Interview with Katerina Mpakopoulou

KaitiKaterina 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

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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.

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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?

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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.’

 

Addio Milano

Last week the Italian team hosted the tri-national set of meetings, visits and discussions which take place on the TAE project approximately every six months. Based in Monza, near Milan, and spread over five days, this event provides an important opportunity for team members and associated professionals to discuss progress and plan the next phases of the scheme.

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Dr Karen Guldberg in discussion with Dr Damian Milton in Monza, Italy.

 As you can imagine, with groups from Greece, Italy and the UK, there were many interesting issues aired in relation to autism education, with cultural and socio-linguistic differences at times providing key talking points. Naturally, our Greek and Italian partners were much more proficient in English than most members of the UK team in either of their languages (Dr Lila Kossyvaki from the UK team is, fortunately, a native Greek speaker). What is clear, however, is that all three teams are moving ahead constructively with the development of the teacher training programmes and that working in such a European partnership is very fruitful.

Next stop: Birmingham in October 2016!

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At the ‘multiplier event’ in Italy, where there was at times three-way translation from Greek, to English, to Italian.

Moving forward apace

There have been exciting developments for both the Greek and Italian teams over recent weeks. The Greek team, led by Katerina Laskaridou, has been in talks with the new director of Special Educational Needs (SEN) at the Ministry of Education in Greece, with a view to potentially rolling out the autism staff training programme across the whole of the country. This is very early days, of course, but extremely encouraging for the Piraeus-based team as well as the broader TAE project members.

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Dr Paola Molteni (Italian team), Dr Lila Kossyvaki (UK team) & Katerina Laskaridou (Greek team Lead) in Birmingham in 2015.

The Italian team, meanwhile, are moving on swiftly with the piloting of Level 2 of the training materials with teachers from a number of local primary schools. They are also finalising plans for the next transnational meeting in Italy which is only a few weeks away. As well as discussions, presentations and the all-important ‘multiplier’ event (which involves many international participants), plans include visits to local schools and meetings with the whole team and sub-teams. We are all looking forward to it!