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Q&A with Corrie McLean: Supporting young people during times of change

Posted 8 February, 2022 by Jennifer Drummond

Ahead of our upcoming webinar focusing on autism and change, Corrie McLean (pictured) reminds us why supporting children and young people during times of turmoil is especially important – and how to do this effectively.

Coping with change can be stressful and anxiety inducing for many. For those with additional support needs, changes, be it big life changes or small alterations to routine, can be particularly challenging. It is important that young people have support systems to help them navigate and process the associated, often complex, emotions.

Practitioners are very rarely in control of, or in a position to influence, these changes -  but are often those who have the responsibility to support families and young people in finding their way through.

Here, Corrie McLean of Three Sisters Consultancy explains how they hope to help.

Tell us a little more about Three Sisters Consultancy and what you do

Three Sisters Consultancy is a small family consultancy that supports health, social care and education organisations to think differently about the services they provide. We are two sisters and the idea is that when you work with us you become our third sister – welcome to the family!

I have a background in teaching but moved into working with children and young people with additional support needs. I felt as a mainstream teacher I was watching our most vulnerable children slip through the cracks and my passion since then has been to help support our ASN children and young people to reach their best outcomes.

We work primarily with parents, carers and practitioners, helping to create long-term capacity and encourage the confidence and skills to help our community at an individual level. 

The event in February will focus specifically on looking at how those with autism may respond or react to change, and how best to support them. What’s been the most useful thing you’ve learnt as a practitioner in relation to autism and change? 

With Covid-19 we have seen so many drastic, and often abrupt, changes  to routines and lifestyles.

As carers, change is something we have been trying to navigate and we have come up with some successful solutions over the years. We also learned that sometimes we can try a first, second, or even third strategy before we finally find something that benefits the person we support. 

Professionally we spend a lot of time working with practitioners who are struggling to support young people with the bigger changes in life, such as life transitions, puberty and relationships.

Our passion is about building the confidence and capacity of practitioners, allowing them to mould and apply a strategy they learned in one of our webinars, to their setting and circumstance.

What would you like delegates to learn and take away from the training?  

We want our delegates to learn something new, but also have the confidence to try and implement a strategy, skill or idea. We make sure our webinars are as practical as they can be and [want] every parent, carer and practitioner to feel confident about trying at least one strategy, tool or exploring a [new] resource.

Corrie McLean is co-founder of Three Sisters Consultancy, with her sister Rhiann.

The full version of this interview first appeared in the Children in Scotland Webinar Guide, published February 2021. 

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Q&A with Ruth Fidler: Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance

Posted 22 Sept 2021 by Jennifer Drummond (updated 9 May 2022)

We spoke to Ruth Fidler, an Education Consultant specialising in complex autism, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), interactive approaches and emotional wellbeing, ahead of her May 2022 webinar.

Ruth provides training and consultancy for schools and parents and works with other agencies including the Autism Education Trust and the National Autistic Society. Previously, she worked at Sutherland House, a specialist autism school in the East Midlands, for more than 20 years.

She is co-author of two books, Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance syndrome in children (2012) and Can I Tell You About Pathological Demand Avoidance? (2015).

We spoke to Ruth ahead of her upcoming webinar for Children in Scotland, Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA).

For people who are not familiar with the distinct behaviour profile associated with Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA), how do you introduce it?

It is important to understand PDA as an autism spectrum profile, so we are essentially talking about individuals on the autism spectrum whose presentation of their autism is best described as matching the features of PDA. That means, combined with aspects of autism, their profile is characterised by high anxiety leading to resistance to everyday demands, using social strategies to avoid expectations, experiencing sudden changes in mood, and having issues with social identity and social understanding.

What is key to supporting anyone with a PDA profile is creating a holistic picture of them as an individual.

Your book “Can I tell you about..” is presented from the perspective of an 11-year girl, Issy, who’s inviting readers to learn about PDA as she experiences it. What inspired you to take this approach?

