Gina Flaxman | 21/09/2020
How do you become an advocate for neurodivergent children after 20 years as a high school chemistry teacher? Siobhan Lamb shares her story.
After more than 20 years as a high school teacher, Siobhan Lamb, who is autistic and has been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, is starting a new career as an advocate for neurodivergent children.
When I was about seven years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and they said I was gifted. And only a couple of years ago, a psychologist diagnosed me as autistic as well. I don’t remember anything about my first diagnosis, but apparently I didn’t speak until I was about seven and a half, so I went to a mainstream school three days a week and a deaf school two days a week. They knew I didn’t have hearing problems but they just didn’t understand why I wasn’t speaking.
My mum was a special needs teacher, so she had me reading and writing at two years old, but I couldn’t speak. I remember constantly being pulled out of class for speech therapy, which I hated, and they taught me sign language.
I have three children and they’re all neurodivergent. My son sees a psychologist and a couple of years ago I was having a pretty hard time myself, so I saw a psychologist at the same time as him and the psychologist diagnosed me with autism.
It’s funny because a lot of people say when they’ve been diagnosed as an adult, their whole world becomes crystal clear and all of a sudden everything makes sense, but it did nothing for me. I wonder if that was because I’d been already diagnosed with neurodivergent conditions at a very young age. I grew up being ‘strange’.
I wanted to be a paediatrician. Then I did my work experience in year 10 and decided I never wanted to be a paediatrician but I still wanted to work with children, so I decided to be a teacher. Growing up, a lot of the teachers really didn’t get me, but there were three teachers that really took the time to understand me. And I always thought, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have become the person I am or been as comfortable being me.
Studying was never an issue. I struggled to focus but I think my intelligence sort of carries me over that. I have a PhD in chemistry so that helped with looking for work but I never found it hard. I think I picked workplaces that I thought would accept me. I picked schools that I thought would embrace someone that was slightly different.
I haven’t faced any challenges in Australia but I lived in Singapore for a while and I had a job at a school for neurodivergent kids and that turned out to be the most challenging environment I’ve ever experienced. I was so excited about working at a place that embraced neurodiversity but from the moment I got there, the headmistress said nothing positive to me. She said, “You are too much, you have too much energy, you have to turn it down.” And I found it very hard.
I actually had a discussion with her where I said, “I was so excited about getting this job, I’m very passionate about working with neurodivergent children, and yet, since I’ve arrived, you’ve done nothing but have a go at my neurodivergence.” And she said, “I’m passionate about neurodivergent children, not adults.”
I’m not as open as you’d think about disclosing it. I did disclose in Singapore because I thought it would be useful for the school to know but usually, I don’t disclose my dyslexia because it’s not apparent to people. I didn’t know I was autistic until recently. And with the ADHD – I don’t think you can meet me and not know I have ADHD. It’s very apparent. I’m constantly moving, I talk all the time.
In my last job in Australia, before we moved to Singapore, I felt that every single person there was supported for their individuality. It was a case of how can we use your strengths to make our school better? It didn’t matter that I had too much energy and bounced around a bit too much. If a teacher didn’t like how much I talked, they’d just say to me, “I can’t handle your talking today. Can you go into the next room?” And I’d say, “No problem.” They were very open and honest.
When I was in Australia, I loved my job and I was very good at it and I’m a good advocate for my kids. I hadn’t considered doing any advocacy for kids that weren’t my own children or students. But in Singapore, I started seeing how many neurodivergent kids fall through the cracks because their parents have no idea what to do. If you’re autistic there, there’s no support at most schools. So last year, after I left the school, I started holding workshops for the Ministry of Education at local schools to help teachers teach autistic kids.
I also started studying my masters in education. The first time I went into a school to give a talk, only three teachers showed up. It was very awkward. At the next one, there were about 30 people and it went on from there. I loved doing it and I got emails from teachers afterwards, saying, “Thank you. You’ve made such a difference.”
In Australia, you read that a quarter of students with ADHD have been suspended. That’s just terrifying. I don’t believe it’s because teachers don’t want to help. I believe teachers do want to help, but we’re asking them to pump up their life raft with the kids in it as it’s hurtling towards the waterfall and the drop, rather than saying, “Let’s take your raft out of the water. Here’s a pump, let’s blow it up. We’re still going to put you in the water and you’re still going to go towards the drop, but at least you have a chance.”
I haven’t quite got my new advocacy work off the ground yet but it’s a work in progress. I think I’m in a sort of unique position as far as advocacy goes. I’ve been a teacher for 20-odd years, so I understand what it’s like to be on that side of the table. I am also neurodivergent and I have neurodivergent kids, so I have been on all sides of the table.
The number one piece of advice I would give to anybody is work within your strengths and you’ll have a much better chance of success. And if you find yourself sitting in a job interview feeling like you need to lie, get up and walk out. You can tell straight away if they’re the sort of people who embrace differences. With the school in Singapore, I had questions but I just ignored them and I shouldn’t have.
Before I apply for jobs, I look at whether the school embraces difference. I look at their LGBTQIA policies and the racial and ethnic mix of the people who work there and who attend the school. Do your research to see if there is diversity there, to see if difference is welcomed.
I really identify as being neurodivergent. I love the term ‘neurodiversity’. It hasn’t been in common use for very long so it comes with far fewer stereotypes and stigma. It’s just, “I’m a little bit different. Our brains work differently than yours.”
My niece once said to her father, “Going to Auntie Siobhan’s house is like getting stuck in a tornado. Everything’s calm, then all of a sudden you get pulled to the side and you go around and around and you just have to go with it.” I love that description.
There are so many stereotypes that come with each condition. Teachers sometimes don’t realise the messages they’re sending. I had a teacher say to me about my youngest son, “He can’t have ADHD, he’s too well behaved.” I also had someone say about my daughter, “She’s gotten so much better, I can hardly tell she’s autistic now.”
What you’re saying to me loud and clear is my daughter feels less comfortable now than she did before. She doesn’t feel safe in your space, so she’s pretending to be someone else. A teacher also said, “Your daughter’s autistic but she’s really smart.” I said, “My daughter’s autistic AND she’s really smart.” All those little words people use – we hear them.