‘I got 65 CAO points. The system failed me’: neurodiversity in the classroom

Some schools are developing new ways to tap into talents of neurodiverse pupils

By his own admission, Colm McNamee is the “alphabet soup” of hidden disabilities. He’s profoundly dyslexic and has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism. He has also contended with clinical depression, having had at least two breakdowns.

“I’d always been considered ‘that idiot child’ and I grew up hating myself because I was different and considered a bit ‘slow’. I did my Leaving Cert in 1992 and got 65 points out of 600, which shows how much the system failed me. What I know now is that my disabilities and my intellectual giftedness – I’ve an IQ of 134 – were masking each other.”

He left school with no diagnosis – that didn’t come until his 30s – and spent four years as an apprentice carpenter. A key turning point was when a neighbour and lecturer at Maynooth University, Rita Lynch, spotted his potential.

“She saw something in me that others had missed, and she recommended me for a community employment supervisor role,” he says.

READ MORE

“I had ability but was socially inept and certainly not good at the politics of the workplace. In my own family I was seen as a disruptive person. I didn’t really understand the social world until I was diagnosed and had my second developmental leap.”

He has since realised his lifelong ambition of becoming a qualified further-education teacher, recently graduating from the National College of Ireland with a master of arts in educational practice.

Corporate social responsibility

McNamee is now working with Salesforce, a multinational sofware company, on their corporate social responsibility team. He helped to secure the job through the Willing Able Mentoring programme, run by Ahead, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability.

“They haven’t hired me as a favour or an act of charity: they looked at my background and 13 years of experience as a community employment scheme supervisor.”

His experiences in the education system have given him revealing insights into how classroom teaching should adapt to recognise that not all brains are the same or work the same way.

“I learned to read at 13 and I learned the importance of universal design for education: the secret to teaching someone like me is to show multiple examples of the same thing, in different ways – using text, audio, visual, sensory and interactive teaching tools.

“We write children off as underperforming, lazy and not paying attention. It is about meeting the students where they are, not teaching the way you want them to be taught. With the senior cycle being reformed, we need to move beyond teaching to the middle and an exam based on memory rather than understanding.

“Project Maths has turned maths into a language exam. You can either fit in or f*** off, but a growing awareness of neurodiversity means that we need to move beyond that.”

Autistic people and their families face a range of obstacles in Ireland – not least accessing appropriate education and therapeutic services, which can take years.

Yet many neurodivergent adults – who are autistic, dyslexic or dyspraxic, or who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – gave gone on to flourish in the workplace.

Many see the positives of being “differently-abled” – a contentious term among many disabled adults who point out that “‘disabled’ is a legal term; it entitles you to claim rights that are written into law” and that the term serves primarily to make non-disabled people feel more comfortable.

Most say that, despite stigma around autism, the diagnosis has helped them to understand their challenges and strengths and has ultimately improved their relationships.

The education system is also adapting in the face of strong pedagogical evidence that universal design for education (UDE) makes for more engaged learners, both neurotypical and neuroatypical. It’s gradually becoming more significant in teacher training.

“UDE is important, but so is universal design in the workplace,” says Christine Chasaide, who co-ordinates several adult and continuing courses around disability studies at University College Cork.

“Third-levels are generally better at supporting autism than in primary and particularly secondary. But everyone has a different brain, so the more we account for neurodiversity, the better served everyone is. Ultimately, we need to move beyond ‘inclusion’ and towards integration, catering for everyone.”

‘Coming out’

An estimated 1.5 per cent of the population is autistic, but several autistic people say that they often worry about whether or not to disclose, with one comparing it to “coming out” for LGBT people.

“Having to mask or explain their autistic traits, as well as different communication styles, can be barriers [in employment], and between 80-85 per cent of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed” says Adrian Carroll, a policy officer with autism charity As I Am.

“But research shows that autistic people have a wide range of skills and qualities that are an asset at work including reliability, attention to detail, long-term memory, pattern recognition, integrity and work ethic.”

Most accommodations that employers can make – such as ear defenders, clear communication and some flexibility around break times – are inexpensive or cost-neutral. With research showing neurodiverse teams get up to 30 per cent better results, it makes economic sense to hire more autistic people.
McNamee, meanwhile, is flourishing.

As far as he is concerned, companies risk groupthink if they hire only people who look and sound like them.

“I bring a lot to a company, and have a strong vocabulary: my wife calls me a walking thesaurus. I’ve learned social skills from books and work hard on remediating my social deficit, particularly developing my theory of mind, or ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes,” he says.

“I’ve come to question the false distinction between ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ autism: if we could reach into a non-verbal autistic person’s world they might explain incredible skills to us. I am glad to know I am neuroatypical.”

‘There are huge strengths from my autism that have helped me in my career’

Neurodivergent adults – who are autistic, dyslexic or dyspraxic, or who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder – share their experiences of school and work

Jane*, marketer

"I finally got a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder at age 47 which explains a lot about my career despite being highly skilled and educated.

“I think if I’d been a techie and not a marketer I might have got away with being the quirky weird one in the corner. I’m notoriously bad at networking, which is problematic for marketing, but good at the research and communications side of it.

“After a lot of career-hopping, I’ve been freelance and part-time for over 10 years and seem to have found my groove, which probably works for me because I struggle to make connections with people. I have a lot of hobbies and do lots of different courses.

“Sometimes I’ve no idea what is being said at meetings if there is too much nuance, and I’m known for being very direct, which goes down better with women employers.

Niall Ó Tuathail, health reform adviser

"I was diagnosed with autism three years ago, at the age of 34, after my son's diagnosis.

“I had many years of doing extremely well at school, career and life but with a large personal cost of a lot of energy to go through situations and having to learn things like social conventions and relationships from first principles.

“There were huge strengths from my autism that helped me in my career: pattern recognition; ability to understand, break down and solve complex problems, not accepting standard answers for problems; and being able to look at them with fresh eyes.

Bill*, social care worker

"I don't disclose my autism to employers due to bad experiences when I did. But I think that, particularly in social care settings and in working with autistic or neurodivergent people, organisations should prioritise hiring other neurodivergent people who can truly empathise with the people they're supporting.

“There are benefits to being autistic: you can get really focused on a piece of work you’re doing. I’d say the most important aspect is that autistic people have an intense sense of empathy despite the myth that says otherwise.

“Realistically there should be no barriers but a lot could be rectified by staff having a greater understanding of autism.”

Gráinne

“This kind of article needs a disclaimer, because people love to think about the ‘good’ kind of autism and the ‘bad’ kind.

“The common narrative that autistic people have worth because they can contribute to the workforce with special skills can be dangerous.

“All autistic people have worth, whether they’re professional geniuses, or unemployed with 24/7 support needs.”

*Names have been changed on request