'Train us on Autism'
"There are 90,000 children with autism in the UK, with about 7,500 special school places," says Gillian Roberts, principal of The Robert Ogden school, in Thurnscoe, Yorkshire, the largest school in the UK for children and young people with the condition.
"Most teachers should expect to come across a child with autism in their career; therefore they should be appropriately trained," she says.
The Robert Ogden insists on training for its own staff. "We have a number of training levels, but we start with the 'Spell' framework," says Roberts.
Spell stands for Structure, Positive, Empathy, Low arousal and Links, and emphasises that planning and intervention should be based on the child's needs.
"Structure" aids personal autonomy: the environment and daily processes are modified to ensure each individual knows what will happen and what is expected of them.
"Positive" implies expectations should be high but realistic. "Empathy"
involves seeing the world from the standpoint of the autistic child or adult. "Low arousal" is important - it means there should be as few distractions as possible.
Finally, the "links" are the critical communication channels between carers, teachers parents and the child or adult.
"The key messages to get across are about sensory overload and about the breadth of autism," says Roberts.
Other strategies include Teacch, an approach developed in the US. It focuses on organising the physical environment, developing schedules and work systems, making expectations clear and explicit, and using visual materials. Pecs (Picture Exchange Communication System) uses simple generic pictures to help autistic children communicate.
National charities working for autistic children run specific training using these and other methods. In Wales, Autism Cymru has developed school forums; these meet twice a year and are well attended by schools across the country.
The charity is also working closely with local authorities to develop a whole school training project. This involves two training days and costs Pounds 300.
* NAS: www.nas.org.uk
* For information on Autism Cymru email Maggie@autismcymru.org