Wednesday Wisdom

March 15, 2023

Time to Shine

By Dr Kathy Weston

Time to Shine


Who hasn’t been touched, inspired or motivated by the extraordinary story of Professor Jason Arday? At 37, he is the youngest Black person ever appointed to a professorship at Cambridge University. He works in the field of sociology within the Faculty of Education where his academic interests will centre on race, inequality and education.

Professor Arday has faced many personal challenges, which you may have read about. At the age of three, he was diagnosed with a form of Aspergers and Global Developmental Delay, which meant he was unable to speak until he was 11, or to read or write until he was 18. His prospects seemed grim. According to the Cambridge University website post announcing his appointment: ‘therapists and career advisers predicted he would spend his adult life in assisted living and require lifelong support’. However, a wholly different trajectory unfolded where, through personal determination and the consistent support of family and close friends, Professor Arday went to college, trained as a teacher, and launched an academic career.

At age 27, whilst studying for his PhD, he wrote a set of personal goals on a bedroom wall at his parents’ home. One of these read, “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge”. Just wow! I have to say, I did enjoy one particular interview where Professor Arday describes his mother’s mottoes and mantras, which include ‘ride until the wheels come off’ and ‘make use of the talents you do have, even if you struggle in other areas’. It seems that his mother’s indomitable commitment to supporting him helped him frame his way of thinking and gave him a profound sense of belonging. She sprinkled conversations with hope. He states, “My mum gave me the confidence to express myself the best I could. I knew I was different and my mum was very honest and said I was different, but she told me I had the capacity to do something very special when I was an adult”.

His story reminded me of another brilliant academic, Dr Peter Lovatt (AKA Dr Dance), an academic psychologist, who couldn’t read until he was in his twenties! Peter describes his struggles with dyslexia at school in a recent interview: “I couldn’t read irregular words because I couldn’t sound them out in my head. I had a poor memory of what I was reading and in a sentence with multiple embedded clauses such as ’the car at the end of the road was blue’ – I wouldn’t know what blue was”.

Dr Lovatt left school without any qualifications, but was a fantastic dancer and managed to secure jobs touring with dance companies. His issues with reading continued, but one day he decided to tackle them head on, challenging himself to read a 140 page book. It took him two weeks, reading 12 hours a day to get through it. He realised he could get the ‘gist’ without understanding every word and developed his own strategies for reading through it (breaking sentences into smaller chunks, etc). That small breakthrough meant access to learning and, amazingly, he went on to study psychology and English, later joining Cambridge University as a PhD student, where he researched short-term memory and dyslexia. Another extraordinary story of personal grit, determination and hope.

Dr Lovatt’s story also highlights how creative activities and engagement allowed him time and opportunity to shine. He knew he wasn’t ‘stupid’. As he says, “I just couldn’t read”. The boy who couldn’t read is now the author of two books, a host of journal articles, Ted X Speaker and a respected psychologist. If you have enjoyed the little biographies above and want to hear more inspirational stories and lived experiences, I recommend tuning in here.

Neurodiversity is defined by Professor Amanda Kirby as, “The different ways that we all think, move, hear, see, understand, process information, and communicate with each other”. This week is Neurodiversity Celebration Week; an optimal time to consider neurodiversity in more colour. It is also a good week to think about what we can do in our own lives as parents, employers or colleagues to make the world a little bit more inclusive and welcoming towards those that might see things differently, think differently or that don’t follow familiar, well-worn paths towards learning success.

Whether we work in a school, a business or support a family, we can all try a little harder to avoid anything tokenistic when it comes to reducing stigma and any limiting views about neurodiverse conditions or what people are truly capable of.


Reading Dr Lovatt’s story prompted me to do a little bit more research around dyslexia. Did you know that ten percent of the UK population is thought to be dyslexic? Experts note that many cases go undiagnosed and prevalence might actually be much greater. Dyslexia is a neurological difference that can be found in almost every classroom and workplace, yet, despite this, it’s often poorly understood.

Whilst everyone’s experience of dyslexia is different, the condition can have a significant impact on education (as Dr Lovatt experienced in his early days) and can co-occur with other learning difficulties. Whilst dyslexia primarily affects reading and writing skills, dyslexic people might also face challenges in processing and remembering information and with their organisational skills. 60% of people with dyslexia also meet the diagnostic criteria for another difficulty. There are overlaps with developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia) and dyscalculia (difficulties with maths), autism, ADHD and language impairment. Over and under-stimulation of the sensory system can also be connected. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition and often runs in families.

A recent webinar with two expert SEN practitioners, Sarah Cox and Kate King, cemented my understanding that, whilst dyslexia tends to be resistant to conventional teaching methods, its negative effects can be mitigated by appropriate, specific intervention, which supports children to thrive. This includes making effective use of IT and, where appropriate, counselling, which can address the emotional aspects of learning struggles.

