Birmingham professor wins lifetime achievement award – Autism in Practice – April 2014

In the final feature of four for the April 2014 issue of Autism in Practice, I had a chance to write about the substantial achievements of Rita Jordan that have shaped how education standards for people with autism have been improved over a period of 40 years. She was honoured with an award to celebrate all she has achieved in the field of autism at The National Autistic Society’s Autism Professionals Awards 2014.

University of Birmingham Emeritus Professor Rita Jordan, has won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Autism Professionals Awards after dedicating her 40-year career to improving education standards for people with autism.

Rita has worked as a teacher and then a trainer of professionals to develop theory and research on autism, and has written about and researched educational practice and the needs of children and young people with autism. More than 1 in 100 people in the UK have autism, which affects how a person communicates and relates to others, as well as how they see the world.Rita was at the forefront of establishing the first and largest programme in autism education in the world and has published numerous papers, reports and books. Her work has transformed the way autism education is approached in the UK and internationally. In 2007, she received an OBE for services to special education.

Rita says: “It is an honour to win such a prestigious award and to be recognised in front of so many people I respect in the autism field.

“My successes have only been made possible with the help of others so I am grateful to all of the wonderful colleagues I have had, the resourceful parents I have met, and, above all, to the many inspiring individuals with autism who have given me so many insights into the difficulties they face and the strategies they use to help overcome them.”

Carol Povey, Director of The National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, said: “Rita should be commended for standing out from a truly exceptional shortlist.

“The finalists highlight some of the groundbreaking work going on across the UK to improve the lives of people affected by autism. It is important that we share their achievements so that other individuals and organisations can follow in their footsteps and ensure we live in a world where people with autism can reach their full potential.”

Rita’s journey of discovery

Rita’s eldest son had to be hospitalised in the 1960’s; a time where mothers were not allowed to be with their children in hospital. Angered, she worked with other National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital (NAWCH) members to change the law but in doing so, a greater issue was revealed as the result of a report Rita was authorised to produce on a variety of hospitals across Hertfordshire.

Labelled as ‘subnormality hospitals’, Rita describes her findings of this initial glimpse into treatment being given out to children by saying: “My first reaction to these visits had been one of shock and despair.

“At that time, children with severe learning difficulties (including children with autism, although most of these would not have had a diagnosis) were excluded from education. Many parents were told they should ‘put their child away’, forget about them and have another.”

Creating a group that met on four days every week made a difference. Rita believes three of the children had autism, though a medical diagnosis of any kind wasn’t possible. Despite difficulty, Rita managed to find a way of working with two of the children but could not engage with the third.

She says: “She had profound and complex learning difficulties alongside her autism. She was doubly incontinent, mute, and unable to walk and spent her time on a bean bag, rocking to and fro and biting, spitting at, or scratching anyone who came near.

“I have now lost touch with her and her family so I do not know how she fared. I just hope she eventually met someone who understood and could help her.”

This experience led Rita to study for an MA in Child Development and Research Methods at the Institute of Education. She then worked at the NAS Radlett Lodge School for children with autism aged 4-19, before moving to Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire) to run a full-time training programme for special needs teachers. Her move to the University of Birmingham followed this.

Collaborating on research with Gerardo Herrera, Director of the Assistive Technology lab for autism at the Robotics Institute at the University of Valencia led to the development of virtual reality programmes to teach thinking processes.

Rita believes that understanding from professionals is required to get the maximum effect from the technology.

She says: “There is still the same problem of staff not having enough training and support to realise the potential and to incorporate technology into their teaching. Research shows that robots are a great teaching tool but that tool needs to be used by talented teachers who know how to build on the reactions of the children with the robot.”

She concludes: “I am not sure my contribution is grand enough to be called a ‘legacy’ but I hope I am recognised for not sitting back when things are not right but stepping up to try to make them right. I hope to continue to do that until my lifetime is really over.”