Autism and Inclusive Practice with Nicola Beldham – Universal Learning with Saj Mohammad
Please Note: This transcript has been slightly edited to improve readability.
Saj Mohammad: In this series, I’ll be talking to professionals inside and outside education, as well as parents, carers, and learners themselves about their experiences of inclusive practice.
I’m on a mission to discover as much as possible about inclusion, because I’ve been a learning support practitioner for over six years and I’ve come to realise that many of the adjustments we make for students with additional needs could benefit all learners. For example, making things easy to read helps dyslexic students, while using clear language can benefit autistic learners. So, shouldn’t inclusive practice be part of our normal routine when planning teaching, learning, and assessment?
In an ideal world, I’d like educators to stop thinking about inclusive practices as another chore to be added to an ever-expanding workload. In actual fact, I believe that inclusive practice can ultimately make life easier by making learning more accessible for all of our students.
In this first edition of Universal Learning, I’m talking to Nicola Beldham, an inclusion specialist who like me works in further education with post-16 learners. But what she has to say about inclusion I think is relevant to all phases of education in some way.
So this is my first ever foray into podcasting, which means that I’ll probably make one or two mistakes as I learn, but that’s no bad thing albeit I’ll making them in public. Any feedback back that you have after listening would be gratefully and you can get in touch via our website UniversalLearning.education
In the course of the interview, Nicola mentions the Ideas Room and this is a wonderful online space started during the first lockdown where I first met Nicola. It was started by Lou Mycroft and Stef Wilkinson as part of their #JoyFE initiative and is based on the work of Nancy Klein who came up with the idea of the Thinking Environment. In a future edition, I hope to talk more about the concept of the Thinking Environment as I think it’s a very powerful way to explore ideas in a non-competitive way.
We also talk about the effect of the pandemic on the learning environment in colleges, which have been noticeably quieter than normal. This has benefited many students with sensory issues and it’s really highlighted for me how distressing the built environment in many settings can be in normal times for these learners.
Another aspect of our conversation that really made me think was how our good intentions may lead to hellish outcomes for many autistic learners. If you finish your timetabled session 15 minutes early, you may think that you’re doing your students a favour. But for many autistic learners, they would much prefer to keep to a consistent routine and find themselves at a loss when sessions end earlier than expected.
Now, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not the best. However, you can read a transcript of this episode on our website UniversalLearning.education where you can also find links relating to each episode to help you discover how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners.
I should also mention that in a future episode, I am planning to answer any questions that listeners might have about inclusion. So do feel free to get in touch via UniversalLearning.education
One thing that really came across during my talk with Nicola was how passionate she is about ensuring the best outcomes for the students she works with. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Nicola Beldham: My name is Nicola Beldham. My current title is Autism and Inclusive Practice Specialist, so I work in further education. I consider myself to be a neurotypical version of an autism specialist and I’ve worked with autistic learners for very long time, but now I’m branching out into other neurodiversities as well.
Saj: How did you end working in education and particularly specialising in autism?
Nicola: Gosh well. I have to go back a long way back to the 1990s. When I was doing my A levels, I basically didn’t do very well at my A levels and I had to choose a degree that I basically had the entry requirements and there was one called Applied Human Communication at Manchester Met that caught my eye and I got onto that and then through that and through summer jobs I discovered autism. So that was back in 1996 I think. Oh no, I Graduated in ’96, so before then, so yeah, discovered autism through working in play schemes and things like that, like play schemes for any children with various disabilities, and I was just fascinated by autism at that point. And then through my degree I learnt more and more about it now that the point I was wanting to go into speech therapy.
But I did my dissertation on autism and self concept, and and then I applied for a speech therapy assistant job and didn’t get it and then basically I got a call afterwards, saying we work with these twin boys with autism. Would you be interested in working with them and the family? So helping to develop their language and behaviour and coping skills and so on, and of course, I jumped at that and then worked with them for a year and then relocated to the North East and basically I was looking for for autism related jobs and ended up working in a specialist educational provider like a residential college. So I worked like running shifts and coordinating leisure activities and independence and things like that.
And then through them I went over to the educational side and started working in the local colleges. So basically working with the students who were going to be going off to the local colleges, Newcastle College, Sunderland College and so on to do their GCSEs and A Levels and I was kind of the link. I was the sector college liaison. Basically that’s where the inclusive practice bit really started I guess and then I just climbed the ladder there, more teaching and more management side.
Yeah, so it was just this kind of almost always been that way I guess, but I started off with pre-school children and then it became further education just because I was looking for autism jobs and that’s the first thing that I found.
And yeah I’ve been hooked ever since, and I’m now working back in the Midlands. This job was advertised as a sort-of specialist in autism and behaviour and then because I’ve shown such a commitment to raising good practice and improving inclusive practise across college, the role’s kind of evolved into less one to one work, but more about let’s teach the teachers how to do it.
So it’s not just me working one to one with somebody with autism in an office, it’s much more to do with, well, the whole college should be inclusive, which is what I believe in anyway. So I still do some one to one stuff, but not as much. So yeah, it’s just I’ve just always loved it and it just evolved quite naturally that way, really, just through that passion for autism. And then now more inclusive practise and realising that particularly people with ADHD are getting a bit of a raw deal. And so I’m committed to understanding more about that, so that they get more of a sort of inclusive education and then learning about all the other neurodiversities along the way as well. So it’s always been that way.
Saj: So you really started your career as an autism specialist and you’re now moving into other areas around neurodiversity. What was it about autism in particular do you think that attracted you to working with autistic learners?
