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Playful response to needs of autism

A new National Centre for Autism Studies has been set up by Strathclyde University's education faculty, in what is partly an attempt to support schools so that inclusion stands a chance of success.

The new initiative coincides with a cautious report from the university that it may be on the verge of a breakthrough on autism.

Aline-Wendy Dunlop, the centre's lead co-director, commented: "There is a huge move toward including as many children with autistic spectrum disorders as possible in mainstream schools and mainstream services.

"However, there is now an equally important need for support, training, new research and standards of good practice."

The latest figures estimate that an average of six people in 1,000 are affected to varying degrees by autism, which affects their abilities to socialise and communicate.

The university's department of education support and guidance is already working on a project focusing on the play of autistic children. This is led by Gilbert McKay, who has just retired from the department, and Helen Marwick, also a co-director of the new centre (Tommy MacKay, the noted educational psychologist, is the third co-director).

Professor McKay said: "Parents of autistic children have been subject to snake oil pedlars over the past 20 years. We are not involved in that. We make no outrageous claims."

He adds: "We are not saying that there have been miracles, but the children appear to show gains in the areas of joint participation, shared feelings, communicative purposes and symbolic imagination, and to have improved their abilities to read the intentions of others and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

"Any parent of a child with autism will tell you how important that can be."

The project, known as Share, which he and Dr Marwick are leading, is aimed at intervening with autistic children as they play with adults, to improve the way the children communicate. It is being run by the university along with the Scottish Autistic Society and South Lanarkshire Council.

The Scottish Executive is backing the project with a pound;179,000 grant to develop a pre-school service for children with autism.

Passports to communication, ScotlandPlus, page eight.

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