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Autistic? Or just addicted to TV?

Head famous for confiscating TVs says the label is wrongly applied to excuse behaviour of children who are simply exhausted

When a headteacher wins instant fame by turning up at parents' homes and confiscating children's TVs, the real story can get overlooked.

Duncan Harper believes that some children who arrive at school too tired to work after spending hours watching TV or playing computer games are being wrongly labelled autistic.

It was his response to this problem which led to last week's headlines such as "Head confiscates TVs from pupils' bedrooms" and "School's ban takes it to top of the class". His school, New Woodlands in Downham, south London, is a special school for 58 boys and six girls aged five to 12 with emotional and behavioural problems. Following an inspection three months ago, it was graded as outstanding in all categories.

Mr Harper said the key to the school's success was its excellent relationship with parents, who are contacted by phone every two weeks. With their backing he and his deputy Elizabeth Davis, have regularly visited homes and confiscated TVs or PlayStations. The haul this year stands at two TVs, four PlayStations and a Gameboy.

Mr Harper said that although around 20 per cent of his children had been diagnosed with some form of autism, none actually suffers from the condition.

"We don't like labels at this school," he said. "Labels take the focus off parenting at home and teaching at school. They are part of an excuse culture. True autism is where a child has massive communication problems and cannot relate to their peers or to adults.

"What we're seeing is children who at first appear unable to communicate.

They tend to be obsessed with computers and machines. After a few weeks here they are able to mingle with their peers, and they're not biting, kicking or scratching each other."

Of the 50 per cent of the children at the school diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Mr Harper regards only two as genuine victims. "If the family is dysfunctional, the children will show signs of ADHD. If they really had it, we would never be able to turn them round so quickly. I have seen a child diagnosed with ADHD who sat in a meeting for an hour without moving."

He said many of his children were used to watching four to five hours of TV at night, and all day at weekends.

Issa, a 12-year-old in Year 6, said he used to watch TV for 10 hours a day, as well as go to school. One day when he arrived home, he found the headteacher and his deputy on the doorstep.

"We had all the stuff in carrier bags - an X-box and a PlayStation," Mrs Davis said. "Issa was flabbergasted. We had warned him, but he did not think we would actually do it."

Issa earned his consoles back through improved work and behaviour. However, Mrs Davis said that when he returned to his old ways, he was warned that another home visit was imminent. Rather than have a headteacher knock on his door, she said the boy brought his PlayStation into school and handed it over.

* nick.hilborne@tes.co.uk

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