Nicola: I’ve always been fascinated by different ways of thinking, so originally but I was looking for degrees, I wanted to go into criminology or something like that because it was basically, I wanted to understand how somebody else’s brain worked in a different way and the reasons why, and trying to really understand what makes people tick. So I’ve always had a fascination with that and also some strong sense of fairness as well. I’ve got quite a diverse family. So I’m very passionate about racism, sexuality and all sorts of things. I’ve got quite a really diverse family. I’ve always had a strong sense of fairness and understanding people who are different.
But then autism really got me hooked and it was, it was a young boy at one of the play schemes who kept saying… he was using echolalic language. We were playing a game and it was he saying the sausages are burning, the sausages are burning. And I was thinking, well the game is nothing to do with sausages, so I was trying to sort of connect why, why he was saying that in that context and and just trying to analyse it.
I never actually knew the real answer, but I presumed it was a sense of panic it was that he was labelling the feeling of panic during the game when actually there’d been a panic situation at home is lost and sausages really were burning so I never could have guessed that. And then through studying autism through my degree and my dissertation and then I went on to do a masters a few years ago as well, I’ve kinda just kind of done a bit, learnt a bit, done a bit learnt a bit and then each time when I have studied things, I’ve gone oh actually, I was right about that. So when I look back at my first degree that I did, which was about autism, reading back through that I think actually had very little experience at that time. But actually, I think my perceptions were actually pretty accurate, based on what I know now. So, I think I’m sort of quite in tune to it, I think.
So yeah, obviously I don’t know if I’m not always right as I’m strongly believe that if you’re not autistic, you can’t truly be a specialist in it. But I feel like I’ve got that connection and I’ve helped learners to understand themselves quite a lot, but have also spent an awful lot of time listening to their experiencds. For example, I used to work night shifts and there’s residents who’d be sort of staying up late as they had sleeping patterns that were all over the place. We used to spend time just sitting and chatting about it and I learned so much about what autism really was through young adults who were autistic whereas before then I’d worked with pre-school children who weren’t able to tell me. so yeah, so it’s been working with young adults and learning from them that’s helped me learn and keep learning on the way.
Saj: You mentioned echolalic language.
Nicola: Echolalic, yeah.
Saj: So for those who don’t know, what is echolalic language?
Nicola: It’s kind of using language, but it appears to be out of context or it was referred to as like a parrot fashion or something. So it’s basically when we are engaging with each other now, it’s a to and fro. I’m talking, you’re responding, and we’re responding to each other. Whereas echolalic is kind of slightly detached from that, so it seems like words used out of context. It might be a repeated phrase, but I believe there’s always a meaning behind that phrase, so it could be something to do with their interest in trains or Thomas the Tank Engine or whatever, but it’s yeah, it’s using language, but there’s not a true sort of true to and fro, and depth of the meaning of what language is all about, what to you and I.
But echolalic is different to that. And yeah, some autistic people use echolalic language a lot, other people just use it occasionally. Some people don’t use it at all, but it’s kind of repeating a phrase back, apparently out of context
Saj: But in that case, what did he say? The sausages are burning? So that the child there was expressing their emotional states through that language?
Nicola: I think so, yeah, I don’t. I’ll never truly know, but that’s what I believe and that’s so… I think that if I had asked the parents about it and find out why does he say this? Did you have a situation where the sausages were burning? I think I probably would have been right about that. I’m happy to be proven wrong!
Saj: So you also mentioned you know, talking to young adults as well, and for people who aren’t experts on autism and may have read a little about the subject. They may have read about things like theory of mind and autistic people not having necessarily an awareness of other people’s emotions or an understanding of their own emotions. First of all, do you think that’s an accurate way of thinking about it and when it came to the to the you people that you that you were talking to, would you say that they had agency and self awareness about being autistic?
Nicola: It depends very much on the person and their level of intellectual ability. You couldn’t say that that’s like a one size fits all thing at all. So I’m working with a young man at the moment where his level of understanding his own emotions and other people’s emotions is very very basic. So he might notice happy, sad, angry, worried. But trying to understand more than that and recognising those feelings in himself and other people is a challenge that I don’t think’s ever going to get better? That’s partly also due to a learning difficulty as well, whereas with other people who are more in tune and intensely in tune with their own emotions in other peoples, but their difference might be that they’re not sure how to express it.
So it might be that they can’t intuitively offer a hug at the right time for somebody else to feel comfortable with that hug or to be able to sort of say the right things, there’s all those social rules that come with how do you respond to somebody’s emotions and I think there’s a lot of the barrier a lot of the time, not just the ability to recognise emotion. So in some people, yes they don’t recognise their own emotions. They can’t give it the right label. So knowing that churning in you tummy might be anxiety. You have to kind of label it. So it might be, I’ve got tummy ache. Okay, are you worried about anything?
Maybe? Well, how do you feel about this, this, this? Not happy. Okay you are worried about this, this, this. That is making your tummy feel funny. That is a sign that you are feeling well. So it’s about labelling all of those different feelings for some people. But then for others it’s much more… they’re sort of hyper aware of their own feelings and needs. And with certain people, once they have that intellectual ability to compare themselves to somebody else, that’s when you get a lot more sort of anxiety and depression as well associated with autism, because it’s like, well, they find that easy and I’m finding it difficult and being able to make that comparison. Will I ever be able to do that this, that, and the other.
