Woman with autism speaks nine languages and is now an award-winning teacher

·7-min read
Chloe-Mairead studying in Florence, Italy in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Chloe-Mairead studying in Florence, Italy in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Chloe-Mairead Donnelly, 23, of Cheshire, was branded “naughty” at school but now teaches languages to students with conditions from autism to dyslexia

A woman with ADHD and autism who sees her conditions as a “superpower not a disadvantage” has used being “picked on” at school as a springboard to success – becoming fluent in nine languages and turning to teaching.

Chloe-Mairead Donnelly, 23, struggled to pay attention in lessons – behaviour which she says was wrongly perceived as “naughtiness”.

But her experience made her determined to help other children who find it difficult to focus in mainstream education and she has started her own language tuition school, CMD Tutoring, where she has taught over 200 students with conditions from autism to dyslexia.

Chloe-Mairead, of Winsford, Cheshire, said: “I know how to work with my students, because I have the same challenges.

“I make them laugh, I make the work fun and I try to pass on my passion. Learning difficulties are not a disadvantage, they’re a superpower.”

Facing adversity even before she was born, Chloe-Mairead felt huge guilt over losing for her mum Denise Donnelly at the age of 48, when she was just 10.

Chloe-Mairead with her boyfriend, Charlie (Collect/PA Real Life).
Chloe-Mairead with her boyfriend, Charlie (Collect/PA Real Life).

She said: “I developed a cyst on my ovary in the womb. I was born ill and rushed straight into surgery to have most of my intestines removed.

“The stress of my birth caused Mum to leave hospital in a wheelchair and she never walked again.”

The experience had led to Denise, who had progressive multiple sclerosis (MS), suffering a relapse – something for which Chloe-Mairead felt responsible.

“For years, I thought her relapse was all because of me," she said. "I’d tell myself I was the reason Mum had died.”

Grieving as she started secondary school, just months after her mother’s death, Chloe-Mairead turned her focus to her favourite lesson – Spanish.

Watch: 'If you're neurodiverse, you want to take this occasion and really run with it'

“In Spanish lessons I just found I was so focussed that I didn’t have time to think about what’d happened. I really threw myself into it. Now I see that languages are one of my autistic fixations.”

Placed into grief counselling by her school when she was 13, it was her counsellor who diagnosed Chloe-Mairead with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – a neurodevelopmental disorder that means people have trouble paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviour.

Unfortunately, she felt stigmatised by her diagnosis.

“I think actually being diagnosed was when the stigma started. Someone even called me a 'ret***'. Some people just didn’t believe me. They’d say, ‘Girls can’t have ADHD.’

“And some teachers just thought I was naughty.”

Chloe-Mairead at 15 years old in October 2014 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Chloe-Mairead at 15 years old in October 2014 (Collect/PA Real Life).

When she was told she would not go to university or study languages, she became determined to prove her doubters wrong.

“I’d be told off for fiddling in class, but moving my hands helped me focus my ears to listen to what was going on. Now I know more about my condition, I use it to my advantage. I’ll teach with a PopSockets in my hands, rolling the marble between my fingers, as I know it aids my concentration.”

Her methods clearly worked, as Chloe-Mairead is fluent in nine languages and conversational in four more, speaking English, Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Romanian, Indonesian, Irish, Tetum, Portuguese, Latin, Welsh and Galician.

Read more: 25 Most Spoken Languages in the World

And, in 2019, a chance encounter when she and her engineer boyfriend, Charlie, 23, were in the pub and overhead a father giving his daughter advice about her upcoming French GCSE, propelled her into teaching. By then, studying for a degree in French, Italian and Spanish at the University of Bangor in North Wales, Chloe-Mairead said she could not help interrupting.

She said: “I went up to them, being too nosy, and asked if I could help. “The dad asked how much I’d charge for tutoring, but I was honestly planning to help for free. I love languages and just want to share them.”

That young girl become Chloe-Mairead’s very first student. Soon after, she paid for a private diagnostic session and was told she had autism - which, according to the NHS, means "your brain works in a different way from other people’s."

Chloe-Mairead winning inspirational woman award in March 2021 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Chloe-Mairead winning inspirational woman award in March 2021 (Collect/PA Real Life).

“Far from being upset, I just thought, ‘This is great. Imagine how many languages I can learn now?’” And when the first lockdown fell in March 2020, she posted online for additional students to teach remotely.

“I knew parents were at home stressed out with all the home schooling.” Said Chloe-Mairead.

“So, I put a thing on Facebook saying I’d teach any kid a language for £5 an hour.

“Before I knew it, my phone was crashing from all the notifications. Business boomed from there." Chloe-Mairead has now taught a variety of languages to around 200 students from school age to the retired.

Some are neurotypical – meaning their brain functions are considered typical. But it is with the neurodiverse – who have a variation in the brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions in a non-pathological sense – that her passion truly lies.

Watch: Drone pilot living with autism soars to new heights in aviation

“I know the challenges that people with learning difficulties face because I face them too. Teachers and tutors can think we’re naughty or just ‘putting on a show.'” She added: “I let my students know that they’ll work best if their own needs are met.

“If you’re sad when we start our session, we’ll talk it through. If you’re distracted, we’ll do something about that. Need the loo? Then do that first. No one works best if they aren’t looking after themselves.”

Chloe-Mairead also has other tactics to make her lessons successful. She talks to her students about their personal interests, allowing them to call her by her first name, takes regular breaks with ADHD students and plays close attention to how engaged they are feeling at any moment.

She said: “It’s my job to remind my students how capable they truly are.” Her work has seen her students sail through exams, find new confidence - and even led to one being diagnosed with dyslexia.

Chloe-Mairead now teaches six days a week and has earned a clutch of awards, including an 'inspirational woman' award for contributions to education, and taken fourth place in Young Trader of the year 2021.

Chloe-Mairead getting a highly commended award at a regional final of Young Trader of the year in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).
Chloe-Mairead getting a highly commended award at a regional final of Young Trader of the year in 2019 (Collect/PA Real Life).

Read more: ‘Prison Break’ star Wentworth Miller, 49, shares autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. How rare is an adult diagnosis?

But, while business is booming, Chloe-Mairead is not in it for the money. “Most of what I make I put back into the community or my students,“ she said. "I pay for them to do diplomas in the languages they are studying, to boost their self-confidence and give them a qualification.

“I’ll send them books in the languages they are studying to reward hard work and I also donate a large proportion of my profits to a local women’s refuge.”

She is even planning to defer her masters degree in secondary Spanish, which would allow her to become a school teacher, to support her students. “I graduate from my degree in June. I’d planned to go straight on to my masters, but I have students who’ve been with me for nearly two years now.

“Some are just looking to sit their GCSEs. What kind of a teacher would I be if I left them here?”

Chloe-Mairead has also launched a range of learning aids, especially with the neurodiverse in mind – including note pads in five different languages and revision guides.

“I think my guides are different as they’re some of the only ones that say, ‘Forget about your exams. What are you doing to look after yourself today?’

“That’s even more important for those of us with learning difficulties than it is for the neurotypical.”

Additional reporting, PA

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