Alex Newson, autistic teacher and researcher
Meet Alex Newson, a doctoral student at the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon and a former special education teacher.
Tell us about your research and how it came about
I am a doctoral student at the Department of Special Education and Clinical Sciences at the University of Oregon. I am a recipient of an OSEP (Office of Special Education Programs) funded leadership grant focusing on autism, evidence-based practices, MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support) and collaboration across universities. In my research, I am exploring the intersection of educator burnout and autistic burnout for autistic educators in the United States. Using participatory methods, my goal is to listen to autistic educators and represent their voices and perspectives through co-creating and co-producing research. I am also working with my university on creating neurodivergent affirming spaces and highlighting disabled and neurodivergent student voice.
There is a lot of attention on autistic children and the benefits having more autistic staff may bring to them, but we need to ensure that the school space and environment is supportive for the autistic staff too.
I think my work is rooted in my experiences as a special education teacher. I didn’t know I was autistic until 29. It was during the pandemic, and I had just started my PhD studies. I started assessing myself and looked back at the experiences I had in education. I looked back at my strengths, but also the struggles, some of which were common with other colleagues, but some were entirely my own, and the people who helped. I remember my mentor, Dan Courtney, and the team of educational assistants, Liz, Ginny, Donna, Shaliah, Emily, Mary, helping me in direct and indirect ways in navigating the challenges posed by the school system. While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I think being autistic allowed me to better understand and empathize with my students’ unique needs and perspectives.
What was your teaching experience like?
I was working with students of varying abilities and talents and focussed on behaviours and individualized education plans. I adored my students, particularly those on the autism spectrum, and had a fantastic team. What I didn’t enjoy was the feeling of being extremely overwhelmed. I took home a lot of secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. I was experiencing burnout due to immense workload and pressure I put upon myself. This made it difficult for me to take breaks or days off, even when I was sick. I felt personally responsible for the safety of my students and other members of my staff. I felt unsafe myself too and therefore always remained vigilant. I didn’t take breaks, go to the bathroom, or have lunch because I felt like I had to be “on” all the time, or someone was going to get hurt. The added paperwork and meetings made it challenging to maintain a work-life balance. Despite the compensation from the district, the immense workload, physical harm, and emotional stress made the job incredibly difficult.
If there is an autistic staff member reading this, I want you to know that you are valued, and your brain and your wonderfulness are so needed in schools.
However, what kept me going was that I loved working with autistic and neurodivergent students. My staff and I were working to ensure that our students felt safe, and they had caring adults in their life. My mentor Dan Courtney taught us how to deescalate behaviour problems respectfully and empathetically through relationships in a way that enables children to recognise their strengths. I appreciated how honest the students were with me about my teaching, and I learned so much from them. It wasn’t always easy, but I wanted to be a memorable teacher for my students and wanted to help them in harnessing their strengths. I think as autistics we are often told that something is wrong with us but as a teacher, as well as a researcher, I believe in rewriting that narrative and focusing on autistic talents and autistic joy. I wanted each of my students to see themselves in a positive light.
To the neurotypical teachers, my message is to listen to and learn from the autistic and neurodivergent staff and students when they speak up or communicate something.
Why is the school environment so important in your work?
This is the reason I am working on making school environments more affirming for autistic staff too who want to be out about their identities. There is a lot of attention on autistic children and the benefits having more autistic staff may bring to them, but we need to ensure that the school space and environment is supportive for the autistic staff too. There are laws in place, but microaggressions and stigma can still circumvent them, making it difficult for autistic individuals to feel safe, welcome, and included. I think it is important to address these issues at a systemic level to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for everyone.
What would be your key message from both your experience as a teacher and your research?
If there is an autistic staff member reading this, I want you to know that you are valued, and your brain and your wonderfulness are so needed in schools. That is why you need to take care of yourself and take breaks for mental health if you need to, because you cannot be fully present for your students if you’re pouring from an empty cup. And to the neurotypical teachers, my message is to listen to and learn from the autistic and neurodivergent staff and students when they speak up or communicate something. Educate yourselves on neurodiversity, understand and challenge your own biases, own up to mistakes, and repair relationships when needed. It’ll make you a better teacher and will create a more affirming whole community.
If you’d like to talk to contact me, you can do so via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @alex_newson_
Interview conducted with support from Rabaha Arshad from the University of Glasgow.