That can get a lot of people down. But then I think your personality interacts with that as well, because some people are quite sort of… you might get a naturally sort of arrogant person who says I don’t care if I’m different to everybody else or quite an eccentric person or extroverted person who’s just like yeah, this is me. That’s absolutely fine. And when you add that to autism as well, I think you’ve got that you’ve got that mix whereas someone who is much more introverted and naturally more anxious, then that affects somebody’s ability toi nitiate the conversation or respond to somebody’s feelings because there’s that… it’s more awkward, more awareness in their awkwardness or whatever, so you can’t possibly say, right autism is this this this for this this thiis? There’s too many variables.
So it’s about treating each person individually, but you do kinda make connections, going this is a little bit like when I was working with so and so, so there’s lots of common themes. but everyone’s an individual.
Saj: So, this is why people talk about a spectrum because there’s really no one clear fixed model.
Nicola: Yeah, exactly, yeah. So the traits that you have to have a diagnosis… but then some people have those to a great extent, some only have those to a smaller extent, so it’s a bit like a sort of pick and mix. These are the key things, but you’ve got loads of those ones and you’ve got just a few of those ones, and a peaky profiles also as well. So you going to be perhaps more advanced for years in some areas, but then well behind in terms of social skills and empathy, apparently in other areas, so it’s a whole mixture and it’s not a linear profile.
It’s not like a process of spectrum of less able/more able. That’s gone, that idea has gone. Some people still believe in high functioning autism/low functioning autism. That’s gone now and a lot of autistic people find that quite offensive because it disrespects the fact that a what we would call a high functioning autistic person is having to work really hard to kind of mask a lot of their difficulties they might have working really hard to overcome things and by saying or you don’t look very autistic must be really high functioning, that kind of devalues all of those efforts that they’ve had to put in to kind of reach a level of social normality.
Saj: That links nicely onto to my next question actually, because I was going to ask about women with autism. There seems to be a growing awareness as the years go on that there are women who are not being diagnosed with autism early in life and it seems that they are finding ways to mask the aspects of autism that are individual to them and so they’re not getting recognised. So what’s your sort of experience of working with learners who maybe haven’t been recognised as being on the spectrum up until now?
Nicola: Yeah, you get quite a few people with a late diagnosis. So I’m working with sort of 16 year olds upwards at the moment and regularly I’m meeting people who are just going through diagnostic process now. So they haven’t had exam access arrangements. They haven’t had all those sorts of reasonable adjustments . They’ve had lots of mental health input, for example, because they’ve been struggling with a lot of anxieties and things. But yeah, it’s taken this long for them to get a diagnosis.
But for a long, long time, it was sort for recognised that… so there was four times as many males with autism as there were females. I used to run an autism provision for quite a few years up in the North East and and we would have that ratio of males to females. But the female students that we had tended to have more complex challenges and you will see that in their behaviour as well. So we kind of had the idea at the time that autistic girls were sort of more challenging them than autistic boys, but I believe now that we know more about the diagnosis of girls that they kind of hit the threshold of being recognised because their needs were so more complicated and because their behaviour became more challenging as a result of that, then they were more likely to get to diagnosis.
But it was all of those ones that didn’t reach that point that weren’t getting diagnosed before. So anyway that’s probably what 10 years ago, or something like where we t we had that viewpoint. Whereas now the numbers are evening out a lot more and you do talk to parents, talk to mums, about the support needs of their children and they think actually I might be autistic or I’m going through a diagnosis as well, because they’re starting to see, okay well I do this that or these things that my son or daughter does. So, yeah, a lot more women are getting diagnosed now and it’s starting to balance out a lot more and also recognising that the diagnostic criteria for males isn’t necessarily going to be exactly the same for the diagnostic criteria females.
So yeah, I’m still learning about that as well. Like kind of catching up a little bit with that thinking as well. But I can definitely see it happening, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how the female sort of profile of autism is different exactly.
Saj: So what has changed? Is it that settings are getting better at spotting these traits younger? Or is it that parents are becoming more aware of autism, what do you think is helping these younger women to be recognised as having autism and they weren’t years ago.
Nicola: A mixture of all of those things I think. There’s more more positive things on the telly. There’s more to read about it, there’s more people talking about. So there’s just more opportunity for someone to go, ah that sounds like me, whereas before it wasn’t openly discussed. The views of disability have changed quite rapidly over the last 20 years or so and it’s much more openly talked about, much more visible now, so I just think there’s more chances of somebody hearing the right information and therefore more doctors understand it – not enough yet. More teachers understand it and again not enough, yet, so there’s more and more chances of somebody getting picked up.
Saj: It’s interesting that you say not enough teachers still understand it, so you know thinking about the years that you’ve been working in the field, I’m hoping there’s been some progress in greater awareness among teachers of SEND issues. What’s your experience been?
Nicola: Well, I did a little bit of sort of cover teaching on a teaching qualification just a couple of years ago and I was surprised how little content there was about special educational needs on the qualification and also I’ve got loads of teachers in my family and they’ve had very little preparation.
So that they’re expected to teach say 30 primary school children with two or three autistic children in that group with very little preparation about how to meet their needs and that just does not work. So I think there’s not enough training and it’s not enough training done in the right way as well. So I think a lot of training and awareness is done to do with they can’t do this, they can’t do that. This is really difficult. You’re gonna have this problem with behaviour and it’s not enough focus on well actually autism is a different way of thinking and if we get these little bits right then, well not little bits.
If you get these important bits right then you’re gonna be able to bring out the strengths and these are the kinds of strength to look out for, so it’s not trying to get stuck in the square peg, round hole sort of situation, where you’re trying to force everybody to be normal and hit the normal, the sound of this sort of standard developmental criteria and all that kind of thing. Autistic learners develop at a different pace in different ways, and it’s not necessarily the wrong way. It’s in a lot of ways, a lot of situations, it’s just a different way.
