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Blades of glory

A pioneering theory is helping one special school for autistic pupils really get moving, says Stephen Manning

Normally, you would expect to hear "stop running" echoing around a school, but not here. The pupils at Horizon School roller blade round the gym, jog before and after lessons and go trampolining when they get a spare moment.

It's all part of a regular day at this residential special school for autistic children aged four to 19 in Blithbury, Rugeley, Staffordshire, currently with 44 on roll.

Horizon is the only school in the UK whose curriculum is based around Daily Life therapy, an approach to autism that involves constant physical activity, helping the body overcome lack of control and dispersing excess energy.

The most common activity is jogging, which also serves group co-ordination.

Awareness of self in space is a crucial factor in autism, so each day starts with a 15-minute jog in the gym. They run together in a line, each pupil with a set place, focussing on where they are running to.

Children with autism might find themselves regressing outside the vigorous classroom setting. "Lunchtime can be particularly stressful for autistic children," says Marisa Kelsall, the school's principal. "They might have issues around eating in the dining room, which involves people, noise, or just not liking certain foods. Then they get outside and can't interact with each other, or start walking in lines."

The answer? Every child is taught to rollerblade in the gym, throwing in rugby passes and high-fives as they get more confident. High-fives are also the main form of classroom praise because about half the school's pupils have no speech.

Horizon is one of 20 schools and colleges run by Priory Education Services for special needs including autism, Asperger's syndrome, social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, dyslexia and dyspraxia. Priory Education Services is part of the Priory Group more familiar for the expensive rehab clinics for the rich and famous. Other Priory schools do use aspects of Daily Life therapy, though not as thoroughly as Horizon.

Two other schools internationally (called Higashi schools, Japanese for east) base their curriculum entirely on the technique - one in Tokyo, where it originated, the other in Boston, United States.

But could the technique be applied to any school? Marisa Kelsall doesn't see why not. "All pupils should be able to exercise in the school, and some do this first thing when they arrive, which I would recommend. If they have a gym, let them run round it, or put down four mats, for north, east, south and west, and have them run to each. With very young children, it's better in short bursts. But there's such a lot you could do in just 10 or 15 minutes. And it improves focus."

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