“I have worked with many autistic people and their families and accessing health is a barrier they face daily” – Kath Ambler, Learning Support Foundation, 2011

In the month that we launched our Health Professional Network for alumni working in sectors related to health care, sports science, psychology, social work, or with a interest in social, physical and mental well-being, we have been delighted to hear your stories.

In this article we interview Kath Ambler (Learning Support Foundation, 2011) who currently teaches Health and Social Care and is pursuing a PhD. In this article, Kath shares her experiences as an autistic person in Education, her passion for supporting the next generation of students, and discusses the ways in which the pandemic has impacted her life and the lives of her students, and what an inclusive environment looks like.

I started studying the foundation Degree in September 2008, the motivation was the birth of the second daughter in January 2007, I was working within the DWP and even though I had an amazing career ahead of me, I always felt there was something missing. I enjoyed coaching staff and delivering training when needed, plus I had an autistic brother who was struggling within mainstream secondary, so I was tutoring him a little.  There passion for education grew but it was a  passion for inclusive education.  I took the plunge and left my career to embark on an unpaid position as a Teaching Assistant within a local Primary to study the Foundation Degree.  

The Foundation degree was actually studied at Grimsby Institute via Hull University.  I did access the University of Hull a lot.  I enjoyed the walked in and the stone heads outside.  The University has a welcoming feel about it and speaking to my past students who have attended Hull, they have the same view. 

Currently you are a teacher of Health and Social Care and are also pursuing a PhD. Where does your passion for the field come from, and what lessons are you hoping to impart to the next generation?

Health and Social care was almost a natural progression, my desire for inclusive learning fits perfectly within health and Social care, to make the sector inclusive and to meet the needs of the individual through the social model of disability is something I install in my students. 

I have worked with many autistic people and their families and accessing health is a barrier they face daily,  by teaching the next generation of professionals on how to communicate effectively and to embrace differences will help those people and their families gain much needed access. 

I have a huge passion for  teaching Health and Social Care, to teach my students and encourage them to pursue their dreams of working within the Health Sector is a privilege.  I have a had so many successes with students going on and graduating and working in the sector, it makes every hour I put in worth while. 

The PhD proposal I am currently drafting, is something I never thought I could embark on, however since going back to education in 2008 I have not stopped pushing myself and following a career in education.  I love that I am unable to stop learning, every student who walks through my door has an impact on me and educates me and makes me want to be a better teacher for them. 

Embarking on a PhD demonstrates to others then anything is possible, if you keep trying and forcing the barrier and constraints.  

How has the lockdown impacted you in both your personal life and your professional life as a teacher

My personal life has  been affected, as an autistic person I do not like very busy environments it is not a pleasant experience for my sensory processing, the quiet and the lack of physical contact I have enjoyed.  Not seeing my family and friends has been difficult, as I do enjoy socialising so it has been difficult not being able to socialise with friends and family, so I am hoping that I will soon be able to visit Wales and see my  best friend who I miss dearly.  We are also hoping for a family get together in my garden as soon as we are able. 

From a teaching perspective it as been a learning curve, teaching online has its positives plus is negatives. I have missed the contact with the students, however it has forced me to up my skill set in Google Classrooms etc, the college where I work, has worked so hard in making everything as accessible as they can.  The feedback from students and parents makes it worth while.  It is tiring being sat in from of a computer all day teaching, but the students come first and lock down has impacted on them massively.  If I can give them some normality and support them then its my pleasure to do so. 

Resilience is a key theme these days with the lockdown exacerbating many existing social conditions that are detrimental to mental, physical and social wellbeing. What do you feel are the lessons that we need to learn from the pandemic?

From an Autistic view point the pandemic has highlighted the inequalities within our society,  the pressure to wear masks which some people really struggle with.  DNRs being placed on people with Learning Disabilities, the high mortality rates of COVID if you have a Learning Disability and the lack of vaccines made  available to people with any learning disability. 

That is the negative view of the pandemic and one which needs exploring and addressing. 

On a positive note, the pandemic has proved that the world can be quieter and that we can be more considerate to each other and look after not just ourselves but our loved ones, friends and neighbours. 

Resilience is term which is difficult to measure, how we recover is where the judgement  should lay,, how we get our young people back into education safely and progress beyond the lockdown. 

As an autistic person, what have your experiences in academia, both as a student and as a teacher, been? What challenges have you faced (and continue to face), and how can we learn from that to make a more inclusive environment?

The biggest barrier autistic people face in education is transition and accessing support.  Transition from school to college, from college to uni, should be like gliding on marble  currently it is like trying to skate on concrete, we fall  it hurts and leaves those emotional scares of where we tried and failed.  I do not want that for any student. 

Inclusion looks different for everyone, autistic training is needed throughout education and it should be given or lead by and autistic person, so they can give those first hand accounts of the difficulties they face. 

The key to inclusion is acceptance, inclusion should not be shoehorned it should run though the curriculum and underpin everything we do.  

My biggest barrier to education is trying to get support and understanding, I get told I don’t look autistic or act autistic, I am not going to prove my neurological difference as I am still unsure what autism is meant to look like? It does always make me laugh the ideas people have on autism, however it is very damaging and difficult to re educate a person who has had an hour’s awareness training and believe they are an expert.  

There is no expert in autism but if I had to point one out I would choose the autistic person every time. 

Finally, what words of advice would you have for someone with autism who is hoping to go into University in the next few years?

University is an amazing opportunity, and if you are offered a place it is given to you on merit, the reason you are there is because you belong, a lot of autistic people in academia have imposture syndrome and it makes you doubt yourself. 

It’s an adventure which needs exploring and always ask for support by being open and honest with your tutors. We can all do amazing things, sometimes it takes us a little longer and sometimes we need a little support, but others have paved the way for you, just make your own footsteps. 

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