But you’ve got to get those reasonable adjustments and that creative practice right in the first place, otherwise you’re never going to see the strengths. So if you don’t recognise the sensory needs for example, you are going to be dealing with fighting the battle of the what that creates instead of actually being able to work to their strengths, which might be a fantastic attention to detail or memory for certain things – that deeper interest, deeper knowledge, rather than broader knowledge of things and that kind of thing. So yeah, I think a lot of it comes down to the right amount of training and the right type of training. It still isn’t there yet I believe.
Saj: I want to talk about it more in a while about the kinds of approaches that that teaching staff can take to making money more inclusive for all learners. But I just wanted to talk a little bit about this idea of the deficit model, the idea that there’s something missing if you like with learners or something wrong with the learners. So do you think that kind of deficit model when looking at learners with additional needs? Do you think that really holds sway too much?
Nicola: Oh yeah, certainly, especially with behaviour. So for example, somebody with ADHD is too often still seen as naughty, disruptive, disrespectful, bad attitude, no respect for authority, that kind of thing, without looking at the underlying reasons why you might see those kinds of behaviours. Somebody with autism is seen as blunt, rude, aloof. Without again seeing that actually they’re being blunt because autistic communication is just more direct, just say it as it can be, just say it as it is. And when we analyse our typical communication…
There’s something amazing, a sort of thing that I follow on Twitter and someone called British Problems or something and it’s basically really ridiculous things that typically British people do and how we might give false compliments, or we can’t give a direct answer or we sort of, we just tiptoe around the real issue all of the time, whereas an autistic person is much more to the point. But because we’re not used to hearing that, it seems wrong and blunt and rude and disrespectful.
But actually, people take that really personally, but actually just look a the communication. Just look at the message, take the words literally and respond to that message, not our expectation that we have to flower things up all the time. So for example, a tutor gave me an example the other day. So and so, he messaged me saying why didn’t you reply to my email?
So I’m trying to say that from the learner’s point of view, they genuinely want to know the answer of why didn’t you reply to the email but we might go, I’m sorry I haven’t heard from you yet, you must be really busy, would you be able to get back in touch with me sooner? We would kind of flower it all up, but actually autistic person just wants to get straight to the point and that seems wrong. But actually there’s a beauty in that, sometimes that’s just what we need and it’s just efficient.
Saj: These are cultural factors as well, aren’t they. Say, the Dutch are quite renowned for being very, very blunt and very direct. So if you put on weight since the last time you seen somebody, then the first thing that will come out of a Dutch person’s mouth might be ‘You’ve put on a lot of weight since last time I saw you.’ That’s a normal part of the culture. It’s not something to worry about too much in that context.
Nicola: Yeah it is. It’s a cultural difference, but there are reasons behind… more sort of scientific reasons as to why those things happen.
Because of the difference, understanding social norms and so on, and I was thinking about this morning before we had our chat, I was thinking well why… Those sort of neurotypical people kind of have almost like this secret code to all this social stuff that’s been hidden from autistic people. So when I’m doing training I give examples of things like when you hold the door open for somebody. I used to work in a college where there was a really, really long corridor and it was broken up with doorways along the way.
But then autistic people haven’t been given that information, their brain doesn’t access that information so, but there’s so many, thousands and thousands of social rules like that that we just, you or I just know instinctively. But an autistic person has to sort of learn all of these things and apply them to different settings and go okay, well that rule will work there, but it might not work there so and having to learn from scratch all the time.
Saj: And on that sort of topic of culture as well, people with autism may feel that in society, fitting in if you like with neurotypical people can be difficult, so they may seek out communities of people in a similar situation to them and the Internet has obviously helped to bring people together. So in your experience, do you find that a lot of autistic young people are connecting with other neurodiverse young people online and kind of forming their own cultures?
Nicola: I think through gaming, yes. So when when I was in another role, when I ran this autism provision, I would bring new students to come have a look around and see if they liked the feel of the place and so on, and the amount of times the students knew each others gaming tags before they’d met the person. So you’re on Xbox? Yeah, I’m on Xbox. What’s your gaming tag? Oh! And it turns out they’d been playing against each other before they’d actually met each other and that that was amazing for seeing that.
Those connections building and the importance of feeling like you fit in, and the amount of people that would just come to that college… It was this sort of autism unit, but unit is a weird phrase. It wasn’t separate from everybody else, it was just a safe place and with an curriculum that went with it, but the amount of people that kind of felt like they were home. They felt like they belonged. They felt like they fit in and they could be themselves and they could do the rocking in the corner if they wanted to. They could hum and run up and down if they wanted to. That was fine. That was where everybody understood it, and that everybody got it and that was absolutely fine. Whereas they might have to pretend to be a little bit different when they went into the main part of the college.
I’m trying to kind of recreate a version of that now in my current role, but I’m not able to do it on as big a scale. Before lockdown, I used to run a lunchtime group, because I knew lots of autistic learners around college. But they didn’t know each other and they were all sort of isolated in their own ways and I thought if I could just connect that one with that one. It was like a bit of a matchmaking thing. I know that they would have something in common. I know they would have those connections and know they would be able to build some friendship from that. And it was taking a long time to build up, but we ended up having a lunchtime group, but not many learners came to it.
We started a project on sensory overload and that was a drive to get more students involved and then they were able to see actually, yes, this is something in this and they would attend once a week. We could have lunch there. We would do this social battery sort of exercise at the beginning of each lunchtime activity and you basically say if you’re feeling red today then this just going to use this time and space to just sort of zone out. Listen to music, get your games out, whatever.
