Charlie emerges as an advocate from a cocoon of silence

The personal and educational journey of non-verbal student Charlie Mury is an inspiration for those trapped in an internal world, writes Linda Doherty.

Image: Inspiring: Sarah Mitchell presents Charlie Mury with his Student Excellence Award. Photo: Ann-Marie Calihanna

Until 18 months ago the parents and teachers of Charlie Mury, a student on the autism spectrum, believed he had an intellectual disability.

Charlie had never been able to write or communicate in any way and seemed happy switching between his three iPads watching Bob the Builder in different languages. His family wrongly assumed this was ‘white noise’.

Charlie’s education had always been in special education schools, in Australia and Thailand, and he had received no formal instruction in mainstream curriculum.

But all that changed 18 months ago when Charlie emerged from his communication cocoon – after experiencing what his family describes as an emotional episode – to reveal a staggering intellect trapped in a world of silence.

Next month Charlie is expected to sit for the Higher School Certificate and is already excelling in Extension 2 Mathematics: “Numbers are my friends,” he said.

This week Charlie, 18, was one of just 40 Year 12 public school students to receive a Minister’s Award for Student Achievement from the Minister for Education and Early Learning, Sarah Mitchell.

It was the first time a student from a School for Specific Purposes (SSP) had won the prestigious award.

“Charlie’s story has truly moved me, and I’m so thrilled that his achievements were able to be recognised at the awards,” Ms Mitchell said. “I hope that Charlie’s win encourages him to continue to share his story and advocate for inclusion.”

Charlie attends Hunter River Community School, an SSP at Metford near Newcastle. Principal Tracey Rapson said he was teaching staff what it was like to live with complex autism.

Earlier this year Charlie addressed the Hunter Region Principals’ Network, writing his words with his scribe and teacher Lucy Neilson, which were then inputted into a voice recognition app.

“I have severe autism, but I do not see it as a disability,” Charlie said. “I see it as a great opportunity to overcome the judgement and attitudes associated with autism.

“I am so smart. I can do Extension 2 maths, biology, English standard, physics and talk 32 languages. My goal in life is to study pure maths at Newcastle University, as well as spread awareness about autism. I want a life where people are respected even if they cannot communicate.”

Ms Rapson said while most people had 10 years to prepare for their HSC; Charlie will have had just 18 months.

Last year Charlie scored 100 per cent in the Year 11 Preliminary Extension 1 mathematics course. Teachers at mainstream Hunter high schools have provided HSC content, resources and tuition to support Charlie and Hunter River Community School.

Charlie told the Hunter Region principals how happy he was to be able to communicate: “I have only had this amazing ability for a short period, but it has changed my life in so many ways.”

His mother, Mel Mury, said the emotional episode occurred on the trip home from attending the funeral of Charlie’s grandmother in Canberra. Charlie was extremely distraught and in desperation his mother gave him a pen and a piece of paper and said, “Can you write it down?”

Charlie had not previously been able to write but he put his hand on his mother’s hand and wrote: “Tomorrow is a happy day. Today is sad because Nanny died in Canberra.”

“It was the first conversation we had ever been able to have with our son,” Mrs Mury said. “From then, the words have just flowed.

“Until 18 months ago we believed Charlie had an intellectual disability, but we now know that when he was watching Bob the Builder in Russian, Polish or Japanese, he was actually absorbing it.”

For the Hunter River Community School, the emergence of Charlie’s intellect and personality is a life lesson for teachers.

“I said to my staff we will probably never have another Charlie, but it shows that when you think you’re not getting anything back from students, that doesn’t mean it’s not going in,” principal Ms Rapson said.

It's a point Charlie has also emphasised as he imagines a future as an advocate for people with disability. “Tap into your tool bag and find a way in. This could change a life like mine,” Charlie told the Hunter principals.

“All you guys in the room, you are principals … look for advice and guidance to educate your staff … treat all students with respect, dignity, and most of all, value them despite their disability. Be the person that can say you have changed a life, persevere and you will be rewarded.

“Communication has saved my life.”

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