Free school for autistic children

 
Head teacher and two pupils

On the site of a former comprehensive in Reading, a new school is being built to cater for five- to 19-year-olds on the autistic spectrum. The Thames Valley School is one of the new breed of free schools in England set up to fill a local need.

Due to open next month, the school's head teacher, Fiona Veitch, is already hard at work - even though it isn't fully built.

Received wisdom in recent years has told us that mainstreaming disabled children is the best way forward. But Veitch says although regular state schools have tried hard, a specialist environment is needed to bring out the best in some pupils on the autistic spectrum.

More on the school

Thames Valley School is a free school - a collaboration between the National Autistic Society (NAS), local authorities, voluntary groups, schools and parents. The government agreed with community stakeholders that there is a need for this kind of specialist school in the area.

It is one of five free schools for children with special educational needs to open in England this September, joining three which opened in September 2012 - the latter two autism specific:

  • Rosewood School, Southampton
  • City of Peterborough Academy special school
  • Lighthouse School, Leeds

NAS has government permission to open two further free schools in September 2014, one in London and one in East Cheshire.

"Many of the children we have have been permanently excluded from one or two schools or are on really reduced timetables and go into school for an hour or two a day, so that's why it's so important we get this right.

"A lot of the children are not just a bit bright, they're very bright. But because autism gets in the way, that impacts upon their behaviour."

With autism, people can have a unique ability to concentrate and learn things that others find repetitive or mundane. Recently Vodafone and software company SAP made headlines when they announced they were to recruit people on the autism spectrum to capitalise on these desirable attributes.

"I've got a pupil coming to us who's absolutely the most knowledgeable young man in the world about pumps and all forms of plumbing - he's eight. This boy can explain ventilation, how an extractor fan is put together, how it works, he can talk to you about his plumbing system, and I believe advises plumbers on how to fix things when they are called to his home."

Veitch is keen to use these obsessions - or "specialist interests" as she prefers to call them - to give the children a vocation and help them learn.

What is a free school?

Set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, businesses, universities, trusts, religious or voluntary groups, but funded directly by central government.

"We have a child who finds ponds really interesting and really calming," she says. "We will use that to teach him maths in terms of 'How big is the pond going to be?' Or 'How much water do we need to put in it?'"

The learning environment is built around the children, rather than expecting them to slot into a one-size-fits-all school.

Children on the spectrum find it difficult to process information fed to them by their senses. So, in an average classroom for instance, they may not know what sounds to prioritise: chatter, ticking clocks, birdsong, banging, air conditioning or the teacher's voice. It all comes through at the same intensity, as do smells and visuals.

As well as tailoring learning to the individual, the building and interior design helps dampen sensory information. When finished, it will have non-flickery lighting, muted colours and surfaces that aren't shiny or bright.

ordinary bathroom How neurotypicals see a school bathroom...
Bathroom as it appears to autistic people ... and what the autism spectrum view might be.
ordinary hall Ditto a hall...
distorted picture of hall ... and a depiction of what people on the autistic spectrum may experience.

Images created by Ann Memmott, a governor of the school who is a buildings surveyor and is herself on the spectrum. These were used to help with the design of the school. She is also an adviser to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Autism.

464 line

The ready-prepared building blocks of the school were created off-site and arrived a month ago. Construction has been underway since then, with the ambitious target of opening on 16 September.

With advice, Veitch has worked with an architect to design the school to be autism-friendly, and spends long hours each day making sure it's the best they can achieve.

"I've got an office on the building site. It's really important because it means I can see exactly what the builders are doing, that they understand what they're doing and why they're doing it," says Veitch, who has 24 years of experience in the field and has a son on the autistic spectrum.

Head teacher sits at a desk in her on-site office Veitch's office includes a sofa bed

The accessible additions to this school include a small room adjoining each classroom so children struggling with noise levels or other aspects of an overwhelming environment can work away from everyone else. The school also has "calming pods" - snugs with curved walls where light, noise and human input is very much reduced.

"The pods are a little bit bigger than I wanted them to be," says Veitch. So she consulted the site manager on how to lower the ceilings. "It will give a more enclosed feeling for children who need it at certain times during the day."

Start Quote

The ways in which autism manifests itself in girls is very, very different”

End Quote Fiona Veitch

The children won't be educated in complete isolation from non-disabled children. Thames Valley School intend to share resources and invite mainstream pupils to after-school clubs. Some pupils will also attend classes at other schools.

Funded centrally by the government, when the school opens, it will have 18 pupils - all of whom are at the more able end of the spectrum. As it grows, it will also provide a small number of places for those with more complex needs.

But of those 18 children, only two will be girls. Why the gender imbalance?

"When I worked in Kent, I had a psychologist colleague who would always say 'basically autism is extreme maleness'." Laughing at this thought, Veitch says it was a "wicked generalisation".

It's now well-known that a fascination for the stereotypically male domains of computing, engineering and maths can be indicators of autism. This has led to many more men and boys being diagnosed.

"What we're finding now is that actually there might be a lot more girls out there, but the ways in which autism manifests itself is very, very different to how it manifests itself in boys.

"Girls might get more lost in stories about princesses and fairies and that kind of imaginative world and find it more difficult to come out of that world, whereas a boy on the spectrum might be get lost in the details of things like putting cars in a line." She stresses again that these are generalisations.

One of her female pupils is currently interested in flowers, especially roses, so they plan to create a rose garden at the front of the school, and she will choose what goes in it.

The aim for Veitch and her staff of teachers, mentors, assistants, psychologists and occupational therapists is to help pupils meet the national expectation of five GCSEs or more whilst also providing strategies to cope with their autism.

