Autistic Lecturers and ALS Learners in Further Education with Mike Scott – 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 edition of Universal Learning, I’m talking to Mike Scott, an autistic lecturer working in further education. Mike teaches creative media to learners with additional needs. We begin our conversation talking about how Mike started his working life as an engineer in the Royal Navy, but an injury cut his career short. He then spent around ten years struggling to find a regular job. But he returned to education as a mature student and Mike credits adult education as giving him a second chance.
We also talk about how Mike found school to be a difficult experience and how he struggled with making friends. He was eventually diagnosed with autism as an adult, although this was not a swift process by any means.
Mike also discusses the nature of autism and how broad and vast it is in how it manifests. For example, he mentions that both his sister and his daughter are also autistic, but their traits are very different to his. He also points out the controversy over the term Asperger’s and why the autistic community has moved away from that terminology. Mike highlights ‘neurodivergence’ as a much more useful term that also encompasses people with other additional needs such as dyslexic learners.
We move on to talk about how how being autistic helps him to connect with his learners with additional needs. As he says, ‘You know your own peopl’e. Mike talks about how adjustments that we make for learners with additional needs can benefit all of our learners, which is the core message of this series. He says that making learning accessible in this way gives learners equity.
Covid has had a huge impact on the way education has been delivered and we discuss how some of these changes could continue to benefit learners after the pandemic ends. Mike highlights blended learning as something that should continue to develop as a way for neurodivergent learners to get that equity he spoke about. He also points out that there are people in education resistant to change and he describes them as dinosaurs. We talk about how we expect learners to be open to trying new things, especially technology, but don’t always do the same ourselves.
We round off our conversation talking about the next step in Mike’s professional journey as he embarks on his Doctorate in Education course. He plans to research the use of virtual learning environments or VLEs and blended learning to facilitate what he dubs ‘everyday pedagogy’. In other words, self-directed learning at a time and in a manner that suits your needs.
Mike also offers his advice to other educators who teach learners with additional needs. He encourages people to experiment and try new things. They may not always work, but through trial and error, you will find ways to help your learners with additional needs thrive.
Hopefully you will learn a lot from listening to Mike talking about his experiences and how he supports students with additional needs. But if there’s anything else that you want to know more about, I am planning to answer questions from listeners about inclusion in an upcoming episode. So do feel free to get in touch with your questions via our website at UniversalLearning.education
Now, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not always the best. However, you can read a transcript of this and every 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 really learnt a lot from talking to Mike and it was fascinating to get his perspective on life as an autistic lecturer. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Mike Scott: I’m Mike Scott, and I’m an autistic lecturer and I work for an FE college. My job role is I’m a part-time media lecturer. I specifically work with ALS learners in workshops and that’s on the BTEC. My future plans are to do a Doctorate in Education, looking at ways of assisting ALS learners with using virtual learning environments, such as Microsoft Teams.
Saj: I just wanted to begin by talking about your career before you entered education. You began your working life in the armed forces specifically at Royal Navy. Why did you decide to join the Royal Navy?
Mike: It’s a good question. I didn’t do that well at school, essentially. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy education. It was just that I found it difficult to concentrate, to focus, to do the things in their prescribed way, so, I wasn’t suitable. I found it difficult in exam situations. I didn’t know why at the time, so I muddled through with the GCSEs, but one thing I was really good at was the workshop. That’s the engineering, so your technical workshop. I did really well. I got a C in that. Then, from that, I thought, “Well, I’ll apply to college, my local college.” That’s when I decided to do a level 2 BTEC in engineering.
During that first year on the level 2, and I passed that, I did join the level 3, two-year course, but during that three months, I went to a recruitment centre because a friend was going to join the army as an engineer. I was looking at the pay rates and I didn’t think it was very good. Logistically, I was comparing the Navy to the Army, to the Marines. With the Marines, you have to be a soldier first before an engineer, so that was out of the question. It was really Navy versus the Army and I thought, “Well, I get more pay for being in the Navy, plus I get to go places where I might just be in an army camp.”
For me, it was just a logical step just saying, “Right, this is the pay rate, this is the benefits. I’ll go for that.” That’s where I ended up, essentially. I loved the routine of it.
Saj: You were in the Royal Navy, but then, unfortunately, your career in the Royal Navy was cut short. How did you end up returning to education as a mature student?
Mike: Unfortunately, I had a head injury when I was 19, it was an accident. That got me medically retired. I spent a long time trying to look for work, a good 10 years or so. I had work intermittently but it wasn’t satisfactory in any way. In that time, I was self-learning things. For example, I built a computer, learned how to build a computer from scratch. Then, one day I got a leaflet through the door from the local college about evening classes, adult education. That was my first foray into getting back into education.
