My best teacher

18th February 2000 at 00:00
When he was three my son, Toby, was diagnosed as autistic. What was as distressing as the diagnosis was that there was no school for him near where I live. I got together with other parents of autistic children and we set up our own school, TreeHouse, in north London, which now has 20 pupils.

Pupils have an individual teacher. Toby's is Zyan Sansom. She is my best teacher because under her care he has changed from a withdrawn little boy who wouldn't look you in the eye to an impish, naughty, loving child. Zyan has taught me how special my child is in spite of his autism.

She was one of the original teachers when we started the school with the children of just four families. She had immense experience as a nursery teacher and was a trained therapist using the Lovaas method of applied behavioural analysis pioneered in Los Angeles. This was a home-based programme, but as parents we felt that children needed to go to school, and it was important that what was done at home was continued at school. We brought over a professor from Columbia university in New York where they were applying this method in schools, and he set up our school for us.

Right from the start, Zyan spent an immense amount of time teaching me management of my child. She taught me the importance of routine. When Toby was first diagnosed everything was a trauma for him because he didn't know what was expected. He was three but he didn't have any words or any understanding. He looked like a regular child. He could go on a swing, ride a tricycle, run around. But he had no understanding.

Zyan showed me how to break down everything into simple steps, to do things in exactly the same way every day. For instance getting up, getting washed and dressed, having breakfast and going to school was done following the same pattern so Toby would understand he was going to school. It was more than routine: even the table had to be laid in the same way and his shoes and clothes put out in the same way. Then he felt secre and understood what was going to happen next.

A lot of the behaviour problems and unhappiness in autistic children results from a lack of understanding and bewilderment. You can't say "We're going to school", or "We're going to the shops". But if they experience the same pattern of behaviour each time they slowly understand.

What is so special about Zyan is her innate understanding of children. If one of them is upset or finding things particularly challenging, she will sweep them off their feet and hang them upside down, or play with them, or sit very quietly and hug them. She knows just how to respond.

She's a typical English rose, a young woman in her mid-twenties from Devon, tall and slender, with a huge sense of fun. She just found a way into Toby right from the start, and now he runs into school every morning and throws himself round her neck.

He is my only child and I am a single parent. I had no experience of children before he was born. Zyan taught me to understand him, to understand him as a little boy and as an autistic little boy, and to appreciate his difficulties and challenges. She is a very special person who came into my life at a time of great crisis and told me: "You have a lovely little boy and this is how you understand him."

Dance producer Katharine Dore was talking to Pamela Coleman

* THE STORY SO FAR

1960 Born in Cheltenham

1979-81 Attends Central School of Speech and Drama

1981 First job, assistant stage manager Whirlygig Children's Theatre

1988 Meets Matthew Bourne and co-founds Adventures in Motion Pictures dance company

1993 Son, Toby, born

1995 Produces first all-male production of Swan Lake to critical acclaim

1997 TreeHouse school co-founded with other parents of autistic children, Virginia Bovell, Karen Edwards and Sid Wells

1998 New school premises opened by Cherie Blair

2000 All-male Swan Lake opens on February 2 at the Dominion Theatre, London, for six-week run


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