"These children, some of them don't feel they belong anywhere. So what we're trying to do is provide somewhere that really is theirs," says Veitch.

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  • rate this
    -18

    Comment number 36.

    lol

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 35.

    There are dangers in isolating autistic kids in special school environments in that they could be even less likely to cope with normal society. A over-protective environment with all these repetitive behaviours accepted may be storing up issues for later. Especially with the fluidity of work likely to increase with new times. Encouraging change resistance may give a peaceful present but later?

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 34.

    re:3. stonycreek
    'Middle ground' kids have the support in schools already, its up to the parents and teachers to access it. Thanks to council and LEA cuts there is zero support for my child and others like him who are 'higher functioning ASD' upon assessment. Should he lose out on a good education because he cannot fully cope in a classroom due to his genes not being 'middle ground' or 'gifted' ?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 33.

    The idea is great, but autism is just one challenge to cater for. Perhaps it would be better to build a school which could cope with numerous personality and ability ranges, not only those related to autism?

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 32.

    3.stonycreek
    what about the middle of the road childen who are overlooked as they have no 'disability' to gain them extra support?
    --
    This sort of obtuse, insensitive & discriminatory view makes my teeth itch.

    The 'middle of the road children' (what on earth does that mean anyway?) receive an education appropriate to their needs.

    Do you wish to deny ASD children the same right?

    Unbelievable.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 31.

    It's so different now. . . . . . .It took me 9 years of going backwards and forwards to get help for my son, who was eventually diagnosed at 15. . . . .All those years of being thrown out for being 'disruptive' and having a 'bad' attitude. . . . . He's only 19, so still lots needs to be learned

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 30.

    In principle, a good move but I am wary of the dangers of autistic individuals ending up in a well meaning ghetto with limited chances to interact & learn to cope with everyday life & non-autistic people.

    As for '10' - getting on with life as in the 50's, that's also when asbestos was safe & smoking was good for you. We know better in 2013.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 29.

    I have no experience of Autism at all, however I think this is a fantastic idea - to create an environment where each child is treated as an inidividual and which will bring out their special skills. Maybe, in the future, we will have more entrepeneurs from this, as these are the gifted children that have the bright ideas.

  • rate this
    +16

    Comment number 28.

    All kids with speciall needs need special education. I had a student whose intelligence was awesome but he performed badly because he was ahead of his teachers and bored rigid. His country does not have schools for geniuses like him, which is a lose-lose situation. Russia, on the other hand, does have schools for extrordinarily gifted children. That's one thing they got right.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 27.

    Surely this is the specialist area which Free Schools are intended for. A school with 18 children is never going to be financially viable (assuming those 18 are of different ages and abilities, and therefore need multiple teachers plus a headteacher, support staff etc) but if it really does benefit those children then it's worthwhile.

    Most Free Schools seem pointless, maybe not this one though!

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 26.

    This women is amazing and fully back her plans. She is recognising the potential of these children. To capitalise on talents may sound derogatory? But I see this as a positive recognition of the intellect of these children, who are in fact ahead of the lot of us, we just need to catch up with them.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 25.

    A number of misconceptions cropping up already:

    ● Being ASD does not automatically mean being a genius at maths etc. The "focus" can just as easily express as an obsession with a particular comic or video game.

    ● Schools are not designed to churn out clones. In modern teaching, individualised learning is the norm. League tables used to highlight this via "value added", but no longer :-(

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 24.

    5.Jim Squeechy

    --
    Excellent idea. We want one here.

    However, this statement shows (all too common) ignorance about autism.

    Firstly, you can't generalise. It is a spectrum and what suits one child, may not suit another.

    Secondly, the 'difference' is more about others noticing a difference. Most ASD kids don't give two hoots about others' discomfort at the way they react to their surroundings.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 23.

    .
    About time! We've been aware of autism for an age now! Smart institutions listen to their experts.
    .

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 22.

    Helpful to see the mention of autism in girls... my daughter was 14 before we understood her behaviour. Recognising her ASD has been life changing - never an excuse, but insight into how to help her flourish. Understanding how & why she's different, and the right support at school, has transformed her from a failing recluse into a confident young woman hoping for some GCSE A grades next week!

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 21.

    10, perhaps back in the 50s you did not have anyone on the autistic spectrum in your class/school. You do not remember the kid who could not cope, who had tantrums, was teased and bullied for being 'different'? Surprisingly every child is unique and some more unique than others and just cannot fit the sardine factory schooling that is offered. Having taught autistic children I have seen the range.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 20.

    At last - a free school that isn't a bandwagon for parents who hate a system that they think failed them!

    Of course every school should be like this, but until we get rid of interfering politicians with agendas, and invest a decent amount of capital in our country's future, its not going to happen.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 19.

    Many of the geniuses of our time have been identified as having autistic traits. It is a shame that the article was written in a way that some have interpreted as meaning that Austistic spectrum people only have an aptitude for repetitive mundane thoughts. If it is a question of targetting resources where they will do the most good for society this probably is the right place.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 18.

    These children and their parents are lucky. . . . . . .Imagine how tough it is for those who get diagnosed too late to help their education. The Autism spectrum goes from 1 to 10. The lower ratings are more difficult to diagnose, and the children are labelled 'difficult'. Early diagnosis is paramount

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 17.

    To those talking of "high achievers" here, I think you'll find that they are most likely to be found among people on the autistic spectrum. Newton, Einstein, Turing, etc., and many other professors and Nobel laureates are all examples. Schools like this are a VERY good idea.

 

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