Shows classroom with students raising their hands to answer a question, teacher in background
An Interpretative Phenomenological Study of the Experiences of Autistic Teachers in the Irish Education System

Although autism is well acknowledged in Irish education and there is greater social awareness of autism, there has been little research exploring the experiences of autistic teachers. Specifically, , there is currently no Irish-based research available investigating autistic teacher experiences in schools. This gap was the focus of a DCU study which explored the experiences of autistic teachers working in schools in the Irish education system.  

Existing Research

Existing research suggests that autistic workers may consciously or unconsciously mask, or hide, their autistic status from colleagues in the work setting. Previous research also shows many autistic people have mixed experiences when sharing this information with colleagues. This non-disclosure, as well as sensory overload or a lack of social support, can have detrimental effects on wellbeing and mental health for autistic people.  These findings suggest that it is important for Autistic teachers and their support systems, including school leadership to have an awareness of the stressors that can affect autistic teachers. For the teaching profession in Ireland, reported shortfalls in training at initial teaching education and continuing professional development can mean teachers lack the requisite knowledge to create inclusive learning environments.

Traditionally, perspectives on autism have been focused on the medical model perspective and on suggestions regarding “impairment”, “disorder” and deficits displayed by Autistic people.  Increasingly, however, autism research and autistic researchers are using a neurodiversity-affirmative approach, and this is evident in a move away from ableist perspectives regarding understandings of autism. Research has also moved away from ableist and medicalised language, in favour of respectful and strengths-based language. Also important is that contemporary best-practice research involves meaningful participation from autistic researchers as equal stakeholders.

Perspectives of autistic teachers

With this in mind, the team sought to explore, hear, and give voice to the perspectives of autistic teachers. The research was led by a multiply neurodivergent autistic teacher-researcher who conducted four in-depth semi-structured interviews with autistic participants.  This meant that neurodivergent ways of working, researching and communicating were intrinsic to the study design. A nuanced and novel approach to how the research was completed involved increased visual representation of data compared to other studies and careful consideration of language or terms used throughout the drafting and writing process.These interviews were then analysed in seven stages, producing a nuanced and personal account of the teachers’ experience.

The testimony from the autistic teachers participating in the study aligned with contemporary understandings of autism. The participants clearly described examples of how being autistic deeply influenced their work. For example, teachers were able to understand the importance of strong interests and deep focus for autistic students. This suggests that Autistic teachers are vital in supporting Autistic children and young people in our schools, and their role extends beyond that of a role model as suggested in previous research. The findings and discussion highlight the valuable contributions that Autistic teachers are already making to creating positive school climate, culture, and environment, especially for Autistic pupils.

This finding is consistent with autistic-led theories of autism, such as monotropism, a core theory that accurately outlines an autistic way of being in the world. Monotropism details how autistic minds tend to prefer to focus deep attention and find meaning in a small number of deep interests. Typically, this preference involves the  autistic person finding the deep focus and “flow” while in a monotropic state to be preferable to spreading attention across multiple or changing foci. The school environment can often be a fast-paced and sensorally chaotic environment, often making it challenging for autistic people.  

Minority Stress

The participants’ perspectives also emphasised their individuality and experience of minor differences they perceived from those around them, highlighting the importance of understanding minority stress experienced by Autistic individuals in schools as work settings. Some of the participants reported negative or challenging relationships with others in their word environment, something they felt was related to them being autistic. Work environments that are accessible and supportive of divergent employees are important, particularly in being flexible to support different preferences or support needs. 

Overall, the study showed significant challenges that autistic teachers face each day in schools and the wider system. However, the research also highlighted opportunities to promote conditions for autistic teachers to flourish and thrive in their roles. A number of suggestions and avenues for future research were suggested. A  collaborative approach based on the principles of neurodiversity may contribute to creating learning environments that are more welcoming and inclusive for our diverse learners, teachers and the wider community.

The study’s results garnered significant media attention. Since its publication, Dr Claire O’Neill has spoken about its findings to national media, appearing on RTE Drivetime and The Last Word with Matt Cooper, and speaking to Jess Casey, the Education Correspondent for the Irish Examiner. She and Dr Kenny also wrote a piece for RTE Brainstorm. Interest in the research extended to local media with appearances in Northside People and Southside People.


Claire O'Neill
Shows Dr Claire O'Neill

Claire is Deputy Principal of St Michael's COI National School in Cork, a graduate of DCU Institute of Education and PhD candidate at UCC.

Dr Neil Kenny
Shows Dr Neil Kenny

Dr. Neil Kenny is an Assistant Professor and researcher with expertise in Autism research, inclusive qualitative research, and participatory research.