Saj: Having gone back into further education as a mature student, when did you realise that education could be a career for you?
Mike: For me, it was at the end of me doing them FE night classes, evening classes. It was just one evening. My tutor said to me, “Mike, you would do well as a mature student on one of these – going to university.” I had absolutely no idea what she was on about. She brought me in leaflets and sat down and explained some of the options, and she said you could always sign up and if you don’t like it within the first three months, you can stop. She was a really good role model for me. I just thought, “I’ll take baby steps and just leap in and go for it.”
Because I was given that encouragement, I ended up doing a Bachelor’s in media, and it was during that first year of doing my media that wasn’t the fact that I was doing media, but more so that I had good role models, good lecturers. Again, they gave me lots of encouragement and because I was highly organised and because I helped naturally in the class, they used to joke and say, “You could become a lecturer. Have you thought about teaching yourself?” Again, I didn’t think that was an option, but I really started thinking about it more so in my second year, that’s when I started. It became embedded that this is a legitimate path I can do.
I could do my Bachelor’s and then maybe do some teacher training or go and teach media. That’s where it came from.
Saj: It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to hear that you had positive role models and you have that encouragement. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about FE.
Mike: I think FE itself, it’s so underrated and so undervalued compared to some of the areas of adult… same with adult education, to be honest, because let’s not forget that that plays such a huge role in not only upskilling adults who may have lost a career or whatever but also giving them a second chance. They might’ve not done well at school for whatever reason, they might just have had bad role models. Let’s not forget that, for every good role model, there’s got to be one bad role model out there, unfortunately. It’s just statistics.
Saj: Yes, absolutely. At this stage, you haven’t been recognised, I guess, or diagnosed as being autistic. What was it that made you first think that you might be autistic?
Mike: There’s two parts to this. When I was a child, I always found it harder to make friends. I always thought something not right here, but I wasn’t that well-developed enough myself to understand what was going on. I just felt like I was an outsider all the time. The more older I got, the more I felt like I didn’t fit in. We fast forward to my second year of my Bachelor degree, and I was struggling with dissemination of large amount of texts because I was doing a report assignment because at that point, we were doing technical assignments which are slightly different. It’s more logical, matter of fact, here’s what I did, here is the result.
Whereas report writing, it’s not about your opinion as well and about other opinions, and I was struggling with that. As a result, they sent me to an educational psychiatrist and it turned out I had dyslexia. I was like, “Okay.” This is April 2017. At the end of that, they said that I had processing issues and some verbal command issues with my dyslexia. Sometimes I stutter and sometimes it takes a while for me to process something. As a result of that, it wasn’t atypical. Normally with dyslexia, it’s to do with your reading mostly.
As a result of that, the psychiatrist said to me, “Have you ever been screened for autism, or has someone in your family got autism? Because you’re showing some traits of having autism and I hope that doesn’t offend you.” I said, “No, it doesn’t because of the person I am, I’m always curious about things.” They just said, “Speak to GP about it,” and that’s where it went from there.
Saj: In terms of the whole process of getting assessed, in total, how long did it actually take you to get assessed?
Mike: This is the shocking thing. As an adult, it took a long time. I was diagnosed with dyslexia in April 2017, went for the pre-assessment shortly after. For those that don’t know pre-assessment, it’s like another educational psychologist will have a brief psych interview with you, go through some of the… I think you have to tick off some things that you find uncomfortable or do you like certain feels or textures, the standard questionnaire thing for autistic people. That’s when they said, “It’s highly likely that you’ve got Asperger’s” because at that time, that word was acceptable. I got my autism diagnosis just earlier this year, so it’s nearly taken four years.
In general, theoretically, it should take 10 weeks from pre-assessment to diagnosis. That’s the standard rate. Now, it would have been quicker if I went private, but it would have cost me £400. At the time, that was a cost I couldn’t afford. In hindsight, maybe I could’ve done it because I would’ve got my diagnosis quicker, but I’ve got to here all the same.
Saj: I just wanted to pick up on something you said. You mentioned the terminology Asperger’s, and you said at that time, that might’ve been acceptable but no longer. For people who aren’t aware, why is Asperger’s not really a desirable term to use in the current time?
Mike: Currently, I’m coming at it a couple of different ways. Asperger’s was the guy that obviously, diagnosed a particular set of traits for autism. Autism itself is broad and vast, so those that haven’t got autism aren’t on the spectrum as it’s called. It isn’t a spectrum either, but it’s easier to explain that way. There is no low to high, it’s more like a branch and branches of stuff where you got different traits and it’s like a pick and mix of traits. That’s the best way I can describe that. Asperger’s, recently, it was suggested he had something to do with the Nazis, unfortunately, and hopefully, we don’t get censored for that. Also, it’s just bad because you just lump in somebody into a specific box.
