My struggle with Philosophy and Belief (PB/RE) –Part 2

person holding pencil writing on notebook

This is a continuation of the series of blog posts about my journey with Philosophy and Belief at secondary school and how I feel my personal faith (and lack thereof) was shaped by my experience of being autistic. In this second instalment (you can read the first post here), I’m going to describe my experiences in Years Eight and Nine. This post will be slightly different to my last one, as I will detour away from just talking about the philosophical issues I had, in order to discuss the circumstances of PB lessons, particularly in Year Eight, and the strategies we developed to manage my difficulties in PB, both inside and outside of the classroom. I hope these solutions may be of interest to those on the spectrum, or their carers.

Just as in Year Seven, in Year Eight we continued to study topics which were existentially distressing to me given my black-and-white style of thinking. However, Year Eight also presented its own unique problems, this time not just relating to the subject.

Firstly, I’ll speak about my teacher. She was one of those teachers that every other kid in my class found absolutely brilliant. She was what they’d call a fun teacher. One of those who would chew gum in class, play on her phone, put her heels up on the desk and joke around with the students, giving everyone a good laugh. If I wasn’t on the spectrum, she might have been one of my favourite teachers.

Unfortunately, that was where the problem lay. It was nothing personal against her, but she was simply the opposite of an aspie. With her exciting, unpredictable personality, she made me feel on edge. Her rule-bending, which made lessons more enjoyable for the other neurotypical kids, made me feel unsafe as her lessons had less of a structured routine. Even more unfortunately, we also got off to a bad start.

In one lesson, early in the year, Miss was strutting around the classroom talking to us, with her folder in her hand, when, while standing in front of me, she accidentally dropped it. Some of the papers flew out and landed by my chair, so I leant down to help pick them up. All of a sudden, Miss shouted for me to stop. Startled, I froze, a paper already in my hand, my brain unable to process what was happening. A second later, she yelled again, and this time I actually moved, only to drop the paper and lean back in my chair. I couldn’t see her face, everything was moving too fast, and all I heard was her once again chiding me and telling me to leave it. Then she picked up the papers herself and went back to the lesson. Everyone else moved on, but I was paralysed, and fighting back tears.

For me, being an aspie who relies on following the rules to feel safe and calm, being told off was one of the worst possible situations. Now, no one likes to be told off, but as I mentioned in my post ‘The Guilt Complex’ and its retrospective, I’m very sensitive to right and wrong and I put a lot of my self worth in feeling like I was a good person, who behaved well in lessons. The worst part was, I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I felt like I was the worst person in the world; I had tried to help, and been yelled at. While someone neurotypical might have been able to rationalise this as simply the teacher having a bad day, or been able to squash down their distress, I became exceedingly anxious and continued to spiral.

For the whole lesson, I was unable to engage, barely mumbling out answers to questions and keeping my head down. When it was over, I left quietly and walked with my friends to our next lesson. I didn’t dare speak; I felt that if I tried to form the words, it would just come at as a sob and I’d start crying. This is quite a common reaction for me in distressing situations – it becomes very difficult for me to speak, not only because I feel I will cry, but also just the act of speaking feels insurmountable, as my thoughts feel incredibly loud and overwhelming in my mind. I managed to mumble to my friend: “Talk, now. About anything. Just talk.”

I find that when I’m on the verge of a meltdown, as I was in that situation, having a distraction is very helpful for trying to prevent it. Whilst my friend was talking, it allowed me to focus on what they were saying, and just calm myself down a bit as I gathered my thoughts. And since my friend went on to just describe something they did, it meant I didn’t need to respond too much, allowing me to have something to focus on, without constantly worrying about having to say something in reply.

However, as helpful as having that immediate, temporary distraction was, the real solution was talking it over at home with my mum. When I talked to Mum, (naturally breaking down in tears as I explained) she kindly reassured me that the teacher was probably just panicked she had dropped something important and I wasn’t supposed to see it. That’s why she had yelled. That made me feel better, because I now knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong. This kind of reassurance was important for me as an aspie, especially since at that time I put pretty much all of my self worth in the idea that I was a ‘good’, well-behaved person.

The next step was to email the head of SENCO, and explain the situation. They offered me various means of support, some of the proposed options including: regular meetings with my mentor after every PB lesson; having a notebook in class to write down my thoughts, and leaving the lesson entirely for the term. Ultimately, I ended up doing the latter two.