But if you were sort of feeling orange or green, then you might be in a position to have a bit of a chat, play a game with somebody else or help somebody else do a problem. So it was just like, how are you feeling today? Okay, what are we going to use this time for and we didn’t all have to use it in the same way. But now I’m doing that online and it’s grown into something a little bit like what I wanted to create in the first place which is…
We’re doing it through teams, so we have twice weekly meetings. One of them as suggested by the learners is to do with supporting each other, so each person brings something like the ideas rooms that we kind of know about. Each person brings something they want a bit of help with or a suggestion of something and we talk through that. But then on another day of the week, it’s much more random conversation where the aim is about building connections and friendships, and you can see people’s humour connecting and the amount of times where somebody will go on about something and then another learner will say no way, I like that as well and that’s why I just back off and let them just.. I want them to have a laugh and one of the learners has starting to call it our family. She’s referred to it like that now.
On the team’s channels, there’s lots of information to do with friendship, social skills, small talk, managing emotions. So there’s lots of learning opportunities there that they can interact with throughout the week. We have a random question. We’ve got an autistic member of staff who helps me organise it as well so he he’s much better at getting the learners involved in conversations and banter than I am, because I use the sort of neurotypical questions like what you doing at the weekend and all that kind of thing which doesn’t spark their interest as much as he can with random questions about films and so on.
So it’s an online community that have managed to create and turn it into an educational thing as well and also I draw students into it when I feel like they’re ready to engage in that, but also still doing a little bit of matchmaking in there as well. So I feel like there’s some learners will feel like they’re not quite going to connect with the learners who are there currently, so they can access another part of it. One learner was banned from it, because she wasn’t ready to use it in a positive way that it was aimed at.
But I’m really proud of it and it’s it’s growing and growing and I feel like they have got a sense of this is where I belong. I fit in people, understand me. I can be myself and that’s really important and I would love to expand that so that they feel that in everyday life, post covid as well. Yeah, online community things.
The gaming is a big part of it, but I don’t know how safe that is. It can be safe for plenty of people? But then there are other people who are vulnerable. Whereas the group that I’m running, I can keep an eye on things if I need to. So for example, where there was a chat we were having one day and I could just send something wasn’t quite right for one of the young people, so I was able to message him afterwards. So without interfering at the time, I can just judge how people are getting on and then I can contact him afterwards and he wasn’t okay and then were able to put the right safeguarding measures in place and so on.
So it’s a kind of monitored thing, but then friendships developing out of that and they can take that friendship wherever they were they want. I kind of helped to get it started little bit.
Saj: That sounds like it’s worked brilliantly.
Nicola: Yeah, it is, it’s got a long way to go. I want to so many more learners to be in it. I think I’ve only got 13 or 14 or something like that at the moment, so there’s massive potential for more people but the more people get, the more likely they are to find somebody else in that group that they connect with. So it’s gonna be so people are going to get more and more out of it.
Saj: Overall, how would you say that your neurodiverse learners have been sort of coping with the changes really, you know? So they’ve gone from having quite a social environment in college to being at home a lot now and accessing the learning online. So what’s your experience been like?
Nicola: It’s been quite a mixture. To be honest, at the beginning of academic year, well in the summer just before that, I was able to start showing people around, doing transition visits and so on and having a look around the college. And I felt the time that Covid was actually making it a lot easier. Once we are back in the building, I was able to say, well, we’ve now got one way systems in place which were a huge barrier before. So for the college felt quite overwhelming for several autistic learners or anxious learner, because they were huge great social spaces that there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the corridors and the stairways and so on.
We would show people around… right well normally, this would have been a really busy area with random things, going on loads of music and so on, but actually thanks to Covid, that isn’t going to be in use. It was able to make the college more accessible and I would say, well, this corridor normally there would be a lot of hustle and bustle. But now we’ve got a one way system, so you gotta keep your distance. So those students that were scared of going into a busy space or scared of being knocked or scared of being judged because there’s too many people, again it took away a lot of those pressures and then knew they could safely walk down the corridor without being knocked and somebody mucking about and so on, because it made the college so much calmer and quieter.
So from that respect, that was working very well. Then there happened to be lots of timetable changes. So for example, if a staff member got sick, somebody else would then have to cover it, or they suddenly would have to be working from home. It was those issues, they were horrible to manage and so the students were given new information all the time about the timetable and that’s a real challenge. That’s settled down a lot now since pretty much everything is at home.
Some students are doing okay with it. Some people absolutely hate it and they’re not getting out of the house for any reason. So previously if college was the only thing they would get out of the house for, now they’re not getting out of the house for anything so they might not have the confidence to go out independently to go for a walk, walk the dog, whatever, so they’re not getting out of the house at all. Not even opening the windows or the curtains.
So it’s a real mixture where some people have found that lack of people around them a relief because actually there are less social pressures on us at the moment I personally find. I’m finding that quite relaxing to be honest. But again, it’s a huge mixture. Initially, I was thinking that a lot of students were feeling like that. That they would be feeling like less social interaction, I haven’t got to worry about this, I’m haven’t got to worry about that, I haven’t got about the busy… getting on the bus anymore, I haven’t got to worry about being in a busy environment anymore.
But I think as time’s gone on, the disadvantages are starting to be more present for a lot of people who are more isolated. We have got some students are going into college but only who meet the vulnerability criteria, but there were plenty who don’t technically meet that criteria where you think actually you could do with a bit more of a positive routine going on.
