Children with autism find their right place with peer passports

11th December 2009 at 00:00
A support service in the Borders has led to better communication and integration

Alex is six years old and likes playing in the sand, with beads, eating and running around. He doesn't like sitting for long periods, or big groups of people.

Without his peer passport, it's unlikely Alex's P2 classmates would have known these rudimentary facts about him, for Alex is severely autistic and, while he can speak, he rarely uses the right words at the right time and has no functional communication. He spends some of the week at his primary, St Peter's in Galashiels, and the rest in a specialist unit at Wilton Primary in Hawick.

Children with communication problems often carry a passport which is used to introduce them to professionals - teaching or support staff, for instance. But in the Borders, it is used to introduce autistic children to other pupils in their class and contains short, age-appropriate explanations of what autism is.

The local Autism Spectrum Support team's work in this area was recently flagged up as a good example by Learning and Teaching Scotland. Sarah Fitch, the manager of the spectrum support service and head of the authority's complex needs team, says: "If, for the majority of the week, a child is not in the class, that can sometimes be puzzling for the others, and they may not know a lot about them because they can't communicate adequately."

Armed with a bit more information, however, children have proved to be understanding and inclusive, she says. "A lot of the time, inclusion can be tokenistic; the child with additional support needs just happens to be there. But you've got to make sure there is value in them being in mainstream. It's about developing relationships, rather than `this child comes into the class, full stop'."

All 17 children with significant autism, learning difficulties and challenging behaviour who attend spectrum support are on shared placements, spending at least a couple of afternoons a week at their primary and the rest of their time at a specialist unit. P1-3s, like Alex, attend the unit at Wilton, while children in upper primary go to St Ronan's Primary in Innerleithen.

Now that they have been formally introduced to their mainstream classmates, thanks to the peer passports, the team is looking to take things even further.

In the Borders, autistic children communicate with staff using the Picture Exchange Communication System, by visually picking out symbols in books. Now they are being encouraged to use it with their peers in "communication groups" which consist of the autistic child and mainstream pupils.

"Children naturally communicate with others," says Ms Fitch. "They don't tend to spend all their time interacting with adults. In the communication groups, they come round a table and each child is given a motivational toy. The autistic child is then asked which toy they would like a turn with, which requires them to use PECS, and it goes from there."

The authority has now launched inclusion groups for autistic children in upper primary, as well as communication groups. According to Ms Fitch, school becomes increasingly irrelevant for the youngsters as they get older and the language becomes more abstract. So they have organised regular activities such as games, dancing and sport, involving the autistic child and two or three classmates. "It helps maintain inclusion."

A mix of specialist provision and mainstream is ideal for children with severe autism, Ms Fitch believes. Experts with a deep understanding of the disorder are vital, but so is the community where the children grow up and will, in all likelihood, continue to live. "It's important we educate people in the community, as much as the children on the spectrum," she concludes.

Steep learning curve

Borders Council's Autism Spectrum Support started in 1995 with six boys at Denholm Primary in Hawick. But just 14 years ago, autism was something of a mystery to Scottish education, explains Sarah Fitch, the teacher brought in to run the service.

"It's hard to believe now, but autism was just not something that was talked about then," she says.

It was "a steep learning curve", admits Ms Fitch, who is now the council's team leader for complex needs. But a service that caters well for autistic children's needs was established and in 2006 received a very positive report from HMIE. More recently its work was flagged up as an example of good practice by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"Kicking, biting, screaming, shouting - you name it, we've probably had it. But you have to look at why that happens and try to make sure the environment is appropriate so these things don't happen," she says.

"A lot of children have sleep difficulties and a lot have extreme sensory difficulties - they are very sensitive to light, sound, taste and touch. One child we work with can hear an aeroplane coming long before we do and that causes challenging behaviour in him."

The journey has not been without its challenges - one of the most recent being a fire at Denholm Primary, just months after inspectors left, which rendered them homeless.

"We lost everything - not through the fire, but through asbestos contamination," explains Ms Fitch.

Since then, the early primary unit has been through a few stressful moves, but now is at Wilton Primary in Hawick, with upper primary at St Ronan's Primary in Innerleithen.

Today, teachers are far better informed about autism, with a wealth of training on offer, says Ms Fitch. They also have access to the Scottish Government's autism toolkit, which she describes as a "fantastic resource", although she questions how many are aware of it.

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