Autism Interview #194: Melanie Magowan on Autism Acceptance and Inclusion

Melanie Magowan is a personal trainer and British Ex Pat currently living in New Zealand. She’s also a triathlete and former Autism Specialist teacher. She has documented in her blog her life experiences as an emigrant, late diagnosed Autistic person, and amputee. Melanie has also documented her journey in vlogs through a total knee replacement and a below the knee amputation on her YouTube Channel Ryding Footloose!. This week she discussed her experience as an Autism Specialist teacher and autism acceptance and inclusion in her communities.

What made you eventually pursue an autism diagnosis as an adult?

I did some of those quite reliable online tests throughout the years. When I was an ASD specialist teacher, I was told the online test I had done was pretty accurate. I disregarded it.

It only really came to light again for me when I stopped teaching and set up my own business. Suddenly I was putting myself into the unknown, so many things became so hard and I couldn’t understand why. It started to affect my mental health That’s when I came back to the ASD and pursued a formal diagnosis. It was like – phew. I’m not crazy. There’s an explanation.

How were you uniquely able to connect with your students while you were working as an Autism Specialist? Can you give some examples of unique insight that you had that a neurotypical teacher might not have?

The literal interpretation of language used to get the students in trouble with other teachers. I could see the problem straight away. 

Eg: teacher: take a seat. Child: where would you like me to take it to?

Some concepts other teachers struggled to teach. Because they couldn’t correctly visualise it. Like maths. It’s a typically abstract very difficult concept for asd children. 

And children were made to think they were broken, or bad. Really it was the system that was broken. I managed to keep children in school on many occasions where ordinarily they would have been expelled. Helped them to better understand themselves and more importantly learn what their own triggers were and how to manage them.

Is there a difference between autism awareness/acceptance in the U.K. vs. New Zealand? 

I think special needs in general is more widely accepted in the UK to be honest. Better awareness at society level and better coverage in the news and media. 

Autistic children in NZ tend to either be put in a high needs special school or in mainstream. Many therefore fall between the cracks because the system is failing them. In the UK there are schools for those in between kids, moderate learning needs schools. It was one of those that I taught in.

Can you comment on general school and workplace inclusion in your communities? What barriers have you faced as a multiply disabled adult and/or what progress do you see being made?

To be honest I rarely talk about my ASD diagnosis. Far too many people know little about it, and I feel like I would just be labelled crazy. It’s sad. I have in recent months started to blog more openly about it, but I find the unspoken judgements hard to deal with – when it comes to invisible disability. That’s before I even start talking about my physical disability. 

I face daily battles just to access life, the world and everything. Places advertising themselves as having disabled access when they actually don’t, doorways being too small to fit a wheelchair through, sporting events being able bodied exclusive because disability is in the too hard basket. The list is never ending. You just need to follow my social media channels to get a taste of it. It’s exhausting. I got so sick of people judging me wrongly for parking my car in a disabled spot (with personal trainer business branding on it) that I had a sticker made for my back window: I don’t look disabled? You don’t look stupid but there we are.

From what I’ve read on your blog, it sounds like you have a very athletic background. What do you enjoy about sports? What benefits have you drawn from athletic activity?

I wasn’t sporty till my mid 30’s. What I love about it is it’s therapeutic, both physically and mentally. I can just swim.. and escape the real world for a bit, feel normal and not stress about ASD or physical disability issues for a bit. And for some of the other sports I do.. I do it because I’m told I can’t, or it’s hard.. I am VERY motivated by being told I can’t! But ultimately all my sporting choices are solo sports not teams. Because dealing with people for an ASD person is very challenging and exhausting. I like just being in my own little place, racing against myself.

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