Category Archives: Education

beautiful Minds

Featured image: Alice Hewson, youth worker and journalist, who is dyspraxic. Credit: Owen Richards for Positive News

Rather than simply accepting people with neurodiverse conditions like autism or dyslexia, what if we recognised their hidden talents?

Positive News has just posted my article about this issue. I heard from four neurodiverse on how the way their brains work has been key to their success.

As Alice, pictured above, says: “I’ve encountered difficulties that other people don’t have to deal with, and that’s made me incredibly caring. I can put myself in someone else’s situation. I respond in a very different way to people who aren’t neurodiverse.”

You can read the entire piece here

MAde possible: in hardback

Book news: the hardbacks of my upcoming book, Made Possible, are now at the offices of my publisher, Unbound.

Copies will soon be in the hands of all of the great people who backed these first editions and therefore helped bring this book into the world.

The paperback’s out in May and is now available to pre-order from the usual places, like Foyles, Waterstones, Blackwells and Amazon.

In a nutshell, the book is 200 pages that challenge assumptions and it’s packed with power, joy, potential, humanity, humour and much more.

You can find out more about the background to the book on my publisher’s website and in this Guardian piece.

uniting to fight loneliness

A new project unites people at opposite ends of the age spectrum – individuals who are among the most excluded groups in society (photo: Anchor Hanover).

Society is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic. Headlines regularly warn about the scale of this modern scourge, from describing how social isolation increases our risk of death, to lamenting Britain’s status as one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.

What command less column inches are the small-scale solutions. There is little consideration of how hyper-local schemes – when funded, publicised and replicated nationally – could tackle loneliness and shift perceptions about the most isolated people in the country.

I’ve just written about a new project that does just this, for Byline Times. Older people at The Beeches in Leatherhead, Surrey, a home run by housing and care charity Anchor, and pupils from Woodlands School meet weekly for singing sessions run by Intergenerational Music Making (IMM), a local community interest company.

Not only are the singers at opposing ends of the age spectrum (the youngest is five, the oldest is 90), they are from two of society’s most excluded groups: the adults have dementia or a disability or depression; the pupils have severe learning difficulties, complex needs or autism. 

Uniting two such disparate groups for an hour a week at the care home has had astonishing results.

It’s a small, simple yet strong solution to the society’s most pressing issue – division. You can read the whole piece here.

Different is good

I’m really pleased that my first piece of 2020 is for the much-needed Positive News magazine, on challenging stereotypes about neurodiversity.

It features amazing people talking about how thinking differently because of autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD can contribute to success – and what we all miss out on by ignoring this.

The extract above features Alice Hewson, who is dyspraxic, describing the advantages of thinking differently (photograph by Owen Richards).

Regular readers will notice a link between the subject matter and my upcoming book, Made Possible

The print edition of the magazine is out now and the article will be online later this month (positive.news). Amid the current news agenda, it’s a welcome look at all things uplifting and positive.

simon baron-cohen interview

 Simon Baron-Cohen: ‘Brains come in types, and they’re all normal.’ Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

I recently interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen, a world-leading expert on autism, for the Guardian.

His latest research reflects the huge gulf between advancements in awareness and research and real, practical improvements to people’s lives.

Such findings from the Cambridge professor and director of the university’s influential Autism Research Centre add more weight to existing evidence about the significant challenges facing autistic people. Diagnosis can take years; children face cuts to special educational needs provisionjust 16% of autistic people had jobs in 2016 (compared with 80% of non-autistic people); and they are among those locked up in secure hospital-style units instead of living in communities. The Autism Act a decade ago obliged the government to create a strategy to improve support, but legislation has fallen short of promises.

Baron-Cohen hopes his centre’s recent findings will encourage better practical help (a lifelong support worker, for example) “so there’s a pathway from discovery in the lab through to changing people’s lives”.  This is crucial because academics are often cricitised for failing to translate knowledge into practice. A 2013 report by the charity Research Autism questioned why studies to look at effective services or to fully involve autistic people. Baron-Cohen says: “The old style of doing research was, without [us] realising it, arrogant, in that the scientists thought up the questions and then did it. The new way is to involve people from the outset… to co-design the studies and check the relevance and wording.”

