Joseph’s insight into learning challenges in people with autism secures him award
Joseph McPherson, who is one of the first students to graduate from Queen Margaret University with a BA (Hons) Education Studies, was awarded the Atholl Crescent Award for his top performance on his degree course.
Twenty-six-year-old Joseph, who graduated this year from QMU, achieved the highest average grade across his student group in the final year of the BA (Hons) Education Studies. In addition, his deeply personal account of the learning challenges often experienced by people with autism, is helping influence learning environments and practices for people with additional support needs.
Initially attending St Thomas of Aquin's in Edinburgh, Joseph was keen to progress to degree level studying, and ended up going to night school to secure his Highers. He went on to study social science at Edinburgh College before initially securing his place on the BA (Hons) Education Studies (Primary) at Queen Margaret University. But it was during his time at college that he connected with the institution’s support services, which better equipped him to navigate his course and develop different learning strategies. That additional support proved immensely helpful – giving Joseph new skills and a renewed drive to progress to the degree course at Queen Margaret University.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Joseph threw himself into his university work. During his second year, he discovered he had autism. This helped Joseph understand some of the challenges he had faced throughout school, college and university. He then decided to move from studying the BA (Hons) Education Studies (Primary) into the BA (Hons) Education Studies, so he could progress a career in education policy, rather than in a direct primary teaching role.
Joseph said: “I have turned the difficulties that I experienced with learning into something positive.”
During his final year at QMU, Joseph focused his dissertation on his experience of navigating higher education as someone on the autistic spectrum. He said: “I felt strongly about doing a piece of work which looked at how learning environments can be inherently disabling for people with diverse sensory needs. I wanted to illuminate the impact that local and broader higher education policy has on people’s educational experiences and outcomes, particularly those with additional support needs.”
As someone with lived experience of autism, who has navigated further and higher education, Joseph hopes that his experience – encapsulated within his dissertation – will serve as a learning opportunity for QMU and practitioners to make changes to both practice and space to ensure they are inclusive.
Joseph’s unique journey and his analytical review of his experience of education certainly made an impression. His dissertation received one of the highest marks awarded at QMU, and Joseph is keen for it to be made available to a wider public to assist in creating better understanding and positive change for people with additional support needs. The work on the dissertation has also helped Joseph shape his career direction.
Joseph explained: “I had a very unique journey, and was determined and supported to achieve my goals. With a good understanding of the personal struggles that can exist for some people around learning, I am now keen to help different types of learners achieve their potential, and maybe even help shape future learning policies.
“There have been key people at Queen Margaret University who have really supported and encouraged me throughout my learner journey, and I am thankful to them for fuelling my determination to succeed”, confirmed Joseph. “I’m also grateful to the charity Number 6, which helped me gain a diagnosis of autism, and for the care and guidance which duly followed. Getting a diagnosis, and the right kind of support to move forward in life and learning, can really be a transformative experience.”
Since graduating from QMU with a first-class honour’s degree, Joseph has enjoyed working in various support services roles at Edinburgh College. He looks forward to developing a meaningful and rewarding career in a student support role with the College.
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