Inspired Man With Autism Wants to Reshape Education For All
My name is Matthew Punter and I have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and pathological demand avoidance (PDA). Early this month I was invited to Cambridge University for consideration to study psychology and behavioral sciences.
Unbelievably, two years prior I had the literacy age of a seven-year-old and knew nothing of the world other than its inadequacy to help people like myself on the spectrum. Now I stand as a beacon of hope for sufferers let down by an education system not designed by, or for, people like us. I do this by sharing my journey and what I have learnt of the disorders as someone with first-hand experience of the ups and downs associated with autism, showing that there are capabilities of the disability.
To understand how I got here, it’s important to know where I came from. My first true experience of the education system occurred at the early stages of primary school. Only being a seven-year-old at the time, I had no understanding why I saw things differently than other children, but I knew I did and teachers never explained this to me—to be honest, I don’t think they understood either.
Due to the fact that I could not make friends and always ended up in altercations, I was provided a single desk in the corner of the classroom, facing the wall. As a 20-year-old now, I realize it was no wonder that the children saw me as different and naughty, if only the teachers explained my disorders to my peers maybe things would have been different.
Ultimately, I was excluded from primary school because teachers could no longer cope with my needs—to be fair, I couldn’t cope either. For the next two years I bounced around half a dozen special education needs schools that all tried the same brute force techniques of restraints but to no avail. Consequently, the local educational authorities withdrew their input.
It was then all up to me to help myself and over the next few years of my education absence, I constantly fought my disorder until they were under control—this took me until I was 17-years-old. Shortly after my 17th birthday, I was finally ready to learn and re-enter the education system. I contacted a women named Terri Westmoreland who I came to know at 10-years-old as she worked with me on a 1-2-1 basis before the authorities withdrew their support.
Terri had founded and personally runs a school that specializes in autism called Hope House School. Terri had founded the school with the help of her husband after their autistic grandson was let down by the local authorities. Together, Terri and her husband leased a plot of land cradling abandoned bungalows and through blood, sweat, and tears, they renovated the grounds to the Garden of Eden it is today for autistic individuals. Terri and her husband took it upon themselves to personally help educate me as my previous educational experience made me wary of new people. As with all their pupils, Hope House developed a curriculum based on me as an individual which focused on my strengths and weaknesses.
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Characteristics like my age, cognitive ability, and previous educational experience were all taken into account when establishing my education program. This provision has become a staple of Hope House and was vital in raising my literacy from seven to 16 plus in a year, passing my General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in less than a quarter of the time it takes in mainstream, and getting me to Cambridge.
It’s only now, as an autistic individual who has gone from one side of the spectrum to another, that I can begin to see the provisions that truly help autism—not hinder it. For example, whilst I study in preparation for Cambridge, I have taken a more hands on role at the school as Terri believes that my experience and background allows me to understand and help children the most.
With her experience of parenting two autistic children, and my experience of being autistic, we work together to ensure that Hope House provides true education that does just focus on knowledge and exam scores, but enables pupils to live independent and fulfilling lives—free from the boundaries face by autistic individuals on a daily basis. Terri’s prioritization for behavior before education shows in the school’s latest Ofsted report which awarded the school an ‘Outstanding’ for behavior. It is provisions like this that would have prevented me from leaving school age seven.
The archaic ideology which education is built upon has held countless autistic individuals back from enjoying the fruits of life. It is for this reason that Hope House does things differently and which has enable me to reach university.
I have caught up on over a decade’s worth of education within three years because Hope House does things differently. Stories like my own are rare because doing things differently is rare. Therefore, the reason why I aspire to university and to share my story is that I hope that we can stop treating autism in the same way it has been treated for years and expect something different. Statistics are coming in thick and fast showing how bad people like myself are being let down—whether that is low employment rates or higher risk of depression. It is time to do things differently and I truly believe that Hope House is leading the way.
This article was featured in Issue 87 – Building ASD Awareness and Communication