I also spoke to Baron-Cohen about criticism of and controversy about some of his theories. Notably, his “extreme male brain’ concept, outlined in his provocative book, The Essential Difference. This describes men’s brains being wired for systemising and women’s for empathising. This led to criticisms of “neurosexism” and gender stereotyping which could risk misdiagnosis or under-diagnosis of autistic women.

His theories have also been challenged by autistic people who argue that they fuel the myth that they cannot empathise. Autistic academic Damian Milton, a lecturer at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent, says: “Simon’s a nice guy and knowledgeable in a lot of areas, but the empathising and sympathising theory suggests a lack of cognitive empathy, which many people in the autistic community disagree with.” Milton’s double empathy theory is a critique of Baron-Cohen’s, describing a mutual empathy problem between autistic and non-autistic people.

In response, Baron-Cohen says that with empathy “we need to make sure it’s [moving] two ways”. He stresses that while autistic people may struggle to imagine others’ emotions, they feel emotion if others are upset (the distinction between cognitive and affective empathy).

He says of criticism: “Sometimes I have to spend a lot of time explaining what it is I’m not saying…people just take the headline and think I’m saying autistic people are macho and aggressive.” Baron-Cohen stresses that “equality between the sexes is very important”, adding that his research explores groups of males and females “on average”, adding “this is not about individuals”.

You can read the piece in the Guardian here.

Gallery: diversity and dance at London’s Southbank

Step Live performance, Southbank, London, July 2016

On Monday, the UK’s largest inclusive secondary school dance programme puts on its annual festival of youth dance at London’s Southbank. Over 700 young people from across London and Essex will be involved in the performance.

Step Into Dance is a partnership between grant-making organisation the Jack Petchey Foundation and the Royal Academy of Dance. The scheme runs extra-curricular classes and performance opportunities across London and Essex, enabling young dancers to develop their talent and mix with a diverse range of people.

The project reaches 200 mainstream and special needs schools a year and since its launch 10 years ago, has worked with hover 50,000 young people.

The gallery of images here show the project’s regional performance events and last year’s live festival.

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon. Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Step Into Dance at the Quest Academy, Croydon.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Pupils at Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Pupils at Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke

 

Park View School, Haringey, London.Photo: Alicia Clarke

Step Live performance, Southbank, London, July 2016.Photo: Mark Lees

Sexism, stereotypes – and getting sanitary bins on site

Recent graduates talk about candidly women in construction (photo: Leon Csernohlavek)

Do women get a good deal in construction?

This was the question debated by a group of young women in diverse roles in the construction industry for an article I’ve just done for Construction Manager magazine.

According the Office of National Statistics, women account for just 12.8% of the workforce. Then there is the gender pay gap – the construction and building trades’ supervisors have the highest in the sector, with men paid 45.4% more than women. Little wonder then that the number of women in construction has dropped by 17% in the last 10 years, compared to a 6.5% drop for all workers in the industry.

You can read the full piece to see why it makes economic as well as ethical sense to increase the numbers of women in the industry. Among the topics debated were the fact that more action is needed to break the stereotype that construction is a man’s industry.

The roundtable heard that issues such as a lack of female toilets or sanitary bins are common. As one participant said, if a woman working on site has to leave the project several times a day to find a public lavatory, there is a strong productivity case – as well as a human rights case – for installing facilities.

Thanks to all who took part in what was a fascinating and determined debate – and all power to these strong young women and their efforts to shake up a male-dominated sector.

Art for all: the Surrey gallery that targets a hidden need

Blue Figure, print, by Tendai from Feltham youth offender institution.

Leafy and affluent are default shorthands when describing the English county of Surrey, but the council ward of Westborough, Guildford, has the highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the county. Child poverty is high in Westborough, and around a quarter of all female prisoners in the UK are in custody in Surrey, including a number of lifers at HMP Send.

While the cash-strapped Tory-run council recently grabbed headlines with a threat to raise council tax by a huge 15% , this has done little to shed light on the social needs that exist in Surrey.