Sarah and Kate provided numerous supportive strategies that parents of dyslexic children (or indeed parents of children who don’t have dyslexia) can put to effective use at home. For starters, try to reduce their cognitive load by supporting them in chunking tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces and scaffolding challenging jobs. This might be providing writing frames or sentence starters to help with written tasks, using story stars, reading texts to them or helping them to come up with a plan for their work. Remember to try to stay quiet whilst they are concentrating on something. Learners are unlikely to have the capacity to listen whilst also doing effortful work.

For younger children, play relaxed games (such as Trugs cards), practise common sight words (such as it / and / come / was / the) and read to them. Reluctant readers can be encouraged with magnetic letters (use them to build words), by playing games with the words and punctuation on the page rather than reading lots of text, or by using a pointy finger to find certain letters or sounds. When they find more complex words really tricky to read, tell them what they are fairly quickly, so that the text flows and meaning isn’t lost. Encourage them to use a line tracker, ruler or pointy finger to keep their place in a line of text.

Working on fine motor skills will help to improve writing. Threading beads onto pipe cleaners, creating pasta necklaces, weaving wool around cardboard and popping bubble wrap are all fun activities that can help to develop muscle strength and dexterity. Some children might need to use a pencil grip to help them hold a pencil correctly in a tripod grasp. Use of grips should be closely monitored. Grotto pencil grips tend to be popular, but children might need to try a few different brands to find one that suits them. Further information can be found here. Support writing by being multi-sensory and creative. Write in sand, rice, shaving foam or flour. Make shapes with play dough, use magnetic letters and wipeable white boards. Make it fun!

As children get older, try paired reading, where you read in turns. Attune to their interests – read anything that grabs their attention or sparks their imagination. To establish if a book is too difficult, try the ‘five finger test’. Ask them to put up a finger each time they can’t read a word. If they put up more than five fingers on one page, it’s too tricky. Two or three fingers represent a good level of challenge. Encourage independence and expose children to a wide range of different vocabulary, including that of emotions. At secondary school, young people with dyslexia can become easily frustrated, find revision challenging and feel disorganised. Executive functioning skills can be delayed and this may become more noticeable as the demands of the curriculum increase. It’s important to equip children with strategies to help.

Some children will find reading reams of text and handwriting notes extremely difficult and stressful. Here, assistive technologies can be utterly transformative. Audio books are a great, easy to access tool. Rather than using profit-making companies such as Audible, schools can freely obtain RNIB talking books for children with visual impairment or dyslexia. Calibre Audio is another charity offering free audiobooks to anyone who finds it difficult to read print and it’s always worth checking out your local library – they tend to have large audiobook selections. Text to speech software is a great tool for anyone who struggles to read quickly. It speaks the text on the screen aloud, enabling students to listen back to their work and pick up mistakes more easily. Apps such as ClaroRead can also be a big help. Alongside numerous other features designed to build confidence, it has a fantastic speaking dictionary containing 300,000 English definitions. Scanning pens are portable devices that can help with reading paper-based writing and speech recognition software allows children to interact verbally with their computer – great if they struggle with typing.

Learning to touch type can significantly improve attainment and confidence, speed up writing, homework and improve spelling. It is especially useful for older dyslexic pupils at secondary school who need to keep up with an increased workload, but have slow handwriting speeds. Kate and Sarah advise that children should ideally start learning in year four or five, when their hands are big enough and they have enough sustained concentration for daily practice. There are various free typing courses available online including Achieve Now, Nessy and EnglishType. Intensive holiday courses are also worth investing in, if possible. If you are interested in finding out more, you can also read this blog.

Many assistive technology programmes are freely available to schools. The British Dyslexia Association provides a brilliant free e-learning course, which gives an overview of products that are currently available, but this is an area that is constantly developing, so if you are interested in learning more, we recommend doing a bit of research too.

I do hope some of the above tips are useful to those of you working with or parenting dyslexic children and that they provide some inspiration for new ideas.


Professor Arday’s appointment ignited my interest in matters related to employability for autistic adults in general. Around 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and yet just 29% of autistic adults are in full or part-time paid employment.

Last week, I shared this rather stark statistic with a young neurodivergent researcher and we talked about it together. She told me that, as a university student, she had wanted to apply for a job, but her intense anxiety inhibited her from doing so. Whilst she knew she could do the job brilliantly in this particular lab, she felt unable to cope with the ‘panel style’ interview process and didn’t feel comfortable requesting a different format. We discussed the fact that there are now wonderful networks of neuro-inclusive employers actively seeking out talent and proactively working with organisations like ‘Ambitious about Autism to create employment links and ensure the recruitment process is inclusive and designed to give opportunities for people to shine.

