Craig Smith is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, completing research with a focus on educating children with autism. We talked to the born and bred Novocastrian about his passion for supporting young people with autism through both his research and his work with Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect).
Tell us about your background including what drew you into special education.
I was born in Newcastle in 1983 and lived for a number of years in Lake Macquarie before I moved in to Newcastle after finishing my university degree. I met my wife on Beaumont Street around seven years ago, and together we moved to Hamilton shortly after.
From primary school through high school I was a pipe organist, studying at the Conservatorium of Music for a number of years, and I had a view to continue on this path into university study. However, the career opportunities for a young pipe organist in Newcastle seemed restricted at best, so my mind turned to the potential of being a teacher. At first my intentions were to be a high school music teacher, but then the allure of primary school teaching pulled me in until an even greater area of focus came into view: special education.
I was enchanted with the world of special education – it seemed like ‘super-charged teaching’. All the critical parts of teaching – behaviour support, task analysis, functional assessments – are brought to attention in special education in a way I really responded to. I think of special education teachers as ‘ninja teachers’ who can do anything. We have an arsenal of skills that span the entire breadth of pedagogy and that fashion us as diagnosing professionals – teachers who can look at a situation, assess the individual needs within, and apply the right remedy. I’m biased, but a good special education teacher is really something special.
Tell us a little about your work and research.
I work for Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). We have a school for children with autism at Thornton, and with classes in mainstream schools for children with autism at Belmont, Cardiff, Waratah West, Tarro and Abermain. Children with autism, particularly with high functioning autism, require a very particular type of education that provides support around communication, social skills, behaviour and related areas of need.
My research is focused on understanding the broad scope of experiences that teachers and support staff have in educating children with autism. I’m interested in the stories and lived experiences, the challenges and joys associated with teaching this unique cohort of children. I believe that we are still very young as a local and global community in our understanding of how to work with schools and families to implement the best supports for children with autism, and that through continued research into this area we will continue to establish better practices for all involved.
What are you passionate about? How can others in the community get involved?
I am passionate about supporting the achievement of the best life outcomes for young people with autism. There are so many ways the local community can help towards this goal. Part of the service I run at Autism Spectrum Australia is providing autism education to community groups and organisations who work with children. For example, a local martial arts organisation might have a number of children with autism attending their service. We can provide training so the instructors have a better understanding of how to best secure the success of these children. Things like how to deliver instructions in a very visual manner, about understanding the receptive and expressive skills of these children, of how to support social skills and positive behaviours.
I encourage local community, sports and arts groups to get in touch to either ask about the support we can provide, or to collaborate with us on establishing creative opportunities that can provide further social options for young people with autism around Newcastle and the Hunter.
Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?
Twitter has turned into one of my primary resource centres in recent years. The number of active education professionals on Twitter across all sorts of domains who are prepared to share their wisdom and resources is truly remarkable. It has become a daily routine for me to use Twitter to view the fantastic work others are doing, to share my own, and to collaborate when the opportunity presents.
Offline, my bedside table carries my favourite inspiring paperback resources: the works of Nietzsche and Beckett (who else understands life as well?), the fiction of Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon, a few pop-science books, and a few manga.
Online, besides Twitter, I find the scope of resources to be found within Tumblr, Pinterest, reddit and the other big sharing sites to be continually astonishing, particularly when we cast our mind back five years and consider what the sharing options online were then compared to now.
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
The opportunities that have presented themselves outside of the traditional classroom have been astonishing, and something I had not anticipated when going into my education degree: in the past year I have presented at eleven conferences, both national and international, and last week chaired my first conference. I’ve had opportunities to be involved in exciting communities such as being accepted into the Apple Distinguished Educator program, and to professionally grow through my PhD studies and opportunities such as being a finalist in UON’s Three Minute Thesis competition.
