Introduction, Philosophy and Rationale
Pathways School was sucessful in gaining National Autistic Society Autism Accreditation in 2008 and again in 2012. See the latest report: Pathways School Accreditation report 2012 FINAL (2).pdf The team were particularly impressed by SPARC (Sustained Physical Activity for Relaxation and Calmness).
Julia Fair is an Advanced Skills Teacher at Pathways with expertise in ASD.
QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) 2001, provide guidelines on developing skills across the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties. They state the importance of overcoming all potential barriers to learning and assessment in order to include all learners.
Jordan and Powell (1995) suggest that to educate children with autism effectively is not possible without an understanding of the condition and how it affects the way in which they learn.
The widely accepted, definitive description of autistic spectrum condition is known as ‘The Triad of Impairments’ (Wing, 1996)
- Impairment of social relationships and social understanding
- Impairment of social communication
- Inflexibility of thought and social imagination
Research shows that a majority of pupils with ASD will have some sensory difficulty.
At Pathways School, we seek to understand the difficulties that these impairments cause the child with an ASD, and provide a learning environment and curriculum which will allow the pupils to access both the National Curriculum and the opportunity to develop skills in the areas in which they are impaired, particularly with regard to social and communication skills.
Pathways school endeavours to ensure the following key principles underpin our practice to enable us to provide the best possible education for our pupils with ASDs.
- Knowledge and understanding of autistic spectrum disorders throughout the school.
- Knowledge, understanding and appropriate implementation of relevant and well researched interventions and approaches.
- Knowledge and understanding of behaviour and behaviour management of children with an ASD.
- Up to date knowledge of current research.
- Continuous monitoring and evaluation of provision.
The Learning Environment
Research and experience shows us that many children with an ASD have sensory difficulties which can result in unusual or uncomfortable perception of sounds, sight, smell, touch and taste. Many children are unable to focus on relevant sounds and sights and can be distracted by noises and visual stimuli which are irrelevant to the situation. This can have a profound effect on the child’s ability to learn. There can often be an impact regarding behaviour for some pupils who experience extreme discomfort and even pain. Also, difficulties with flexibility dictate that we create an environment which is visually clear to support our pupils to understand routines and expectations and to reduce anxiety and stress.
Therefore, we aim to;
- Provide an environment which is quiet, calm and has a low level of visual and auditory stimulus.
- Provide an environment which has a high degree of visual and physical structure
In order to ensure that pupils with ASD can access the curriculum, the school uses a variety of approaches and resources. Monitoring and evaluation of approaches is continuous and the school favours an ‘eclectic’ model which draws on best practice from a range of understood and well researched interventions.
SPELL (Structure – Positive – Empathy – Low arousal – Links (with parents and the community)
The rationale of the SPELL approach, developed by the National Autistic Society, lies at the heart of the teaching philosophy at Pathways School.
Structure – Structure is provided in terms of the environment.
Positive – Children with autism are all individuals with their own personalities. To offer a truly child centred curriculum, staff adopt a positive attitude to all aspects of the child and their learning.
Empathy – Jordan (1999) points out that the way in which children understand and interact with each other is based on a fundamental understanding that all humans have beliefs, feelings and intentions. This knowledge has been described as ‘Theory of Mind’ (Frith, 1990). Pupils with an ASD are often severely impaired in this area. As a school we share a belief that it is our responsibility to actively try to understand how the child with ASD experiences the world and how we can help them to learn. We have the ability to put ourselves in their shoes - they can’t.
Low arousal – It is important to be aware of the confusion children may experience in an environment that is aurally and visually stimulating. We aim to avoid this in the environment we provide,
Links – Maintaining positive communication between home and school is highly encouraged through the home/school book, telephone calls, parents meetings and, where appropriate, home visits. Increasing autism awareness in the wider community through training is also encouraged.
TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication handicapped CHildren)
TEACCH focuses on providing visual and physical structure to support children with ASD in their learning. The use of structure and routine can help children to process verbal information and to predict abstract concepts such as time. The approach recommends the environment is structured to clarify expectations and establish context e.g. work areas, snack areas. Visual timetables, usually using symbols, are provided to show children what they will do and in what sequence. This is very helpful for children who are rigid in their thinking and have a need for sameness in their routines. Changes are visually presented reducing anxiety and allowing flexibility to be developed.
PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)
All children with ASD have difficulties in communication. Even the most verbally able may have processing difficulties and all will have some impairment in their understanding of social communication. Children with ASD are visual learners and using symbols – line drawings – to support spoken language can be enormously valuable. For some children, who have little or no speech, symbols are used as an alternative or augmentative form of communication.
Developing social communication and social interaction skills is an important part of the curriculum. Specifically planned activities using music, songs, percussion instruments and games facilitate interaction and allow children to learn about communication. Music therapy, particularly in terms of children with autism, tends to work towards goals in communication, social skills and motor skills. Music can be an effective resource because it is a form of non-verbal communication, is non-threatening and, therefore, most children with an ASD respond positively to it. Rhythmic, repetitive music and sounds are appealing to all young children as can be seen in nursery rhymes, lap games, jingles and songs. Certainly, for children with an ASD who have impairments in social timing, lack of understanding of gesture and facial expression and often a lack of any intrinsic desire to communicate, music can be used effectively to motivate and to teach communicative interactions. Christie et al (1992) discuss the importance of shared understanding for the development of functional and creative language. We believe it is essential that communication, in any form, and early social contacts/interactions should be intrinsically rewarding if a child with an ASD is to be motivated to communicate and make social connections.
SPARC (Sustained Physical Activity for Relaxation and Calmness)
Many pupils have had long journeys by bus or taxi prior to arriving in school and SPARC was developed within school as a means of providing a positive transition from home. At Pathways School we believe that exercise can lead to a reduction of anxiety and stress and create feelings of well-being. Research shows that sustained physical exercise can reduce challenging behaviours in children with ASDs. (John Clements, 2001)
SPARC also focuses on making communicative interactions fun and enjoyable. Any actions or sounds a child makes or utters are accepted and shown to be valid. For many children who make little or no attempt to communicate, other than to meet their own needs, intention is attributed to these sounds or actions and everyone in the group copies. For some children, it is a very short step from noticing that others are doing what they are doing to deliberately initiating an action for everyone to follow. Not only can this help a child to understand that they can influence the behaviour of others, it also allows for the development of social rapport and a sense of mutual enjoyment.
The rationale here is that children with ASDs are unable to take part in ‘our world’, so by joining in with the child in ‘his/her world’, they can eventually be encouraged to interact with the adult. The child takes the lead and the parent or facilitator joins in with the child’s behaviour. It is believed that this can establish a social connection between the child and facilitator and thus the child will become more motivated to interact and communicate. This approach believes in using the child’s motivations and enjoyments to teach communicative and social skills.