I’d like the college to stay nice and quiet when we go back we go back in the building. I’d like the group sizes to stay small, because I think all of those things were actually really quite good and I also think now that we’re working so much online, that’s made staff think more flexibly about how they can teach.
So I remember having a meeting with a student, I think a year and a half ago or something, where she was really struggling with the whole college environments before Covid and I had a conversation about it. But what would your perfect classroom situation actually be? Because she wants to learn, she wants to take the information in, but she couldn’t cope with all the other sensory pressures and allsorts. Her perfect classroom environment was just sat in a black box with the screen like this in a separate room so she could engage with the lesson just by looking at the screen with sensory sort of deprivation there, nothing else going on around.
And I presented that to the tutors. They’re like, well, no, that’s not going to happen. But now actually something like that probably could be created because they can interact online. They can teach you. Well, not very well, but they might be able to teach your group and also have somebody connected via webcam.
So I think there’s potential to build on that to meet more students social needs, so people still could still work from home if they were too anxious to get out of home to come into college, they can still access it through Teams. Their attendance isn’t affected, things like that. So I think there’s a lot that we can build on, a lot of positives that we can build on from it.
Saj: I think this is something that I’ve heard from a lot of people with all kinds of additional needs that for years they’ve been requesting things like online lessons, recording lessons, and it’s no, we can’t do that. But then as soon as the pandemic’s happened, suddenly they’re able to lay these things on for neurotypicals. It’s a little bit like homelessness, you know. Suddenly, when the pandemic happened, the government threw loads of money at homelessness and rough sleepers started being housed and people were like, well, could you not have done this before? So I think a lot of people are feeling that I guess with the pandemic, what wins can we kind of grab here? Like you say, the quieter environment, the smaller group sizes. I think for a lot of learners [they] have been really, really helpful. Can we make the best of it?
Nicola: I know it’s expensive though. Having been a curriculum manager before, I know how expensive it can it is stop small group sizes, so I don’t think that is sustainable. But the combination of somebody working at home and somebody working in college should be… It’s difficult to manage. I wouldn’t like to do it myself. I don’t teach big groups of students anymore, so I wouldn’t fancy it to be honest, but so it might need some fine tuning but I do think there’s an awful lot that we can build on.
Saj: So in your current role, you’ve mentioned that you’ve moved away from teaching and more into stuff development. How much of your role in involves that and what kind of areas are you particularly working on with teaching staff to develop their skills and knowledge?
Nicola: Okay, well it started in November, so it’s still a little bit of a balancing act because there are still parts of a previous role, a similar role, that I’ve still got to do. So I’m trying to make sure I don’t take on too much in terms of staff development, so I’d love to just dive into that completely, but it’s not doable, so I’ve still got a caseload of education health and care plan reviews to do, and all sorts of other things.
So I’m still keeping the balance with that contact with learners through the group that I run because I feel like I’ve got to keep that going to make sure that what I’m sharing with staff is actually right. So I can run ideas past the students to teach the staff.
I’d say probably, maybe a day and half to two days of the week is more to do with the staff development stuff. So for example I now deliver on the staff induction which was really important. So historically we would find that staff would get information about support plans and inclusive practice and so on a little bit later down the line. They would do an online assessment to do with the Equality Act and so on, but it doesn’t actually make you know what youneed to do in practise.
So I now deliver on the staff induction, which I’vee been doing for a couple of months now. So that means that as soon as a teaching staff member starts at the college, they’ve been given information about these are your duties, this is how we’re going to help you follow them, this is how you going to get continued support where you get stuck and so on. So the support that we offer I’ve got a lunchtime diffability drop-in. So every Wednesday lunchtime it’s open discussion about disability, but I call it diffability, so that staff can come along with a scenario. I’m really struggling to understand why so and so is doing this that and the other or how do I do this, so they can come along. But there’s not many staff are engaging with that at the moment, but to be honest it, they have had a lot going on, so I let them off.
I do an inclusive practise top tip in the principal’s round up every week, so that’s just really simple, straight to the point. But it’s an image that I present, so it looks like a neurodiverse famous person, say Stephen Fry, will.i.am, or Jennifer Aniston and it’s looks like a classroom and it’s basically been a top tip has been written on the board and it’s in a speech bubble about them saying what needs to be done and why. But I try and keep it as short and concise as possible. So I do a top tip every week.
We’ve just had an INSET day and special educational needs and disabilities was the main focus of that, so I did an ADHD and autism session within that as well. So that was to do with here are some basics, how we going to adopt your practise accordingly, how you going to work to strengths as well as accommodate needs? Here is a lesson plan that you’ve been asked to cover this lesson, but you notice it’s not gonna work for your ADHD learner or the autistic learner. How do you need to adapt that session?
So there will be more of that stuff rolling out. I’ve got a neurodiversity week coming up, so I’ve got a programme of sessions on that, but I put together a package of all things that I thought I could train people on and then sort of rolled out a bit of a survey to find out what people wanted or needed. And then from that decided I should focus on basic inclusive practice. Let’s just get some absolute basics in that classroom, so it’s as accessible as possible without you being an expert on each of these different things. So that’s been rolled out, but I broke it down into four stages, as I realised that I’m trying to do like half hour slots so that it can fit into somebody’s lunch hour or just before a session. So it wasn’t too full on.