We also talked about champions like Professor Amanda Kirby (herself neurodivergent and a highly regarded author in this area) who does much work to promote neuro-inclusive employment practices. For would-be employers, she suggests downloading and reading the Neurodiversity Index and considering what it might mean for your organisation. In a recent blog, she makes suggestions such as: see equity, diversity and inclusion as a key driver for organisational success, and make efforts towards gaining agreement with senior leaders that there is value in having neurodiverse teams from a talent selection, retention perspective, inclusion perspective and legally. As Professor Kirby points out, becoming neuro-inclusive is more than a one-off initiative or tick box exercise reserved for one week in the year. Can organisations and businesses become bona fide, neurodiversity friendly places? Examine your recruitment processes and see if they can be improved in any way.

Professor Kirby suggests that a few small adjustments can go a long way and perhaps mean that talented applicants aren’t turned off. For example, when planning interview questions, interviewers might avoid jargon and abstract questions, and allow candidates adequate time to respond. They should be willing to repeat or reframe questions and check understanding. Perhaps they can provide questions in advance? She also suggests asking, at every stage of the interview process, if support is needed for the person to showcase their skills.

In terms of family life, we can take small steps towards making the world kinder, more equitable and inclusive for all. I mentioned Neurodiversity Celebration Week to my teens and simply asked them what they knew about it. They were able to tell me matter of factly about people they had come across in their lives who are neurodivergent and about the autism-friendly cinema screening that they had once attended for a pal’s birthday party! We then honed in on the story of Professor Arday. This took time, as we chatted at length about autism, a particular book featuring an autistic character and ended up talking about a range of other things like: social mobility, the importance of goal-setting, allies, supportive parents and helpful mentors (Professor Arday had an amazing one called Sandro Sandi).

Lastly, as it is British Science Week here, we managed to squeeze in a chat about famous individuals who are known to be, or have been, neurodiverse. I loved telling my boys about Professor Sara Rankin (based at Imperial College London) who describes herself as “twice exceptional” (gifted and challenged), in reference to her own dyslexia and dyspraxia. She notes, “My research about learning disabilities led me to identify myself as twice exceptional – someone who is gifted but has a learning difference”. That reflection inspired her to create an entire resource base designed to encourage young ‘2e students’ into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

In addition to talking about inspirational people this week, we families can do more to promote science and STEM at home by trying out a few of the ideas listed by the British Science Association. Enjoy some parental engagement and most importantly, try to have fun!

Are you a Tooled Up member?

We are always interested in learning more about neurodiversity at Tooled Up. So, on Friday 21st April we are delighted to be hosting our first all-day live online conference, where we will engage with some interesting researchers, academics and evidence-based ideas for parents and educators.

We have organised this conference to increase our understanding of autism and to allow researchers, parents, educators to come together in a shared space. You can book your ticket now!

We have provided a platform from which conversations, connections and collaborations might be cultivated, nurtured and facilitated. Thank you to the Tooled Up parents who have suggested ideas, speakers and even offered to contribute to the day itself!

Our conference partners are autism specialists from Riverston School in London, K’Dee Bernard, Director of Sen and Nicole Damala, Head of Therapy. They will be sharing their successful holistic approach and tips derived from their team’s expertise; a team made up of specialist teachers, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, learning support assistants and counsellors.

Professor Debbie Riby (Professor of Developmental Psychology and Co-Director of the Centre for Neurodiversity & Development) and Dr Mary Hanley (Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology) from Durham University have spent years conducting research on learning and engagement at school for autistic learners. They will talk about how to support neurodivergent pupils’ attention, sensory arousal and anxiety needs at school.

Dr Felicity Sedgewick is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol and will be talking about masking. Dr Sedgewick actively works with autistic people to design research that is meaningful and impactful. Key messages from her excellent book “Autism and Masking: How and why people do it, and the impact it can have” will underpin her talk.

Professor Karen Guldberg is Professor in Autism Studies, Director of the Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) and Head of the Department of Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs (DISN) at the School of Education, University of Birmingham. She will be talking about ‘good autism practices in education’.

Dr Kate Cooper is a Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of Bath, a HCPC registered Clinical Psychologist and BABCP accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. Dr Cooper will share her fascinating research on gender identity and dysphoria among autistic people.

The conference will also feature contributions from Reena Anand and Tabitha Atieno – both advocates for ethnic minority families with autistic children, and parents to autistic children themselves. Reena founded an autism awareness in education consultancy, and Tabitha founded a specialist school in Kenya. They will be talking about why cultural differences matter and sharing ideas for educators. We can’t wait!

Book now!