The issue of how Surrey’s general wealth hides specific pockets of deprivation is outlined in a new report into the social and community impact of Watts Gallery Artists’ Village (WGAV), in Compton, about a 10 minute drive from Westborough.

The gallery, opened in 1904 and dedicated to the work of Victorian artist George Frederic Watts, aims to transform lives through art – “Art for All” (Barack Obama, among others, has cited Watts as an inspiration). The report, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming at Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village, describes the overlooked needs. It underlines the organisation’s role, for example, running artist-led workshops with prisoners and young offenders – I’m sharing some of the works here – as well as community projects, schools and and youth organisations.

The Journey, water-based oil on canvas, by Dena from HMP Send.

There are, as the report states, six prisons situated within 25 miles of the gallery, including two for young offenders and two for women. More than 420 prisoners and young offenders took part in workshops over the least year and WGAV has had an artist in residence at HMP Send for over 10 years.

Close Up, oil on canvas by Samantha from HMP Send, part of Watts Gallery’s community outreach work.

The report has been commissioned by Watts Gallery Trust and written by Helen Bowcock, a philanthropist and donor to WGAV and, as such, a “critical friend”. Bowcock argues that, despite the impression of affluence, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village “is located in an area that receives significantly less public funding per capita than other areas of the UK”. The argument is that local arts provision in Surrey depends more on the charity and community sectors and voluntary income than it does elsewhere in the country (the concept that philanthropy, volunteering and so-called “big society” – RIP – only works in wealthy areas is something I wrote about in this piece a few years ago).

As public sector funding cuts continue and community-based projects are further decimated, Watt’s words are as relevant today as they were during his Victorian lifetime: “I paint ideas, not things. My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man.”

Brighton, mixed media on paper, by Jenny from HMP Send.

More information on the gallery’s community engagement and outreach programme is here.

Campaigner Jonathan Andrews on the talents and skills of autistic people

Jonathan Andrews was once advised to hide his autism from prospective employers. Instead, he is making his name by doing just the opposite.

The 22-year-old recently won campaigner of the year at the European Diversity Awards 2016 and talked to me about his work for a Guardian interview.

He’s involved in a plethora of awareness-raising projects, including sitting on the first parliamentary commission on autism. He also advised the government on its green paper on work, health and employment, which is out to consultation until later this month.

The graduate, who is an academic high-flyer, starts a trainee solicitor role later this year. He believes a law career will enable him to create practical change, but says combining law with campaigning is crucial. As he explains: “There is only so far legislation can go…you need to be winning hearts and minds to get change.” For his views on work and disability, see the full interview here.

He credits his family for their supportive role in his campaigning and he speaks powerfully about how his younger brother defended him against school bullies (“It was words like ‘retard’”). Jonathan stressed that it was in fact his brother who found it harder to deal with the verbal abuse: “I developed a thick skin, people used to tease me, but I always felt there would always be people like that and it was best not to focus on them. I came out in a better state than my brother, because I could shut it out and carry on – but for people who love you, it [trying to rise above verbal abuse directed at a relative] can be harder.”

An autism diagnosis at nine was, he says, useful in understanding his needs, but some of his parents’ friends reacted with sympathy. “The instant reaction was ‘I’m so sorry’. My mum would say ‘why?’ She said ‘my son hasn’t become autistic because of this diagnosis – it lets me understand it [autism] better; he’s always been my boy and is the same person he always was’.”

What struck me about Jonathan’s work – aside from the huge amount of awareness-raising at such a young age – is that he works on a range of diversity issues; along with autism, he raises awareness of mental health issues and LGBT equality. For example, he’s launching a best practice autism toolkit with the Commonwealth disability working group in April and hosting a related Commonwealth Day event in March.

He is also involved in promoting LGBT rights as co-founder of professional network the London Bisexual Network, challenging the idea that an autistic person “is not a sexual being because you are somehow ‘other’”. He adds of his campaigning on autism as well as LGBT issues: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.”

He also works to educate young people about domestic violence. He explains: “When I was child and I saw something that was wrong, I wanted to correct it and when I see something that is blatant injustice I just want to do what I can to help…[with domestic violence campaigning] I know what is is like to have a stable family, family that loves you, and I want others to be able to experience that.”

