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My experience as a teenager on the Autistic spectrum

My name is Rafi. I’m 14 and a freshman at the Leffell School in Westchester, New York. As a teenager on the Autistic spectrum, I view and experience the world differently than other people. I spend a lot of time learning about what neurotypical people do – how they act, how they handle situations. I thought it might be interesting to turn that around, to share with you throughout the year what it is like for me as I navigate starting a new school for High School.

I was really nervous to start Leffell. I had been at my previous school for four years. I felt safe there. I find it challenging to socialize and meet new people. I have made and kept a few good friends over the years but I tend to keep to myself. My social anxiety can become even worse in unpredictable situations. I can also have trouble with crowded places, loud noises, and the heat.  I did as much as I could to prepare myself. I made sure I thought through different situations in advance. I asked a lot of questions and appreciated the support from the school administration and my mom. Still, although I met my teachers before school began, I did not know many other 9th graders and I was unsure what to expect.

Walking down the hallway to the HSBK (High School Beit Knesset, Assembly Hall) for 9th grade orientation was overwhelming. I saw my grade, all talking to each other. I sat down nervously, contemplating the day ahead. A couple of friends from middle school, Elias and Ephram, came over to ask about my summer. That they did that helped me a lot. I am nervous to start conversations, so it helped me feel confident about the discussions that lay ahead.

After some announcements from the administration and some small group icebreakers, we had Tefillah (prayers). As I put on my Tefillin and Tallit (ritual garments), I thought about how this was not always easy for me. Last school year, I struggled with putting on my Tefillin, how it irritated my skin and made me feel uncomfortable. But now after lots of practice, I’m used to it. I’m glad my old school let me take it step by step, to make it feel like it was less a chore and more a goal I wanted to accomplish by the end of the year, which I did. I thought about how I will get used to my new school too, and I made a bold decision. When the Service Leader asked for Gabbais (prayer assistants), I volunteered. This was a big step for me, I had barely known these kids for an hour, yet I was now helping lead the service. I started thinking that my social anxiety might not be as bad as I thought.

A few other things stuck out from that first day. After a team-building exercise during which I stood around awkwardly because a group activity with strangers is overwhelming, we participated in a chesed activity (volunteering). I was relieved when I had the chance to help the program coordinator with some other tasks. This is much easier for me than making small talk. It had already been a long day when we practiced our fire drill line but I held it together, and then thankfully, the first day was over. Overall, I left feeling that the day had been successful.

The second day was much more challenging than the first because I faced a number of challenges that required me to be flexible. My mother made some mistakes with the bus registration, so when in the afternoon I went to get on the bus I took to school, the driver wouldn’t let me on. This was my first day of busing at a new school, and I did not know who to ask for help, and I was not the only student in this situation. Finally, I found out I was supposed to go in a private SUV. I sat for an hour and a half in a small car, with kids I didn’t know, and I didn’t know when I’d be dropped off. I had a panic attack, which is terrifying for me. Thankfully, a week later and with the bus problem resolved, I get picked up at my own house every morning.

In terms of classes, I think I will enjoy all of them, especially History and English. I am more concerned with Hebrew and Math because in the past, I have experienced a lot of stress in these two classes. For Hebrew, I have been trying to learn the language for a long time, but it has been a struggle. I hope this year will be different. For Math, I have found it difficult to pick up new concepts, and that gets me stressed out, and when I haven’t stayed on top of my thoughts, I’ve had panic attacks.

At the end of the first “full” week of school, we had a Shabbaton (overnight school trip). People in my grade had mixed feelings. A lot of people seemed super excited for the weekend, but others, including myself, appeared very worried about the experience. I asked questions in advance, but there was still a lot I didn’t know and I knew I would have to be flexible.

We were split into bunks when we arrived, but I didn’t know the kids in the bunk, and I didn’t feel very comfortable. I started to worry that it would be difficult to connect with them. I had a panic attack, and after what felt like an eternity to me, I was able to explain how I was feeling to an administrator. I was moved to another bunk where I knew some kids and over the weekend, found others who have similar interests as me. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made. The weekend was long and full of services, activities, and meals. But I made some new friends, and I came home from the Shabbaton feeling more confident about socializing and meeting new people.

Change is difficult, I think we all know that. But for many on the Spectrum, new scenarios or situations can be exceptionally difficult. Whether that is a new class, a new social setting, or a new responsibility, change is always challenging for me. But that’s what they are, challenges. I know that if I work hard enough, I can overcome what I am facing. I know there will be bumps in the road – that’s unavoidable — but I have a solid base and the right mindset, so I am not alone. Looking back on my first month of high school, I am relieved that this first hurdle is behind me, but I am also proud. I stayed calmer than I thought I would. For finding new friends and colleagues, for pushing myself to the limit. I have a couple of months ahead until my next edition (December 15th) is published! See you then!

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