Like I said, autism is broad and vast. I have autism, it’s not going to be the same as someone else having autism. For example, my daughter is going through the process as well, and she’s got vastly different traits to me. My sister has autism as well. Her autism is completely different to me. We’re all related but we’ve all got different traits, different strengths, different weaknesses, different interests.
Saj: As you said, every individual is different, so it’s not helpful to talk about things like a spectrum because you can’t easily put people into categories, you’ve got to look at the individual.
Mike: I think, to be honest, it goes beyond autism for me. This is something I’ve come to recently in line with my own learners because like me, I have autism and I have dyslexia. My sister has autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. You start seeing these traits where someone might have ADHD and then they might have dyslexia. They might have the trait by itself. I’d rather, for those of us that have these type of, I’m going to call them learning barriers or learning issues. We’ll call them NDs, neurodivergents is the best term because we’re all related in some way.
In future, hopefully, them links can be made more apparent, but I definitely think it’s not just this autism ticking the box, this ADHD ticking the box and you’re put in a box, it’s more complex than that.
Saj: Absolutely. I totally agree with you. Eventually, after a long period of time, you got that diagnosis of autism. What impact did that diagnosis have on you?
Mike: For me personally, it wasn’t about the outcome. Yay, I’ve got autism or no, I’ve got autism. It was more about the validation. I don’t see it as a disability but as a different way of thinking. For me, I was more interested in the recommendations, but what I mean by a different way of thinking is, I always use this analogy. Imagine two phones, one Samsung, and one’s Apple, neurodivergents are on the Samsung and neurotypicals are on the Apple phone. We’re the same phones, we’re the same human beings, we just operate differently. One might have a better camera, one might have a better battery life, they all have different features, it’s the same with autism or neurodivergency, we’ve all got different traits. I see it like that, it’s just a different way of thinking. It’s a different way of doing things and it’s how you’re supported in that. I was more interested in the recommendations, specifically in the workplace because that’s where my next step was going to be. Them reasonable adjustments.
Saj: Once you had that diagnosis, you were then able to put recommendations into action and I’m guessing at a positive or a beneficial effect on your life in general and your working life and so on.
Mike: Yes. I’ve got a work mentor, similar to when you’re a PGCE student. For those that don’t know what PGCE is, basically, it’s the teaching degree, although it’s not technically a degree, it’s taught, for me, it’s at postgraduate level, which level 7. You normally get a mentor that helps you through the teaching process. It’s similar when you’re at my college, when you are a new tutor, you get assigned a work mentor. My work mentor works with me on a one-to-one. It gives me an opportunity to ask questions outside of meetings, just follow up emails, things like that. Just anything that I think, “Oh, actually this is affecting me,” I can go to my work mentor, and between us, we can sort it out and signpost me if need to. It’s just the same with my ALS learners. It’s like what I do for them, but they do for me at the college level.
Saj: When it comes to your ALS learners, so these are your learners that have additional needs. They need learning support. How does being autistic help you when you’re working with your ALS learners?
Mike: Without being too blunt, you know your own people, it’s like you’re on the same wave. I can sort of see reflections of myself. Everyone is different and they have the different issues and different problems that I need to help them with. I don’t see as problems. I don’t see them as bad children or anything like that. It’s just a thing for me to so sit down and let’s work this out together. For me, I would look at it and say, “Well, how would I like to be treated as an individual,” first and foremost, and then look at the individual strategies that may or may not work for the whole group as well. What I mean by that is depending, because I work in the workshops, but I also teach from one of the units.
In theory, sometimes these strategies can work for the whole group. Say if I changed the background colour of a PowerPoint, it might help the dyslexic learners, but it won’t impact any way, shape, or form the rest of the group. Similarly, if someone’s ADHD, am I putting in a bullet, very simplified bullet point list? Again, it’s just easier to read, easier to focus on. I don’t put too many things on the slide. If it works for them, it should work for the whole group. That’s my strategy. If I look at it and I don’t feel comfortable with the whole PowerPoint and the whole structure of the lesson, I break it down and say, “All right, is this a particular issue for this person, or is it just a group thing?”
