Tuesday 8 April 2014

Back to School, New Starts and World Autism Awareness Day

An Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis can often be seen as a new start at the point of receiving it, particularly for those diagnosed later in life, including myself. In recent years though, something that I have got to appreciate though is that more than the day that you receive the piece of paper that says you have Asperger's Syndrome being a new start, but each day itself after that is a new start. Not least because your diagnosis will affect you for life situations that you are yet to experience. On World Autism Day, this was a message that I took back to school and also to the local authority as part of a delegation calling for action.

The delegation, organised by Carole Rutherford, a parent of two young adults on the autistic spectrum and co-founder of Autism in Mind (AIM), presented Sunderland City Council with a call for action for more integrated services for people on the autistic spectrum, regardless of where they are on the spectrum from the severe to those at the milder, and often more invisible, end. In providing such services though, provision must be looked at long-term, as like the effects of Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, the needs of adults on the autistic spectrum are not static, which is why to enable long-term focus it makes sense to look at each day in providing services as a new start. 
Monkwearmouth Academy, Sunderland

Next, it was time for me to go back to school! After having given talks, seminars and workshops on Asperger's Syndrome for 12 years, ahead of World Autism Awareness month, I received the request that I had been waiting for most of all, to go back to my former school, Monkwearmouth in Sunderland, and give a talk. The request came about after the SENCo at Moknwearmouth, Suresh Patel, by chance came across my first book Glass Half Empty Glass Half Full and got a surprise when he found descriptions of the author's time at the school. Now an academy, provision of special educational needs has really moved on with the development of an Additional Educational Needs (AEN) unit and also REACH Awards evenings, where pupils are given awards for overcoming barriers to achievement, unlike traditional school awards for best performance in certain subjects or for best grades.

With Suresh Patel, SENCo at Monkwearmoouth Academy, and
 some of the parents and awards winners who attended the evening
One of the original ideals of comprehensive education, which secondary school education throughout much of the UK moved towards in the 1970s was that each day of your school life was a new start, whereas previously, which type of school you went to depended on your performance in the Eleven Plus, taken in your last year in primary education. If you passed, you would go to a grammar school where much was expected of you, but if not, you would go to a secondary modern where you were as good as told each day that you wouldn't amount to anything. I was fortunate that I never had to sit the Eleven Plus, as I am convinced to this day that not only would I have not passed, but the stress and anxiety of my future being determined at such a young age would have been emotionally very difficult for me. As a child I was no different in that I took practically being told 'you're not good enough' hard.  

Despite the move to comprehensive education, academic inequality did still exist throughout comprehensive schools and it is not to say that they doesn't still exist today, as in many cases it does. As well as looking at each day being a new start, the mantra of Monkwearmouth's AEN unit developed by Suresh Patel focuses on starting with the abilities that an individual pupil already has, building on that afresh each day rather than setting expectations, which can put pressure on pupils and thus leading to anxiety.

When giving my speech at Monkwearmouth, to staff, parents and pupils, including those nominated for awards, for the first time, I had walk on music! I was surprised by a Sunderland schools choice of Dire Straits' Local Hero, played at St James Park when Newcastle United come out of the tunnel! Like most of the pupils whom I attended Monkwearmouth with I am a Sunderland fan, even if it may have seemed to some that I could have as easily come from a different planet rather than Sunderland! However, to be treated like a 'local hero' at such an event was an incredible experience, something that I could never have imagined 20 years ago when I left school. What was an even more surreal experience though was getting to do something normally reserved for someone who appears television regularly or with an Olympic Gold Medal or a BAFTA, which was the present some of the awards! Other awards were presented by some of the parents who attended.

With former Head Teacher Jim Farnie
Having parents presenting the awards fitted in with the purposes of Monkwearmouth's REACH agenda, to help build a communication platform between staff and parents and also to open up achievement to more than just a gifted few. I also took the opportunity to pay tribute to my former Head Teacher Jim Farnie, who supported me through some difficult times at the school and whose encouragement and motivation helped when I sat my GCSEs. I remember he said that it was vital that every effort was made until completing your last exam and no matter what your ability, you could achieve grades that were good for you regarding your capabilities, a notion that was true in my time at the school as it is today.

The Everest Base Camp wall clock I was presented with
Within the 20 years since I left Monkwearmouth, inclusion has become a much more topical issue in mainstream schools. To my surprise, I was presented with a wall clock depicting one of my favourite personal achievements, reaching Everest Base Camp, an experience which I feel helped me develop resilience and which Monkwearmouth's residential programmes for the AEN pupils also seem to be helping with. Though diagnosis is much more commonplace when young now, it is also important that pupils being diagnosed when young are given the right support so that they can work to and achieve their potential, giving them not just the confidence but also the resilience to be able to face each new challenge each day presents both during and beyond their time in mainstream school.

A huge thank you to Suresh Patel, SENCo at Monkwearmouth Academy, both for inviting me back to Monkwearmouth and for all his incredibly hard work in making the REACH agenda and the REACH Awards evenings happen. He is an inspiration to both the pupils and the parents. I wish the school all the best with this fantastic initiative, great to see good practice going on in my former school!