We can surprise ourselves, sometimes, as Emma Aberdeen found out when she decided to give up her job in the hospitality trade after ten years, to complete a Teaching Assistant course.

Emma had started at college, but a taste of earning her own money while working in a bar, had side-tracked her. Working for a national pub chain had its rewards - it gave her the chance to progress to shift leader - but there was always the nagging memory of what might have been.

"As part of my job, I organised a lot of fund-raising, family events, dealing with children, which I really enjoyed,” she says. “That’s what spurred me on to re-apply to get my teaching assistant qualification. That and the unsociable hours."

While doing her school placement, as part of the training, Emma worked one-to-one with an autistic boy, but admits that that wasn’t in her plan.

I’d never thought of working with autistic children, but I really enjoyed seeing him come on, over the course of the year. Then, when I was looking for a job after I qualified, a vacancy came up with the North East Autism Society,” she says. “It was a massive career change, but it just sounded like the job I wanted to do.”

I decided to go for it – and it was the best decision I’ve ever made!

Emma joined NEAS’s school in Aycliffe, County Durham, which works with learners aged from three to nineteen. There are three pupils in her classroom, each working one-to-one with their own teaching assistant, and a class teacher.

Unlike mainstream schools, classes are not arranged by age, but by the ability of the pupil, so there may be a wide age range in one class. And pupils might stay in the same class until they are ready to move, depending on what their needs are.

As Emma explains: “It all centres around what’s best for the individual.”

Emma works school hours, from Monday to Friday, and every day starts with ‘regulation’, allowing each child to settle in to the school day in the way that’s best for them. This could be by visiting the sensory room, or taking part in activities such as modelling with Play-Doh or Lego.

Maths and English are also on the agenda, but everything is done at the pace of the individual, and in the way that suits their learning. Before they pupils go home at the end of the day, there is a period of ‘relaxation’, to enable them to adjust to the transition back to homelife.

There are a lot of sensory-based activities, but there is also the teaching of life-skills, in order to encourage individuals towards independent living.

Yes, it can be very challenging and I would warn anyone not to choose this job thinking it’s easy. But if it’s something you really want to do, you should go for it because it’s so rewarding.

Emma emphasises that resilience and understanding are important qualities needed to work with autistic children and young people. As well as good communication skills, working well in a team, but also having the ability to think on your feet. “And,” she adds, “you need to be hard working.”

Emma has been with the Aycliffe school since March - right at the start of Lockdown - and says that the on-the-job training has been “fantastic”. She already had her Level 3 Teaching Assistant diploma, which she needed for the job, but If she wanted to progress to Level 4, NEAS would help her to do that.

There’s absolutely no pressure to progress, but the option is there in the future, if you want do it,” she says. “Everyone in the school is so supportive, and we all help each other. The staff are all lovely, and it’s a really nice place to work.

The relationship with parents is also important, so there is regular contact to keep them up to date, and to address any worries they might have.

Although there are some elements of her previous job that Emma misses, she wouldn’t go back.

Working in the school makes you feel like you’ve achieved something when you go home. When you see someone accomplish something, it’s the best feeling in the world. And you know that this is also helping their families.”

The pupils make the job what it is – they’re fantastic.

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