Born in Norfolk, England in the late 60’s, I attended school in the 80’s. I began my working life as an office junior in a publishing house and over the years grew to a VP’s Personal Assistant in a shipping company in Hong Kong. In my 30’s, I became the proud mother of three children. All three of our offspring have been blessed with having neurodiversity (different ways of thinking, learning and working). I say blessed because their challenges within education have been the making of all of us and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.
My first son was different as a toddler. He met only a few of the development milestones on time (milestones such as crawling, speaking, socialising) and despite my very limited knowledge, I recognised this early on. When he was 5, we made the decision to return to the UK to enable us to access services. What followed was 6 difficult years! Fighting to be heard, fighting for support, researching and upskilling on all things neuro-divergent. The journey was emotional and time-consuming. Juggling three children, full-time work, and study, in addition to medical and occupational therapy, speech & language along with educational psychology appointments was lonely and tiring. When he was 10, I made a life-changing decision. With the desire to provide him with the best support possible, I put aside my career to start again as a Learning Support Assistant.
Two of the Science teachers took me under their wing (despite the age difference) and I will forever be grateful to them. The school funded my degree and after teacher training, I became an Additional Needs Science Teacher. Having spent a few years in mainstream and a few more years in a school for children with behavioural conditions, we decided to relocate to Dubai. My experiences in Hong Kong taught me that international education, and international mindsets, made tolerance and understanding much more prevalent.
After qualifying as a Special Needs Coordinator (SENCo)/Head of Inclusion, I have now spent ten years working in the UAE. I have been fortunate to have interacted with some incredible practitioners along the way. Not only does it take a ‘village to raise a child’, it takes mentors, coaches and leaders to help grow our own personal skill sets. At every school I have worked, there has been someone I looked up to and learned from; this is still true today.
At the time of writing, all three of my children have a range of identified additional needs: social communication, attention, literacy, numeracy and visual. Traditional schooling was challenging and exhausting but accommodations such as the use of technology, different methods of teaching and assessing, high expectations and teachers that care, made our journey easier. Two have completed university and are currently working, and the third is in her second year (on the Dean’s List for all her semesters till date).
I am often asked ‘what is your philosophy on inclusion?’ I have to say that after 25 years of parenting neuro-diverse children and 17 years working in education, my philosophy grows and develops with each person I work with and each module I study. In the shortest form, I answer ‘Inclusion is Belonging,’ whether at home, in the community, in education or at work. Being safe, wanted, respected and supported is all we need, although not always easy. I am also asked ‘why is it so important?’ My answer is a little more complex – Inclusion is important because we should all have access to the same opportunities and be able to access the same premises as our friends and family (i.e.: playing sports, going to school).
As a community, we need to continue working together to reduce stigma and isolation around being diverse and increase tolerance and acceptance. This includes changing our thinking around language, culture, heritage, gender, ability, education, finance and different conscious and unconscious bias. With regard to special needs, physical/cognitive abilities and mental health barriers, we need to change our perspective and celebrate the successes these can bring. Where would we be without Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk or our home-grown Abdul Salam who champions Emirati Sign Language on Instagram?
I am blessed to have led inclusion in three schools in Dubai. I consider myself a champion of diversity and advocate for equity and access via parent, community and school staff training. Each person I work with is different and I am reminded that when you have taught one child with autism, you have only taught one child with autism. With Inclusion, the important thing to remember is not ‘what has been done before’ but ‘how can we improve going forward’.