Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
[ Introduction music plays ]
Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Hi everyone! In today’s podcast, I speak with Sarah Larrington, a learning support coordinator at Dresden International School. Growing up, Sarah felt different from their peers, and in their 20s, they received a diagnosis of Asperger’s. Our discussion today focuses on Sarah’s experiences in school as a child, why boys are diagnosed at a much higher rate than girls with ASD, what schools can do to better support their neurodivergent learners, and how Sara’s ability to connect with their students is their superpower. I hope you enjoyed our conversation today as much as I did. and now, on to the show.
Hi Sara and welcome to the podcast.
Sara: Hi, nice to speak to you.
Lori: Well, really great to meet you today. I’m excited to have this conversation. So you’re, you’re currently a learning support coordinator at Dresden International School and you’ve been an international school teacher for many years. Where else have you taught overseas and what drew you into International teaching?
Sara: So I was, I taught in the UK, that’s where I trained and I did about 10 years in different kinds of education settings in the UK including behavioural schools as well as regular primary schools, and then in about 2009, I decided that I wanted to see a bit of the world. I wanted to meet other people, different cultures, because I was very interested in all of those things, but I’d done a little bit of travelling in Europe but not anywhere far away. So I decided that maybe I should look for a new adventures and I had some friends who had taught in Dubai, and they had a great time there and I thought well maybe I’ll try. So in 2010 I got a position in Bangkok at Saint Stephens school which is a smaller international school. I was there for a few years then I move to Panama, at the Metropolitan School of Panama. And then I went back to Bangkok and worked at NIST, that that was my best experience. Then I moved to UNIS Hanoi in Vietnam and then in 2019 I moved to Dresden.
Lori: Ahhh. Now I see, this whole time I’ve been looking at you, you look so familiar… so I used to teach at International School Bangkok, so we have definitely crossed paths, at some point.
Sara: Yeah, probably!
Lori: Yea, got it. Okay and you’re a learning support coordinator at your school in Dresden, is that correct?
Sara: yeah yeah I’ve been a coordinator at different times… When I went to NIST, I was a learning support teacher because I felt like I still had so much to learn so I took more time to learn and create an opportunity for me to learn more, learn from people who really knew their stuff. And you know, I worked with an excellent team at NIST, and other people in Bangkok and such as ISB and at Patana, and then you know, working with people like from STEPS or the different educational consultants… I just I just really enjoyed that time because I gained so much more knowledge and I worked on my postgraduate diploma in special education. And when I came to Dresden, and I was a learning support teacher but 2 years ago, I took over the coordinator role of PYP.
Lori: Well Sara, you’re not only a learning support teacher, you were also diagnosed with Asperger’s (with a hard g). Now that’s what we call it in the States and in the UK…
Sara: Aspergers (with a soft g).
Lori: And what age were you diagnosed?
Sara: I was actually diagnosed very late; I was 23.
Lori: Okay, and I hear that happens quite a bit, a later diagnosis.
Sara: Yeah, so I always knew I was different and my parents kind of did too, but they didn’t have anything, any frame of reference. I was diagnosed earlier with dyscalculia and dyslexia and I sort of had some things, but everybody was mentioning the social aspect, that I I was always very quiet, and you know, I had friends but I also may choose to work on my own projects, things like that. And teachers had said different things, but I mean this is back in the late 80’s, early 90’s and so people really… any sort of autism to them was what you see when someone has more severe challenges. and at that time it was thought to be just boys and so I didn’t get diagnosed until I went to university, and found living away at University quite difficult. I had a great time but it was difficult and then when I started my first job, something happened and then I went to see a psychiatrist and I got my initial diagnosis then.
Lori: Hmmm. What did that diagnosis mean for you?
Sara: For me, it was like a light bulb moment. It was, I’m not weird, I think definitely, my brain is a bit different and also there are other people like that in the world. At first I didn’t tell anybody because again it wasn’t that much information and I don’t feel like I really fit to the typical things you were seeing in the media or what I was finding when I was doing research, you know, about it. I don’t want to say I was ashamed but I was uncomfortable with that diagnosis. But then as I started teaching and my experience grew, and moving internationally that made me feel more comfortable with who I am and how I act how I am and I think I gained the confidence to just say you know what I have this but I always try and spin it with a positive. I do mention some of my challenges but I also say what my strengths are.
