WHEN ROBERT wallace started at St Andrew's High in Kirkcaldy last November he would sit with his hood up, not talk for days and need one-to-one tuition. Now, six months later, the 13-year-old who has Asperger syndrome attends all his classes - even the ones he does not like.
Moreover, he is a happy and chatty boy. Robert has been successfully integrated into the Fife mainstream secondary school, thanks to the support of the autism spectrum information and support team (ASIST), a local authority-run outreach service. The team recommended Robert move to St Andrew's after he was having difficulties settling into a different senior school following transition from a primary where he was used to simpler routines and fewer teachers.
"ASIST was in at the beginning and explained to us about Robert, so when he started we knew to a certain extent what to expect," says Catriona Milne, his key worker and learning support teacher. "ASIST has given us lots of advice - we were always on the telephone or emailing them to say 'he has done this, but we don't know why'."
One tip ASIST gave the learning support team was to try food as an incentive to encourage Robert, who has a sweet tooth, to go to classes. The one thing he would jump through hoops for was chocolate. He was initially given two chocolates for every lesson he attended. He now gets one and, if he works well, he earns time on his laptop at home in the evening, an incentive that came out of discussions with the team and school staff.
Across Fife, 682 children have been diagnosed with some form of autism, but the local authority, due to its rural setting, has no autism units or schools. Instead, its strategy for inclusion is to develop the capacity in each school to support the successful participation of all pupils, including those with autism spectrum disorders.
The outreach team, led by ASD development officer Isabel Taylor, provides practical advice and support for staff in all Fife schools and for parents at home. It also runs training courses on how to understand and manage children with ASD, and these have been attended by more than half of all teachers in the region.
Now the team's high-quality work has been recognised by the National Autistic Society, which has awarded it autism accreditation. This scheme was set up by NAS to improve the quality of provision for people with autism spectrum disorders which are believed to affect more than 500,000 families throughout the UK. ASIST, which had to meet 26 standards of excellence, is the first outreach team in Scot-land to get accreditation status, and is one of only three in the UK to boast the credentials. "We are blazing a trail," says Mrs Taylor.
Set up nearly five years ago, the autism spectrum information and support team consists of Mrs Taylor, who has been with the group since its inception, and two support teachers who are seconded from schools in the region for 23 months at a time - Alan Chalmers and Karine Lindsay. They respond to referrals from schools and work closely with parents. Individual cases are opened after observation sessions and can last from six months to more than two years. At any one time there are around 60 children on the caseload.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to people around them. Children and adults with autism have difficulties with everyday social interaction and making sense of the world. Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited, as is their capacity to understand other people's emotional expression.
Those with Asperger syndrome are usually at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum but while they have fewer problems with language and want to be sociable, they still find it hard to understand non-verbal signals, to think in abstract ways and they find change upsetting.
It's not only staff at St Andrew's High who are grateful to ASIST for its help. So is Robert's mum, Fiona. The single mother of four has seen a marked difference in her son who used to come home and disappear into his bedroom. He did not talk about what he did at school. "I have seen a big change," she says. "When I ask him what he did at school, he says 'Can you no tell I have got chocolate all over my lip?' That is a remark he would never have made. It is great to have him talking about school."
Robert was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was nine-and-a-half-years-old but Fiona had suspected there was something wrong with him long before that. As a small child he would hide under the rails in shops, he would scream and cover his ears at the noise of flies and could count to 76 when he was just two-and-a-half.
When Robert went to school, unexpected changes to his routine could result in him getting upset and anxious. His former primary school called in ASIST when he went wild in the classroom one day. He had to be carried home. A few days later, Fiona discovered that his regular teacher had been off, a different teacher had taken the class and Robert had not been allowed to go on the computer after finishing his work as he was used to doing.
"It is about helping staff to understand that when there is such behaviour, there is always a trigger," says Mrs Taylor. "When you go in to observe, there is always advice you can give to staff. It is about where the kid on the spectrum is coming from. I do not believe there is a book of answers.
There is not a recipe book. It is about putting in the training and taking the staff with you."
At one point, Robert had problems re-membering how to put his clothes back on after swimming, so Mrs Taylor provided him with a list of what he had to put on and in what order. It was a simple and effective solution which stopped him getting distressed.
"Folk can forget about the difficulties they go through every day," says Fiona. "These children have to think everything through from beginning to end. I would have lost it quite a lot if it had not been for Isabel."
What works for one child does not necessarily work with another, but the team's experience has given other teachers the confidence to try a range of measures and develop successful strategies of their own.
Catriona Milne puts Robert's successful integration down to the unstinting support of the autism spectrum information and support team. "When he first started, Robert would communicate through one word or sounds," recalls Mrs Milne. "Now he has turned into this wonderfully animated boy who has lots to say and who knows what is going on in the world. ASIST came in for the first two-and-a-half weeks and is involved in the regular meetings we have with Robert and other ASD pupils. They are brilliant. They are always at the end of the telephone."
Audrey May, St Andrew's headteacher, says: "It is a great opportunity for our staff to work with Isabel and her team. The joint working that is going on is helping staff increase their skills and to understand how to cope better with young people like Robert."
WITH THEIR ASSISTANCE
Isabel Taylor is a familiar face to Audrey Fairnie, head of Capshard Primary in Kirkcaldy, who has worked with ASIST since staff in her nursery needed help with a severely autistic pupil four years ago.
Rhys Hayes, pictured left with auxiliary teacher Karen Bease, is now six years old and in P2. "One of the big successes has been with him," says Mrs Fairnie. "I don't know how we would have done it without their support and expert advice.
"The fact that the people who come in from ASIST have been classroom teachers and have taught children with these problems means they can see it from that point of view. They give practical support, advice and suggestions to what can seem the most trivial problem."
These problems can include difficulty coping in a crowded cloakroom or a noisy dining hall and eating in front of other children.
"Because people in the team get around lots of different schools, they pick up ideas and hints - things that have been tried and been successful," says Mrs Fairnie. "Sometimes we try 10 or 15 different things before we find one that works."
There are four children in the school with severe autism. Out of 330 this may not seem much, but it has a huge impact on the school. "These children have limited independence. They need a lot of added support during the day.
The challenge is having the staff to look after them."
Rhys, who has had the same teacher since P1, has a visual timetable. The pictures let him know what is happening next and as each lesson is finished, he puts the picture identifying it away. This stops him getting upset and anxious. It's a practice that is being piloted in other Fife schools.
At one point it was difficult to get him in from the playground after playing with the bikes. It would end up in a screaming match - to the extent that the staff would have to carry him in. Mrs Taylor asked what he liked more. The answer was Thomas the Tank Engine. That night the head bought a combined TV and video player and a tape of Thomas, which solved the problem.
While inclusion is easier in theory than in practice, Mrs Fairnie believes it is good for children like Rhys. "I can't deny it has been a challenge,"
she says. "But there are always ways around them. Children definitely benefit from their time in mainstream, even if it is a short time. It is good for the family. They feel part of the community."