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Acclaimed writer and broadcaster puts her mind to autism

Barbara Jacobs, a Research Associate and tutor in the School of Education.

Acclaimed writer and broadcaster puts her mind to autism

School of Education researcher is soon to complete a very personal PhD study

In the world of writing there doesn’t seem to be much that Barbara Jacobs hasn’t turned her hand to, though right now she is being rather more single-minded than usual. Apart from contributing regular reviews to the Times Higher, she is completing a PhD at the University of Leicester School of Education. Its subject is autistic intelligence.

The rest of the world knows her best as a celebrated novelist, journalist, broadcaster, astrologer and agony aunt, but the interest in autism is passionate and committed and it is where she sees her future.

She is already a graduate of the University of Leicester, having achieved a first class BA honours degree in English followed by a PGCE with distinction in 1967. Later, in 1994, she got a BA (Hons) with a Starred First Class in Media from De Montfort University, but in the meantime she went into teaching with the determination to excel at it.

“I decided that if I was going to be a great teacher I needed to teach at every different kind of school I could. So I taught in primary, mixed grammar and secondary modern schools, before coming back to Leicester for an interview for Head of English at Countesthorpe College. I was the only woman shortlisted, presumably because I was quite an experimental teacher. I didn’t get the job, but they passed my name to Guthlaxton, and I worked there for three years as second in charge of English and Head of Drama.”

Barbara Jacobs’ teaching career came to an abrupt end when she began coughing up blood. At first she was frozen into inaction, but she also has epilepsy and one night when her temperature rocketed, she went into an epileptic fit and ended up in hospital, irrepressibly taking round the tea trolley until diagnosed by a consultant as ‘one of the worst cases of pneumonia’ he had ever come across and ordered back to bed.

Her immune system, she was told, had collapsed, and teaching was now out as a career. “I was 31, with an English degree, not knowing what I could do with it,” she said. “Then I saw an advertisement in The Guardian asking ‘could you write for teenagers?’ I wrote to them and said yes.”

Out of 3000 applicants hers was the short story selected for publication. “I couldn’t even type,” she admitted. “I wrote it in longhand, against all the rules.” Nevertheless, she was paid £20 and her success spurred her to go on and earn what she could from writing while going through a divorce. “I rang up an editor and asked if I could make my living at this. He said no one ever has done. You can imagine, that was like a red rag to a bull. I knew I just had to do it.”

Like all budding writers she learned to cope with and minimise rejection. Then a fellow writer suggested novels, and at about the same time she became a magazine agony aunt. She succeeded on both counts and as a result of her advice columns was later to become a member of the National Commission for Enquiry into Child Abuse, which led from the establishment of Childline by Esther Rantzen. It was a subject close to her heart and she stunned members of the National Enquiry by her revelation that she had, herself, been abused as a child.

In the meantime, Barbara Jacobs’ career as a novelist took off with eight highly successful books for young adults, one of which – ‘Stick’ (Transworld, 1988) - won two major UK awards. A profusion of published short stories followed.

Disillusionment with publishing in the1990s led to her abandoning novels for a career in journalism and broadcasting, as feature writer, reviews editor, agony aunt and astrologer, with her own radio phone-in shows.

On television she became one of Central Weekend’s favourite agony aunts. “People still recognise me on buses,” she said. “I did a programme called ‘Sextasy’, which was a hoot. There were too many thongs parading around, but I met some great people like Toyah Wilcox and Peter Stringfellow. ‘Sextasy’ has put out loads of repeats and even now, sometimes when I’m on a train someone will say ‘I know you’, and I’ll say, ‘you watch too much day time television!’”

The astrology bubble grew to giant proportions and then burst. Her life is like that, she says, either feast or famine. “Astrology came in as a big thing, with people calling phone lines at premium rates for their horoscopes. At the time I was providing horoscopes for 170 newspapers, as well as for magazines, and I had to record each star sign for the phone lines every week.” When the bubble burst she remembers “going to bed one night with an annual income of £60,000 and waking up the next morning with an income of £10,000.”

Then, in 2003, Barbara Jacobs published Loving Mr Spock (Michael Joseph/Penguin) a poignant account of living with a partner who had Asperger’s Syndrome, and her life took off in yet another direction, though not straight away.

First she had to spend 14 months in Liverpool with her career on hold, sorting out family business as a result of her estranged mother’s deterioration into Alzheimers. She returned to Leicester in 2005 and a month later got an email from a ‘fan’ who had read ‘Loving Mr Spock’. “I had sparked off a huge response in this woman,” she said.