Also, sometimes I was getting into situations like social situations like misreading people or not understanding someone or communications, missing the point or going off of a different point and I always have to say, sorry, I have Aspergers, and then when I said that, people would make more accommodations.
Lori: Oh that’s so interesting, it’s more the empathy piece, rather than what you were saying earlier, where you said you felt weird growing up. And I mean of course, that makes my heart break to hear you say that about yourself, of course you’re not weird, but I know that people in social situations… if they’re in a situation and someone’s acting I guess differently, then that’s the word that they that they might use. And then when someone comes out and says well, I’m on the Spectrum or I have Asperger’s, it’s then that empathy piece kicks in.
Sara: I took some bullying, in secondary school, primary school was fine but you know, secondary school, I think everybody might get bullied a little bit but I definitely had some, because I wanted to be in the library instead of outdoor recess or I was interested in things that other people weren’t interested in, and I do think, you know, if I had known what knew now, if they’d known, they wouldn’t have bullied me. They would’ve just thought…
Lori: Yeah, I agree. I agree. That’s why, so many of us in the field, encourage our students to advocate for themselves. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. It must’ve been really difficult to move overseas and take in all the new cultures and challenges.
Sara: Yeah, it was. It was exciting at first, I mean, I don’t like change very much, but it was exciting at first. It just seemed like I was on a really long holiday, but I also did work, you know? And then it would sink in. Then it sank in that, no you’re living here, and so there were definitely challenges with how systems worked, how schools worked, how.. Just e everything. It was a big leap.
By the time I moved back to.. So, I moved to Panama, and when I decided I didn’t want to stay in Panama anymore, I was like, where in the world can I go? And I chose specifically to go back to Bangkok because I already knew it. And I knew, I’d already gone through the process of figuring a lot of processes out in Bangkok, and so that move was not as difficult. Moving to Hanoi was the hardest move I did, I found that that was the most challenging place I lived in.. and moving to Dresden, it has been challenging but that’s because of COVID; I’ve spent most of time in lockdown. And you know, you think, Germany, Europe… but there’s a lot of red tape. I thought it would be more like the UK, but it’s not really.
Sara: Things work differently.
Lori: Well. Heading back to the thought of you being a girl… so you’re neurodiverse girl in school, what was your experience like? You mentioned bullying, do you have anything else to share on htat?
Sara: Yeah, I do. So, I actually now, identify as gender-neutral, which many people, you’ll find a higher prevalence of people with Asperger’s who either are gender neutral, identifies as gender neutral, or trans. We can talk bout tha at a different time, that’s not for this conversation, but there is research for that. But I was a girl, I was born female, and so I didn’t understand this term, masking, until I started, until you know, 5 years ago, when people wrote papers and research on it. And I definitely did it.
And what that is, is trying to fit in, trying to pretend to be something you’re not, I feel like for a good 20, 25 years, I pretended to be something I wasn’t really. I put pictures up of bands that people said were cool, so I thought I should put pictures up. I talked about things that I actually didn’t really understand, when you have groups and you’re hanging out, and you’re chatting about things, I put myself in situations that I didn’t really enjoy or didn’t really want to do because everyone else was doing it and I wanted to fit in and I wanted to be like everyone else.
And this is a typical thing with people who are female, born female, who ahve Aspergers. Tere’s research for it. And eve nnow, I still find myself masking. You know, not all the time. I’m much more happier with who I am and I advocate for myself really well, but I still try, you know, I’ll stay at social situations when I really am done, I should’ve gone half an hour ago… or take something on because everyone else is taking it on, but it’s probably not a good fit for me, you know?
Lori: Got it. So According to the CDC, autism is diagnosed 4 times more in boys than in girls. In your opinion, are boys more likely to have autism or is it that the girls are masking or are they exhibiting different signs than boys…?
Sara: I think it’s a little bit difficult to tell. I’m not sure what the data completely supports. In my experience, there’s probably as many girls that have autistic conditions as there are boys. But because for many years, they thought it was a male thing, girls were misidentified as ADHD or depression or mental health challenges or other things. I think also, females tend to mask very very well, and boys don’t tend to? I don’t see that. I’ve been teaching for 20 years and I very rarely see boys mask… sometimes they say it but and I don’t know that you know, if you look at books from maybe ten years ago, research groups, help guide, and tips are about boys boys boys boys. And you know Temple Grandin is a great role model but there were no other. It is a few but there’s not that many female role models here you know identify as I have Asperger’s or autism, so my personal opinion, is it’s probably equal, but im not sure that at this point in time, the data shows that as much as we’d like to. But i think in the future, it would happen.
