Mainstream education does not work for those children worst affected by autism. So schools such as Daldorch House, run by the National Autistic Society (NAS), provide the controlled environment, specialist teaching and continual care that these kids need (TESS, 2 March). But a single location for children from all over Scotland means many pupils see parents only rarely.
Satellite schools closer to home, run jointly with a local authority, provide an alternative that is working well at St Leonard's in East Kilbride, where a former children's home has been converted into a residential school for South Lanarkshire children with autism.
"This is the only school we know of with this model, where an experienced teacher is attached to a small, local residential project that provides care and education around the clock, seven days a week," says service development manager Fiona Bain.
It's a model NAS and South Lanarkshire are happy to share, says Daldorch House principal Shona Pinkerton. "The school has been open for 10 months, so we are still learning. But we do have a good idea now of the pros and cons (see panel).
"Our experience also enables us to firm up on the concept of a satellite school. It's a school in an authority, run with the authority, for the authority's children."
That local connection and shared responsibility brings considerable benefits, says Mrs Bain. "It's great to be able to discuss issues with the authority - around education, the building, the environment, access to schools and leisure facilities - and to know things will get done as it is their responsibility too."
Then there are the important relationships with parents, which are so much easier to sustain when they live nearby, even if that relationship can sometimes be hard to comprehend for mainstream parents. "We've one lad who's visited his mum every week for four years," says Mrs Bain. "He hasn't made it past the front door yet.
"Raymond has severe anxieties about transitions and no idea what is through that door. So he stays in the garden and plays football with his brother."
It might sound as if the parental connection is tenuous for children with autism in full-time residential education. But that is far from the truth, says Mrs Bain. "Raymond's mum is a very big part of his life. He looks forward to seeing her when she visits. She takes him through his bath routine on a Thursday and supports him going to bed. She couldn't do any of that when he was at Daldorch. They saw far less of each other because she can't drive.
"All our parents are very involved in their child's lives. But the behavioural challenges are just too difficult to support them at home, while access to mainstream schools or specialist units are too hard to sustain. That's why we have gone for this model."
Children with autism are tough to teach. Seemingly trivial distractions can throw them completely and rule out learning for hours. So planning, patience and a philosophical attitude are essential. Classrooms are austere, with bare walls, sparse furniture and low noise levels. Pupils are usually taught one at a time at St Leonard's, says principal teacher Ian Blandin.
"It's 24-hour, 365-days-a-year care, so these are some of the most difficult kids, with a range of abilities and challenges. You need to be flexible. One lad responds to gentle humour, which is not common with autism. If you ask Malcolm to do something and he has something else in his mind, he'll say 'No'. But you can have a laugh about it with him and move on."
Structure that children understand and know about in advance is essential in lessons, says Mr Blandin. "So we have images or words and sentences on the wall, to show them what they're doing now and for the rest of the morning or afternoon."
Expertise and the right surroundings mean youngsters develop and progress at the school, says Mrs Bain. "At Daldorch House these pupils used to have to walk across the playground to get to the school building. That was too hard a transition for some. Lorna would take her clothes off and have to be sent back. She would show aggression to staff and disrupt lessons. Her behaviour is far better now. She will take herself away to cool off."
The National Autistic Society would be delighted to share their experience with the satellite school at St Leonard's, says Mrs Pinkerton. "We don't want everybody starting from scratch. These are young people who need us to get things right for them."
Names have been altered. Autism facts and statistics: bitly.combWyr66
PROS AND CONS OF THE SATELLITE SCHOOL MODEL
- Stronger bond between education and care teams.
- Smaller staff team means more consistency.
- Better links with family network for young people.
- Improved links with local authorities.
- Chance to educate local community and authority about youngsters with autism.
- Easier access to health services.
- Closer focus on outcomes for young people across education and social care.
- Reduced peer and professional support for staff.
- Higher risk of staff burnout.
- Social networks reduced in smaller school.
- Fairly limited leisure facilities on site means taking children further afield.