Nick is Professor of Inclusive Practice in the Autism Centre, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. Before working in Higher Education, Nick was a teacher of autistic children and young people for over 15 years. His research interests focus on the ways people conceptualise and respond to autism and how this impacts upon children, young people and their families. In his current role, Nick is focusing on the development of research projects that will make a positive difference to the practice of local disability services. His research projects include Towards a Research Engaged (Schools) Network Sponsor, SHU HEIF, 2012–to date and ‘The impact of high-tech AAC on the language and communication of students with autism’ (Sponsor, NoRSACA, Nottingham 2008-10). Amongst his many publications are ‘Problematising parent-professional partnerships in education’ (Hodge and Runswick-Cole, 2008) and ‘Counselling, Autism and the Problem of Empathy’ (2012).
- I’m interested in your use of the phrase ‘with the label of autism’. Why do you employ this?
Autism terminology is problematic as language can affect how people understand and respond to autism. When I first started working in the autism field people used to refer to ‘the autistics’ without any recognition or respect for the individual. There was then a shift to person first language which emphasised the individual over the condition. But this was challenged by some autistic self-advocates such as Jim Sinclair who argued that person first language denies autism as an essential and pervasive nature of being. Certainly for many people ‘with’ autism the label has been a useful tool around which to develop a collective and empowered identity. However the Social Model of Disability warns us to be cautious about labels as historically these have been used to marginalise, disempower and even destroy disabled people. Therefore I often use ‘with the label of autism’ as a reminder that we must always be mindful that autism is a social construct that represents a range of meanings that produce a variety of practices. We all need to recognise these different meanings and be able to position our own understanding and practices within them.
- In your article ‘Protecting the rights of pupils with autism when meeting the challenge of behaviour’ (2014), you assert that disabled children can be positioned as ‘problems’ and ‘their personhood lost’ (p. 195). Could you explain more about this?
When I am working with schools I often hear teachers discussing working with or managing ‘the special needs’. By this they mean the group of children in school to whom has been assigned the label of special educational needs. Similarly they might refer to a pupil as ‘one of our behaviourals’. This is illustrative of how a label comes to subsume individuality and in so doing denies personhood. A pupil is no longer known by her or his name but by a category. Some mainstream schools embrace the inclusion agenda and enjoy the challenge of rethinking the nature and practice of schooling to meet the requirements of all pupils. Others however position pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) only as impaired learners who will bring down the results of the school and threaten its academic reputation. The humanity, fears and aspirations of these pupils then get lost in the need to manage and preferably exclude ‘the problem’.
(Some mainstream schools) position pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) only as impaired learners who will bring down the results of the school and threaten its academic reputation.
- Do you consider that education and autism professionals understand so-called ‘challenging behaviour’ and what its causes might be?
This is yet another example of the power of labels to disable children and young people. If you have a label such as autism then many practitioners (I now prefer this term as many parents find it less hierarchical and power laden than ‘professional’) see everything the child does as a manifestation of being autistic. So if a child gets up and wanders around in the middle of a lesson this might be interpreted as just something that autistic children do – they wander off in a world of their own and the job of the school is to prevent them from doing so. The problem of the behaviour and the reason for it is located only in the child or young person: I call this the Individual Model of Behaviour. However from the pupil’s perspective he or she might just be reacting to a lesson that is being presented in a way that is not meaningful for him or her. But nothing will change because the label of autism has excused the school from reflecting upon and evaluating its practice to understand its contribution to the ‘problem’. This is why I call for us to adopt a Social Model of Behaviour that would mean looking for reasons for the behaviour primarily within the learning environment.
Those practitioners who can develop empathy with the pupil’s own experience soon come to see that behaviours that challenge do not come from autism but from educational environments and practices that produce fear, anxiety, under or overstimulation etc.
For me the starting point should always be to use everything you know about a child to help you imagine how she or he might be experiencing this particular learning activity. Those practitioners who can develop empathy with the pupil’s own experience soon come to see that behaviours that challenge do not come from autism but from educational environments and practices that produce fear, anxiety, under or overstimulation etc.
- In your seminar ‘Researching disability within an emancipatory paradigm’ (2014), you stated that academic presentations can often be ‘underpinned by ableism’. How could this be improved?
How many times have we all attended a seminar or conference and the presenter has put up a PowerPoint slide for an audience and said ‘I will let you read this quote for yourself’? In doing so the presenter is asserting that this event is only for people who can read and process print. So if you are visually impaired or identify as dyslexic then you will immediately feel excluded from this event. If we do not describe the pictures that we use or pay attention to the sensory environments (including the social spaces) in which we host events then these are ableist and exclusionary practices. In planning events or when giving presentations we always need to ask ourselves who is being included and who excluded through the methods we are using. We need to educate ourselves on how to come together and present our work more inclusively. I must confess however that I remain inconsistent in my own practice. Changing our ways of working is an ongoing project and sometimes we will stumble.
- In your work at Sheffield Hallam University, what sorts of measures have you been able to put in place in order to improve the accessibility of courses of study for autistic students?
At Sheffield Hallam we are lucky to have an excellent disabled student support team who work with students ‘with’ autism to identify their individual learning requirements. A number of the team have completed our MA (Autism Spectrum) and we input on the course for academics new to HE. Sheffield Hallam is also home to a dynamic student volunteer programme that runs a number of social and support events students and other adults ‘with’ autism and also for families with children. Staff within The Autism Centre are advocates across the University for inclusive and enabling practices and the removal of disabling barriers. We continue to remain concerned however about the lack of opportunities and support for social access for students ‘with’ autism and living away from home. One of our PhD research students, Stephen Connolly, who himself identifies with the label of autism is currently working with other students ‘with’ autism to develop understanding of how exclusion from one element of University activity might impact upon other aspects of the student experience.
- Was there ever a ‘light bulb’ moment or a turning point in your professional work?
There have been many as disabled people and their families are always teaching me so much about the experience of being human. But I would have to identify coming to know the Social Model of Disability as one clear and definite turning point in my academic career. This led me to understand that disability is located not in the individual but in the social, cultural, physical and economic environments. My work then became about changing the practices that pupils experience rather than the children and young people themselves.
- What do you enjoy most about your job?
I feel very proud of Sheffield Hallam University. It is a fine organisation that is populated by talented and committed colleagues and students. Together we are an inclusive and enabling community that is seeking to change the world for the better. Every day is different but always challenging. I am forever learning more about the world and changing my perspective to accommodate new understandings. Work can be overwhelming at times but only because there are so many people and projects that are too exciting to resist. I know and appreciate what a privilege it is to have this job and I try always to provide opportunities for others to experience the same.
Nick is the coordinator and also a regular contributor for the Times Educational Supplement’s SEND blog.
You can follow Nick on twitter @goodchap62.
The Autism Centre blog at Sheffield Hallam University can be found here.
Interview conducted by Becky Wood.