Reach for the stars
Drama teacher Michelle O’Grady set up a school with a difference
They say when one door closes another one opens in its place and this is something to which drama teacher Michelle O’Grady can certainly relate. Her previous role of working alongside children who have autism is what inspired her to set up the Réalta School of Speech and Drama in Galway. Her teaching methods are unique as they offer a one-to-one learning experience, specifically catered to adults and children with Autism, Down Syndrome and special needs.
“I was working in an autism unit and I noticed that the children loved music and drama,” she says. “Role-play was very helpful to them for everyday social situations and I found that they were really imaginative, which I think a lot of people may not realise.
“I was looking into setting up speech and drama classes for people with autism and then, as the universe would have it, my role as an SNA in the autism unit was made redundant. at was the final kick I needed to get going with it.”
A degree in Childcare Management and her family set-up meant that Michelle had not only knowledge, but first-hand experience in this area. “I have an Associate in Speech and Drama teaching and I’m currently doing my licentiate now, which is kind of like the top award. I suppose it was a background of that and also personally, I have a sister called Leon who has special needs, so I’ve always had an interest in both. It seems quite obvious now, but until then I hadn’t thought about bringing the two of those together.
“It seemed the best way of doing it was to teach the students individually. I spent months getting in touch with universities in the United States and the UK that do it and I spoke to other teachers who said it was very doable as a one-to-one thing.”
Her reasons for opting to teach this way are simple and solely based around the needs of the student in question. “I set up the school to help the individual themselves and design a programme to suit them, rather than in a group setting as I felt it would dilute the sessions otherwise. e phrase ‘one child with autism is one child with autism’; that’s the same with all disabilities. I didn’t want to work with somebody who wouldn’t be able for it and therefore make anyone feel worse about themselves, but it’s actually been the polar opposite which is brilliant. If you can cater to one child’s strengths and challenges and really help them, then they can go into a group setting with more confidence and knowledge, maybe even speaking a bit more clearly. That’s the advantage of the one-to- one.”
Working with adults and children from four-years-old to people in their twenties, Michelle wanted her school to be a place that any age could be included in and benefit from. “There is no age limit; it’s for all types of people with special needs and anybody with challenges, as long as I feel like I could help that person. I wouldn’t take money off a parent if I knew I couldn’t help them.”
This understanding Michelle has for the parents and families of children and adults with special needs is something that originates from her own circumstances. is makes it even more important for her to get the initiative right and to be sensitive to the emotions of those involved.
“I actually told a parent about my sister recently and her look changed in a way. She has always been lovely and friendly, but I could sense it’s almost like a kindred spirit kind of thing. I get it on a level that you might not appreciate if you don’t have someone affected by it. ere can be a lot of mixed feelings, it’s wonderful but it can be tough. People can feel very protective and a bit vulnerable, so I treat them very well and I’m very considerate of their feelings.
“I guess the premise of all of this is I want to give confidence to people and I want to help. So anything that will help the individual and their families is a really good thing to me. I know that it can be difficult to feel positive about a situation where you’ve special needs in the family everyday, so I like to be the person who comes in and sees the positive platform, when maybe people are not able to.”
Michelle hopes Réalta will be a stepping stone in beginning to change society’s perception of people with disabilities. “So many people with autism have fantastic singing voices and in the classes we work on singing, articulation exercises and breathing exercises to help with projection and speaking clearly. There’s a lot of improvisation, which helps with scripts for social situations and emotion work, poetry, storytelling and games. It’s going really well. I want to reach as many people as I can and hopefully it will just grow and grow.”