Katerina Mpakopoulou, specialist advisor for the Greek TAE team, is 21 years old and has a degree in pre-school education. However, she would like to become a writer so she can express herself through writing about her experience with autism, provide information and feel she is valuable to other people. Katerina also wants to write because it is a solitary job that will help her avoid having to talk to or interact with people. She does not consider herself an adult yet: this has been hard for her as her peers think her immature.
- How did you come to be involved with the TAE project, and what does your role involve?
My psychologist who is part of the Greek team suggested it to me and I believe that my role is to help people in Greece understand autism better.
- What is your impression of the TAE training materials that you have seen? How can they be improved?
I believe they have made a big effort to show more acceptance of autism as a difference, not a disability, and this is evident in the materials, but I have suggested how they could still be improved, in order to have a better outcome.
Piloting of Level 1 materials with over 150 teachers in Greece. Katerina’s input has been invaluable in helping to shape the teacher training materials.
3. In the UK, there is a lot of discussion about autism and women – that they are being either not diagnosed or mis-diagnosed. Is it the same in Greece?
They are not easily diagnosed in our country, because autism is different in women. Not that I know 100% what the differences are, but I guess that women are different and receive other diagnoses, because it is considered that mainly men are autistic, and because in men the characteristics are more obvious.
4. It is difficult to generalise, but how would you describe the attitude in Greece towards autistic children in school?
I believe that teachers consider autistic children «non-normal» and they prefer to refer them to a special education class or special school because they do not know how to deal with them.
They believe that autism is a disorder and they consider that only children who are loners, have stereotypical movements, or children who may not have speech or eye contact, can be autistic. They also believe that a child with autism has learning disabilities by definition. This is how they would expect an autistic child to be, a «disabled» child who can only live with the support of his/her family.
Artwork from one of the primary schools in Greece involved in the TAE project. Katerina feels she is able to relate well to this age-group.
I believe that none of my teachers considered me autistic because I do not look like I am disabled: I can take care of myself and can live independently (while their opinion is that autism is a disorder and that an autistic person cannot be independent). They probably thought that I was shy, I have always – ever since I was a child – been considered shy.
You may consider that I am a high functioning autistic person – as someone in my university had told me – but that is not true. There is no such thing as high or low functioning: it is a myth.
Why do we think that a person who has no speech is incapable of communication, or cannot be independent, or advocate for his/her own needs? It all depends on how he/she will be supported (by his/her family) to develop and if the parents accept autism or not. I believe that if parents consider their child disabled, then the child will also believe that of him/herself.
Imagine that when you were young, your parents considered you abnormal and cried because you were the way you were and looked sad whenever others spoke about you?
Or they also believed that you would never be able to live independently and that you would always need someone to take care of you? Would you have been persuaded that you were abnormal? Or wouldn’t you feel angry with your parents and would you reject them?
Playground at one of the participating schools: the squares were introduced following the TAE training in order to provide a more visually-structured playtime.
Perhaps this is how our society sees autism and an autistic child without speech would not be accepted, but then, this is society’s problem: it’s nothing to do with autism per se. That is why parents have to try hard and inform the world about autism as something that has to do with difference, not disorder or disability.
I do not mean that parents do not love their children: they do love them, but it is wrong to get upset about what will happen to their children once they die, while they do not get upset with the wrong perceptions of our society that considers autism a problem.
5. What do you hope will be the eventual outcome of the TAE project, and of your involvement in it?
I hope it will accurately and correctly inform people about autism and it will help towards a better understanding of autism.
Many thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Kaiti.
Thanks also to Katerina Laskaridou, the Greek team lead, for her help with preparing this interview.
After the interview, Kaiti added the following comment:
‘Katerina Mpakopoulou has been helped in viewing autism as a difference and not a disability by Perla Messina, autistic herself and founder of the Greek Association of autistic Adults. The Association itself no longer functions, but Perla, who was the first autistic adult to inform the public about autism, still continues her work with parents and teachers till this day.’