And then I thought I can’t cover everything inclusive practise in half an hour, so I broke it down into a series. The first one was about wellbeing and a sense of belonging and making sure that student feels like they belong in that group, so it would cover things like how they might have been badly mislabelled in the past, like a dyslexic person might be labelled as stupid. An ADHD learner might be labelled as naughty. So it’s about, well, what do we do about that then? How do we behave differently so we can break that cycle? How do we talk about differences positively so people feel like they fit in? How we make sure we don’t highlight somebody’s disability by going, dyslexic person, right? You have the blue paper, so it stands out as being, you’re the dyslexic person. How do we do things that you can do for everybody that are really going to make a massive difference with those neurodiverse learners that need it. But actually it’s probably going to be quite helpful for everybody else anyway.
So we do well being and belonging bit first and then the next session is about teaching and learning. So about your activities, how you give instructions, make sure they’re all inclusive as possible, and then there’s going into assessment as well, looking at assessment methods. Do they truly assess what they’re meant to do? Do you really need to write an essay about something when actually it could have been a demonstration or something like that. And then the fourth one is more to do with online and just adapting, looking at the barriers that somebody might have it online learning and trying to find ways around that.
But that I left that one till last because I felt like that’s where I had to learn the most, so I was trying to frantically grab loads of useful information and then turn that into a session, but sharing that information along the way as well. So if I found something, a really good resource, we’ve got this virtual staff room on Teams where I’m regularly posting things on there, here’s a good video, here’s a good checklist, so it’s accessible. So there’s lots of things that are going on that are helping staff to feel more comfortable and I think I can feel a change. I can feel that more people are embracing it, but I’m trying to make sure that I make it feel easy rather than…
If you’ve come from say if you been working in industry, I don’t know you have been a bricklayer and now you’re coming to teach a group of bricklayers. Bricklaying is what you might know about. You’re not necessarily going to know about dyslexia and ADHD and autism, as well and that can be quite daunting. So I’m trying to make sure that I removed some of that, as much of it as I can. So it’s about going, if you give you instructions like this to everybody, then actually your autistic learners are gonna be really grateful for that. If you talk to all of your learners like this, your ADHD learner is going to be much more responsive.
If you give your instructions with a demonstration, your dyslexic learner is going to be thankful for that. So it’s just trying to give them some top tips and strategies that are going to work for everybody, so they haven’t got to remember too much specialist stuff.But there are opportunities for people to build on that, if they want to.
Saj: I think it’s really important to say, I think, that you know teaching stuff shouldn’t be expected to be an in-depth experts on every diagnosis going. But there are some sort of simple strategies that you can use that help neurodiverse learners, but will benefit all learners and I use this phrase Universal Learning to describe the idea that very simple things like clear and unambiguous language, yes that will help with learners who are on the spectrum. But it will also help all learners, because it’ll just make communication clearer.
So for time-pressed teaching staff, what would you say are the kind of the really quick wins you know that they can adopt quickly to improve the learning for all their learners – the neurotypical and the neurodiverse.
Nicola: I think using plain English is really important. I do share information about the Plain English Campaign. So when you’re emailing instructions to students working from home, it’s about having really clear bullet points or a checklist. Because initially the beginning of lockdown student tutors were giving out instructions, but hiding them all amongst all this social chit chat about how you doing, hope you’re okay, hope you keeping safe and then somewhere hidden in there was some instructions of a task they had to get done and I spent a lot of time translating emails for students. So if you just write the key information into some bullet points, that’s really nice and not too wordy. Just clear, concise sentences in bullet points. That’s going to help your autistic learner, it’s going to help your ADHD learner, it’s going to help you dyslexic learner and it’s going to help everybody else with a clear understanding of what needs to get done.
Verbally using quite short concise language as well. So if you’re having to process lots of information, or if you’re really stressed out, a short sentence with the instruction, a little bit of time to process it. Another instruction to build on that, a little bit of time to process it. Have information provided in a few different ways, so have it written down, but also give it verbally. For example, so it’s not everybody’s got to read it, you can listen to it or read it or see it as well. Diagrams and pictures and so on are fantastic.
Be predictable and have a structure and a plan and stick to that as much as he possibly can and if you can’t stick to it, explain why. So everything from room changes to timetables and it really annoys me when you’ve got a nice college structured timetable where lessons clearly start at a certain time and they end at a certain time, and then for some reason tutors say, oh we’ll finish early today and they might think that they’re doing everybody else a favour.
But actually that creates a lot of anxiety for those learners who are socially anxious, who don’t know how they’re going to fill this time, they don’t know what time next bus is going to be. That creates so much stress by changing that timetable. So just have a structure, stick to that structure as much as you possibly can. Be predictable. So have a good sort of routine in your lessons. But to avoid it getting dull, there might be a section of your lesson that is open to something more flexible. So it might be every lesson we do this, this, this and then we do this. Then we have more of a free time bit where we can go off piste a little bit, but that’s still within a structure. It’s still within a predictable sort of framework.
And that’s your ADHD learner is going to be thankful for that, because they find change very difficult. Things like being put on the spot, that’s a massive trigger for a lot of ADHD learners, being called up in front of everybody else. I need to have a meeting with you, I need to come and do this outside in the corridor. Argh! I’m on show, in front of everybody, can’t cope with that. So it’s about giving advance notice of things, if something different going to happen, let people know in advance.
Build up to skills. Things like group work, build up to them gradually by developing the skills that you might need to work in a group, before actually throwing everybody in there expecting to be these fantastic social beings that can know how to take turns, negotiate and compromise and all that. All of those skills that you need for group tasks, maybe spend some time working on those first. Allocate roles in group tasks, so that it’s not too overwhelming, you can give focus on a particular thing at a particular time.
