Retiring East Lothian teacher hails changing attitudes towards kids with autism
The retiring head of a specialist unit at a primary school in East Lothian has reflected on the changing attitudes towards children with autism in communities.
Susan Hagart is stepping down from her role overseeing The Cove at Dunbar Primary School.
And she recalled highs and lows in her role from comforting a mum who had been hounded off a bus because her son was noisy to witnessing a parent’s surprise when their mainstream child starts signing to a child with autism when they meet outside.
Mrs Hagart is retiring after 33 years in teaching.
When she started at schools in Grampian she recalled there was not even a name for autism in schools and children who needed additional support were in ‘language classes’.
She said: “They had not really identified autism at that point. It was something I was very interested in and I made it my mission to make sure the children were included.
“When I came to East Lothian I started working in language classes. Autism was a condition that was not understood.”
Mr Hagart worked at Burgh Primary School, Musselburgh and when The Cove moved to Dunbar Primary School ten years ago she took charge as depute head teacher.
She still recalls the moment the mother of a young boy arrived in tears after taking him on a bus.
She said: “Not long after I started working in Musselburgh a mum arrived crying her eyes out, she had been on the bus with her boy and he loved being on the bus and was clapping his hands and vocalising.
“One of the passengers told her to shut him up, or something like that and she ended up getting off the bus.”
Since then she has seen huge steps forward in understanding of conditions like autism and puts an emphasis on the importance of including children attending The Cove in activities with mainstream youngsters at schools.
Many of the mainstream children at Dunbar have learned some sign language which helps them communicate with their fellow pupils who attend The Cove.
Mrs Hagart said: “Because East Lothian is such an inclusive county we have so much more acceptance and tolerance.
“In Dunbar the mainstream children know some sign language and can interact with the children. That is such a huge change.
“It is really hard to model good social skills with other autistic children. It makes sense to use these opportunities to to have them together and it works both ways.
“I recall one parent being surprised when her child saw a friend from The Cove while out and greeted their friend using sign language.
“It helps build a better understanding between the children of some differences and acceptance.”
After ten years at the helm of The Cove, Mrs Hagart is looking forward to taking a break admitting she has “a few Jack Reacher books to catch up on”.
But she said working in the additional support needs unit was a ‘privilege’ as she worked with hundreds of families and their children over the years.