Jessica Kingsley publishers have a series of books in the ‘Can I tell you about…?’ range which are all written from the perspective of young people explaining their condition to others. I chose a girl because I wanted to encourage readers to move away from some of the male stereotypes that have historically existed around autistic children. Also, the ratio of females to males in PDA is more equal than in other autism profiles. I drew on the various individuals I have known over my professional career in creating the character of Issy. She obviously rang true with many readers as I had a lot of contact from people asking about Issy’s real identity!

Why do you think the diagnostic term and how it fits within the autistic spectrum is so widely debated?

There is often debate when new ways of thinking about a concept arise but being able to discuss and question preconceptions is a positive thing.

One reason that debate has been sparked is that the research into PDA is in relatively early stages and is not yet featured specifically in the diagnostic manuals.

That has led to some variation in different areas or in professionals having differing positions on how it is viewed. That doesn’t mean that it is not a valid or useful formulation to help us understand the individuals we know, so that we can tailor the support they need.

What’s the most rewarding thing about your work and specialising in complex presentations of autism?

The most rewarding aspect of my work is getting to know such a variety of people. Not only the individuals with complex presentations of autism themselves, but also their families and the professionals who work with them. What I find most satisfying is when collaborative approaches, which bring together all the people involved, build a support package that helps a young person to thrive.

What are the issues for education settings in meeting the needs of pupils with PDA and are we making progress in schools?

Some of the most common issues that schools face is often regarding capabilities to work sufficiently flexibly and collaboratively to match the needs of the children.

There are important discussions needed regarding the distinctive nature of PDA as many of the strategies used with other autistic youngsters are less effective, or even unhelpful, for those with a PDA profile.

Having said that, it is also my experience that many schools are forward-thinking, value reflective practice and work hard to support their pupils.

The webinar will look at strategies for engaging with children with PDA. What are some of the strategies you’ve found most successful?

Successful strategies to support children and young people with a PDA profile are characterised by being child-centred and flexible. It is really important that adults are able to work collaboratively with young people and their families; are able to have positive conversations about setting priorities; employ indirect approaches which build on trusting relationships, humour, strengths and interests; and take great care to promote emotional wellbeing.

Interview by Catherine Bromley

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Q&A with Corrie McLean - Girls and autism: a hidden minority?

Posted on 25 August 2021 by Jennifer Drummond (updated 24 May 2022)

Too often, girls and young women with autism are overlooked and struggle to get a diagnosis until they reach crisis point.

A first person account published recently in Metro (click to read) shared the experience of a young woman who as a girl struggled with times tables and ‘basic’ instructions at school, experienced social anxiety, bullying, a lack of understanding and mis-diagnosis by professionals. She was finally diagnosed with autism at the age of 19, after years of difficulty.

Corrie McLean, of Three Sisters Consultancy (pictured), says we have an opportunity to do things differently, and that listening to girls and young women should be at the centre of our approach.

What was it about this account, published by Metro last month, that resonated with you?

It just really hit home. It’s telling the same story that we hear over and over again of feeling isolated, of feeling different, of feeling “othered”. When that young person seeks help and are told that they’re “just a bit different”, that’s because there isn’t awareness of how autism can present itself.

Several studies have suggested that girls with autism consistently receive a much later diagnosis than their male peers. Why do you believe this is?

There are a lot of factors that come into play. The stereotypical indicators for autism and the assessment criteria for a diagnosis are very male centric meaning that practitioners who are working with autistic girls may be used to supporting and diagnosing based on the more male characteristics. Also, there’s the societal aspect of gender norms and expectations. Often females are able to “mask” their struggles, but this can then lead to deteriorating mental health. We have spoken to a lot of autistic girls and women through our work who have said they have only been diagnosed once their mental health is in serious decline and they’re in crisis.

What is the key difference between boys and girls with regards to autism?  

When talking about key differences we need to take into account the individuality of people, and also acknowledge the gender spectrum.  Stereotyping can limit our ability to personalise our approach, however we do have some research that helps us better support our girls.

