Dr. Alison Doyle is a researcher, educational psychologist and owner of Caerus Education. Alison regularly lectures to Higher Education Institutions in Ireland, and the UK. Alison began her career in Liverpool in 1982, teaching children with profound intellectual and physical disabilities, and continued to work as a teacher and school Principal. She has participated in numerous projects to help students and graduates with autism.
Tell us about your academic experience, your qualifications and your experience in gaining the qualifications.
I graduated with a B.Ed in Special Education more than 30 years ago and worked as a Special Needs teacher all over the world. I actually started an English speaking primary school in Switzerland, and it continues to be very successful! Along the way I completed a Masters in Inclusive and Special Education, and completed a PhD in the School of Education in Trinity College, focusing on transition from school to Higher Education for students with disabilities. I also completed training and qualification as an Educational Psychologist. Studying whilst working full time requires a high level of focus and determination, so for anyone thinking of taking that route, I would say that you have to be very happy with the idea of committing most of your free time to study.
What are your current academic areas of interest?
I have been very fortunate to be involved in research projects – past and present – with some highly respected academics. We have investigated transition from school to further education, training and employment for young people with intellectual disabilities, and are just completing a study on primary to post-primary transition in Dublin 1 schools. However, I am very excited about a study that I am working on at the moment, looking at the experiences of individuals, families, and professionals in the area of Pathological Demand Avoidance, which is a profile within the Autism Spectrum. Currently I provide occasional lecturing on special needs and inclusive education to a number of universities in Ireland, and I also teach a module on autism.
What main differences do you see between second and third level education?
That;’s an interesting question and to some extent, the differences are different for everyone! Although all secondary schools in Ireland follow the same curriculum, there can be considerable differences in school ethos and culture, which can affect a student’s experience. School is highly structured and quite rigidly timetabled, college is more fluid in that lecture times and venues might change at the last moment. In school, the curriculum is very prescriptive and tends not to change i.e. what you learn in 5th year now is most likely to be the same content that students in 5th year will learn next year, and the subject textbook is the main reference point. In college you are provided with a broad outline of the topic areas that your course will cover, but you are expected to delve into these a little deeper, to explore your subject independently, to browse the library and find material that will complement the ideas that you are introduced to in a lecture, and to be responsible for managing your own learning trajectory. Basically, you need to read – a lot!
What expectations do you feel students bring to university?
I can only really give you a general answer as I think everyone has slightly different expectations, depending upon their reasons for choosing a particular course. Students registered to professional courses expect to become qualified practitioners at some point, and they expect the course to equip them with skills and a qualification that will prepare them for the work place. Other students might choose a particular focus of interest, and will sometimes expect to be ‘taught’ everything about that subject matter. I think this is where there may sometimes be a mismatch in expectations. It is not possible to teach students an entire subject, or topic area in one semester, so there is an expectation from academic staff, that students will engage in independent learning and discovery.
What expectations do you feel students bring to your subject?
In terms of special education, inclusion and disabilities, these are vast and complex subjects. On the one hand perhaps students expect to learn about everything connected to specific special educational needs or disabilities, however, it is also essential to know and understand how policy and practice in education, health, and social care affect the everyday lives of individuals.
What advice would you give to students when it comes to managing deadlines and assignments?
See next question! The minute that you feel that you are not managing, talk to someone. Student Counselling, Student Learning, the Disability Service, your Tutor, peer supports. These services are provided to help students manage the role of being a student. The other piece of advice I would say is to view your time in college as being very similar to being employed. Your occupation is that of a student, In that role there are specific tasks that you have to initiate and complete. As far as possible try and adhere to a working week structure much as you would in a job, and this will leave you time to relax and enjoy some leisure time, so that work does not spill over into free time, and vice versa. This can be very difficult in Sciences and Health Science courses which have a very heavy timetable, so you need to be organised.
What do you feel is the greatest barrier to students completing their work in time?
Probably procrastination. I think it is something most people struggle with at one time or another. Quite often, there are a number of competing deadlines – this happens in the workplace as well – so if you can learn to manage time and organise yourself during the years you are in college, you will do very well in employment. Try and compile a list of all of the due dates as soon as you can, and plan in advance when you are getting to both begin and complete this work. Allow yourself a brief OMG moment, and then get down to work. The greatest barrier is becoming panicked and anxious and making a decision to pretend that there is no problem, no deadline, no work to do. Students run into trouble when they ignore the situation and consequently things rapidly pile up and get out of control.
How important do you find the social aspect of college life?
Connecting with your classmates and other people on your course is very important. A lot of information is passed between students about lectures, tutorials, what to do about assignments and so on. Academic staff like to be asked questions, they are very happy to talk to students (it is after all their specialist subject!) before or after class, although at times they may need to hurry off to another appointment. It is very important to be confident about asking questions, if you don’t know something, then ask. Administrative staff in Departments and Schools are there to help. Again, if you are uncertain about a timetable or an assignment date, just drop in and ask. From a social perspective, college is not just about academic work, it is an opportunity to explore new experiences, meet new people, to find out more about yourself, and to develop as a person. It is a real period of experimentation, and it is important to make the most of the opportunity and freedom to do so.
What is your experience interacting with the Disability Service?
I have worked with the Disability Service in Trinity since 2007, firstly as a Disability Officer, and latterly providing Specialist Academic Support. I really enjoy this work because it is so completely different to lecturing, and takes me back to my early days of teaching where you are really required to think about the strengths and challenges of individual students. Observing successes and seeing a difference in terms of growth in skills and confidence, is something that is very satisfying. Every hour of every day is completely different, and I have had the privilege of meeting some wonderful students. The level of experience and expertise within the Disability Service is phenomenal, and includes highly qualified specialists in Assistive Technology, Occupational Therapy, Psychotherapy, Educational Psychology, Coaching, and Counselling, in addition to very specialised knowledge about medical conditions and specific disabilities.
What difficulties have you noticed autistic students have in studying here in Trinity?
Most students find the transition to college quite difficult in the first few weeks. There are a lot of new experiences to manage: larger and unfamiliar environment (also much noisier), greater numbers of new people to meet so that means a lot of personalities and social situations to manage. If you are a person who finds these kinds of challenges to be overwhelming, it is really important to find out if college can help you. One of the difficulties for people who experience this type of overload, is engaging with support services and staying connected. The key skills here are to be self-aware – knowing what you find challenging, self-determined – being courageous and decisive about seeking help, and being a self-advocate – taking action, doing something about it. Identify a Go To person, whether that be your Tutor, an Occupational Therapist or Disability Officer in the Disability Service, and don’t be afraid to make contact and tell them that you are finding things difficult.
Are there any ways autism supports can be improved (for students OR staff?) in Trinity
Again, I think that practices and supports that benefit autistic students benefit the entire student body. A greater awareness of neurodiversity across the general population would help, not necessarily in terms of specific disabilities, but recognising the role of Working Memory, speed of processing information and Executive Function, as these are neurobiological processes that affect all of us in very idiosyncratic ways. Accepting individual differences and ways of interacting socially would also help; human beings might share interests but we really are not a homogenous group
About Alison Doyle
Aside from her work with Trinity, Dr. Alison Doyle is a researcher, educational psychologist and owner of Caerus Education, an independent consultancy in Dublin, specialising in the management of educational transitions for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Alison also carries out commissioned research on behalf of national organisations, and regularly lectures to Higher Education Institutions in Ireland, and the UK.