top of page
  • Writer's pictureCavendish Education

'What is it like to be an autistic headteacher of autistic children?'

The Headteacher of Gretton School in Cambridgeshire, Beth Elkins, shares what a privilege it is to work with Autistic children from her own unique perspective and explains why specialist provisions are so important for this wonderful cohort. 

There is a beautiful quotation that says “What is meant for you will not pass you by” and it is one of the only ways I have found of explaining my journey to become the Headteacher of Gretton School in Cambridgeshire, an Independent Specialist Autism provision for children aged 5-19.

My own career path - a little bit meandering but definitely paved along the way with some of the very best people I have ever met - has always been focused on children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. For the longest time, I worked with D/deaf learners; captivating and vibrant British Sign Language users facing an educational world entirely delivered in an unheard language.   But when my son was diagnosed with a Pathological Demand Avoidant profile of Autism, life took a very different turn. 

Personally, my experience of parenting became focused on a presentation of Autism that has the ability to turn your world on its head; professionally, I had become the SENCo in a mainstream provision with SEN ‘Inclusion Hubs’ which actually seemed to keep children apart...  And both were testing me in unimaginable ways.  

My son, creative and hilarious, but crippled with an anxiety-driven need for control, tried every notion we might have ever had of ‘traditional parenting’.  And professionally, I had become really weary of the oftentimes uninformed (and sometimes belligerent) approaches of mainstream provision to the Autistic experience of the world…. But then I was given the opportunity to work at Gretton School.   

I should add a codicil in here: I don’t believe that there is any school in the country that could be described as perfect.  However, if you were to describe a ‘perfect’ Autism provision, then the small class sizes, vast outdoor spaces, outdoor play equipment, indoor soft play, sensory room, Forest School and quiet learning spaces of Gretton would probably make the list.  What really makes it, though, is the staff team. And WHAT a team it is!  From the class staff, working side by side daily with learners, through to the school leadership team - and all other supportive ‘pillars’ of the school, such as admin, behaviour and welfare, referrals and therapy - this school is full of people that ‘get it’.  Parents of Autistic children will understand what that means. It can be really hard to describe the “reasonable adjustments” schools need to make for Autistic learners, but if I had to capture it in words, it would be a holistic change of hearts and minds; for teachers and staff to understand that behaviour is a language, expressing the depth of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, self-doubt, frustration and disconnection experienced daily by many Autistic people.  And the staff here have just ‘got it’.

I became the Headteacher of this wonderful school in 2020. And it was here that I met a young lady who (with the exception of her name) was an almost exact version of my younger self at school. From her overwhelming need to people-please and fear of failure, to her tenacity and fierce courage, this young woman taught me more about myself than I think I have ever been able to teach her!  And it was the combination of seeing her journey to reach her immense potential, coupled with encouragement from my uniquely supportive and forthright manager, that eventually encouraged me to explore Autism for myself.  

And so it was that I received my own diagnosis of Autism in October 2022.  Now, having worked in SEN for more than 20 years, lived with a husband (undiagnosed) and a son (diagnosed), studied Autism in my post-grad and been told by numerous people that I was ‘on the spectrum’ myself, you would think that my own diagnosis would have been a pretty unremarkable event.  But this was not so. It rocked me, actually. I could not put this experience better than Sue Nelson, a BBC journalist, who herself received a later-life diagnosis and said “My initial response was a mixture of shock and shame…[and] I have been slowly reframing decades of relationships, actions and behaviour through this new and alternative lens”.    Putting it bluntly, I felt like I had (metaphorically) had my skirt tucked into the back of my knickers all my life - everyone else knew but me.  

What I have since come to realise, however, is that I haven’t changed. I was the same person before and after the date I received my diagnosis.  What is different now, though, is that I am better able to interpret some of my previous social struggles and this empowers me more than ever to create an environment where learners have all the support that they need around them to navigate these inevitable struggles themselves.  Gretton School is not about removing every possible source of anxiety; we are instead committed to recognising these moments and enabling learners to develop a toolkit of strategies to manage and navigate social situations with confidence - and as their authentic Autistic selves.  

I truly believe that these young people will change the world; their ability to learn, deeply and meticulously, in areas of their interest; their capacity for empathy; their unique ways of thinking; their indescribable humour (they are genuinely hilarious); the courage they show to overcome their own fears and uncertainties; their tenacious self-management in a sometimes consistent state of fight or flight … believe me when I say that these are some remarkable people.

Whatever your belief, my own is that there was a reason I was given the opportunity to work at Gretton.  We have the opportunity to create a school that enables and empowers our learners to recognise and achieve their potential because of their Autism and not despite it.  We can provide an environment in which difference is celebrated. We can create a place where we can be our authentic Autistic selves and navigate difficulties together with those who understand them. Overly optimistic? Not really - just a genuine belief that ‘what is meant for you will not pass you by’ and this has to be as true for this wonderful cohort as it is for anyone.

Gretton is one of a group of unique schools within the Newcome group, owned by Cavendish Education, which share the common vision of believing in learners until they believe in themselves.

Mrs Elkins, Headteacher of Gretton School, has worked in the field of SEN for 20 years, working first in Further Education and then later as a Manager for the Specialist Teaching Team in the Local Authority, advising Cambridgeshire schools on the development of their SEN approaches and provision. She is a qualified SENDCo with experience of working across all ages, from Primary through to adult learners, and with a wide knowledge of pan-disability needs within educational settings.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page