I was diagnosed with autism as an adult, when I had already been teaching for several years. Since then, I have become aware of a number of other autistic teachers and teaching assistants in primary and secondary schools.
It is likely that most schools have autistic members of staff, who will be experiencing a variety of challenges, and it’s important that their leaders and colleagues are aware of how to support them.
Autism will usually be considered a disability for the purpose of the Equality Act 2010, so there is a duty for employers to make reasonable adjustments in order to remove any disadvantages that their employees may face in school or as part of the application process.
Autistic teachers: unrecognised strengths
There are things that autistic teachers will find difficult but they also have many strengths that it will be important to recognise. All individuals will be different, of course, but autistic people are likely to be reliable, honest and conscientious, with strong attention to detail. They are often highly knowledgeable and passionate about their subject as it may well be a special interest for them.
There are some adjustments that may be helpful for them, however. It’s important to note that these should be developed through discussion with the member of staff and be based on what will have the effect of removing the disadvantages experienced by them as an individual.
Also, when making adjustments for a disability, it is legal to treat the disabled person more favourably, so an adjustment cannot be refused on the grounds that it would give the person an advantage over others who do not share their disability.
Some possible adjustments are:
· Advance warning of changes and, if possible, some input into the decision-making process.
· Clear expectations and instructions, and understanding of the need to ask questions for clarification without being seen as being difficult.
· A mentor with whom any worries can safely be discussed.
· A quiet space to withdraw to.
· Understanding of sensory needs relating to lighting, temperature and noise. This may also need to include adjustments to the dress code.
· Alternatives to making phone calls. This could include having permission to send emails instead or being able to ask another member of staff to make calls on their behalf.
A general principle that would be helpful for anyone working with autistic colleagues would be to remain flexible about ways of achieving a desired outcome.
If the lesson is taught successfully, does the design of the planning format matter? If the assessments are marked, does the colour of the pen matter? Flexibility over small details can have a big impact on reducing anxiety and allowing the member of staff to perform to the best of their ability at work.
Also, it’s important to note that capacity can be different on different days. Depending on the level of sensory input, and level of stress caused by changes or anxiety, something that is managed one day may be very difficult the next, so understanding of the way this can change is important (and where having a mentor can be really helpful).
Colleagues who are accepting of me as an autistic person, sensitive to my needs and appreciative of my strengths have made a huge difference to my happiness at school – and hopefully you may be able to do the same for your autistic colleagues.