Often girls are perceived to be able to imitate others’ behaviours and mask their sensory sensitivities more effectively. Girls may be seen as shy or quiet rather than anti-social or withdrawn. These societal expectations of girls mean autistic traits in females are often missed.

Special interests may seem more “socially acceptable” than the stereotypes you get with males. I was speaking to an autistic young woman a few months ago whose special interest was horses. She lived in a rural area and because many of her peers also enjoyed time at the stables, her level of interest and depth of knowledge wasn’t seen as different from her peers. If she’d had an in-depth knowledge of a less “typical” interest, it might have been picked up earlier.

I also recently spoke to a small group of teenage girls who told me all they wanted to do was to fit in. This meant often they were masking their true feelings and not expressing their identity, which long term can be harmful.

What do you think needs to change to ensure girls with autism aren’t overlooked?

Speaking to, acknowledging and learning about the female experience from autistic women and girls, needs to be our priority. Making them the centre of our approach has to be the most important thing we do. Working with autistic girls directly and helping them understand their own autism is also key to supporting their growth, helping them to identify reasonable adjustments that we can put in place to support them and their mental health.

Raising awareness of autistic traits that are not male centric is also important, and supporting families and practitioners to identify how autism may present and affect our girls.

You are running training with us on Girls with Autism in August. What will you cover and why is this important?

We will look at what the current research tells us about the prevalence of girls on the spectrum and how being autistic may affect girls differently. We will also explore the experience of adolescence and the issues our autistic girls may face, with a focus on puberty. Most importantly, we will be looking at practical skills that either we have used in our practice, or tools autistic women and girls have told us have helped them.

Corrie McLean is co-founder of Three Sisters Consultancy

Interview by Catherine Bromley

New measures to support autistic pupils welcome, but we mustn't lose momentum

16 December 2020

Children in Scotland, along with Scottish Autism and the National Autistic Society Scotland, has welcomed the recent announcement by Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, on action to improve support for autistic learners - but has warned we must not become complacent.

The announcement, made on Wednesday, includes new measures developed in partnership with the Autism in Schools Short-Life Working Group to improve autism awareness and training within schools and other educational settings.

Each measure announced in the action plan is a direct outcome of the findings from the ground-breaking Not Engaged, Not Involved report, published by the three charities in 2018.

Responding to the action plan, Sally Cavers, Children in Scotland’s Head of Inclusion said:

“Children in Scotland has welcomed the response to the Not Included report, including this announcement, and the way all organisations have worked together to secure significant changes.

“However, it is critical for autistic children, and all children with additional support needs, that we also focus on the other areas identified within the report to make sure we are doing our very best for all children in our education system. This is especially true now following a very challenging year in relation to learning for many children and young people with additional support needs.”

Measures announced by the Scottish Government include:

  • Revisions to the GTCS framework for accreditation of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) with a new requirement to demonstrate promotion of equality and diversity with a range of neuro-development differences, including autism
  • Inclusion of key areas of additional support needs in the revised GTCS Professional Standards for Teaching, to be used from summer 2021
  • Development of a common baseline for content on autism to be included in ITE
  • Ongoing development of the ‘autism toolbox’, for use by both new and experienced teachers
  • Fulfilling additional need requirements considered during HM Inspections.

Not included, Not involved

The latest developments following the ground-breaking report

Click to visit the website

Autism in Schools Working Group action plan

Find out more about the action plan announced by Scottish Government on Wed 16 Dec

Click to read the announcement

Resource: Autism toolbox

A free online resource, designed to support inclusion of learners in primary and secondary school education

Click to visit the website

National Autistic Society Scotland

Offering a range of services and support to Scotland's 56,000 autistic people and families

Click to find out more

Scottish Autism

Helping those with autism to lead full and enriched lives

Click to visit the website

“This crisis is a chance to start talking about how much autistic people and neurotypicals have in common”

7 July 2020

Dr Peter Vermeulen is an internationally acclaimed autism consultant, lecturer and trainer. He has published more than 15 books on autism, including Autism as Context Blindness.

