Daily Life with no limits

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Lucy Hodges visits the Higashi school in the United States, where the controversial no-concessions programme for autistic children attracts British pupils as young as three. Their parents are campaigning for the rigorous methods to be introduced nearer home.

When Terry Murray arrived at the Boston Higashi School from his home in Romford, Essex, he was out of control: climbing out of his bedroom at night, swinging from the curtains and biting his hands until they bled. He didn't eat and didn't sleep.

Three years on, aged 10, he is a different child when he flies home for the holidays. "We don't have to be looking for him every second," says his father, Terry Murray senior. "We can leave him."

It took only 11 weeks for this extraordinary school for autistic children outside Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States to calm him down. Gone was the chewing of collar and cuffs, the self-mutilation and the jumping and hand-flapping. Soon Terry was able to colour in tidily, rollerskate, write his name, and ride a bike.

Success stories like these are what move British parents to scrimp and save, send their children halfway round the world to the private Boston Higashi School - and leave them there for 44 weeks of the year. Among the 106 pupils are 11 children from Britain, the largest foreign contingent. A couple of them are as young as three, just out of nappies; others much older.

All the British children are boarders and live in the dormitory building, a former seminary, along with 70 per cent of the pupils. Each day they take a bus for the half-hour ride to the school, set in a former school for the deaf with spacious grounds.

What makes the school able to achieve such amazing results with severely autistic children? "We put aside all preconceptions and look at the autistic child like any other child, with the potential to grow and do anything that any other child can do," says headteacher Robert Fantasia. "We set no limits. We have the highest expectations."

Based on the ideas of a Japanese woman, the late Dr Kiyo Kitahara, and on a technique she developed in Tokyo, the Higashi method involves first and foremost teaching children to look after themselves. They must learn to get dressed, eat properly and go to the loo independently.

Dr Kitahara's methods stem from her own experience with an autistic child in a mainstream kindergarten class. She later opened her own school in Tokyo, and that institution and the one outside Boston, are the only two of their kind in the world.

Her Daily Life Therapy technique aims to give children a stable emotional life and self-confidence. When she began to develop it, Dr Kitahara believed that aut-istic children were socially isolated, and often anxious and fragile. She found that huge quantities of physical education produced good results: it released endorphins which are natural inhibitors of anxiety. Through PE, she thought, children could learn to gain control of their bodies, and consequently of their behaviour.

She treated autistic children like any other children. Their intellects had to be stimulated too. So they learnt language, arts, mathematics and social sciences.

There are no drugs, no physical restraint and no crash helmets to protect the children from self-destruction at Higashi. Instead there is what the school calls a rigorous curriculum, of reading, writing and mathematics, as well as large dollops of art and music and all that intense physical exercise.

The school building is not remotely lavish by American standards, nor are the grounds manicured. In fact, the school does not feel particularly well-funded. Curriculum materials are mostly home-made. There is good PE equipment - unicycles and roller skates - as well as computers and sound systems. But the school's strengths lie in its approach rather than any fancy-looking facilities.

Before he joined the Boston Higashi, Terry Murray had been at a special unit in Britain where he was shut away behind high walls, gates and locks. Terry had been what his mother, Rita Murray, calls "an escaper" since the age of two. He would go for "walkabouts", climbing over gates and fences, and out of upstairs windows.

At that British special school, his mother had watched him in the playground, pacing up and down like an animal in a cage. "He would lay across a play train just licking it in boredom," she wrote in her story about her son, written as part of a collection of stories by British parents as a tribute to Higashi staff.

"He started hand-flapping to stimulate his mindbrain, or was it that he was copying other autistic children? I saw no one suppress the behaviour at this school. He started chewing his collar and cuffs at playtime. There would be three to four adults on duty 'watching'."

Mrs Murray wonders why the school did not teach the children to play, for example, by lining them up to take turns on the slide. "But I doubt they had any insight into autism, and how these children, with no imagination, need motivating and constant activity to deal with their hyperactivity, aggression and frustration," she wrote. "They are prisoners within themselves, locked in a world of their own."

The Boston Higashi does not allow children to flop about and do their own thing. When I arrived at around 9.30am, groups of primary-school-age children were jogging into the gym for their morning workout. Round and round they ran, arms flailing, the teachers urging them on with yells and shoves, and with incessant blasts from their silver whistles, traffic-cop style.

