” if the student has tactile needs.

Certain areas of school/times of day may be particularly overwhelming and anxiety-producing. For example:

  • The cafeteria is usually a noisy, socially exhausting environment in which one is very exposed. Offer alternatives to the caf., do not force a student to remain there. Asking me to remain in the caf. was the equivalent of requesting that I jump headfirst into a strong, tumultuous current.
  • Hallways, Passing Classes: Offer alternatives such as passing classes a few minutes late or early, in order to avoid teeming crowds.

Teachers, Administrators, Special Educators

The most important and helpful attributes of teachers, administrators, and special educators are open-mindedness, compassion and approachability. A non-threatening authority figure will be much more valuable than a looming disciplinarian. Everyone should be prepared to learn as well as teach.

All staff, every teacher, should be informed of the student’s differences by a parent or special educator; they should be conscious of specific proclivities and, most importantly, how crucial it is to remain sensitive, patient, and understanding. This will better enable the teacher to address the student’s needs and create a comfortable learning environment.

Communication among adults is especially vital for students who have difficulty advocating for themselves.

The teachers, of course, aren’t the only ones who need to be enlightened. An effort should be made to promote awareness in the student’s peers. This should be done in a way that doesn’t “single out” any students with neuro-differences or cause them to become self-conscious. Perhaps some type of awareness program can be incorporated into a pre-existing curriculum. The head of the English Dept. at my high school approached me of her own accord to discuss inserting the extraordinarily realistic and intuitive novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon into the English curriculum. She wanted to make sure children who identified with the protagonist would not feel singled out.

Be open-minded to unconventional learning techniques: When I wasn’t exactly thriving in my academic studies, a truly amazing special educator proposed the innovative idea of me leaving the classroom to pursue more “hands-on” learning experiences. I worked with children who had special functional needs at a therapeutic horse-back riding stable (keeping a journal for scholarly merit). I also worked with a class of children with special cognitive needs. Both were enlightening, luminous, effective, and inspiring experiences, combining my arenas of interest with legitimate academic activity.