Autistic Man Becomes Youngest Black Professor at Cambridge

Written by Beth Hering
Published on March 16, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

Autistic Man Becomes Youngest Black Professor at Cambridge

Written by Beth Hering
Published on March 16, 2023 · Updated on March 23, 2023

At age 27, Jason Arday wrote a set of personal goals on his mother’s bedroom wall. The list included the item 

“One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge”

While landing a position at one of these prestigious British universities is an ambitious endeavor for any scholar, Arday’s past made the statement seem especially like a pipe dream.

Diagnosed with global development delay and autism spectrum disorder at age 3, experts predicted he would require lifelong support and spend adulthood in an assisted living facility. Instead, 37-year-old Arday recently became a Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge – the youngest Black person ever appointed to a professorship there.

The Journey To Cambridge

While Arday today is a highly respected scholar of race, inequality, and education, this outcome seemed very unlikely during his younger years growing up in Clapham, South London. He spent much of his childhood visiting speech and language therapists, did not learn to speak until age 11, and could not read or write until the age of 18. 

With support from his family and close friends, Arday pursued his desire to go to college. Arday studied physical education and education studies at the University of Surrey. He went on to earn two master’s degrees before qualifying as a teacher. Later, he earned a PhD in Educational Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. 

Arday claims that the challenges he faced growing up and his inability to speak helped him see the world in a different way, which is useful to his academic pursuits today. He credits his mother with helping him build self-confidence. He also cites the childhood memory of watching Nelson Mandela’s release on television and of South Africa’s symbolic triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup as influences on his interests in race and society.

The Path Ahead

At Cambridge, Arday will be building on his earlier professorial work at the Universities of Durham and Glasgow. He sees education as “a key instrument for disarming ignorance and bigotry.”

One of Arday’s main areas of interest is changing the way schools teach black history, and he calls on the government to implement change.

“British history within our education system remains filtered by a deliberate amnesia – the country’s persecution of black people in pursuit of the empire is largely omitted and black history is erased,” 

Arday wrote in a piece for The Guardian. “The absence of a diverse curriculum that reflects black history invariably has an adverse effect on the attainment outcomes of young black people. Black students are unable to learn about their own history within a British and global context.”

The professor also wants to improve the representation of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people in higher education and looks forward to being part of Cambridge’s initiatives to create a more diverse student body. He wants improvement at the faculty level, too – noting that out of 24,000 professors in the United Kingdom, just over 160 are black and just over 50 are black women. So while he calls his own appointment “an amazing feeling,” he hopes to use his platform “to bring as many people of color on the vista with me.”

As Arday told NBC News:

“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratize higher education. Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally.”

Arday is a trustee of the UK’s leading race equality think-tank, Runnymede Trust. He also is a trustee of the British Sociological Association, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Among his upcoming endeavors is co-authoring a book about the challenges and discrimination faced by neurodiverse populations and students of color.

Coming full circle, the love of music Arday’s mother instilled in him during childhood while trying to help with his language development has also made its way into the scholar’s pursuits. He is writing a book about Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland and the involvement of marginalized Black communities in its production.

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