Allow anxious learners to share information in various different ways. So choose to write it down on a post it note. Choose to use Microsoft Teams chats, quizzes like Kahoot or whatever. So that you don’t have to think of an answer and say out loud in front of everybody. Provide a range of different ways where people can provide the answers. There’s all sorts of things that you can do.
Talk about difference in different abilities and things quite openly. Don’t be afraid to say, well, I’m dyslexic, oh I find this difficult or this worries me. So that it’s a more comfortable space for people to talk about what they can and can’t do easily.
There’s all sorts of things isn’t there, but I don’t think there’s any of those that would actually cause a problem for everybody else. It’s not going to be lots of actual effort. I don’t think there’s things would disadvantage anybody else in the group. There’s all sorts.
Saj: I think a lot of these things can make everybody’s life easier. So it’s the learners benefiting from routine and structure, but also it’s the teacher planning the lesson, you know? It takes away a lot of the stress of planning and sequencing learning. If you’ve got a sort of regular, consistent way, yes, we’ll begin with this activity, then we’ll move on to this activity. But also, as you say, have that scope for some open ended learning to make things interesting and engaging. But I think my mission with this podcast is really to encourage people to see these adjustments as that it’s not a chore. But actually, it opens up learning for everybody and makes for a more engaging experience hopefully.
Nicola: I don’t want it to be a chore. I also think if I ever hit a sort of more resistant member of staff, I’ve got an argument ready. If it was your child or your grandchild, your niece or nephew, who has a diagnosis or has these traits or whatever. You would expect that people were being inclusive. You wouldn’t want to just do it the same for everybody, it wouldn’t work. So you would expect adaptations to be made. You would expect their education to be as accessible for them as it is for everybody else. So it’s just, you know that it’s right. It’s got to be done.
Saj: Just finally, do you find that teaching staff who have neurodiverse children that they care for themselves, do you think they just get it a lot more easily because they have that lived experience?
Nicola: Not necessarily. Not necessarily, because they don’t necessarily know how those conditions affect a range of people. They might know that one person with autism and therefore haven’t explored outside of that yet to know how to work differently with different people.
I once managed a tutor who had two autistic sons. I thought fantastic, there was a restructure going on and because of that he met the criteria to keep his job and was moved to sort of work with a group of autistic students. And I thought, oh fantastic, it’s going to be great, but he really struggled to engage the learners and everything. But then it’s not necessarily the way or the solution might. They might have more empathy, more desire to do it, perhaps.
But then I work with somebody at the moment who’s incredibly passionate about getting it right for students and goes way above and beyond, because he knows how much it matters. But he’s constantly relating back to his son, so my son also does that. Had it been a very different student to his son, would have been successful. I don’t know, so it’s hard to say. It doesn’t guarantee a better practice. You still got to reflect, you’ve still got to consider all individuals separately. Yeah, there’s these common traits to look out for and so on, but it’s that one size fits all doesn’t work.
Saj: So, in conclusion, really there’s always scope for people to grow and develop their practise when it comes to working with neurodiverse learners, but also hopefully these things that we learn, we put into practise to benefit all of our learners as well I guess.
Nicola: I would say that I’ve been working with autistic people and learning it, studying it and learning it and learning from autistic learners from since the mid 90s and I’m pretty much just that. I haven’t done much else outside of that and I’m still learning now. So you never know it all at and I want people to know that if they just go on an awareness course for half a day, that’s not it. You don’t stop there. You haven’t now got autism. You haven’t learnt autism, you’ve got to keep learning all the time. You’ve got to be open and you’ve got to reflect all the time. Is my language too complex? Am I speaking too fast. Am I bombarding them with information? You got to keep checking yourself all the time and learning from what works and ask them.
So for example, one of the top tips I shared recently was to do with checking understanding, because if you give loads and loads of information and then go okay, do you understand? Yes. Do they truly understand? Possibly not. So it’s about finding other ways to check understanding. So I was in a safeguarding meeting for somebody where they were given loads and loads and loads of really important information and I was thinking he’s not taking all of this in at all. He’s just nodding and being polite for this new person he doesn’t know.
So at the session I said, well, okay, could you give us three key points that have just been given to you just now? Nothing. There was way too much, he couldn’t pick out three key points. It was just too much, so it’s about checking understanding. Okay, so can you just explain to me what have I just told you, what can you remember. So, how are we going to apply that? Give me some key information that we’ve just covered. What are the important bits you need to remember? So it’s about checking that understanding and then from that you know, okay, am I talking too fast? Have I given too much information? Is my language too complex? Yeah, you’re constantly learning. You’ve got to keep learning, but then add expect any tutors were doing that anyway. So his is just perhaps a little bit more detail.
Saj: Absolutely. I think that’s a good point to conclude on, that we keep on learning and that we’re always learning about these things, because it’s a constantly ever changing and expanding landscape I think we work in. As I said, it’s a good point to end on I think, so thank you very much Nicola for sharing your knowledge and experiences today.
Nicola: You’re welcome!
Saj: Thanks to Nicola for such a fascinating exploration of just some of the aspects of supporting learners with additional needs. I hope you’ll be able to take some of the ideas that she talked about and use them to make your practice even more inclusive.
Nicola mentioned a Twitter account when we were discussing how plain English often works better for many learners. That account is called Very British Problems and you can find it on Twitter @SoVeryBritish or find the link at our website UniversalLearning.education. You can also find Nicola herself on Twitter @SpectrumSavvy
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Visit our website UniversalLearning.education to read transcripts of each edition and find out more about how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners. The music you’ve heard in this edition is Sinara by Blear Moon, and sound FX are by New Age Soup, both licensed under Creative Commons. Visit UniversalLearning.education for more information.