1.5 credits of pain

The hidden struggle of neurodivergent students in P.E.

by Eliana Megargee, Assistant Art Director

The squeak of tennis shoes against synthetic floors. The sound of balls bouncing and whistles blowing. The vague smell of sweat constantly in the air. Teenage bodies crowded together in one large room. For some, maybe, this is an enjoyable setting. For me, it’s quite possibly the worst environment I can imagine.

by Eliana Megargee

The infamous gym class. We all know it. We’ve all done plenty of P.E. to get our credits for graduation. There are people who love gym, there are people who begrudgingly accept it, there are people who’d really rather not. But there’s an under-discussed fourth group of people for whom gym class is nearly impossible: those with disabilities, either physical or mental ones.

I think that gym should not be a requirement for the physically disabled or mentally ill”

I think that gym should not be a requirement for the physically disabled or the mentally ill. While it is possible to get P.E. credits waived, it’s not necessarily an easy process, requiring students to provide evidence from a health professional and wait to see if the counseling department will even approve their application. Many students end up taking at least one gym class while waiting for approval.

Not to mention, this waiver is only available to physically disabled people. Washington State law declares that the only things that allow waived P.E. courses are “physical disability, employment, or religious belief, or because of participation in directed athletics or military science and tactics or for other good cause.” So basically, there’s no immediate alternative for people with mental health disorders.

As someone who falls into the category of people with mental health disorders, P.E. class is very anxiety-inducing for me. The environment, as I talked about above, is not suited for people with severe anxiety, or those who get overstimulated easily. The sensory overload is too much, all the time. The sounds, the smells, the bright lights- it’s enough to make me on the verge of a panic attack almost every day in my gym class.

Changing clothes in front of a bunch of other high schoolers, who could be watching you? Judging you?”

Those with social anxiety also struggle in P.E. The sheer existence of locker rooms is a socially anxious person’s worst nightmare. Changing clothes in front of a bunch of other high schoolers, who could be watching you? Judging you? It’s awful. After surviving the locker room ordeal, you’re made to go warm up in the gym with all those same people and more that could judge you in the locker room. Then you’re made to run, and do push-ups, and stretch in all sorts of embarrassing poses, all in a room full of people who are leagues better than you at this and can watch your failure.

And yes, I know that it shouldn’t matter if I’m not athletically inclined, that P.E. isn’t about being the best, or the strongest, or the fastest, etcetera, etcetera. I’ve heard that spiel my entire life. But here’s the thing: it does matter. My brain doesn’t function in a way that allows me to just ignore judgment; to have an attitude of “I tried my best, and that’s what matters!” And the last thing I need- in a society that’s already set up in a way that’s difficult for neurodivergent people- is to be required to be in an environment that’s terrible for me mentally.

It’s not just mental health that causes difficulties in gym classes. It’s a long process for physically disabled people to get out of gym classes, and they’re not guaranteed success in the endeavor. The fact that people who spend gym classes in physical pain have to work hard to get out of the class is appalling.

Asking students to live like this isn’t fair. I understand that exercise is important, I really do, but there’s so many other ways to get exercise. I can go on walks outside in my neighborhood with no problem at all. It’s the setting of a high school gym class that makes it a challenge.

I am asking the school to please be aware of this problem. Find a way to help me, and others like me, so that we don’t have to spend our school days actively in fear of our gym class.