Lori: Yea, I think so too. I have read that most of the studies have been on boys as you suggested, and and how they just kind of left out a whole subset of the population. So very interesting. And I do want to take you up on that future podcast about gender identity and that sounds so interesting and I’m really excited to talk to you about it!
Well I want to talk to you about your teaching your neurodiverse learning support teacher so… do you feel like you’re able to kind of get in the heads of your students and that’s for lack of a better phrase, I’m not sure how to phrase it but, than many of the rest of us who are learning support teachers?
Sara: yeah, I think, you know, several of my colleaguees in different schools or my line managers, have said I have something that they don’t have that help me connect with the students that they can’t connect to on the same level. And one of my friends who was my supervisor, he was the assistant principal at UNIS Hanoi, for the PYP, said it was a gift, and now I’ve decided to call it my superpower, because you know. I live and breathe many of the challenges that not just neurodiverse students have, but all the different challenges, and I know what it feels like. But I also, he also says I have a gift for just seeing a child and in a few minutes, just going, I know what they need and I know how to, I don’t know, but I can suggest how to support him, suggest accommodations and strategies, and whatever. And I just had these really great connections. ANd I can’t tell you why, I can’t say I’m a better teacher than everyone else or I have better knowledge but I think just through being me, I have these skills.
Lori: Sure, I mean to have you as a staff member at a school would be would be like having a super hero, to help the rest of us better support our children. So. Can you kinda give me an idea of some of the things you’re noticing? Are they sensory related, social, or is it just everything?
Sara: I, um, I definitely notice sensory much quicker than some other educators might. I’m also able to put the challenges into terms educators will understand, when a child may not be able to voice it themselves. And I sometimes notice some of the social, not always, because I do struggle with body language and reading that face, but for some professional development of the primary school, the learning support team decided to do some autism awareness training, and one aspect was… a colleague was interviewing me, much like you are now, asking some of the questions about my experience as a person who is neurodiverse, and so many teachers came to me afterwards and were like “thank you for that, I wasn’t aware of that. I didn’t know what to look for, I didn’t understand…” and then we took it to a local SENIA Thailand meeting where other schools from bangkok and other professionals from Bangkok, and we repeated some of the PD and also the interview, and I had several other special educators and learning support coordinators come up to me afterwards and just thank me for doing it but also express what they learn from it. Which was, it was good for me.
Lori: Yeah, well, it was good for them. That’s the important thing to remember. Good for all. How do you think or do you think schooling has changed for neurodiverse students since you were in school?
Sara: Um, I mean, when I was in school, you didn’t see, you didn’t notice if anybody was neurodivergent. I got the feeling that they probably went to a special school, a unit or attached unit, and definitely when i first started teaching, it was often neurodiverse students would either be in a unit and participate in the mainstream class every now and then or they have a one-to-one aide, shadow teacher, or something like that. And those who were in mainstream school often had lots of challenges because they weren’t getting other support. They weren’t getting speech support or cognitive behavioural therapy, or anything else they might need. A homeroom teacher, particularly in the UK, who was not trained as a special needs educator is trying to work with them and do the best they could and the psychologist might come in once a year… and we’d see more inappropriate behaviours because of frustration, or not knowing how to communicate, and they’re trying to navigate school.
Then, when my career developed, I saw more integration, particularly for people with Asperger’s. So I’ve seen less one-to-one aide, I’m seeing students being part of the classroom, all the teachers learning how to support students who are neurodiverse. I’m seeing safe spaces created in classrooms, I’m seeing results in manipulatives, and I’m seeing we’re given the opportunity to get their say in what they need.
I think that it is like my privilege and my job as an advocate for myself and advocate for my students, being visible. You know, I wear a t-shirt that says neurodivergent to school and all my kids know that I have Asperger’s, and every classroom now has headphones, noise reduction headphones, and any kid can use them and they do. We have, we’ve put those results as in when I was at NIST, some teachers were empowered by what I was talking about to create a safe space of room for students to go during recess when they didn’t want to be outside in the noise or in the library in the noise. I mean, so with my support, we created this sensory friendly room for any students to go to but it meant but they shouldn’t… any students could go and feel safe and included too. and so you know I’ve seen that change.