I look at it on the individual level and I look at it at the group perspective because really you’ve got to try and find a balance as well. You can’t just be spending hours on a particular person, on a particular issue, but you’ve got to try and strategise so it’s effective as best as you can. That’s what I mean. The other thing with working with the ALS learners, if you build up a good relationship with them, they’re more likely to meet you in the middle. Okay? Because you’re treating them as an individual. You’re not treating them with, “Oh, this person’s got this, they’re a problem. Shove them in the workshop,” kind of thing, it doesn’t work like that.
Saj: Absolutely. I really like what you just said there as well about making those little adjustments, like having a pastel-coloured background in your PowerPoints. Not having too much text on the slide, using bullet points. These don’t disadvantage anybody and they also open up the learning for those students with additional needs.
Mike: It’s equity, not equality, equity because it’s how they want to be treated, but it’s not going to affect everyone else whereas if you use equality, sometimes some people are more advantaged than the others, and that’s not what this is about. I’m trying to bring equity into my classroom.
Saj: I really like that. During the last year or so during the pandemic, we haven’t had as many students in a lot of colleges as we would do normally. The environment has been quieter. Does that quieter college environment we’ve experienced during the pandemic suit you better?
Mike: From a personal level, I’ve loved it because I can shape my own routine. It’s quiet, I work from home, I have a mobility issue. From that sense, it was good. However, from a physical health point, my physical health has taken a dip because I’m not going out of the house as much. I’m trying to get back into walking longer now. Hopefully just with the one crutch and I’ve been doing chair yoga. That’s something I’ve brought into the college after joining the mental health working group at college. I said there’s not enough activities, mental health, or wellbeing for disabled people. Chair yoga came about, so now I feel like I’ve got to give this a try.
Every week, I’m doing chair yoga on a Tuesday morning, but I’m actually enjoying it and I’m getting my exercise in. The other issue in terms of the professional aspects, as an educator, I noticed that it wasn’t good for the learners.
That face-to-face contact and the routine for them because you don’t know everyone’s routine at home. Everyone has families and stuff and everyone’s situation is different. What the learning provides in the classroom is structure and routine because they’re outside of their home environment. It’s always set times and set lessons, so, there’s some structure there.
For ALS learners, I think that’s really important to have that. Obviously, we’ve got virtual learning environments, we use Microsoft Teams and we try and motivate them as much as we can. My lessons were very much slowed down online, talked through it a bit more, we discussed it a bit more, but obviously, attention span and motivation dips the longer you was in the lockdown, unfortunately. That’s a national statistic. It wasn’t just for our college, it was nationally.
Saj: In terms of the future, is there anything, in terms of the way that things have changed over the last year, is there anything that you’d like to continue with even after the pandemic?
Mike: Yes. For me, as I’m finishing my second year of my PGCE, I had to do a specialist conference and I had to write a paper for that. The paper was looking at blended and flipped learning using virtual learning environments and whether that would have a benefit for learners in general. What I got out of it was this question of… Well, two questions. The one is, there’s a wider issue of digital poverty or this digital divide. Here in the Northwest, I wouldn’t say it’s a poor area, but it’s not as affluent as certain other areas. This has a disadvantage because just like water, food, and electric, a good internet connection these days is essential and should be a basic human right within the UK.
Unfortunately, not every household has access to good internet. Also, they don’t have the facility, the laptop, or a computer because it’s okay having a mobile phone, but the experience is so much different. Doing your lessons on a mobile phone, as compared to a laptop, you don’t get all the functionality. This is some of the things I’m looking at in terms of blended in with this hybrid learning outside of the classroom, but also looking at ways in which we can help differentiation for the ALS learners but it won’t affect the group as a whole.
Like I said, for example, with the PowerPoint change and the colour. What if I was to deliver a PowerPoint but instead of talking about it on the screen, they could look at their computers or look at the screen and do it in their own way using the virtual learning environment. If some wanted to put headset in and just look at the screen and look at the embedded video on there, that would be fine, and take notes in their preferred manner. I think this is some of the things that I’ve come out with during this COVID era and going into the post-COVID era.
What things can we take away using our technology pedagogical skills that we’ve developed? We shouldn’t be going back to a purely traditional classroom. We should use the skills that we need to enhance learning, those high expectations, and differentiation.
Saj: Totally agree with you. I don’t think there’s any going back to how it was before, whatever we do in the future is going to be changed, I think personally.
Mike: I think there’s a few sceptics out there. I would hate to say dinosaurs, but adaptability reflects on your skills, you just have to, you have to be dynamic. As an FE practitioner, you’re not just the teacher anyway. In that essence, you need these technology skills as part of your package.
Saj: We expect our students to be adaptable and flexible and okay with technology, but then when it comes to teachers, a lot of the hackles go up, and there’s a bit of a double standard I think sometimes for teachers.