The notebook idea came from the fact that part of the problem was that I wanted to challenge what the teacher was saying, as I do in most lessons. I’m never satisfied with a simple answer, my autistic brain thrives off detail and particulars. I am also exceedingly sensitive to areas where I perceive there is a logical contradiction, and desperately desire answers which would explain away the inconsistency. You see, I don’t naturally dislike PB as a topic. As I mentioned in my previous post, Mum and I would frequently have lengthy conversations regarding massive subjects – often ending with me getting a huge existential crisis and lots of frustration. But the difference at school was the environment. Normally, when I had these conversations at home, I could challenge what Mum said; I could vent, I could rant; I could get frustrated and bang my head on the table when I didn’t understand, and Mum could explain everything over and over again and it didn’t matter because it was just me and her. When I was in a home environment, I could release my inner frustration and confusion however I needed to, without the worry of being judged for it. However at school, it was different story. With a limited time allotted to each lesson, and surrounded by my peers, there wasn’t an outlet for me to release my turbulent emotions – and because my teacher had unfortunately fallen under the category of ‘unpredictable’, I was afraid to question her in the moment. Thus, I would become preoccupied in lessons, trying to remember and hold onto all of my questions and becoming increasingly tense. So what we came up with was that I would write down any questions or thoughts that I had in my notebook, which allowed me to release some of that simmering emotion as I no longer had to worry about remembering them all myself. I could then talk them over with my mum at home, and if she couldn’t answer them, we could email the teacher. This method worked for a few lessons, but after a while, I still found myself getting stressed, and so after talking to SENCO we decided I would miss PB lessons, instead I would spend the 45 minutes in the library, doing my own independent research with worksheets that my teacher sent down to me.

Later on, we set up a system where I would have sessions afterschool on Friday with the head of the PB department, where we would discuss philosophical questions. Now, the issues I had there was that I was grasping at concepts I simply did not have the emotional maturity to handle. I couldn’t understand why people sometimes behaved in contradictory ways, because I still held onto the child’s worldview that all adults were smart and always behaved rationally. Moreover, I couldn’t handle the idea that there was no answer to the question ‘why?’. Why are we here? Why does the universe exist? Why does any of it matter? I don’t think those are questions most people ever fully deal with, let alone a thirteen-year-old aspie girl. Naturally, my teacher didn’t have all the answers either, but she was helpful in focusing on letting my vent my confusion and responded encouragingly, reassuring me that it was good to have these questions. There sessions were also good to give my mum a bit of a break from my constant spiritual interrogations.

In Year Nine, I returned to PB lessons, but I was still equipped with a red card, which I could show to the teacher at any point if I felt I needed to leave the lesson to go the library, and I still had my trusty notebook. We were asked to do presentations – a speech on how we’d like the world to be. By this point, I was in my ardently atheist phase. I did my presentation, on why I thought the world would be better without organised religion. There was only one Christian kid in my class – and I was actually friends with him. He’s a fantastic guy, and still a good friend to this day. At the time, he was comfortable in his faith and he was quite unbothered by my speech. Later on though, we began to start talking more in depth about religion, often debating philosophical topics, and by Year Ten he had become an atheist. My parents were mortified, seeing it as though I was responsible for leading him away from his faith. I argue he would have found his way into atheism anyway – he’s logically-minded and prone to questioning. Now, he’s even more ardently atheist than I am.

But something to note about what preparing that presentation was like. We were given it as a project over the holidays, during which time I went to Cyprus. It was a lovely holiday, but I spent so much time thinking about that project. Whereas most kids would have spent maybe two hours writing the speech, I spent weeks planning and researching, watching all of the YouTube videos and reading all the websites I could find about it. It became something of a hyper-fixation, which was fairly gratifying to me, but equally, this prolonged preoccupation with religion and spirituality meant that I spent a lot of time ruminating on existential questions, and it became a habit to spend the hour before I went to sleep at night in deep thought, which was often accompanied by not an insignificant amount of emotional distress at my inability to answer those universal questions.

This would later contribute to my decision to discuss with the school my dropping PB at GCSE, which I will explain more about in the next post in this series. Thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed this post, please remember to like, follow and share, and leave a comment with any questions! I appreciate all the support so much.

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