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 96.

    Having 'taught' a number of autistic children in primary school during Warnock's inclusion era I may well have done more harm than good as inclusion was done on the cheap with no structure, funding or specialist advice.Warnock herself admitted she was wrong.The frenetic ambience of many pr schools now is the last thing autistic children need.At lasta special school opening not being closed.Great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    89 neil_soton

    Exactly, schools fit no one. Along with the fact all children would be better educated by changing the system away from failing system based on herds called schools. All education should be individual. Schools in herds are just dumping grounds, of appalling socialisation and poor eduction for most. Only have to see the constant fruitless attempts to 'fix' schooling. Can't be done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    What happened to people with learning difficulties and disabilities being treated like everyone else? I thought it was patronising to treat them any differently?
    Calming pods? Is this a school or a luxury spa for the rich?

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    This is an absolutely brilliant idea. My brother is now 19 and has Asperger's Syndrome. He is extremely high functioning, but has no social awareness, and struggles to leave the house most days. School for him was a complete nightmare and although he left with a lot of qualifications, he lacks the skills to cope with his issues because the school didn't provide him with that support. Well done!

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Kids with high functioning autism can be the highest achievers. Darwin, Einstein, Gates, Jobs had it (but Hitler Stalin probably did too!).
    Raising kids with autism is much harder and different than 'ordinary' kids (I have both). If done badly they fail in society due to the subtle (but major) different needs, but if done well they become the greatest inventors, geniuses and leaders in society

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    My daughter disagrees with your photo examples above, she says the main difference is in her hearing, she find sounds very disturbing and can detect things others cannot hear. She also says her worst nightmare would be to be only with austisic boys - they are too violent (her words).

    She likes a quiet ordered atmosphere, shame she wasn't born in the 1950's.

  • Comment number 90.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Looks wonderful, but would be even better if smaller units and adapted pupil-focused teaching could be provided for all ASD children in all schools. Our daughter is severely autistic but highly intelligent and creative (13, but postgraduate-level at maths and physics, and a talented composer). We home educate her as she doesn't fit in to what "special needs" education is geared up for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    It sounds perfect - when are we getting one in Bristol? My daughter (age 8) is struggling in mainstream school even though she's incredibly articulate and very bright. The staff there are lovely but they don't have sufficient experience or resources to help her, and she's falling behind academically. There are just not enough places in specialist schools in our area.

  • Comment number 87.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Schools do a wonderful job for these and other children with special needs. However, what happens beyond school, college or university? What happens when these children become adults and are 30 something, 40 something etc? Parents are often very dedicated in supporting their children well into adulthood. Special needs is for life and society needs to provide for this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Some comments just prove the lack of understanding and awareness of ASD among the general public. As well as giving these kids the appropriate education depending on their needs, I'd like to see some sort of awareness campaign to help others understand. 'Bad parenting'? How insulting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    I agree with comment 79 on this being good and bad news. The ideal is that everyone be able to attend mainstream education. However, the reality is that schools with autistic students (and other special needs) need to be differentiated in learning and atmosphere to a high degree, most of which fall very short of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    you're not in school for very long. It's what comes after school which counts
    Whilst it is possible to redeem poor schooling with further education, for many people it is the deciding factor on whether they make any progress in life. There are >1m NEETS, some of whom are educated but there are no jobs but some failed school or school failed them. What are their prospects?

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Generally it is accepted by science that males are far more disruptive and difficult to control than females, so what do we do, we give this 'condition' a medical term like austism, or ADHD where even today people dispute it exists. Is it any wonder then, that only 2 out of 18 are girls? How many of these kids are just a product of poor parenting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    re comments 70 & 72

    I agree with JaneyK72.

  • Comment number 80.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    As a parent of an autistic girl I'm not sure if this is good or bad news. We fought for her to be at mainstream school despite a suggestion she go to a unit designed for those with social anxiety (the main symptom in girls) she is an A* student and the unit has no record of exam passes. Austism is a spectrum, it concerns me councils will see these units as easier than making adaptations in school

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I have Aspergers and my daughter has severe autism. It is a spectrum and as such mainstreaming is right for some and not for others. My daughter is not bright, she is incredibly violent and therefore this school isn't for her, but that doesn't mean it isn't right for others. I wish them luck with this school and I also hope more schools are opened for the less rewarding children like my daughter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    My youngest son has difficulties, and recently started school. His teachers are fantastic and are able to manage his behaviour, but I often worry about the impact this may have on his classmates. While his problems are currently manageable I prefer that he is in mainstream education. I do, however, see that this type of school fills a real need for children higher up the spectrum.


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