On the trail of the Victorians

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Taking students with autism on outings is a challenge, but at Purbeck View School, it's a crucial part of the post-16 curriculum
Planning is key when it comes to outings for autistic students, says Susannah Kirkman

Taking students with autism on outings is a challenge, but at Purbeck View School, it's a crucial part of the post-16 curriculum. This special school for children and young people in Swanage, Dorset, provides good opportunities to bring local history alive for its older students.

Cross-curricular projects have focused on the Victorians and fossils, taking advantage of Swanage's past as a Victorian seaside resort on the world famous Jurassic coastline.

"We try to do as much as possible that's meaningful for our students, which includes giving them direct experience of history," says Belinda Chadwick, one of the post-16 tutors.

But first, students must learn to manage their behaviour and to cope with the unexpected, which is always a challenge for young people with autism. This is a key feature of the school's curriculum and essential to making these outings a success. Usually six students go out with three teachers.

Before each trip, staff carry out a meticulous risk assessment and prepare the students in detail, so that they know what to expect. The day's activities are discussed and explained, and staff make a plan using pictorial communication symbols (known as a Picture Exchange Communication System or PECs) to describe exactly what is going to happen. Careful planning helps avoid any potential pitfalls for students and there are enough staff to reassure any individual who becomes anxious.

The young people can also draw on skills learnt in the school's "waking day" curriculum, where carers and teaching staff attend to individual student's goals and needs.

Students learn new skills such as queuing, taking turns to buy tickets and behaving appropriately in a public place.

They have walked Swanage's Victorian trail, taking in the town hall and the Victorian pier, travelled on the steam train to Corfe Castle, and visited the electricity museum in Christchurch, which boasts the first vacuum cleaners, telephones and gramophones.

They also have a regular session at a local swimming pool, where the preparation means that they are not so fazed by the whistles and echoing shouts that might disturb them.

"Building in variety means that students learn to cope when the unexpected happens," says Karina Steeden, another post-16 tutor at the school. "We offer them so many experiences that they are much more accepting of change, something that they usually find difficult."

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