Lori: That’s, That’s great and I’m sure you’re inspiring some of our listeners to come create those rooms right now so… I as an aside I really hope that we can have you on this podcast more often because I really think that you can bring so much insight into what we can be doing as schools as international schools, to better support our neurodiverse population because they’re they’re right and you know I think for a very long time international schools really didn’t they didn’t say they had students with any type of difference but but they had them and and now I know the majority of us want to support all our learners so they just need to know how to do it so.
So, what’s next for you? I understand You have a fledgling consultancy so tell us about that.
Sara: Yeah, so during lockdown, when I started teaching, i had this plan, i’ll teach and then become learning support coordinator and work through that, and then at some point when i was getting closer to retirement, I’d like to be a consultant and support teachers to support students like me, and with other challenges. But then during lockdown, I realised that all I’ve known is about teaching in schools and being a learning support teacher, and I actually find it quite challenging, I didn’t know how challenging i’d find it until lockdown. Because I was working from home, I had a better work-life balance, you know, I was one of the few people saying “I don’t want to go back to school!” You know. I love being with kids, but I find adult relationship difficult, you know, and even get into schools some morning, getting on the tram, and the noise, and the settling, and so I was talking to, I have a therapist who does cognitive behavioural therapy with me for different reasons, and she said “why are you waiting until retirement to do this master plan? You could do it now” and in Germany, they have a law, where you could get an abridged contract. So for a year, if the school agrees, I wanna go part-time, for 60% or 80%, and after a year, you could go back to your full time job if you want to. Or you could continue. So I thought, why don’t I take the opportunity to see if I can do something that I really want to do.
And so, I created a consultancy, where I would support families and schools, to advise them. How to support students in the classroom… I’m not really about how to write an IEP or advocating for parents in that way. I’m more about how I can support your child better and what support does your child need. What do you need, as a school, to be more inclusive and diverse.
So that’s really what my plan is. I have been in contact with April Remfrey, wh has her education consulting business, and she’s kind of mentoring me a little bit because I have no clue how to do this. I know what I want to do, and I can build a website-ish.. But beyond that, I didn’t have a clue. So she’s been advising me and telling me where to go. The website just became live, about a week or so ago, maybe 2 weeks, and I haven’t taken any bookings yet, still sorting that out, but I offer online consulting, consultancy for families, and if they’ve got questions… you know, they might have just gotten a diagnosis so they just wanna know what that means and what that means for their child. They might want some strategies for home, or it might be a group of parents. I have been asked by a parent in Panama asking if I’m willing to speak to a group of parents about different things to support students. And I’d like to, eventually when the world is a bit more open, go to schools and look at the classroom and say “have you thought about this, this, or this. Have you tried this? How can I help your school be the most inclusive it can be, specifically for neurodiverse students and sensory processing”, but for other students too.
I also teach a lot of maths. I’m not really a reading specialist, I’m a math specialist, so I’ve got a lot of strategies for how to support students with math strategies, and so I kinda do both. So I’m just putting feelers out there. I just created something with a company in the UK called the School Improvement Tracker and I have devices for learning support audit talk, and I will be presenting at the AGIS conference in Germany talking about supporting students through math but also bringing in other things too. And i’m just putting feelers out there, but it’s more about making sure kids get what they need.
Lori: That is so needed, and I’m just thinking of some conversation I’ve had over the past few years with families in need of that support. And schools that need that support. So I have a feeling you’re going to get flooded with requests.
Sara: Oh great, because so far, the business is taking money rather than providing any.
Lori: Well yeah, it’s a new business so you can expert it.
Sara: And my plan is, and i talked to april about this, when things get up and running, we make more connections with small businesses, and so a parent or a school can come to us and say “i have a child who needs this” and we can say “right, this person can do this”
Lori: Now, that’s what SENIA is all about and its about making those connections as well. Well, Sara, this is all we have time for today but you have a new superfan, me, and you’re absolutely phenomenal and we definitely hope we can have you back or learn more.
Sara: Definitely, definitely, i actually enjoyed it much more than i thought i would, but then i’m talking about myself.
Lori: Best topic.
Thanks for joining us on our show. For more information, including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcasts. Until next time, cheers!