Stewart is one of the assistant headteachers at Portfield School, with 20 years of teaching experience across a range of different schools. He shares his experiences working closely with students, his insights on autism, and debunks some myths.
He describes Portfield School as a magical place, where there are no boundaries and nothing that stops children from reaching their full potential.
Students have a personalized learning pathway, and no matter where the starting point, they ensure young people can still gain accreditations and qualifications.
At the end, they look at their preparation for adulthood outcomes, making sure everything they do is working towards that final goal of independence.
Many of the students have the opportunity to explore a variety of exciting and interesting accreditations. One student is doing an accreditation in speaking Swedish, successfully progressing through pre-entry level to entry level and now level one.
Another student, who is doing an accreditation on European maps, has now been inspired to potentially pursue a degree in geography. Students are also doing accreditations in all manners of different cooking – with very promising (& tasty) outcomes!
He believes the biggest barriers students face is anxiety, with many coming to Portfield School from mainstream schools and saying they can’t achieve anything, they’ll never amount to anything or go on to do anything. But at Portfield School, they challenge that mindset, by telling them that they absolutely can, and supporting them to pursue their interests.
They personalize the student’s pathway to what their interests are, and then each time they receive an accreditation, you can really see that confidence build.
He reflects on a recent meeting he had with a parent who broke down and cried after he handed her one of the accreditations her son had achieved, because she was told 14 years ago that he would never achieve anything in his life and she was just completely made up. On autism, he says, ‘to me, autism means the individual, so I can say to you in a school of 108 students, there is no two students alike. There's no two students following the exact same pathway. They'll have different interests, wants strengths, areas to improve, and to me, autism is a sort of limitless potential, as soon as you support the students to see that they have that potential, they just fly.’
Teachers and leaders in other schools have told Stewart that he must feel unfulfilled as a science specialist in a special school, that it must be quite boring and a waste of time – but he completely disagrees.
‘For me, I love my job, I love coming in every single day and Interacting with all my students, seeing what they've achieved and supporting them with that.’
You can see the progress in the school very quickly, which is what he loves most about this job. He believes every single autistic student deserves to have good, fully qualified and experienced teachers.
He goes on to discuss the ‘thousands of myths’ surrounding autism. One of the biggest myths he hears is that autistic people don’t speak, which is untrue because autism is a spectrum with different people at different points.
He adds, ‘I teach some incredibly articulate students. I have a student who is 10 years old and incredibly articulate about dinosaurs. The stuff he can tell me about dinosaurs throughout the ages is just phenomenal.’
Another student, aged around 14, possesses an impressive amount of knowledge about space and exoplanets, with the ability to name all 2000 in order with all the different functions, as well as which ones can be terraformed.
A common myth, which he hears often, is that autistic people lack empathy. In his experience, all of the students he has worked with have shown they feel and understand empathy.
‘I see it all the time - they can put themselves in other people’s shoes and they can understand how their actions have consequences. It just requires modeling and support in order to then interpret your own feelings when people maybe don't react the way you would like them to.’ Autistic people are frequently shown to prefer repetitive tasks and jobs. However, none of Stewart’s students really enjoy doing the same thing over and over again. In fact, if you do the same sort of lesson, they will realise and ask to move on.
He strongly rejects the myth that ‘autistic people will never achieve anything’, that they are ‘so far behind mainstream counterparts’. Some of his students are working at age related expectation in different subjects, and some going even further.
‘I have one boy who currently in the school who can name any piece of classical music within the first 5 seconds of hearing it, and we've tried to catch him out on Spotify several times, but he can easily go through 200 pieces and get them all correct. It's a real skill just by listening to the first 5 seconds.’
When taking students out into the community, most people have been kind and caring, making small allowances and being supportive. However, Stewart acknowledges there are other people in society that don’t understand autism, don’t want to understand autism, and just put it down to ‘bad behaviours’.
He says, ‘I wish that these sorts of labels could be changed in society because I feel that again, as I said earlier, anxiety being the largest barrier, that doesn't help our students to understand their autism or to deal with how people view them.’
Much of his time is spent with students unpicking how they feel, the way people have labeled them, or the way people have responded to them, such as being told by a doctor that you you'll never walk and you'll never have friends. In reality, this person is walking fine and has a large group of friends.
‘I think it's about making sure that that they aren’t aware of those sorts of labels, and don't feel that they have to respond to them.’