Published on: 22 May 2018

Autism teaches – 5 girls, 5 years

By Cate Harvey, Head of Educational Support, Nottingham Girls’ High School

It’s been five years since I started as Head of Educational Support at Nottingham Girls’ High School (NGHS). I love my job and one of the main reasons for this is that I have the opportunity to work with some of the most amazing young women every day of the week. But they don’t always believe in their awesomeness and are often the ones that are hard to spot; lurking in library corners, under stairs and in ‘nurture’ rooms. They are my girls with autism, masking and mimicking their way through school days until they can go home and quietly or otherwise meltdown in a safe space.

I’ve had this blog in me for so long and following on from GL Assessment’s ‘Lost Girls’ report, I was finally encouraged to put pen to paper. So let me take this opportunity to introduce you to five girls you may not ordinarily meet and explain to you what they have taught me because of the fabulous neurodiverse way they see the world.

The girl with the curly hair and the red ear defenders from Wickes

We thought we had supported her transition well by doing the usual things such as visiting the primary school, having her visit our school, sampling lessons, taking photographs. However, one term in she wasn’t going to the majority of her lessons often for sensory reasons that we couldn’t have predicted, even with our best autism heads on. She now has an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) with enhanced funding in the form of a full-time TA and weekly visits from a dedicated sensory Occupational Therapist and Speech and Language Therapist.

It’s because of the EHCP appeal for additional support that I have come to learn that there are approximately 2,500 EHCPs in Nottinghamshire and that almost half of those young people are taught independent from local authority control. I think this speaks volumes about how inclusive state schools are able to be given the intense pressures they are under with regard to league tables and OFSTED.

It is also indicative of the fact that our local special schools are either full or not appropriate for high achieving girls with autism. And because we are doing such a good job with our girls, the local authority has asked us to become an ‘approved provider’ and therefore be included in their ‘Local Offer’ to parents choosing a school.

The girl with the curly hair has also taught me about the very real difficulties people with autism have with friendships. She has formed one of the most beautiful and moving friendships with another girl with autism in the year above and their conversations are fascinating to witness. (A few years ago a girl wrote on my whiteboard, ‘We create ripples of fabulousness,’ and that couldn’t be more true when you sit in my office and listen…) However, she considers her peers smelly and stupid. Watch this space to find out about the power of ‘Circle of Friends.’

My fellow adventurer

Oh, I could write reams about this Miss. She is the reason I now work at NGHS and made the massive move from state to independent. She has taught and does teach me so much about what it must be like to live with a set of complex diagnoses including autism. I learnt the importance of having an honest relationship with parents but not letting that honesty become unprofessional which could lead to us letting a young person down. There are always rules, regulations and policies to follow. They are there for a reason.

The adventurer has a complex diagnosis that includes chronic pain. That often leads to difficulties for her and her family with professionals; having to explain her situation to medics, psychologists, social care, school, university over and over again. And that’s when she is not falling into the gaps between services… She would tell you of the many times that she has been so up for something, attending a lesson, going on holiday, doing a talk, but when the time comes, her pain has prevented her from engaging in whatever it was. Or she hadn’t slept a wink all night.

Autism is a hidden difficulty, particularly in women and girls. She recently told me about a meeting with a psychiatrist who told her the she ‘didn’t look autistic’ wanting her to tell him a story that demonstrated her diagnosis. She did and he proclaimed that surely someone without autism would react in the same way. We have a long way to go.

I call her my fellow adventurer because she would draw me massively detailed pictures full of patterns and quotes from hilarious ‘adventures’ we had had that would make no sense whatsoever to anyone else watching. I treasure those times and I treasure those pictures and strive to continue to create ripples of fabulousness for the girls still at school. She is at university now. She writes a regular blog. She has a lovely boyfriend.

The dark den dweller

I’d bought a flat pack silver sided dark den with a view to finding somewhere in school we could build this to support my student with her sensory difficulties (health and safety, fire risk, don’t get me started). It remained in my office in its original packaging until she was in Year 12 when one day, I was headed back to my office and girls were coming down the corridor saying you should see what she has built in your office. And there it was. It remained in my room, in front of my desk until she left for university (more of that later), when she disassembled it and took it with her.

Through working with her and her family, I came to understand that sometimes it can be more difficult to accept a diagnosis, particularly if the prevailing culture promotes high expectations with a very linear route to achieving your goal. Autism doesn’t fit this life model. And this mind-set can lead to significant mental health issues in a young person when an important part of who they are is denied or a ‘cure’ is sought.

She taught me about her sense of the world and the importance of silence. There is that phrase about us all inhabiting the same world but us all experiencing it differently. And she really does; the way she experiences the world can sometimes be painful (the wrong clothes) or overstimulating (noise, busy places, changes to routine), but at other times it can be vivid and life affirming. All of this giving rise to the most beautiful creative writing or visceral meltdowns. Silences are wonderful as these give rise to a deeper understanding of situations (as does talking around a subject, knowing that the truth will come out eventually).

She is also at university now, on a foundation year because she didn’t get the grades she was predicted. Exams and autism. We tried to ease her anxiety and provide her with the best possible environment to achieve her potential. This also included booking time in with the junior school dog either before or after the exam and reading the exam rules on the door changing the word ‘examiner’ to ‘executioner’ and so on! She comes back home most weekends and at the end of term and always makes contact; to see the dog, not me!

The perfectionist

I don’t know her very well and I am not her ‘person’, that is the Head of Sixth. I know her through what her Mum tells me and from her EHCP. I know she has one friend who she joined the sixth form with. I know that her teachers love her because she challenges their own understanding of their subject specialism. I know she is intensely academic and wants to earn her money as an academic. I know she knows who I am and what my role in her life is. That’s enough.

The girl with ‘asburgers’

She came to us because she was being bullied in her previous primary school. She has a very direct way of expressing herself including hitting out when she becomes frustrated. She was diagnosed with autism after she came to our school and we supported parents in pursuing the diagnosis. It has been a tough journey that has left her Mum being ostracised by other parents in the playground and her daughter not being invited to playdates and birthday parties. I hope that gets better when her daughter comes to the senior school in September.

My aspergirl likes rules and routines. In a dinner queue before she was diagnosed, she challenged a girl for not choosing a pudding. The girl explained that she couldn’t because they all had gelatine in and her religion prevented her eating them. The aspergirl said she must have one because a pudding was supposed to fit in the space in the compartmentalised plate; they are the rules. The girl said she couldn’t. So the aspergirl hit her.

She has taught me how important it is to prepare girls with and without diagnoses for changes to routine…and also about saying what you mean. Don’t use figures of speech, similes, metaphors or euphemisms unless you want to spend a long time explaining them. This week, I’ve had to have a chat with a teacher who told a girl, who had inadvertently packed away early, ‘I’ve got your number.’ Oh dear!

I miss all the girls who have left to continue to change the world but I am proud and privileged to have worked with them and their families. I was asked at the end of the last academic year if I thought there would ever be a girl at school I couldn’t support. It’s a good question. It hasn’t happened yet but sometimes I feel like I’m coming close to throwing the towel in, but something always comes up. We work as a team and we never stop learning.