Open the box

8th January 2010 at 00:00
No one knows how many teachers and TAs have autism, but given the scale of the condition there are probably high numbers. Even though some struggle with social conventions, many bring unique qualities to the job. But as Hannah Frankel reports, sympathetic employers are too often hard to find

The outside world can be a frightening place for those with autism. Understanding, interacting and relating to new people, places and events can be particularly difficult.

Now imagine having to deal with that as a teacher. A loud, bustling school environment sounds like hell for those who may struggle to form relationships or grasp social nuances.

This did not put off Neil Murphy*. When he qualified as a maths teacher in 1993, he had never heard of Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. But he did wonder why he was finding it so difficult to get a full-time teaching job.

"The classroom is my stage and I can be quite a performer, but I can see now that I gave no hint of that in interview," says Mr Murphy. "I avoided eye contact, gave very short, abrupt answers and appeared nervous and gauche. Everyone must have wondered how someone like me could ever survive in a classroom."

But Mr Murphy did not just survive; he positively thrived. When he did get a full-time post, pupils and colleagues appreciated his dedication. Teenagers also recognised and warmed to his "child-like qualities", he adds. "I treat everyone the same - child or adult - and the majority of children love that."

He struggles to understand what he calls "the rules that govern the game", and has no desire to climb the management ladder. There is therefore no need to pander to senior staff.

"If I think a colleague is being harsh or unreasonable with a student, I cannot hide my thoughts," Mr Murphy says.

This does not always endear him to other teachers, he admits. Pupils can also try to take advantage and push the boundaries with him, while some find his style unnerving, but he gets on well with the vast majority.

It is not known how many teachers or teacher assistants are in the same position as Mr Murphy, but the scale of the condition suggests a considerable minority could be affected, possibly without knowing it. More than 500,000 people in the UK have autism, a lifelong condition that leaves people feeling "locked in their own world" (see box overleaf).

It's a "spectrum condition", meaning it affects each individual in different ways. Some will have barely perceptible problems with understanding or communication, according to the National Autistic Society (NAS). At the other end of the scale are those with accompanying learning disabilities who will need a lifetime of specialist support.

John Biddulph, 54, worked as a teacher for almost 30 years before he realised he had Asperger syndrome five years ago. Since qualifying in 1976, he has worked in universities and mainstream and special needs schools before becoming a freelance autism mentor and trainer to teachers, children and public bodies.

He found working as head of music in primary and secondary schools in the Midlands "totally wonderful". He knew he was "different", but this was in tune with the general perception of musicians in the 1970s.

"There was a stereotype of music teachers that they were the creative, slightly antisocial ones, working hard while tucked away in their department," says Mr Biddulph. "That worked well for me because I didn't particularly like chatting in the staffroom - I'd rather run the choir or be doing music practice."

Mr Biddulph was happy to be part of a team for work reasons, but "didn't need it" on a social level. Like Mr Murphy, this sometimes got him into trouble. "I did make faux pas," Mr Biddulph says. "I lacked that wider perception about other people's feelings."

So he failed to let colleagues know that he had called a choir practice with more than 100 pupils during lesson time. And when it was "noted" by a senior teacher that he was not attending staff briefings, Mr Biddulph concurred, before adding that he was doing more important work with pupils.

"He was clearly quite taken aback," says Mr Biddulph, "but I think he recognised it was because I was a committed teacher, not because I was trying to impose my authority."

It was only years later, when he heard a special-needs expert describe a boy with autism, that he realised he had the condition. The expert said how the boy had special interests, how he experienced misunderstandings with his teachers, and how he turned from being an intelligent child into a naughty little boy.

"He may as well have been talking about my own childhood," says Mr Biddulph. "It all just slotted into place."

Mr Biddulph knows other teachers who he suspects are on the autistic spectrum. If they are happy in themselves, there is no need to intervene, he argues. But schools should become more autism friendly if everyone is to feel comfortable working there.

Any school that is supportive and respectful of pupils and staff should be able to accommodate all sorts of differences, argues Caroline Hattersley from the NAS. "Just as a shy teacher will need to adapt to engage and interact with a class, so someone with autism can learn how to cope as well," she says. But some specific strategies may make life easier for them.

