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Pupils I'll never forget

Barbara Dewar recalls a withdrawn and shunned child who shaped her subsequent career

Nicola had such a profound effect on my future career that I often mention her when I'm doing training. I met her in 1974 when, as a young nursery nurse student, I was sent to help on a play-scheme for "handicapped" children in Brighton. I'd never met disabled children before and didn't know what to expect.

Volunteers had to choose a child and to indicate their choice by putting his or her name next to their own on a chart. You could agree to work with them for a session, a day or a week. No one had selected Nicola. When I asked why, the reply was unanimous: no one would want to work with her.

With a stubbornness that has served me well over the years, I put my name against hers for the whole week.

I soon discovered why she was so unpopular. Nicola was small, delicate, about 10 years old and locked in a silent world of her own. Nowadays she would probably carry a diagnosis of an autistic spectrum disorder. With one hand flapping in front of her face, the other blocking sounds from her ear, she would stand and rock. But it was Nicola's special skill that made her unpopular. When anyone intruded on her world she would regurgitate the contents of her stomach and spit it with deadly accuracy into the face of the person working with her.

During the week I did everything with Nicola. We always had to go last so we didn't mess up the activity for the others, but I was determined she would not miss out. I tried puzzles and building bricks, play dough and water play. Nicola spat through them all. I carried tissues everywhere and learned to ignore the smell on my clothes.

She wouldn't enter the hall for the play-scheme disco, so we danced outside. Only once during the week did I seem to break through into her silent world. For just a few seconds she reached out to touch the finger paints I'd spread before her, then she withdrew.

During that week Nicola taught me so much: to seek the alternative route and to refuse to accept that disabled children can't do things other children do. She also gave me my first magical moment, the sense of achievement when a child makes a small step forward. I was hooked and determined to work with children like Nicola. I am eternally grateful to her for the career she gave me.

Barbara Dewar became a specialist teacher for children with autism. She left headship in 2003 and is now a specialist autism consultant

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