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The ‘autism lady’: Diary of an educational journey to St Helena (Part 1)

London headteacher Jude Ragan is spending 21 days working to assist autism teaching on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. She will be blogging about her experiences on the TESProfessional blog. Here is Part 1. 

This year, World Autism Awareness Day (2 April) found me not at my desk as headteacher of Queensmill School in West London, but instead travelling halfway across the world on, aptly, autism business. To be more exact, I was strapped into an RAF flight from Brize Norton to the island of Ascension, a tiny speck of a volcanic island nestled in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Why? Well, my school is a specialist school for children and young people aged 2-19 who have severe and complex autism. It is a wonderful place to be, with dedicated and highly trained staff working for incredible families. At Christmas, my position led to me being additionally appointed as autism consultant to the government of St Helena. Hence the flight. I was off for my first visit to this remote and curious isle where, of course, autism exists too. But first, a stopover in Ascension to wait for the boat to St Helena.

My first impressions of my temporary home were positive. Ascension is a small island not designed for human habitation, nor indeed does it have many indigenous population – people here either work for the Armed Forces (there is both a US and UK military base on the island), or in the tiny tourist industry. The island has no natural source of water, relying on desalination of sea-water.

The turquoise sea crashes with some ferocity on the grainy sand, and swimming is out of the question other than in English Bay or Comfortless Cove, accessible only by car and then a scramble over shard-like rocks. The latter bay got its name as the 17th-century ships passing by with crew who had succumbed to fever were allowed to moor and bring the sick men into that tiny cove, where they would receive medical attention and return eventually to their ship if lucky enough.

The terrain of this island is extraordinary. A giant mass of pumice erupted from the volcano some time ago and the result looks like the most extreme set of a sci-fi film. Just one small mountain is green and here grow succulent plants, cacti and low-growing (everything is low growing on account of the constant hot wind) guava trees.

I ate five of these glorious little fruits right from the tree, fresh fruit having run out at the hotel, which relies on the boat from St Helena for fresh food. That boat, which I shall soon be on, only stops by Ascension every three weeks.

Perhaps 10 miles in circumference, the island works like a tiny village, small and friendly. Nothing goes unnoticed. So it was no surprise my arrival did not go unmentioned. As the local policewoman (a member of the St Helena police force, which is headquartered about a thousand miles away on the island of St Helena) helped the petrol station lady to shoo the herd of wild donkeys off her garden, she spotted me and asked what I was up to. As I explained she stopped me mid-sentence to say “You’re the autism lady! I’ve heard about you on the radio.”

Contrary to the insinuation of the cove, comfortless the island of Ascension is not. It is lovely. Warm, quiet and friendly with a landscape like no other. What a good way to start my extraordinary autism journey to St Helena. I now have four days on the boat before I begin my 21 days on the island made famous for housing the exiled Napoleon. I have sent resources ahead of me and I am looking forward to what awaits.

 Jude will blog about her first impressions of St Helena next week

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