Ahead of his Children in Scotland webinar this Thursday, he explains how much we can learn from people with autism on how to manage stress and anxiety

What keeps me interested in autism, after all these years, is that I still haven’t found the answer. In fact, I now realise that you don’t need an ultimate answer to help autistic people and their families.

There’s a lot of value in trying to understand autism and develop all kinds of educational, behavioural treatment strategies to help people. But maybe we overlooked the basic human need of autistic people and that’s wellbeing. My focus has become more about the basic human needs that autistic children have and what neurotypical and autistic people have in common.

If we look at today’s climate and especially in the Covid crisis, I think we all have a lot in common. That’s why this webinar about stress management is important.

Whether you have autism or not – we have all of us gone through a period of increased stress, heightened anxiety and a lot of uncertainty and I think this crisis may be the moment to start talking about how we are not that different after all.

I have even gone so far as to describe this as a big ‘autism experience’ experiment. All non-autistic people, and all children, now have to go through what is probably daily life for many autistic people – so for children, isolation, separation from peers, but also uncertainties, about school, about not seeing grandparents, about so many things.

And this is why I and other experts have been interviewing autistic adults to ask them how they cope with anxiety so that they can give neurotypicals advice. Because they’re the experts in anxiety and stress.

We can learn a lot from autistic people, how they cope with stress but also the impact of stress if you don’t manage it. If you experience stress for too long, it makes you sick, literally. It weakens your immune system.

We are all scared of this virus but there’s another thing that is threatening the bodies of autistic children and that’s the stress hormone, cortisol. This has the potential to make young people even more vulnerable so it’s crucial we address the issue of stress management as we continue to cope with the crisis.

What I hope people will gain from this webinar is an awareness that it’s the pile-up of stress that causes the most problems. Some people don’t realise that it’s in the moments of calm, when the child is happy and playing, that it is that moment to do the relaxation exercise. It is then that they are open to it and it will most effective.

The moment the child gets into a meltdown or a panic attack, it’s too late, because then the child is not open to new things. Stress management should be included in the daily schedule along with planning mealtimes and taking a shower.

Also, I want parents and practitioners to know that they have some influence, that they can make a difference. As a parent sometimes you feel powerless but I want to let parents know that there are a lot of things that they can do, like cycling or running with their children – psychologists won’t do that with them.

Our webinar Stress Management in Autism: with Dr Peter Vermeulen takes place this Thursday 9 July, at 3pm.

About the author

Dr Peter Vermeulen is an acclaimed autism consultant, lecturer and trainer

Click to find out more

Stress Management in Autism webinar

Register your place on Dr Vermeulen's upcoming webinar

Click to register

Learning online

We've a great programme of webinars to support all your CPD needs this summer

Click to browse webinars

Not Included, Not Engaged, Not Involved

Our 2018 report found autistic children were missing out on their right to an education

Click to read more


Find out more about Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning

Click to visit the website

Survey of 1,417 parents finds autistic children are missing out on fundamental right to an education

25 September 2018

Pamela’s son, Kyle, is autistic. She said: “Kyle is only six but he’s already at his second school. The first school treated him like he had an infectious disease. He was left in a room by himself all day, away from the lesson and his friends. One day he came home and told me he was meant to be alone. It was heart-breaking.

“When I complained, the school suggested that he should only do half days, which is a form of unlawful exclusion. This put a lot of pressure on me as a working parent, and it was a relief when I found him a place in a school where staff actually understand autism and want to ensure autistic children receive an education.”

Research has been conducted by three leading charities into the experiences of autistic children missing school. Over a third (34%) of those who responded to our survey reported that their children had been unlawfully excluded from school in the last two years – with almost a quarter (22%) of those parents saying this happened multiple times a week.