It was discomfiting to watch. Words were not exchanged, at least not many words that were comprehensible. About half the teachers are Japanese and speak heavily accented English (but they were speaking English, I was assured). All children wore uniform - blue tracksuit bottoms and white T-shirts. Round and round they went for what seemed like an eternity but was really about 10 minutes.

If children flagged, they were quickly brought into line by a teacher running beside them. There was nothing brutal about the touching, only something relentless. All the staff are athletes, trained to teach in American schools as well as in the Higashi method, and hired for their stamina and their ability to work as a team.

The jogging takes place every morning, and is followed by other exercises. Teachers kneel beside their charges, moving the children's hands down the sides of their bodies, touching them constantly, tryingto massage them into an acceptable shape. Posture is considered extremely important.

Older pupils are made to do bar exercises, heaving themselves up on to a bar and swinging over it. One teenage boy baulked at this manoeuvre. He could manage to raise his body against the bar, but only for one second instead of the 10 seconds required. And he never attempted to swing over. The Japanese teacher persevered. The boy had to keep on trying until he could do it.

It is almost as if the staff are trying literally to pull the children out of their autism, a neurological disorder which affects an estimated 15 out of 10,000 live births. When they arrive, the children are not only exhibiting hyperactive, self-destructive behaviour, like Terry, but are often eating and sleeping badly. They engage in the rocking behaviour that is so characteristic of autism.

Some wander off in the middle of class, others bang their heads on their desks. Many look completely blank, making no eye contact. Both the three-year-olds from Britain were wearing nappies when they arrived in January. Now, after hours of exhortation and cajoling, they are toilet-trained, the agonies of separation from parents behind them.

How does the school deal with the painful goodbyes? Parents suffer more than children, I was told. But they are helped, particularly those leaving toddlers behind, by being able to stay with their children for the first few days to watch them adjust and get used to the new surroundings. Most never get used to being apart from their children. "None of us receives any pleasure from having our children across the other side of the Atlantic," says Terry Murray senior. "But we do know the school is the best."

He is highly critical of UK schools for autistic children and, anyway, says that there aren't enough of them. The British parents form a tightly knit support group, helping one another with problems and, like most of the parents, acting as cheerleaders for Higashi. The Murrays are founders of the UK association which is campaigning to establish a Higashi school in Britain.

After several months of arduous physical exercise and constant physical attention from their teachers, it is not surprising the children begin to eat and sleep better, and to become better able to control their movements. It was clear from a tour of the classrooms that older pupils had greater self-control than the younger ones.

Halfway through the morning the whole school spills out into the grounds for assembly, which is a chance for all pupils to work together in class formation - or in harmony, as Bob Fantasia, the headteacher puts it. This emphasis on the group and on PE seems very Japanese. The large, muscular PE teacher takes charge from a little dais. Behind him hi-fi speakers pump out rhythmic music. The pupils are lined up in grade order, in their blue tracksuits but now also wearing red baseball caps.

The day I visited they were preparing for sports day by taking part in different sports in their group. Some threw balls, others held sticks, others crawled under a large tarpaulin. They followed commands from the dais, and were pushed and shoved by their own teachers into performing the sport demanded of their age group.

After assembly, the junior high school group had a music lesson. Again, it was a disciplined affair. All had to stand at ease, with their hands behind their backs. Their teachers moved them if they were not standing quite right. "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," they belted out. It was not a particularly melodious sound but the teenagers seemed to enjoy making it.

A couple of girls were displaying more autistic symptoms than the others. One was gazing blankly at the floor; another was laughing and out of control. Their teacher pinched their cheeks to try to persuade them to sing, to little avail. Again, it was discomfiting to watch, and the physical prompting seemed heavy-handed. Fantasia explained later that the wild girl was actually having a wonderful time and had staged her "demonstration" as a way of seeking attention from the visitors present. "She was having a heck of a time in there," he said.

Despite the current enthusiasm for Higashi, the Boston school had two rocky first years when it opened in 1987. Officials of the state of Massachusetts stopped the school taking any new pupils for a while after allegations of child abuse and the deaths from seizures of two children at the residence. At that time the school was also criticised for not emphasising speech training enough and for failing to involve parents sufficiently.

