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A week in March

Sunday was Mother’s Day. I woke up in my mother-in-law’s house with a horrendous cold and conjunctivitis, my left eye swollen and weeping. My daughter was glued to the enormous television in the lounge (a rare treat for her) and I could hear my usually patient husband, now weary with ill wife, elderly mother and active 3-year-old, imploring the latter to come a wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. NO! was the resounding response. My mother-in-law admired the bouquet of flowers resting in water in the kitchen. ‘They’re for Courtenay’ my husband said. She came in to thank me for them. Not the restful start to the week I had in mind.

By Monday lunch time my eye had recovered enough to let me get on with some work. The main challenge for the SCALES project at the moment is to recruit as many schools as possible to take part in the screening phase. Ideally all 300-odd schools would say yes, but that is unlikely to happen. Realistically, we are aiming for 80% of all schools. In reality, just over 40% have agreed so far. This is over 5,000 children, and we’ve still got time, but recruitment is starting to worry me. Only 3 schools have said no, many just haven’t responded. I understand this – schools are busy places and my research project just isn’t so high on the list of priorities. But for a population sample, we need them. So I spend a fair bit of time drafting more emails, outlining what is involved and what we can offer in return. I also work on updating the database, redrafting the advertisement for the graduate research assistant and phoning various schools that have requested further information. When that is done I deal with other admin –scheduling student meetings, booking travel for the week ahead, submitting a paper revision, and writing three references for current and former students.

Tuesday I leave very early to make a 9am meeting at RHUL. I see my MSc student first – she too is having trouble with recruitment and we are discussing the options, plus possible changes to the experiment following pilot testing. I then have end of term meetings with undergraduate personal advisor students. I think this is what GPs must feel like – 10 minute slots to see how people are doing, with the serious issues raised about two minutes before the next person is due to arrive. I’m always behind schedule but today I need to leave promptly as I have a ferry to catch.

I’m visiting a special school on the Isle of Wight and arrive at the end of the school day. I’m here to collect data for an ESRC funded project we’re running that is using eye-tracking to explore language production in children with language disorders and/or children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). I’m also here to celebrate with two of the speech-language therapists – we’ve just submitted a paper together! I have an hour or two to meet with my PhD student and the post-doc working on the project. Then we go to dinner to meet the therapists. When I came to RHUL, I set up the LiLaC (Literacy, Language and Communication) network, with the express aim of getting researchers and clinicians together to foster collaboration and make research less mysterious to the people most likely to use it. These therapists were the first to take up the LiLaC challenge – they wanted to evaluate a therapy programme they offered to teenagers with severe language and communication disorders and we helped them to do this. They are very excited about the submission and I feel a bit of a killjoy as I try to manage expectations. After all, they have never experienced the joys of peer review and I don’t want them to be too bruised by the experience. By the way, those of you dealing with REF and impact (see Dorothy Bishop’s excellent comments on this) may be interested to know that despite the fact that this collaboration has clearly changed working practice, encouraged publication of a manual that will be used by other therapy teams, and has direct implications for employability of young people with communication disorders, this does not meet the REF definition of impact – extremely annoying!

Anyway, on Wednesday I finally get to see the kids. I don’t really have time to do lots of testing anymore, but I do love it and make time whenever I can. It really keeps me grounded; the kids in this school are at the severe end of the spectrum and a day with them is very humbling. Of the vast number of research papers published on ASD, I wonder how many have any relevance to the lives of these people. For example, a study is published this week suggesting that people with autism have ‘an information processing advantage’. I haven’t read the paper in detail and unlike the participants of that study, we are investigating children with a wide range of abilities, but I just don’t see the advantages of being able to name all the racetracks in Europe, of bringing Mr Men into every conversational exchange, of asking each new person met for their list of personal dislikes, or being able to notice and then label every tiny detail on the screen when asked for a simple picture description. I am equally intrigued by the difficulties faced by the non-autistic children with language impairment. We met a bright boy of almost 14 who was unable to name any letters of the alphabet, despite extensive intervention – what is the limitation? None of our current theories seems to capture the complicated picture of strength and difficulty we are presented with.

We leave the island on Thursday afternoon. I haven’t slept much as I’m still coughing and still puzzling over the assessments we’ve done and how we’ll make sense of the data we’re gathering. It has been good to spend some time with the team – the PhD student took the opportunity to outline her analysis and writing plans for the next 6 months; the post-doc is coming to the end of his contract and is applying for a first lectureship in the most brutal academic climate. We get back to RHUL in time to drop off the testing kit and I neglect running club to race home and collect my daughter from nursery.

Friday sees me in a mainstream primary school, not for assessment, but because BBC London want to do a piece on the SCALES project and are filming us in Cranmere School. Jo Slessor is the wonderful Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator there and one of the first to sign up to the project. She has kindly agreed to speak on camera about the educational implications of language difficulties and has even persuaded a very articulate and thoughtful mum to come in with her son. A few years ago I did a Media Fellowship with the British Science Association, hoping that this would put me more at ease when speaking to the press. I spent a splendid few weeks in Dublin writing for the Irish Times, phoning scientists and chatting to them about work in progress. Unfortunately we rarely hear about work in-progress in the mainstream British press, instead we just get the headline news when results are finally published. That is why I’m so pleased the journalist from the BBC has taken an interest in our story. It takes a very long time to get the footage they need and the school staff and children are incredibly patient. I’m impressed with the journalist and how she has listened to what I said I wanted to emphasize when we spoke about it last week. Everyone is nervous, but they do a brilliant job and I am optimistic that it will be a good piece that raises awareness of language impairment (you may be able to see for yourselves – it should go out on Monday, 26 March at 6.30pm).

After filming I go back to RHUL to meet with the post-doc who is my right-hand woman on the SCALES project. We review all the hard work she’s done while I’ve been away and she adds to my long list of things to do. I realise that I will have to negotiate a few hours with my husband on Sunday to get it all done, but she has definitely lightened the load.

As I drive home exhausted on Friday, I think about all the different roles I have assumed in the week: teacher, mentor, clinician, public speaker, administrator, wife and mother. Sometimes, especially weeks like this when I’m run down and not feeling my best, I think it is all too much. It’s an impossible job with too many different strands to manage at all well. But then I reflect that this variety is actually one of the things I love most about my job. Every day is different and every day brings me into contact with fascinating people leading challenging but fascinating lives. I am never bored – my brain is always ringing with questions and ideas and this helps me to keep going when it is a bit overwhelming. And so now I look at the coming week and see that it is just as manic, but just as interesting. My cold has pretty much gone and yesterday my husband and daughter took me for afternoon tea on the rooftop terrace of the Ashmolean to celebrate Mother’s Day. Things are looking up.