Mike: Yes. Teach what you preach. I love that. Yes, teach what you preach. If you’re teaching it, then you should be on the same page with everyone else. If not, then you need to go back to the drawing board, you need to do something else.
Saj: I like that. You’ve done a lot of study over the last few years, you’ve done your BA, you’ve done a Master’s, and you’ve now been accepted onto a Doctorate in Education course. What research are you planning to conduct for your Ed.D.?
Mike: I’m looking at this virtual learning environment and looking at this blended learning model, and also this everyday pedagogy, this third space of learning and developing that. At this point in time, it’s just that research idea. Twitter has been helping me expand my idea more, look at different avenues. There’s a great support network on Twitter at #eduTwitter and #phdlife. There’s some fantastic FE practitioners out there, researchers of various levels. The idea is to use this virtual learning environment, Microsoft Teams for myself, and use this hybrid model of learning, flipped learning. I’d like learners to learn outside of the classroom. I’ll come back to that in a second.
Also, to develop their technology skills that much more because I think in future, everything that you do after this COVID pandemic is going to need that level of digital skills. So why not push it that much further? In terms of this flipped learning, this goes back to an idea I had during my specialist conference where the guest lecturer was talking about everyday pedagogy, which means there’s research that suggests that you learn more outside of classroom time from informal learning. From your family, from your friends, from what you read on the internet, it might not all be helpful, but there’s quite a lot you learn outside.
So, why not use that, enhance it, and then what you can do is bring that debate, that critique back in the classroom, and that pushes up them high expectations. That’s what I want to develop and see. Hopefully, their grades remain high. Also, I think it’ll be time beneficial as well for not only for FE practitioners for lessons because they’re not having to sit and explain stuff, they can go and watch videos or here’s a piece of work, go and research it, so they’re developing their own critical opinions and ideas, and then they’re bringing it back into the classroom, and then justifying why they think that is. I think that’s the link there that makes it good for them because it develops their skills in the work environment as well. They’re critiquing, and that cognitive development.
Saj: Absolutely. I think with the nature of work in the future, some of our students will be doing jobs in the future that don’t even exist in the present time.
Mike: I’m thinking of that just now. Just recently, I was just thinking about… Someone was editing a video and it was a new genre of music and a new style of music I had never heard of, dark synth wave. It’s just come about, well, it’s something I never heard of, and all these indie things are popping up and it’s just the same with education, there’s indie researchers. I think you can develop anything from anywhere now. It reflects back to this everyday pedagogy that you can be in your bathroom if you want, you can be in the park, and you learn something, but then pass it on, pass it on to someone. That’s what I want.
Saj: Absolutely. Finally, you’ve mentioned already a few little tips for people teaching neurodivergent learners. What other advice would you have for anyone who’s working with learners with additional needs?
Mike: Simply put, treat the learners as learners, they’re no different honestly. You would think it sounds simple, it is, but sometimes we can often overlook what’s there in front of us. ALS learners want to be treated as individuals, and just need that right way of getting work done. It’s for us as practitioners to help them strategise this to find the solution for them. Or, like I said, simply to meet them in the middle. Something that sort of works but they have to put in the effort as well. This could be listening to music while they work. It could be like an organizational issue. A clear concise checklist with bullet points often helps.
Sometimes I’ve tried stuff, and it’s not worked. It’s a case of trial and error. Just try things. If it doesn’t work, apologise, whatever, and just move on. We’ll say, “Right, okay, we’ll try something else.” Also have patience and respect for the learner as well because that will build up a good working relationship. Because when things go wrong, if it’s on your end, you need to come up with some other strategy, but if they’re having a bad day, they’re more likely to come to you and just say, “Look, I didn’t do this. I’m really sorry. Can you help me?” I’ll go, “Right, let’s work out what it is you need to do,” and I’ll chunk it down.
I’ll just break it into bite-size and just say, “Just work on this. Once you get to that, we’ll sort the next bit out.” It’s sometimes just as simple as that. Essentially, you need to build up trust. They’re more likely to be accommodating when trying these strategies out. That’s it.
Saj: Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Mike. I really enjoyed talking to you today. I’ve learned so, so much actually that I’ve got quite a bit of research to do after this interview. Thank you very much.
Mike: Yes, you’re welcome. For those listening, if you do work with ALS learners or learners in general, just remember they’re all individuals, we’ve all been in the same boat. We all want them to have a bright future ahead of them. Just try your best.
Saj: Excellent. Thank you very much, Mike.
Saj: Thanks again to Mike for giving his perspective on life as a neurodivergent educator.
You can also find Mike on Twitter @MobileMScott.
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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.