When Anna Kennedy couldn't find a suitable school for her two primary-aged autistic sons, she set one up herself. As the boys have grown to secondary age, she has done it all again. Reva Klein reports
After the first day at his new school, 13-year-old Matthew Wiggins told his mum: "When I sat down for lunch, nobody got up and walked away." It was a novel experience for Matthew. Although his nursery teacher had suggested he might be autistic, he was 12 before he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, and 13 before he received a statement of special needs. In the years between, he was out of kilter with the world, a source of derision at his mainstream schools. "He's been bullied ever since reception," says his mother, Toni Sweeney. "Even kids who befriended him were bullied."
Those days are now behind Matthew and 20 other autistic children, who last term joined the newly opened Hillingdon Manor upper school in the west London borough of Hillingdon. Its energetic founder, Anna Kennedy, was driven by frustration at the lack of specialist schools available to her two autistic sons.
She set up a primary school - Hillingdon Manor lower - in 1999 (Friday, March 10, 2000), then the secondary, which will be officially opened next Friday by Esther Rantzen. (Ms Kennedy has also set up a tertiary establishment, West Middlesex college, and a respite care facility, St Mary's, for the wider community.)
But she is no empire-builder. It's all born out of necessity. "We had to expand," explains Ms Kennedy. "Our children were getting older and had nowhere to go after primary."
Anna Kennedy is a dynamo. Her soft-spokenness belies a will of iron and a commitment best described as good-naturedly uncompromising. For years she and her husband, Sean, a computer specialist now studying to become a special needs lawyer, fought Hillingdon local education authority to place Patrick, now 13, and Angelo, 10, in schools appropriate for them. The litany of cock-ups and hold-ups they went through will be familiar to many parents of children with autism: late diagnosis and statements, misguided and miserable placement in mainstream - Patrick once came home asking:
"What's a birdbrain, mummy?" - and their isolated year of home tuition.
Those experiences compelled Ms Kennedy to join forces with other parents to create a school that could teach their children in ways relevant to their specific difficulties.
The lower school opened its doors in September 1999, registered with the Department for Education and Skills in November 2000 and received a glowing report from Ofsted in June 2001. It has 51 children on roll thanks to loans, non-stop fundraising and the remortgaging of the Kennedys' home.
Housed in an old LEA special school leased by Hillingdon borough council, it is an independent school. Ms Kennedy works with parents to ensure that all children get their school fees of around pound;30,000 a year paid by their local authorities.
The criterion for admission is unequivocal: only children who have Asperger's syndrome or are at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum are offered a place. The pupil-teacher ratio is exemplary, with a teacher and two other adults in each class of eight children. As well as teachers and classroom assistants there are part-time therapists in speech and language, drama, music and dance.
Soon after its establishment, Ms Kennedy was already looking ahead to when Patrick would move up to secondary. Again she, Sean and her committee started the long process of finding the money - including raising an pound;800,000 mortgage in her and Sean's name - and finding a building and staff.
The new upper school is near to the lower school, in a beautifully renovated listed building. Building work to adapt it was carried out by volunteers, with equipment and furniture donated by local businesses and bigger firms.
Some pupils study for GCSEs, others will do GNVQs or Asdan qualifications in life skills. The Duke of Edinburgh award is offered at a local youth group in collaboration with the school. And all pupils can do work experience.
Leading staff on both sites is the principal, Angela Austin, a veteran special needs expert. Her deputy at the lower school, Pam Sicklemore, has become headteacher while Sean Pavitt is the upper school head. Ms Austin emphasises teamwork. Parent training sessions try to carry the "no-blame"ethos and the psychotherapeutic environment adopted by the school into children's homes.
Tracy Yapp, whose 12-year-old son, Geoffrey, is a pupil, says: "The children get speech and language therapy that helps with social skills and explains idioms and sarcasm, because people with autism tend to take things literally. Children are also given key words that work as a cue to stop them from doing socially unacceptable things. The school teaches us the same strategies."
Staff use a range of approaches to stimulate children's intellects, help them control their impulses, manage their behaviour and relax them. They are expected to make choices and accept the consequences.
Angela Austin explains: "If you're upset, having to make a choice forces you to move from the limbic (emotional part of the brain) system to the neo-cortex - the rational part of the brain. People with autism inhabit the emotional brain a great deal; we're helping to create neural pathways that will allow them to function in a more integral way."
As well as helping to manage the two schools, college and respite centre, Ms Kennedy leads six dance classes a week at both schools. A former dance teacher, she has an eclectic approach to working with autistic children. "I teach them break-dancing and other fun kinds of movement. I also get them to dance together; it's important they learn about respecting each other's space."
And her sons, for whom these schools were conceived and established? "Patrick is a different boy," she beams. "He's started going to the shops on his own and even chats with the shopkeepers." Angelo, who has more complex needs, has also progressed but still loves physical challenges. "I was out in the garden in the summer and heard an odd noise," laughs Ms Kennedy. "I looked around and saw Angelo's head sticking out of my neighbour's chimney."
For more information about Hillingdon Manor lower and upper schools and West Middlesex college, tel: 01895 813679