Those early complaints have been corrected. The allegations of abuse were never substantiated, and the school was commended for the way it handled the deaths. Speech therapy is now firmly on the curriculum, and parents are intimately involved.

In fact, their involvement is compulsory. All parents are required to attend monthly study meetings (overseas parents are sent bundles of material) at which they are told what their children are doing that month. They are given special presentations by subject teachers, such as demonstrations by the PE staff to explain how children are taught to ride unicycles.

The idea of teaching autistic children to ride unicycles and become proficient in rollerskating boggles the minds of many with experience of autism. But Higashi can do it. As well as improving physical co-ordination, such mastery gives children an enormous sense of achievement, says the school.

Parents are able to phone at any time and speak to the headteacher and teachers, if they are available. This is considered normal practice in American education, and particularly in private schools. Some British parents ring the school up to three times a week. Another sign of the school's insistence on links with parents is the holidays: two weeks at Christmas and Easter, and one month in the summer. This is more than autistic children would get at many other institutions and it is one reason for the drop-out rate, says Fantasia. Around 12 children a year leave, mostly because parents are not able to cope with looking after them for eight weeks a year.

The school has recently been evaluated and approved by the state. In fact it is so popular today with local parents, that it is having to turn away children.

Should a Higashi school open in Britain, as so many British parents are demanding? Bob Fantasia was not sure. It was up to people in Britain to put together a business plan, he said. But he wondered whether the Japanese methods - the emphasis onthe group, on discipline and physical prompting - might engender hostility.

It certainly had done so in the case of Higashi in Boston, despite the fact that state officials had invited Dr Kitahara to open the school. "If this programme had come from Ohio instead of Japan and Midwesterners had been running it, it would have been welcomed," said Mr Fantasia. Behind the early complaints about child abuse lay anti-Japanese sentiment, he thought.

The National Autistic Society in London has had contact with the Higashi schools for several years and says it is interested in aspects of the method which might be "transferable", notably the physical education techniques. In September a Higashi teacher will visit the society, which has five schools, to demonstrate methods to staff. "We are not going to turn our back on anything that works," says Richard Mills, the society's director of services, adding that many individual children had benefited from Higashi but that it was one of many educational methods being tried out.

For British parents the most pressing concern, once they get over the idea of sending their children to school abroad, is money. With a pupil teacher ratio of one to six at the school, and one to four at the residence, fees are high. It costs $80,000 (Pounds 51,000) a year to send a child to board at Higashi. Then there are the air fares.

Terry Murray's parents persuaded Havering education authority to give them the money that would have been spent on sending Terry to a special school locally - Pounds 38,000 a year. But they still have to find another Pounds 13,000 to make up the school fees and Pounds 6,000 for their expenses each year. Family and friends continue to organise fund-raising events. They have managed to attract some support from celebrities: footballer Alvin Martin, the West Ham defender, is president of Terry's fund.

Other parents are not as fortunate. The Cherrihs from Warrington, Cheshire, whose five-year-old daughter Hanna has been at Higashi for two years, expect that this will be her last term. They have run out of money, and are in debt to the school. In her testament to Higashi, Mrs Tracy Cherrih says that Hanna is looking and acting much more normal than before. "She has lovely table manners," she wrote. "She can eat with a spoon and fork, and eats a wide variety of foods.

"Her behaviour never ceased to amaze me . . . This child who never understood me before was carrying out simple tasks and directions as though she had always done them. What a breakthrough!" Higashi's goal is for the children to go into mainstream schools when they leave. According to Bob Fantasia, it has been fairly successful in this. He cited the case of a boy who had arrived at the school taped up in a brown box because that was the only way his parents could transport him. Today he is in a mainstream school.

But Hanna will be lucky if she returns to an ordinary classroom, particularly if the case of Christopher Wallis is anything to go by. He had to leave Higashi when his local authority refused to pay for a place abroad. Christopher has regressed since his return to Britain, and been transferred to a residential school where the cost is much higher than Higashi, according to Rita Murray. "Where is the logic in that?" she asks.

The Boston Higashi UK Parents Association has an information pack, available with a 30p SAE from 71 Heath Park Road, Gidea Park, Romford, Essex RM2 5UL.

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