Melanie Sykes calls for education system to be ‘torn down and rebuilt’ to help autistic people
The education system needs to be “torn down and rebuilt” so it can better support those who are autistic, the TV presenter Melanie Sykes has said.
Discussing her recent diagnosis at the age of 51, which she announced earlier this week, Sykes reflected on the struggles she has faced throughout her youth and career, some of which she had previously put down to being northern and a “straight talker”.
“I did a big live gameshow on a Saturday night, and I couldn’t read numbers like money on the autocue,” she told the Guardian. “I’d have to wait for the director to tell me what that number was, which on a live show is really stressful.”
Other times, while using an earpiece, Sykes experienced difficulty with talkback, when she had accidentally responded to the director in her ear rather than an interviewee in front of her.
“Then I did a chatshow with Des O’Connor (Today with Des and Mel), and he didn’t use earpieces, which was fantastic for me because we’d get all our cues from the floor. It was the first time in my career that I was able to be present with the guest and really listen.”
Sykes has even failed auditions because she was not “able to do things in time and have talkback”, and received surprising feedback.
“I’ve often been told, ‘oh, nobody ever says that’ or ‘nobody’s ever complained about that’ and now I know why. I used to think it was because I was northern, and was just a straight talker.”
The presenter, who also hosted Let’s Do Lunch with Gino D’Acampo and Going Out with Alan Carr, had been working on a documentary about the failures of the education system with Harry Thompson, a writer and speaker on autism and PDA (pathological demand avoidance), when he recognised autistic traits in her and suggested she do an assessment.
“That included things like not doing very well in school. Although I was an avid reader, I couldn’t seem to quite grasp what I needed to do.
“I always put it down to being the youngest in my year. I left school at 15, and I just thought I was less mature than the others, but I now know the education system wasn’t set up in a way that I was able to function there. It crowbars you into a certain way of thinking and being, and if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind. That’s why we need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone.”
Sykes cited the autistic teenager Dara McAnulty, who wrote a book about immersion in nature, as an inspiration. “Learning shouldn’t be just sitting in a classroom and being forced to learn algebra or French when your brain doesn’t work like that. What a waste of your childhood. I can’t read a number that’s over five digits, and there’s no way that doing an hour of maths every day for five years would have changed that. When I could have learned, for example, that I’ve got a really good eye.”
The neurotypical brain, she added, “might not be typical at all. So the system that supports those types of brains isn’t necessarily what should be the norm.”
It is an issue Sykes feels strongly about, especially as her youngest son was diagnosed with autism at the age of three (he is now 17). Her documentary with Thompson is one of many projects she hopes to pursue after setting up her own production company. She says she’s keen to use her profile to incite change: “My activism has massively kicked in.”
At the same time, she continues to edit Frank Magazine, which she launched two years ago because “women’s lives, and the quality of their lives, is extremely important to me”.
Since revealing her diagnosis, she has been inundated with messages from people – including readers – thanking her for speaking out. “There were some women who were diagnosed and haven’t told anybody, because they’re embarrassed. Even today, somebody asked me how I was and I said, ‘Well, have you read the news?’ And they were like, ‘oh, I didn’t want to mention it’.”
To Sykes, her autistic nature is something to be embraced. “How I speak, how I articulate myself, how I move around. I’ve been told many times to slow down, because everything is at top speed. I’m very proactive. I never leave anything unfinished, because I can’t relax until I’ve done it.”
Other traits, she added, include “an inability to tell untruths, a huge sense of justice, and when I get really interested in something, I investigate it further and further.”
Awareness of all this, Sykes said, was key to improving the system. “The way I see it is that all the reasons that I’m autistic, they’re the best things about me.”