The ‘autism lady’: Diary of an educational journey to St Helena (Part 3)
London headteacher Jude Ragan is spending 21 days working to assist autism teaching on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. She will be blogging about her experiences on the TES Professional blog. Here is Part 3.
Finally, after six days of wonderful travelling to get here (see blogs one and two), my work with the autistic students of St Helena has begun.
There are four schools – one secondary and three primary – on the island, serving 600 children. I have started my time here at the Prince Andrew Secondary (PAS).
The school is situated in a most wonderful verdant area, on a high plane in the middle of the island that is reached by a series of hairpin bends. It is a bright white building in three tiers, each with cool tiled verandas. It resembles a giant, statuesque wedding cake.
The special educational needs (SEN) department is housed within the school. All of the staff are dedicated to the children and, despite having had no autism training other than good-quality remote support from a specialist in England, they have, by trial and error, found many strategies that work for these three in particular, and therefore for children with autism in general.
It is my job now to offer face-to-face training and to get to know these three students so that I have every detail of how their autism affects them in particular so I can offer more strategies, activities and advice. My aim is also to put some science behind the staff’s feelings of what works – the sort of, "oh that is why he does that" knowledge.
Three boxes of resources that I sent on before me have arrived and been brought to the school. I was nervous about them. Would they be of use? Had I brought the right things with me? There is no opportunity here to pop back to London if I got it wrong.
It turns out, possibly entirely unsurprisingly, that the children with autism at PAS on St Helena and those of Queensmill School in London (where I am headteacher) like exactly the same things.
In the boxes were a wide variety of toys and activities, a cross section of those we use at Queensmill. One of the students here loves the squidgy, flappy things you can pull, scrunch up and bite – there are giant caterpillars, centipedes, koosh balls and varying strengths of play putty – while another student likes the cause and effect toys like the marble runs and the penguin stepper. The third student is engaged and amused by the various coloured wigs and huge play spectacles we use to dress up in and to facilitate spotting similarities and difference.
I also have with me some sensory equipment – ear defenders and a wobble seat for instance, which one of the students has taken to immediately.
I have a colour photo of each of the things in the box, so that the students can begin the process of requesting the object by choosing the photo, progressing then to discriminating between two photos and beginning to make choices.
The experience has been really rewarding already and I am getting a lot done in a short space of time. For example, though I have only just begun my work here, I have been able to spend some time with the occupational therapist to begin to draft individual education and behaviour plans for each student that are autism-specific. These I type up at my temporary island home and send to relevant staff members in the patches when my internet connection is working. It gives the staff a chance to read them before our next meeting.
I have also had an opportunity to visit all three primary schools that feed into PAS – in my very short visit of three weeks here, I will have been able to train every single school staff member on the island.
Although there are very few diagnosed children in the three primaries at the moment, St Helena has a disproportionate number of people coming to temporary posts here and a new family with a child with autism could move in at any time to work on the island . My visit is all about building sustainability and confidence to meet autism needs on this small full stop in the South Atlantic.
I have much work to do still – and in the next few weeks we will see how my training is being received – but one thing I know already is that autism in the southern hemisphere is exactly like autism in the north, and in both parts of the world there are wonderful staff who are prepared to go to the ends of the earth to work out the complexities of how autism affects each individual enigmatic child.