An ‘unlawful’ exclusion is when a school sends a child home without using the formal exclusion process, meaning monitoring and support systems are bypassed. Scottish Government guidance is clear on its position that unlawful exclusions should not happen – yet the Not Included, Not Engaged, Not Involved report published today [Tuesday, September 25] shows that they are happening to autistic children across Scotland. The charities’ research also shows that autistic children are missing out on their education through the inappropriate use of part-time timetables.

Now Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism are calling for Scottish Government to work with local education authorities and education professionals to take action to address the barriers to autistic children accessing a fulfilling education and in particular stop the use of unlawful exclusions. Inclusive policy is not enough. The findings from the report show that immediate efforts are needed to ensure that autistic children are properly included, engaged and involved in their education.

The survey of 1,417 parents and carers of autistic children also revealed that:

  • 13% of those asked had experience of their autistic child being formally excluded from school in the last two years.
  • 28% of those asked had experience of their autistic child being placed on a part-time timetable in the last two years.
  • 85% of those asked said their autistic child did not receive support to catch up on work they had missed.
  • 72% of those asked felt that school staff having a better understanding of how their child’s autism affects them, including their communication needs, could have helped their child.

Amy Woodhouse, Head of Policy, Projects and Participation at Children in Scotland, said: “Parents of autistic children in every local authority in Scotland shared the impact on their children of missing out on their education. This is not an isolated problem as it is occurring across the country, to children of all ages, in both special and mainstream provision. Autistic children are not receiving the education they deserve and are entitled to.”

Carla Manini Rowden, Education Rights Manager at the National Autistic Society Scotland, said: “Sending a child home without formally excluding them is against the law, yet it keeps happening to the families we support and it is having a devastating impact on the education and wellbeing of children. We believe that Scottish Government must take action now and work with local authorities and education professionals to end the use of unlawful exclusions.”

Charlene Tait, Deputy Chief Executive Officer at Scottish Autism, said: “When a child is excluded from school, it is not only detrimental to their education but it also affects their social development as they are often left getting little, if any, quality time interacting with other children. There is also a huge socio-economic impact on the family, as too often parents tell us that they are stressed, unable to spend quality time with other children and, in many cases, have had to stop working. As a charity committed to improving the quality of life for autistic people and their families across Scotland, we are pleased to be part of this report.

The report sets out nine calls for action that, if implemented, would likely make significant improvements in the educational experiences of autistic children, so that autistic children and their families throughout Scotland can thrive. These include stopping the use of unlawful exclusions and inappropriate use of part-time timetables, improving the availability of specialist teachers, reviewing the availability of appropriate placements for autistic children, and enhancing programmes of initial teacher training and continual professional development to improve understanding of autism.

The charities are encouraging the public to sign an open letter they have written urging the Deputy First Minster and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, to work with the relevant agencies to implement these calls for action.

Notes to editors:

About the report

  • The full report is available at
  • A total of 1,417 responses were received, with responses from every local authority in Scotland.
  • Results are of a self-selecting sample of parents whose children had experience of missing time from school in the last two years.

About the partners

  • Children in Scotland is the leading national charity working to improve children’s lives. Its vision is that all children have an equal chance to flourish. Children in Scotland manages Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning.
  • The National Autistic Society Scotland is a leading charity for autistic people in Scotland and their families. They provide local specialist help, information and care across Scotland to autistic people, their families and carers. Their Education Rights Service provides impartial, confidential information, advice and support on education rights and entitlements.
  • Scottish Autism is an organisation dedicated to enriching the lives of autistic people. They are the largest provider of autism-specific services in Scotland, providing a wide range of innovative support for children and adults, including a residential school for autistic pupils in Alloa. Across all of their services there is a focus on improving quality of life.

Not Included, Not Engaged, Not Involved

Read the Children in Scotland, Scottish Autism and National Autistic Society research

Download report

Research background, voices and full findings

Find out more about the survey of 1,417 parents and our calls to acton

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Find out more about Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning

Visit the website