Mainstream challenge

5th January 2007 at 00:00
With more children than ever being diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, Fiona MacLeod finds out how both special and mainstream schools cope with a condition that is different in every child

daniel gives me the finger as I walk into the classroom, but his teacher neither scolds him nor gives him a punishment exercise. In fact, he gets exactly what he wants - which is for me to leave the room.

This is not, despite appearances, another example of the Asbo generation.

Daniel is autistic and his offensive behaviour is a sign of his struggle with an everyday skill most of us take for granted. While playground games and chatting to friends are the highlights of the day for most children, to autistic youngsters they can create high levels of distress.

The director of education at New Struan School in Alloa, Jim Taylor, explains how many autistic youngsters develop coping strategies, and Daniel's is avoidance. To interact with a stranger like me feels like an impossible task to Daniel, so he tries to avoid it. With a simple hand gesture he manages that very effectively, because most people presented with that gesture will turn and walk away. Outside in the corridor, Mr Taylor turns to me and asks: "Do you see how he would struggle in mainstream?"

Daniel is just one of 36 children, aged from seven to 19, at New Struan which takes exclusively youngsters with varying degrees of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Some will need care all their lives, while others may only need a boost of the specialist support available here before returning to mainstream.

Symptoms of ASD vary widely and can include sensitivity to light and noise, mutism and repetitive or obsessive behaviour. It can also include high-functioning youngsters with Asperger's Syndrome, who can be articulate and academic but struggle to empathise or recognise emotions in others.

That can mean they are unable to recognise when they are boring or offending you or making you sad. In a generalised definition, autistic children want to make contact but don't know how, while those with Asperger's have the ability to make contact but don't want to.

Rising numbers of children diagnosed with autism and the emphasis on inclusion mean ever more teachers have ASD pupils in their classroom. It is crucial to know each youngster well. John McDonald, chief executive of the Scottish Society of Autism which runs New Struan, tells me of a social worker who wrongly described an autistic boy as aggressive. He says the social worker didn't understand the boy or the condition well enough.

"That child hasn't learned the social rule that you don't run towards someone from 40 yards and stick your face in their's, but that's the way he communicates. He doesn't even understand there's something to learn about it," he explains.

There are an estimated 8,000 autistic children of school age in Scotland, predominantly boys (New Struan currently has only two girls) and the National Autistic Society Scotland estimates that one in 110 people in the UK is on the autistic spectrum.

In November, HM Inspectorate of Education published a review of education for autistic pupils in Scotland and called for a more planned approach and more training for teachers, particularly in mainstream. On the same day, the National Autistic Society Scotland launched its Make School, Make Sense campaign, calling for earlier intervention and better understanding of ASD in mainstream. Earlier in the year, the inspectors were critical of New Struan's education provision, deeming the curriculum quality unsatisfactory; but they were fulsome in their praise of the school's care and support.

Mr Taylor says of the pupils at New Struan: "These are among the most challenging children with autism."

He believes the mainstream versus specialist dichotomy is false: "I think the inclusion debate gets stuck on whether parents are in the inclusion or mainstream camp, but I don't think it is like that. Every parent I'm dealing with is looking for what is best for their child. I have rarely met a parent who has made an argument for a special school. Most are wanting to see what's being offered.

"We have kids who have been in mainstream school but have been very isolated and had five or six staff to get them through the day."

West Lothian has both special schools and specialist units attached to primary and secondary schools, but it also integrates high-functioning autistic children into mainstream where possible.

Brian Paterson, education manager for additional needs at West Lothian, says: "We do believe in the entitlement to mainstream. We don't categorise children in terms of their difference - we look at their need."

When he arrived three years ago, children were assessed on a medical basis and on deficit. "It is not just education. If you listen to some people, they say 'we don't do - isms' but I think that is naive. We don't stamp autism on a child's brow, but we have to acknowledge some children have it.

The autism-friendly class is good for any child. We are trying to get beyond this idea that if a child is diagnosed with autism a teacher will be afraid of it, where they might already have good procedures in place."

West Lothian backs the inclusion agenda while recognising that some autistic children simply cannot cope with the mainstream environment. "We are beginning to challenge the way autism is viewed. People need to be supported, but whether they need to be segregated is another question," he says.

Linlithgow Bridge Primary in West Lothian has two children, Darren, nine, and John, 11, diagnosed with Asperger's. Pam Fletcher, a learning support teacher, says: "There isn't one strategy or programme that will work. The spectrum is so wide that no two children present the same attributes, even with diagnosis."

Communication with the family and a constant review and updating of strategy are central to the school's approach. "Children don't just fit into mainstream education without a lot of strategies in place," she says.

Both Darren and John sit in mainstream classes but have very different needs. While Darren is cautious around people, John is a popular pupil but struggles to process information and is easily distracted. It can take a few repetitions for him to get the idea of a task, but he has developed coping strategies - in PE, for example, he will let others take turns first, so he can copy what they do. In class, he has a separate table where he can work alone if he needs space to concentrate.

"It's a decision I make with him where he will work better. Sitting with other children, he can be distracted by what's on the board and he wants to read what the others are writing," says class teacher Fiona MacNeill.

Both boys struggle to organise their day, so they have a special picture timetable to help them see what they will be doing that day and when they will get to do the things they like best.

John particularly likes working on the com-puter, so to motivate him, every time he completes a task he gets one piece of a jigsaw which eventually makes up a picture of a computer and is his ticket to a bit of ICT work.

This helps him get the idea that as he completes tasks, he comes closer to doing something he enjoys.

If the boys get distressed, a system has been set up so they can leave the class to calm down or burn off energy. Every member of staff has been briefed so they know what to do if either boy comes to them.

Weekly support circles, which are the only time the boys are taken out of class, provide opportunities for them to seek assistance. So, for example, if Darren tells Mrs Fletcher he was in the playground and wanted to join in a game but didn't know how, she can give him social pointers. Day trips and games, such as blindfolded trust exercises and sensory trails, help with communication in out-of-class activities.

Having pupil with autistic in your class is likely to become more common with increasing diagnosis and awareness, so is this adding to the pressure on the classroom teacher? "It is a challenge but it's my job - that's what I'm here for," says John's teacher Fiona MacNeill All the children's names have been changed.


At New Struan, order and predictability are top priority for a school roll which is easily distressed by disorder. A special display unit in reception keeps pamphlets in order, and everything pinned on the noticeboard is perfectly aligned - even the drinks in the canteen fridge are lined up uniformly.

The entire building has been designed with autism in mind. The carpets in the hallway are two shades of blue, indicating where the corridor ends and classrooms begin.

Jim Taylor, director of education at New Struan, explains: "It's a clear visual message that the environment you are in is changing. The preparation for going into the classroom starts here and a curved wall helps some people move in."

Every classroom has a quiet area and pupils have picture diaries, so they know exactly what they are doing. Light streams in from large floor-level windows and glass partitions allow pupils to see outside the classroom. "In any part of the school you can see what's going on," says Mr Taylor. "If the child can see it, they will understand that it is there."

Sometimes visual overload can cause distress. The library has uplighting that reflects light off the white ceiling, bulbs are hidden, and dimmer switches regulate light.

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