'Nobody knew what he took in'

29th June 2007 at 01:00
If you're unsure what an autistic child's capabilities are, teaching them can be difficult. Ali Cargill reveals how she overcame this problem

Ten minutes into his first lesson, Ciaran put his head in his hands and howled. My role on his first day was to introduce him to a typical lesson at my school, Woldgate College in Pocklington, and I had brought him to a Spanish class with 25 pupils.

Though I had experience teaching children with learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorder was new to me and I had only just started my six-week course on understanding the condition. How could I possibly help this distressed young man understand what was happening?

Ciaran was 12 and had been diagnosed with childhood autism with dyspraxia and associated learning difficulties.

He had no experience of mainstream secondary education. At his previous school, Applefields Special School in York, the classroom was managed so as not to cause stress, with bare walls and muted colours. Mainstream classrooms, on the other hand, are visually stimulating.

Ours is a melee of desks, display and paperwork. But Ciaran's carers wanted him to be exposed to mainstream education. They found he had coped with, and enjoyed, a variety of experiences - trips to London and holidays abroad. They were anxious that we try not to pre-determine the limits to what he could access or learn, and I agreed - nobody really knew what he took in.

Out of Woldgate College's 1,380 pupils, 120 are on the special needs register, but this was the first time we had taken a pupil with severe autism.

Ciaran started to attend for two days each week last September. A typical day includes form time with his Year 7 peers, getting and paying for school lunch in the main hall, and negotiating the crowded corridors of a busy secondary school on the move. All this plus five one-hour lessons.

I began each day by showing Ciaran a visual representation of his timetable. Our learning support room became his "base" where he could eat, draw and use the computers.

Ciaran's major interest is Disney films, and when he began to produce drawings from them this became our first meaningful two-way communication.

I found that he could access a task if linked to his interest. Ciaran's drawings are his communication to our mainstream world to tell us what he is about. He possesses a remarkable ability to assimilate elements of whatever experience we throw at him, and respond in his individual way.

As the academic year has moved on, he seems to be coping well. He knows his timetable, and is becoming aware of when lessons start and finish, pointing these times out on a clock. He responds to teacher instructions rather than my "interpretations", which suggests he sees himself as part of the group.

Determining his capabilities has not been straightforward - the majority of our pupils are working at national curriculum level 3 and above - but we are getting to grips with assessing a pupil working below national curriculum level 1.

Measuring Ciaran's progress in terms of social development is easier. He is confident in moving around the site and responsive to his environment.

He now attends Woldgate College full-time. He seems to thrive on his mainstream experience Ali Cargill is a part-time teacher at Woldgate College

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