I have a friend I have known many years, since my twenties (oh, for those halcyon days again). Her son was born around the same time as my son, before my total immersion in the world of special educational needs. But her son’s progress and development did not track that of my son’s or that of most other children.
This young boy remained silent in his pre-school years. My friend’s dismay was charged to action. The children she thought were influencing her son’s silent world were banished from his life and new friends sought. In the search for schools, my friend approached a local and well regarded private school where small numbers meant her son’s fear of change and meeting new people could be accommodated. She was fortunate indeed to have that opportunity.
My friend’s son shone at music and reading. He was quite the academic and equally, excelled at sport, but friendships remained problematic and understanding social situations, even more so. There were meltdowns and difficult moments (the school’s expectation of all performing in the annual Christmas production!) But, this all-age, small in numbers, 4 – 18 school catered for this young boy’s needs and grew to know him and his idiosyncrasies with immaculate attention to detail.
I pondered my moment many times over whether to intervene, but on each occasion, was pulled up short with my friend, who would hear nothing of her son’s difficulties. Her focus was fixed on his ability – his music, his sport, his love of books and reading.
During my year studying Childhood Autism at Birmingham University School of Education, under the guidance of the brilliant Dr Rita Jordan and Dr Glenys Jones, I was more anxious than ever that my new found knowledge was put to good use. But still my attempts to support or offer suggestions, along the route of moving towards diagnosis, were rejected by my friend.
In the present day, my friend’s son has a 2:1 degree from a Russell Group university with a bright career ahead. Friendships and social situations remain problematic, but they are managed lovingly and carefully by the family and all those involved in this young man’s education and independent life.
The problems that I saw as being insurmountable, life-long and complex, have been surmounted., although they may always remain present. My friend’s decision to stay with, at all costs (and challenges in meeting fees) an all-age small private school, has paid dividends.
I wonder if this young man would have entered university at all, with a Statement of SEN for ASD? I wonder if his path through school would have been as secure, as supported, in a mainstream setting with all the funding and support allocated to children with SEND?
Cases like this challenge our thinking and it is good to be challenged.
So, in recent times I have been intrigued to read of one woman’s battle to find the right school for her bright son with ASD, a battle that has progressed so far that she has opened up her own school – The Rise School, a free school for children with autism.
Every morning Alex Paulson, a nine-year-old boy passionate about astronauts, is picked up from his home in west London by minicab and driven to his new school in Feltham.
The school, which is housed in a prefab grey bungalow that resembles a Tube train, has no bells, no fluorescent lights and no more than eight pupils to a class.
Alex is a pupil at a pioneering free school for autistic children set up by his mother and two major charities. Frustrated at the lack of state and private-sector options, Charlotte Warner, a mother of three, set about doing the seemingly impossible, finding the funds, the people and the wherewithal to set up a specialist school from scratch. It’s called The Rise School, it opened in September and it has just 32 pupils, all of them autistic.
I see parallels in the approach this mother has taken, in establishing The Rise, in the model of provision chosen by my friend, astutely recognizing the difficulties her son would face in the large, rambling open spaces of the many state schools she had visited in her search for her son’s first school.
There are significant differences however.
My friend chose never to go along the route of diagnosis, despite a very clear understanding of the difficulties her son faced. In the case of The Rise, this school will accommodate the needs of those children with a diagnosis of ASD whose academic needs might otherwise (too often, I would say) be over-looked as the focus and scrutiny remains on difficulties and deficits.
I am interested currently in recent discussions with the parent of a child in Year 6 (UK schools) who has a diagnosis of ASD. The parents have expressed a preference for a local Grammar School to be a first choice secondary school for their child.
Now, here’s a challenge again.
How many of our Grammar Schools, if any, would say that they could meet the needs of a child with a Statement of SEN? The Statement alone would seem contra-indicative and point to needs a Grammar School is poorly equipped to meet.
Yet there is a logic and strength in the argument that this is the right place, on many levels, for a child with high academic ability and a need for structure and a working pace that begins at a challenging and appropriate academic level.
I will be interested to follow the progress of this particular case, and, as with many, interested and keen to support the development of other schools based on the model of The Rise, after a period of transition and review.
The escalation in the numbers of children and young people being diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a challenge and one that all local authorities must meet, with ever constrained resources. We are in danger, as a nation, of seeing only the difficulties, of the cost of meeting needs.
It is high time a focus was placed on the worth and value that young people with ASD bring to our schools and communities, and the untapped potential they offer to our leading universities and institutions. For that to be achieved and realised, we all must recognize the strengths and abilities of the children and young people with ASD we meet and work with, as part of our daily routines.
Wishing the best of fortune to mothers like my friend, and Charlotte Warner, and mothers around the world who recognize talent and ability in their children. It is time to come out of the shadows and shine!
For more information about the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, please follow this link –
To find out more about The Rise at Feltham, follow this link – http://www.theriseschool.com/
To read The Guardian’s article on The Rise and Charlotte Warner (1st Nov 2014), please follow this link –