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

    Comment number 56.

    My son has AS and his specialism is Mathematics. How did his high school deal with it? By excluding him from maths lessons for 4 years "until the rest catch up". They never did. Every Child Counts indeed! If only there had been a school like this for him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    There seems to be some kind of misinformation as a few people on this board believe ASD children will be locked away in a school with no integration in to 'mainstream'. I blame the skewed article because social integration is a huge part of ASD childrens treatment/education plans. There is also the point that they will be in a classroom at this school with other children....its integration, no?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    It is a nice idea, but I can't help wondering what will happen to these kids once they turn 18/19 - if they live in my area and do not have a severe learning disability they apparently they get cured by magic because there are ZERO adult services.
    The point about diagnosis in women is also a great one, I feel we're way more likely to get labelled with personality disorders incorrectly (I was).

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Grammar schools here (Gloucester) won't take the most gifted & intelligent if they need TA assistance. They might wheel out their PR person & deny it but it's true.

    We have talented & gifted children in this country that don't get what they need. My 2 boys, one ASD & intelligent, the other just very intelligent are both bored at school.

    It's a shame alternatives have come too late for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Yet again we see an example of sexism against boys - the psychologist who describes autism as 'extreme maleness'. See the Times today for the high number of boys (mis)diagnosed with special needs. This is what comes of having a predominantly left, female teaching profession.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I have very mild autism and I certainly feel that public school helped me. My dad is a traditionalist and figured he could fix me with cod liver oil and copious forced socialisation. I turned out great (and the CLO really did help) but I can see how more severe cases might be hurt by the same treatment. That said, we can't totally segregrate them as that will just worsen their condition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Unless Ms Veitch plans on creating a disabled generation, then at some point her pupils will need to be weaned off all of the hand-holding which her school provides. The article suggests her school makes no provision whatever for this, so although her heart may be in the right place, she coyuld easily end up doing more harm than good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.


    Let's hope for your sake that nobody with your sense of care is dishing out the help when you're in your dotage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Fingers crossed that schools where teachers are encouraged to see to the mental as well as learning needs of children becomes widespread. Autistic children need it first, to be sure, but an environment where kids feel comfortable, safe and valued can only be a benefit.

    Most schools meet none of those criteria on a day-to-day basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @10. captainswing1

    Kids with autism are more likely to create a brighter future for YOU!

    Einstein had Aspergers Syndrome, Charles Dickens, Darwin, Virginia Wolf, Bill Gates etc etc.

    BUILD more of these and the world becomes more of a Humane place to live in. Get people like you who think you're "the normal typical brit" out is what I say!

    I have aspergers-People like you cause problems we face

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I am very sceptical about free schools. They were meant to be set up to allow curriculum freedom and to serve the needs of the community in which they have been built.They are non fee paying, but charge the earth for uniform and extra- curricular activities.
    However, it is a fantastic to allow schools like this one to be set up. Not for money grabbing entrepreneurs,but for real need.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    ...this is also a intervention and by accepting behaviours there is less likelihood for change. The critical years for learning social awareness shouldn't be wasted in a closed box, to give the teachers a easy life. I'd say a occasional 'blow-up' is the consequence of being in the right environment for future development. Stress minimised by good rounded inclusive teaching for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @10. captainswing1

    Autistic children were certainly around in the '50's & beyond, they were just called the village idiot or, if rich, the great British eccentric. The more severe cases were all carted off to those nice Victorian asylums Maggie closed in the 80's.
    There you are, now you're that little bit less ignorant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    My son went to an 'inclusive' school. The children with Autism disrupted everything to the point that they got most of the teachers attention and others suffered from neglect. I don't believe those with 'special needs' should be forced to integrate. It benefits neither party. They can always integrate later in their careers like the rest of us have too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    It's all very well' to try to prise autistic-spectrum children into the one-size-fits-all system. My son was diagnosed at 5 with Aspergers and despite provision of SEN assistants spent 11 years in misery inflicted by ignorant bullying children and even more ignorant bullying teachers who refused to acknowledge the bullying as it would affect their Ofsted rating. Autism does not = weird Mr Rustles!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    School is not "free" Mr Damon Rose.

    Do the teachers work for free?
    Were the materials for construction free?
    Did the builders hire the labour out for free?
    The answer is no, no, and no.

    If government wasn't in the education business, the costs of the above 3 wouldn't be inflated by wasteful government contracts - allowing the private sector to provide this important service better and cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Often the repetitive behaviors are because someone is NOT coping with 'whatever' in their environment - they isolate themselves as best they know how in repetitive behaviors because it IS home, at special school, on the train, in mainstream school.
    Enforced socialisation builds up stress, requiring medication (apparently), 'behaviour interventions'...creating more stress...

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The only reason to main stream kids with autism as with the care in the community plan for other less capable people is to cut costs rather than help the inflicted. This sounds like a great scheme and should become national.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    This free school has a fantastic educational philosophy.
    Just imagine an education system where every individual was allowed to follow their own interests: internet/youtube/coursera type stuff make this reality.
    Step into the future. Those that need supervision/motivation have a centre/school to attend, those that don't do it themselves.
    Can you see Gove releasing his grip?


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