Breaking information down, using clear language and avoiding metaphors or imagery could all help. But approaches that work with staff who are autistic, such as understanding and patience, should motivate and support all staff.

By their very nature, special schools should already be providing an autism-friendly environment. At the Robert Ogden School in Rotherham - one of six schools owned and managed by the NAS - a support worker with autism prefers to be emailed information by colleagues so that she can digest it in her own time.

"It's not rare to see teachers with Asperger syndrome, especially in areas where they typically have a passion, such as maths, ICT or science," says Chloe Phillips, principal of the NAS Sybil Elgar School in Southall, Middlesex. "Not all of them will be diagnosed, but some will definitely touch on the continuum."

Former pupils act as positive role models to existing pupils at Sybil Elgar. One is Nathan Pilgrim, 22. Despite minimal verbal communication, Mr Pilgrim is expressive through his face and body and is an excellent dancer. It is hoped that he will come back to the school for a day a week this term and work with the choreographer and existing pupils.

"We expect our pupils will be highly engaged working with Nathan," says Ms Phillips. "They will be able to relate and identify with each other, especially as he's so young. If schools change the way they work just slightly, all sorts of opportunities become possible."

To date, employers have been slow to tap into the skills offered by people with autism. Although many will be extremely intelligent, only 15 per cent of adults with autism in England (and 11 per cent in Wales) are in full-time, paid employment. They say that finding a suitable job would improve their lives more than anything else, the NAS reports.

The tide is beginning to turn. In Denmark, a computer company, Specialisterne, employs more than 40 people with autism. The company's founder, Thorkil Sonne, recognises that staff with autism need a quiet environment with fixed routines. Given the right conditions, they excel at technical tasks, he finds.

Oaklands FE College in Hertford is also reaping the rewards of employing teachers with autism. Peter Griffin, 29, has a masters degree in astrophysics, but has been working one day a week in a supermarket for the last 10 years.

Now he spends three hours a week at the college supporting students with autism, and plans to increase this to one day a week. He is also considering studying for a teaching qualification there, with the help of an in-house buddy. "I get a lot out of it," Mr Griffin says. "I get up in the morning and I look forward to achieving something."

His colleagues report that he is an excellent role model to the students and has a great ability to simplify complex mathematical concepts. Two of his students have already gained a level 1 in numeracy - something that wasn't expected of them before. Teachers also report that they have learned from Mr Griffin's unique insight into the condition. "When they're having difficulties, I try to advise them as best I can," he says.

Mr Griffin does not need special treatment, insists his mother, Ann, but small adjustments to his work environment can make a big difference. "The rules are the same, but sometimes they need to be applied a little differently," she says.

If things get hectic, Mr Griffin knows he can find a quiet place or a friendly colleague. "People like Peter shouldn't just be dismissed on account of their disability," adds Ms Griffin. "They have lots of skills to harness and can be part of an inclusive society if employers start to think a little bit creatively. They need to be given that opportunity to give something back. Everyone will benefit if they do."

Those benefits have been felt by Omir Davies, 38, who has Asperger syndrome and works as an educational care worker for another NAS school - Radlett Lodge in Hertfordshire. Before starting there last year, he worked in a warehouse in London, but the lack of routine left him feeling anxious and depressed.

Radlett Lodge tries to be more accommodating. If there is a change to the timetable, they give him at least 20 minutes to adjust. "I absolutely love my job," says Mr Davies, who is currently taking a NVQ in care, with a view to perhaps training as a special needs teacher.

"I'm really proud to say this is what I do," he adds. "The children are marvellous and I love exploring all the different methods we use to help them become more independent."

Instead of schools wondering if they can accommodate people like Mr Davies, the NAS would like to see a shift in mindset. With so many dedicated and skilled people with autism out there, the real question is: can schools afford to write them off?

* Name has been changed


- Communication: words, gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions can mean little to people with autism. Many have a literal understanding of language.

- Social relationships and interaction: People with autism can be indifferent to other people's emotions or feelings.

- Social imagination: Abstract ideas and imaginative thoughts and activities are affected. They may be unable to guess what others are thinking or predict what could happen next.

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