Autism Interview #201: Stephen McHugh on Education and Writing

Stephen McHugh is a writer, blogger, and musician from Manchester, UK. He enjoys playing the piano, astronomy, numbers, technology, and writing children’s literature. Stephen blogs at Stephen’s Evolution about his experience on the autism spectrum.

How/when did you become aware of your Aspergers diagnosis?

Thinking back, I remember going to several doctors, including paediatricians. I had blood tests and a brain scan, all of which proved inconclusive prior to my diagnosis. This was back in the 1980s when little was known about autism.

I was diagnosed around age 7, at a time when I was too young to understand what was going on and what I was going through. There had been differences in my behaviour, especially in the way in which I was interacting with the world and others. There were also certain things that I’d become obsessed with, including telescopes, which led to my intense interest in astronomy.

When I was in my late teens, it was at this point when I began to understand that my issues with understanding language and what to do were holding me back in my education. I also began to work out that I had difficulty forming friendships with others, and that it may be linked to autism. My parents found and showed me a copy of a letter to my primary school headteacher by the diagnostician describing my problem. 

I thought back to times when I could do rather difficult multiplications mentally. Factor in this together with the fact that I was seen to be gifted on the piano, and it began to make a lot more sense.

Your ‘About‘ Page mentions that, as an Autistic person, you have experienced disappointments, but “plenty of delights.” Can you give some examples of both the disappointments and delights?

Delights

Passing my driving test, first time. I regard this as a delight as I had a tendency to lose my concentration very easily and you can’t afford to do this when driving, particularly as there can be many distractions going on around you in the streets. And of course, it can involve reading, processing, understanding and applying knowledge in various traffic situations.

Succeeding at some job interviews I consider delights too, since job interviews involve social skills, which could hinder one with autism in an interview situation.  This, to me, was a sign that my language and social skills were improving. 

Disappointments

Scoring low grades and marks in exams and tests. These were linked to delays with my language development. Here it meant it was more difficult for me to understand what I was being asked to do and would take longer for me to do so. Another problem for me was applying new knowledge to particular problems. 

You also mentioned that you are an aspiring children’s author. What topics/themes do you like to write about?

My interests include technology, languages, animals and other nature-related subjects.

For technology, I’ve already written my own series where protagonists and antagonists use gadgets pieced together using related technologies in a battle of peace and tranquillity against powers of chaos and destruction. 

In terms of my interests in languages, animals and nature, I came up with another idea for short stories. They will be about animals who can say words that rhyme with their respective sounds, and characters will be keen to try out their animal language skills. You can find some more details on the projects page of my website. 

Both series are yet to be released into the public domain.

Other things that I like to write about concern idioms. I’ve become more interested in these as my language ability has improved. There is one post where I thought up short stories based on some idioms to try and make it easier for those with autism to understand them. You can find them in a post called ‘Short idiom stories‘. 

One teaching style that I believed helped me was to imagine them as plays. For instance, to understand ‘In hot water’, which means in trouble, I imagined a character being in trouble in hot water as they may get burned. This helps this idiom to make sense to me from an autistic person’s point of view. 

You’ve recently written about how to make schools more inclusive for neurodiverse children. How did your past educational experiences measure up to this advice? What was done well? Where could improvements have been made?

What was done well

When my music (piano playing ability) was recognised, I was given the opportunity to play in the orchestra of a school play, which happened to be the Wizard of Oz at the time. This play was musical to an extent. I appreciated being given the opportunity to demonstrate my music and piano playing skills during musical evenings at the school.

My primary school offered communication between school and home, enabling my parents to offer support from home. It was also agreed for me to do two of my own projects on interests of mine, trees and music, which was different from the rest of the class. It was judged that I wouldn’t have benefitted as much from doing what the rest of the class was involved in.

Another example of something where we were allowed to do things related to interests included doing individual talks on things that interested us. Mine was on telescopes, which was judged to be very good, especially in terms of powers of retention related to my talk.

During French lessons, having numbers in other languages on the wall helped to inspire my interest in other languages. 

These were examples of educational and learning opportunities being extended to someone who struggled more.

The school also worked to ensure that everyone connected to the school community, pupils, staff, and parents understood the importance of basic values, including kindness and respect for others, no matter what differences there were. Looking back, this helped me to feel a great sense of inclusion. 

I liked the way my primary school was flexible in terms of meeting my needs as best they could in the circumstances.

Improvements

In terms of what schools could have done better, when I went to secondary school, looking back, I still had the tendency to lose concentration. Furthermore, I could still misinterpret things because of my issues with understanding language. 

And because autistic individuals can have difficulty with reading body language and facial expressions, this may lead to one thinking a child with autism is being rude or naughty, when in actual fact, it is due to the condition here, and nothing to do with naughtiness or rudeness.

Teachers could have been made more aware of these above issues. I once had a friend who went into teaching. They mentioned to me that an autistic pupil attended the school. Once the school were aware of that fact, an email was sent around to all the teaching staff there, including explaining what autism is and its signs.

And at the end, don’t forget to add that employers could be more direct in interviews and giving candidates opportunities to demonstrate the required skills for a particular job. 

Looking back, I think improvements could also have been made in terms of spreading awareness amongst other children about the condition. Things you could talk to the other children about could include how to relate to one with autism and how it might affect one’s education. Other things to include here could be the differences in the ways an autistic child communicates and interacts with others and the world in general.

Sometimes, classmates couldn’t understand why I was taking so long to complete a particular task or would get frustrated when I did something wrong. This would be linked to it being difficult for me to understand what to do and understand language. 

From a social perspective, there would be times when I would struggle to fit in during my teenage years. Sometimes I could inadvertently do or say something that might offend someone, as it could be hard for me to understand how certain things may affect the way one might feel. 

In addition, there were issues with me when it came to working out whether someone might be serious or joking about something, since those with autism can find it difficult to work out voice tones and various forms of body language.  I could also get confused if one used complicated forms of language, particularly idioms, so one should look into using more simple language here. 

Those with autism can be vulnerable to bullying due to their differences, so schools should be aware of this fact too.

For me and my past educational experience, what was done well outweighs what could have been improved based on the circumstances. During my time at school, relatively little seemed to be known about autism. I believe educational establishments were only beginning to become more aware of it back then. 

Why did you start your blog? Who is the audience and what are your hopes for readers?

I started my blog to show that one mustn’t lose hope during the difficult periods where autism is concerned. In addition, I aim to show the positive things that come with autism, especially related to unique and special interests and strengths.

In addition, I also like to talk about things in relation to my interests (particularly science matters), in order to keep improving my communication. There’s a miscellaneous section for these.

Target audiences

Those in teaching capacities and who may teach those with an autism spectrum disorder. My hopes here would be that my experiences and what helped me could be used to help autistic children in their education. 

Parents/carers/relatives and friends of autistic children, I believe, could benefit here, as they may find ideas to help children in their education, especially in terms of communication and basic skills such as reading, writing and numbers.  

Another important aspect here is the social side, including tips on how one could relate to another with autism, and ways in which an autistic child can be shown how to behave in social situations. I have written some posts on these. They can be found in the social section of my blog.

For autistic people entering adulthood. As one enters adulthood, it may be necessary to learn skills which can help one towards independence. I have a section called independent living, where I include some cooking recipes that I’ve learned.

In addition, there is a section on employment. Here, there is a post where I write about some things employers should do, including being more direct in interviews and giving opportunities to demonstrate the required skills for a particular job. Employers could be more direct in interviews and give candidates opportunities to demonstrate the required skills for a particular job.

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