“I got in touch with her. She had ADHD and all five of her children were on the autism spectrum. Debi Evans was a lovely woman who had done wonderful things for her kids.”

Together the two of them are now working to bridge the gap between the bewildering army of professionals and the families on the autism spectrum. “When a child is diagnosed you’ve got a psychiatrist, a psychologist, paediatrician, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, statementing team, Social Services and a head teacher who is excluding your child for inappropriate behaviour.

“Parents, who may be on the spectrum themselves, have too much to cope with. There are so many bad things that go on with these children and their parents. Before I die I hope I can do something about that.”

They began by setting up a website for parents and children on the autism spectrum: www.jelibean.com , and they co-wrote a book, but it seemed that no publisher would take on a book that straddled both the parent and teaching markets. “When it was obvious we weren’t going to get published I realised I had to do something I should have done years ago. I had to go back and do a PhD. Then people would start to realise there might be some truth in what I’m saying, rather than just a mad idea.”

At the School of Education at Leicester she met Professor Paul Cooper, an expert in ADHD. He became her supervisor and while she has regrets about plunging into academia without any funding, she has none about Paul Cooper’s support.

“Paul has been brilliant. What he’s taught me has been a revelation. Also I’ve been able to teach him something about autism, so there’s been a lovely exchange of views. In that sense it’s been a smashing time. I can’t speak too highly of him.”

In writing about autistic intelligence, Barbara Jacobs’ PhD has taken an unusual stand. “It follows from what Hans Asperger himself considered. What is autistic intelligence?

“People say that being on the spectrum is a deficit and I want to disagree, to say there are two different kinds of intelligence and there are advantages for both. You can’t lose sight of that. What most of us do is to blank out detail, to say that it’s the bigger picture that matters. What we find is that people on the spectrum are detail and pattern focussed and make absolutely brilliant electricians, plumbers, physicists, computer experts, visual artists.”

When Barbara Jacobs was in Atlanta a few years ago she met Dr Temple Grandin, autistic herself and an internationally acknowledged expert on autism and Aspergers. It was clearly a moving experience. “I’ll never forget her saying that the people who saved New Orleans after the disaster were those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Their systems were down and they simply had to put them back. They saved New Orleans because they absolutely had to save their system. They got all the trains sorted, the electricity, the roads, the drainage. They weren’t frightened of anything.”

As for the PhD, it’s nearly finished now. Barbara Jacobs hopes to submit in January 2010. “It’s my 65th birthday on 6th February and I want to give myself a PhD for my birthday.” It will be a struggle because of the need to continue writing for a living, but as she says: “My life has always been a battle.”

INFORMATION PANEL

Barbara Jacobs comes from St Helens and lives in Leicester. She is currently a Research Associate at the University of Leicester where she has been teaching since 2008 on the MA course in Inclusion and Special Educational Needs, a course which she designed and organised in 2009.

She is the author of:

Loving Mr Spock, first published by Michael Joseph/Penguin in April 2003. Serialised in The Mail on Sunday and featured on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek programme as well in the regional press. Now published in the USA by Future Horizons with a foreword by Dr Tony Attwood, with whom Barbara Jacobs works closely.

The Dick Kerr’s Ladies, published by Constable and Robinson in 2004. A social history around a team of women footballers during the Great War, two of whom came from her home town. • eight international best-selling novels for young adults, including ‘Stick (Transworld 1988) which won the Book Trust top teenage novel award and was nominated for The Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

• more than 2.500 short stories in teenage magazines including Jackie, Patches, Blue Jeans, Just Seventeen, My Guy and Photo-Love. In the 1980s she was acclaimed the most-published short fiction writer in the UK.

• features in 17, Woman’s Realm, Your Life and The Party Magazine.

• regular advice columns for Girl, My Guy, Now, Good Health and Living TV’s website.

• astrology columns in Me, Now, Your Life, and star appearances in the BBC daytime television show A Day with Fate.

As a broadcaster in the 1990s she had her own radio phone-in shows on Heart to Heart on Heart FM and on Century 106. Frequent television appearances included: People First, First Sex, The Sex Zone, The Time…The Place, Central Weekend, Espresso, Food for Thought, Esther, Here and Now, Kilroy, Zest, People’s Verdict, Sex and The British, Living Issues, Thursday Night Live, Kaye and Sextasy.

Barbara Jacobs is a member of The Society of Authors, The Guild of Health Writers, and The British Institute of Learning Disabilities.

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