A quick how-to guide for teaching children and young people with severe autism
During my long career associated with autism I have worked with many groups of staff across many settings, but always with children and young people with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), and I can draw some generalisation about what works well with this group of youngsters.
I have been Head of Queensmill School in Hammersmith and Fulham now for approaching a decade. Queensmill staff have always been second to none, willing, able and happy to develop. Above all, they have the vital ingredient that must be there for the best possible provision for children with ASDs, and that is not to think first about themselves, or about risks, or health and safety, but to always have a willingness, indeed a real desire, to do the right thing for the child and then work everything else out after that.
Although this is the first imperative for an outstanding educational setting for children with severe and complex ASDs, there are other factors that must be in place and must be maintained, and one of my governors has described these factors together as “The Queensmill Way”. In brief they are:
- Staff who know what they are taking on, and come to work ready to address the huge complexities of the children we serve. The majority of our staff at Queensmill are support staff, and they do not need to have ASD knowledge, experience or qualifications in order to be successful at getting a job with us. They need to be bright, enthusiastic, above all kind people, with a passion for a job which can be hard, but ultimately very rewarding. This may even apply to main grade teachers; sometimes we take people from special schools where they have already learned highly successful ASD practice, at other times we may take a teacher from mainstream with huge National Curriculum knowledge to bring to us, but they must have those above qualities. We then give them the autism knowledge.
- Staff who are willing to think differently. In all schools for severe autism that I have worked in, when talking to staff about adding another child to their class I have often been asked if then they can have more staffing. At this point I try to re-think the issue with the staff, as if moving from thinking like a policeman; “by my presence I will be able to stop you doing whatever it is you do that I find challenging”, to a detective; “I will use all the evidence available to me to try to work out what it is you were trying to achieve by that challenging behaviour”. Apologies here to policemen, I do not mean to disparage your work, but just to make a rather simplistic point, and also acknowledgement to Skinner, father of Behavioural Analysis, which is of course what I mean by the detective analogy. The benefits of this way of thinking are enormous – it helps staff to work as a brainstorming team, it puts the onus on the staff to change the environment rather than expecting the child to fit into ours, it reduces the need for restraint, and ultimately it releases more money from the staffing budget that can be spent on a constant stream of enticing curriculum resources for us to entice our children.
- A strong and committed management team to carry the load together. As Head I am of course ultimately responsible, but I want around me bright, energetic, thoughtful senior staff who have the experience with our children to be able to model our best practice at all times. At Queensmill, we have a highly experienced group of Senior Managers, but have also created a new Middle Management Team of 8 amazing teachers, all internal appointments, all the best possible proponents of superb ASD practice, and all shouldering significant responsibilities for parts of the school or its curriculum. They are keen, exciting and energising.
- Training, training and more training. On average, we spend approximately 20% of our annual disposable budget on training. Annually. It is on-going, cumulative and iterative. We all do all the training together. We do not have some people expert in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Systems), or in TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Children with Autism and Communication Handicaps), or in Intensive Interaction, or any of the other strategies that we use. We all train in them, use them, practice them and develop them all the time. The benefits to this are enormous and self-evident; as a manager I can move any member of staff anywhere and know they will be able to work efficiently and with confidence. Our in-house training programme is huge, and is often mentioned by people at interview as a reason they are applying to work in Queensmill. There is a clear progression route for all staff, many of whom have done GCSE maths and or English whilst with us, Higher Level Teaching Assistant qualification, a degree, teacher training through Graduate Teacher Programme and now Schools’ Direct, and on to post-graduate autism qualifications which we offer in-house.
- A culture of self-improvement, enquiry and research is central to our ethos and our success in Queensmill. I am awe-inspired by support staff who work tirelessly during the school day, who then pick up overtime in one of our after-school clubs, and then go on to their chosen course in order to develop their practice and their career. I am equally admiring of the participants on our in-house post-grad autism courses, many of whom are learning in their second language and can still listen, research and write in English at Masters’ level. We have an externally chaired research board through which go all of the many requests we receive for research projects in the school. Staff who are taking on post-grad qualifications have their research programme going on around them in class, and are encouraged to develop the outcomes in order to both inform and develop our practice and to offer their research for publication.
- The courage, determination and energy to take to task those staff who cannot bring to the school all of what I describe above. If staff are not willing, despite training on offer and the support of a large management team, to fit in with what is the norm at Queensmill, that is a hard-working, dedicated staff who always put children first, then Queensmill is not the place for them. It is not easy to move a member of staff on, but where it is, then it is vital, because a group as hard-working as Queensmill cannot afford a weak link, and existing staff need to see very clearly that their own high standards are being required of all staff, no exceptions.
- Supportive governors and a supportive borough. A borough who understand the complexity of the children we teach, and are respectful of our admission criteria. I have been extremely lucky in my borough, Hammersmith and Fulham, that officers have always been open and willing to support new Queensmill developments. This has resulted in our school expanding rapidly, the growth of our secondary department, the creation of two Queensmill units within local mainstream schools, our outreach service, another unit in planning as well as provision for young adults with autism, and most recently our move into a dream purpose-built school, designed to our specifications. Due to this, the borough can truly offer parents a spectrum of provision.
The tools that we choose to use for teaching and learning in special schools for severe autism are many and varied, and are well known to all autism specialists. However, whichever methods we adopt, or whichever combination of methods, they must in my view be underpinned by the ethos described above in order to have optimum efficacy.