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What “I’m Bored” Really Means for Autistic Kids

By Professor Tony Attwood

The comment “I’m bored” is often said by teenagers at high school, but Autistic students may use this phrase to express a range of thoughts and feelings. A translation of “I’m bored” for those who have autism can be:

I do not have the energy to do this

At high school Autistic Students consume mental energy to process not only the academic curriculum but also the social curriculum as well as manage anxiety and sensory sensitivity. A typical day at high school is mentally exhausting, hence the comment “I’m bored” means “I have no mental energy to process this activity”.

This activity is pointless and irrelevant

Components of the high school curriculum may not have relevance to modern life or the future of the Autistic student. Typical students recognize that the activity is futile but will persevere to comply with the school’s expectations, maintain peer engagement and to pass exams. The Autistic student may not follow such conventions and if the activity is perceived as irrelevant, it may well be boring, and the Autistic student may repeatedly express their opinion to the teacher.

This activity is too easy for me

The cognitive profile associated with autism can include abilities in advance of same age peers. The teacher usually presents the activity based on the average abilities of the students in the class. Thus, the Autistic student may have completed the activity in advance of his or her peers and now has nothing to do and is bored.

The teacher is uninspiring

The style of teaching or personality of the teacher may be uninspiring, or the teacher may be depressed. The lesson is then boring for all students.

I am being treated as an idiot

Adolescents who have autism may not be successful socially or in school sports. Academic success then becomes important to achieve respect and for self-esteem. Thus, the Autistic student often wants to demonstrate intellectual abilities. To say, “I’m bored” may translate to “I cannot demonstrate how smart I am”.

It makes me sound ‘cool’

One way of achieving social acceptance and inclusion is to imitate peers, especially the ‘cool’ students, who may often say “I’m bored”.

My imagination is more exciting

In the early grades of school, the Autistic child may recognize that he or she is different to their peers, and often excluded socially. One of the adjustment strategies is to escape into imagination, perhaps as a super hero who has special and valued powers or an alternative world such as Hogwarts or being with animals. The imaginary world is exciting and with achievements that are elusive in reality. There is a huge contrast between the social and academic classroom and an imaginary world, hence the lesson is boring in comparison to enjoying a vivid imagination.

I cannot understand what the teacher is saying

Autism can be associated with specific language and learning difficulties, such that the teacher may be talking too fast or using complex language structures for the adolescent to cognitively and linguistically process the information. There may also be difficulty discriminating the teacher’s voice from the voices of nearby children quietly talking to each other, or the teacher may be using idioms and sarcasm that are confusing.

I am feeling depressed

There is a high level of depression in teenagers who have autism. One of the characteristics of depression is anhedonia, an inability to experience pleasure or interest in a formerly pleasurable activity. Favourite subjects such as mathematics, information technology, art or drama are no longer enjoyable due to feeling depressed.

Thus, parents and teachers may need to translate the phrase “I’m bored” as an expression that has many meanings.