The visual and practical sides of science can appeal greatly to children with autism, writes Lindsay Darking
David Keeton has a series of digital photographs stored in his computer. They show what could be any key stage 1 science lesson: one boy concentrates on making an electrical circuit while another is absorbed in building a tower of paper cups. But at the Forum School in Shillingstone, Dorset, the children are profoundly autistic. Getting pupils focused enough to sit still in a chair, let alone carry out simple experiments, is arduous and difficult.
"When we started doing science, some people asked what was the point when our children couldn't read or write," says headteacher Carol Yellop, who started developing the science programme when she worked in special schools in Hampshire. "But it's all about expectation. Children with autism can do science; they have the understanding, they just can't communicate it. Science involves a lot of practical activity, which can motivate and excite the children and we can use many of the activities to support the teaching of other skills, such as communication, sorting and maths."
But science remains a daunting prospect for children with autism. To a greater or lesser degree they suffer from a "triad of impairments" - affecting their communication, social interaction and imagination.
Although some may be of average or above-average intelligence, they may behave in ways considered bizarre, aloof or difficult, with ritualised and repetitive behaviour. With poor eye contact, little or no speech and an inability to understand subtleties of gesture or facial expression, they are often confused.
"The national curriculum assumes children can communicate and work in groups. That's difficult for our children," says David Keeton, a non-specialist who has spent four years working on the school's science programme. "In science and technology children often learn through failure, but children with autism rarely learn through trial and error; failure for them may increase anxiety, so we have to structure the programme carefully to put them in successful situations."
Carol Yellop says science and other national curriculum subjects have often taken a back seat in schools dealing with autism, with work on social, communication and literacy skills taking priority. But at the 39-pupil Forum School, part of the private Hesley Group, all national curriculum subjects are covered through cross-curricular topics such as "water" or "buildings".
Teachers concentrate on adding structure to the children's lives, while the residential care aims to build up their physical, social and communication skills. Staff also "intrude" into children's autistic behaviours, aiming to minimise anti-social elements and reinforce behaviour such as good eye contact, table manners and turn-taking. Like all activities at the school, science lessons require a high staff-to-pupil ratio, with the teacher first demonstrating what the class is going to do, and pupils then working individually or in pairs with an assistant.
Elements of Collins Primary Science, Nuffield Science and Dorling Kindersley science books have been adapted into structured work cards. Working mainly at key stage 1 or below, each class of six to eight pupils covers a topic a half-term. Once the children have mastered the activities, photographs are taken to record progress and reinforce learning.
"The children look forward to their weekly science lesson," says David Keeton. "Achievement for them comes in small steps, so the ability to carry something out successfully and achieve a desired result increases their confidence."
Science specialist Mick Moran, who is class teacher to some of the younger and more challenging children, admits keeping them on task can be difficult. "Some want to play with one object only or have a hidden curriculum of how they want to use the materials. Predicting what will capture their attention can be difficult."
Mike Collins, education adviser for the National Autistic Society, says good practice in promoting science with autistic children is to be welcomed. "Problem-solving and hypothesising are two of the main difficulties for children with autism, so science can be useful for developing some of these skills."
Carol Yellop has found that a fascination with science can be a springboard to other learning. "One boy now has an electrical pack on his work table which he can connect up to make the light come on when he loses concentration; it is a distraction for him when he might become difficult. "We're looking for the strength of every individual child, and for some that strength is science."