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July 3, 2023, NI Belfast Telegram: NI teacher-turned-business boss aiming to transform society’s understanding of autism

A Belfast woman who founded a business that delivers training around autism has said wider society needs to change in order to get the best out of every young person.

Rebecca McCullough was speaking following a report commissioned by the Department of Education which found that providing early support for children with special educational needs is “almost impossible” in Northern Ireland.

In 2022/23, more than 66,000 pupils here had some form of special educational needs.

About 7,000 are educated in 39 special schools, with 4,000 others in specialist classes in mainstream schools.

But the EA has already warned about a “significant shortfall” in places for special schools for the coming academic year.

Ms McCullough (30) previously lived and worked as a special needs teacher in England for eight years, in a school primarily for autistic children aged three to 19…

. Ms McCullough returned to Belfast to study a master’s in psychological sciences, and upon coming home said she realised an even bigger gap here “in terms of where things should be, and we’re not even in comparison to where they are in mainland UK”.

Following this, she formed her business, Eden Consultancy NI, in 2020…. Describing its ethos, Ms McCullough explained: “We change the world around the child and the individual, not the individual themselves.

“We help adults in those people’s lives, whether it’s teachers, youth workers, parents or carers, to grow and understand, and create a world that is deeply accepting, not just aware, of neurodiversity.”

Latest figures from the Department of Health show that one in 20 schoolchildren here have a diagnosis of autism.
It is the highest prevalence rate on record, and more than four times as many as 15 years ago.
Ms McCullough added that those figures also don’t account for people on the waiting list to be diagnosed, or those who might have been misdiagnosed.

She explained that this is the equivalent of at least one child in every Northern Ireland classroom having autism.

“That means there has to be a level of understanding for every individual in that setting, including [mainstream] teachers and classroom assistants,” she said.

“I get the question all the time, especially from the older generation: ‘Is autism around more today?’
“It’s not. It was always around, it just wasn’t understood or picked up on in the same way. “Are our services good enough now? No. Are they much better than they were? Yes, 100%. Therefore, more voices are being heard.
“It’s not that autism and ADHD are increasing, it’s that our systems, processes and understanding have improved quite quickly all of a sudden, so we’re seeing this big rise in statistics.
“But there’s such a pressure on services and there aren’t enough spaces in specialist schools.

“I believe we can build a better society by upskilling adults in general. It’s the small things that make a big difference, and simplistic approaches that we can integrate into our everyday communication can make a real change.” …

In the clips, staff interview people on the streets of Belfast about common myths surrounding neurodivergent issues.

“Many people believe boys are more likely to have autism than girls, but that’s just about how the diagnosis system here works,” Ms McCullough said.

“Or one of the biggest misconceptions is that ‘everyone’s a little bit autistic’.

“This is where the change comes, around language and expectations, and saying, ‘actually, that’s a common misconception, this is how it can make people with autism feel and here’s what you can say instead’.

“It shows the importance of going out and having these conversations.”

“But autism is just a neurological condition meaning that brains are formed slightly differently.

“It’s nothing wrong, it’s not that the brain’s broken, it’s just different.

“We know that as a society, we’re not great at ‘different’ sometimes. We want to create an environment where everyone can flourish.”


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