I’ve been able to facilitate local social groups for children with autism, and to appear on international podcasts with other autism educators. It has been a truly amazing experience that would have never been possible without the support of my valued colleagues at work, and without the tremendous foundations provided for me by the Special Education Centre at the University of Newcastle.
What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
A couple of years ago I taught a local class of children with autism. Together we worked on creating an action movie about all the video games that the children enjoyed. We had a fantastic time doing it – travelling around Newcastle and filming on Hunter Street, in local apartment buildings, at the beach. After composing a soundtrack and editing the film together, we held a red carpet event for the students at our school. We showed the movie – a forty minute epic – to a packed hall of families and friends, and at the end of the movie the children stood on stage, took a well-deserved group bow, and then proceeded to autograph copies of the movie posters. It was a great evening, and a remarkable sign of what the very unique talents of children with autism can produce when their special interests are incorporated into an educational program. I still expect to see copies of the autographed movie posters arrive on Ebay one day for a very high price.
What would be your dream project?
I am living my dream project everyday – the opportunity to continue to creatively explore and research the world that our children with autism inhabit, particularly within our schools and local communities, is what I want to dedicate every day to. I love what I do, and the project just keeps on growing into avenues that I hope will continue to benefit not only the autism community but the wider community in general. Our society feels like it is steadily becoming more aware, more sensitive to the individual needs of so many, and we need to keep this momentum progressing onward.
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
I just adore Hamilton. I’m a fanatical walker. I love the books of W. G. Sebald and his natural phenomenology, the way he wanders landscapes and interprets the history of the surroundings. The colours and the fragrances of Hamilton are just so unique in Newcastle, from the racecourse with its Sunday horses, to the train station and its temporary visitors, from Hamilton North to South, up and down Beaumont Street, in and out the shop fronts, off down the side streets and back alleys, it is a remarkable place that you can walk daily and never see the same thing twice.
Can you name a local hero?
Recently I have been working with a local historian and writer, Ruth Cotton, by taking some photographs to accompany her extraordinary Hidden Hamilton blog. I love that she is taking the time to reveal the unknown stories of so many Hamilton locations that we walk and drive past everyday. Did you know that Hamilton used to have a proper Turkish Bath House? Or the rich cultural history of local businesses like the Northern Star Cafe? Ruth is doing a beautiful job at detailing the narrative past and present of the neighbourhood I love.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
In summer I like nothing more than to wander beside the harbour in the early morning light, watching the ships come and go, then to have a big breakfast and do some writing for an hour before an aimless journey down King and Hunter Streets, checking the shops, photographing the buildings and the locals before a visit to Newcastle Art Gallery and Newcastle Library, a nice lunch, a languid afternoon play in the park with my daughter while my wife makes some pencil sketches of the area, in time for an evening catch up with a friend to see a movie at the Tower Cinemas. Then, beneath the moonlight, to watch the ships on the Harbour, like little watch batteries resting on the wire thin horizon, before returning to Hamilton for slumber. That is a perfect summer’s day in the city.
As I would do in summer, but with a warm coat. Plus, go and see an electronic noise gig at the Croatian Wickham Sports Club, admire the foliage of the trees in Gregson Park, buy a David Foster Wallace paperback from MacLean’s on Beaumont Street, buy an incense burner from High Tea with Mrs Woo, and make yourself cosy at home looking through local Newcastle Tumblrs of an evening, such as the always wonderful The View From King Street.
Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?
Breakfast at Paymasters on Bond Street. Deep pan buttermilk pancake, topped with caramelised fresh banana, served with bacon. What a start to the day. I needed a nap afterwards.
Your favourite getaway destination?
I’ve recently become enchanted with Barrington Tops, the landscapes are extraordinary. But really, my perfect getaway is the chance to stay around Hamilton and Newcastle. I’m not of the travelling variety, I just want to walk locally and look around and smile quietly.
Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?
The view from the top of Bolton Street car park is the best place to admire our city.
To find out more about Autism Spectrum Australia’s work with community groups, please contact Craig on firstname.lastname@example.org