In fact, his broad range of campaigning interests reflects the change in attitudes which he is trying to achieve through his work: “People often think with autism you have to be interested in one thing and this means that you are great in one area and terrible at everything else.

The full interview is here.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonnyJAndrews

Arts festival offers a focus on equal opportunities for disabled young musicians

Performers from integrated circus company Extraordinary Bodies will be at the Fast Forward Festival next week. The event will highlight arts accessibility and, hope campaigners, boost calls for a new centre for training for disabled young musicians.
Integrated circus company Extraordinary Bodies performs at the Fast Forward Festival next week. The event will highlight arts accessibility (pic credit: Rachel Lambert).

Across the country, there are a dozen government-funded centres for advanced training, providing specialist education for young musicians. But there is no such equivalent for their young disabled counterparts.

However, it is hoped that an arts festival, which opens next Friday, will strengthen a campaign for the first ever such facility for musicians with special education needs and disabilities.

Next week, Colston Hall in Bristol will be home to the second Fast Forward Festival, which champions accessible music making and arts. Performances include those from the Paraorchestra, the world’s first professional ensemble of disabled musicians, founded by conductor Charles Hazlewood in 2012. Integrated circus company Extraordinary Bodies is another headliner.

Extraordinary Bodies performance of Weighting Photo credit: Richard Davenport
Extraordinary Bodies performance of Weighting Photo credit: Richard Davenport

The return of the festival, which was launched last year, reflects the venue’s aim to champion arts accessibility and to contribute to a shift in perceptions of disability. As part of next week’s event, Colston Hall, run by Bristol Music Trust, is holding an exhibition involving the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust (the trust’s aim is to remove the barriers to music-making faced by disabled people).

Ruth Gould, artistic director of Liverpool based disability arts organisation DaDaFest, summed up the situation when I interviewed her recently, highlighting how negative assumptions about disability linger on in popular culture (“Lack of training, lack of educational opportunities, lack of work, lack of media and arts representation, demise of independent support, cuts in mobility allowance and personal assistance”.)

Colston Hall, run by independent charity Bristol Music Trust, wants to be home to the UK’s first centre for advanced training for disabled young musicians, both to encourage more opportunities for them to get qualifications and pursue a career in music, or just to be able to enjoy music. The aim of the campaign for a new centre, launched at the House of Commons earlier this year, is for the centre to train 2,500 young people from across England, and set a national benchmark for music accessibility.

Musicians at Colston Hall, Bristol
Musicians at Colston Hall, Bristol

The centre would form part of a £45m revamp of Colston Hall – Bristol council, the government and Arts Council have committed a total £25m so far – with new classrooms, state-of-the-art technology lab. The technology would include cutting edge instruments, such as those played by the flicker of an eye, or software that uses facial movements to control music.

Bristol Music Trust currently trains young disabled and special needs musicians, but the redevelopment would add new classrooms and a state-of-the-art technology lab will set new national accessibility standards. The venue, currently not accessible to disabled people, is due to close next summer for redevelopment; the plan is for it to reopen in 2019, fully accessible and home to the UK’s first specialist centre for the training of young disabled musicians.

Young pianist Ashleigh Turley at the launch of a campaign to create a new training centre for talented young musicians with disabilities
Young pianist Ashleigh Turley at the launch of a campaign to create a new training centre for talented young musicians with disabilities

The area is already home to the South-West Open Youth Orchestra which is the UK’s only disabled-led regional youth orchestra. The Paraorchestra also recently relocated to Bristol. The addition of a centre for advanced training at Colson Hall, supporters hope, would turn the region into a beacon for accessibility and equal opportunity.

* On the same topic of accessible arts, integration and young people, I recently came across an innovative music project that aims to raise awareness about visual impairment and sight loss. Musician Marie Naffah, a 23-year-old singer/songwriter, was inspired to explore blindness after her grandmother developed age-related macular degeneration. Marie wrote, recorded and performed a song while blindfolded and then collaborated with a group of six blind and visually impaired musicians to record the track, ‘Blindfold‘. Disability is not an obstacle to creativity or talent, as Marie says in a TEDx Talk at the Courtauld Institute that went live this week.