This Friday (June 18) marks Autistic Pride Day, an independent celebration started in 2005 and with no connection to LGBTQIA+ events. Run by autistic people, the day aims to reject any stigma and celebrate autistic people’s rights to be themselves.
Just over one in five autistic people in the UK are in any sort of employment, states a recent report from the Office for National Statistics - the lowest employment rate among all groups with disabilities. And yet, just like the visually impaired people we’ve focused on for the past two weeks, many autistic people more than hold their own in the workplace - such as FE colleges - with their non-autistic peers.
As an autistic secondary school English teacher and passionate advocate of the idea of neuro-diversity, Pete Wharmby says on his website that autism is simply not an illness or negative condition needing treatment or cure. Instead, if sufficient changes in government policies and in attitudes in industry and education take place, he argues that most neuro-diverse autistic people will be able to live and work alongside their neuro-typical colleagues. What’s required, he says, are adaptation, adjustment and greater understanding, awareness and acceptance of what autism actually is, a neat summary of many of the day’s aims (see Pete Wharmby’s 30 things to support autistic people).
One typical example of an autistic person working in further education is Jack Kilday, a special support assistant at Hedleys College that supports students with physical and learning disabilities aged 16-25.
Only diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 19, Jack says he’d always been interested in the area of learning disabilities from childhood and suspected he had the condition. “I also have dispraxia, which shares some traits with autism. When I first mentioned it to my mum, she called my school but they brushed it off as dispraxia. In my mid-teens I mentioned it to one of our class assistants who again said I was mistaken - I thought they must know what they are talking about! Then I did more reading round the subject when I was 18 and it still sounded a lot like me, so I finally went to my doctor and got my diagnosis.”
Jack says he’s always struggled to an extent with social skills as he consciously has to think when he needs to give people time to speak rather than keep talking himself. “That’s what you are supposed to do in this situation.”
And if he is really interested in something, he says he can become a bit fixated on it - he’s just started playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends and “gone down the rabbit hole reading all the manuals”.
His school was genuinely surprised it had not picked up on Aspergers. “If you had a checklist of stereotypical traits for someone with Aspergers, you’d put me next to it!”
Jack passed his GCSEs, got a distinction on a business studies course and then tried A-levels. A few months in, he decided they were not for him and left school to join his father’s factory as a trainee service engineer. “But I decided it was not for m and managed to get another job as an apprentice in a care home for the next four years.” Again, for various reasons, it was still not for him and he looked to move on.
He’d long had an interest in working in education but dismissed the idea because he had always struggled with exams - and he’d have to take them to teach. But while looking at courses at Newcastle College, he spied a one-year teaching assistant course and thought he might as well give it a go and see if he could do it.
He got a work placement for two days a week during the course at the Percy Hedley Foundation’s secondary school catering for people with physical and learning disabilities. He found he “absolutely loved working with the students”. On completing the full-time course, he got his current job at Hedleys College (also run by the foundation). He’s been working there since 2016 and “it’s the best job I’ve ever had!”
So how did he show at interview that he would be a valuable staff member and then overcome the daily pressures of teaching? Jack pre-empted his college job interview by preparing a series of questions and answers on issues that would come up, such as safeguarding and how he would support someone with a particular disability or help a teacher in a classroom environment. He’s developed his own particular set of questions and practises this approach during the numerous work-based interactions he has to have with students.
“I’ve produced scripts for different situations. So if, say, I’m going to the pub with friends, I have to think when I’ve said so much, [switch the conversation topic] and ask someone a relevant question.”
He now hopes to start a two-year part-time foundation degree in special educational needs (SEN). “Fingers crossed, I’ll start in September if the interview goes well at Newcastle College.”
How would Jack advise autistic people wanting to teach? “Don’t fear going out to get experience before applying. I was quite lucky because the foundation specialised in supporting people with physical and/or learning difficulties and, because of my work placement, they knew I was autistic and capable of doing a good job.
“No matter where you get a job, experience helps. And if you are autistic, it will look good as you’re showing evidence you can do the job.”
College recruitment teams should also note that many autistic people demonstrate special talents. When asked, Jack mentions his ability to talk at length about a subject that interests him. “Get me talking about a topic I’know and I’ll be able to bite your ear off! Religion, certain themed video games, theme park rides, especially at Disney . . . they can all get me going. I need to remind myself sometimes that other people may not be as interested in a particular subject as I am!”
But like so many autistic people, Jack also uses his ability to focus sharply on particular topics to benefit his employer. “I generally support teaching skills through more sensory-based activities - I have long been interested in how all that works, I know what I’m doing and can thus explain what is happening to staff who may not normally work with our group. I even get them laughing!”
Being an efficient autistic teacher does, however, require you to rely on others’ understanding. “So don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are genuinely struggling because of your autism,” says Jack.
“One of my biggest problems is not wanting to be seen as being unable to do as much as others because I’m autistic - if I ask for help, I worry that others might think I’m trying to get out of something.” He overcomes this by occasionally just mentioning he’s autistic if the situation warrants it. “But I don’t say ‘I’m autistic so I can’t do something’. It might look odd if I come straight out with it so I find it helps to joke about it for a bit.”
Sometimes Jack might struggle picking up social cues — “I don’t always realise I’m getting stressed until I am very stressed! The signs for me include getting an anxious feeling - I start talking quicker and getting tired more rapidly, and very occasionally I’ve felt like locking myself in a room for a few hours. I can now recognise when I start feeling stressed more, although that rarely happens these days. I do things to calm myself down by taking myself out of a situation - I might go to the bathroom for a couple of minutes for a breather when it’s safe to do so (other staff are with my class). I don’t take long to destress. People are now quite surprised to hear I’m autistic.”
In fact, Jack plans to start a two-year, part-time foundation degree specialising in special needs education this September at Newcastle College - if his interview goes well. “A foundation degree would qualify me to teach anyone over 14 and above - and that would be really handy for where I work.”
Next week: insights from Jack’s line manager and an autism champion