It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week later this month, so we’re taking a look at what being neurodiverse means in an education setting, what our students have to say about it and focusing on a new offering from Livability Victoria School for very young autistic pupils.
Neurodiversity describes a wide range of neurological differences. It’s estimated that around 15 per cent of UK students are neurodivergent*, a term which includes dyslexia, autism, dyspraxia, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and many more neurodivergent conditions. Neurodiversity Celebration Week challenges us to adopt a different way of looking at these differences – as a naturally occurring phenomenon in the human genome.
‘The common misconceptions around what it means to be neurodivergent include someone lacking empathy and unable to display affection, being highly intelligent but focused on just one or two specialised areas and displaying major behavioural challenges,’ says Victoria School’s Lisa Boyes, who has 20 years’ experience of specific needs’ teaching. ‘Whereas in reality – they are children, just children!’
Lisa is the lead for Victoria School’s new ‘early years’ intake of four-and five-year-olds with a diagnosis of autism. Unlike other Victoria students, the new Alum class children do not have a physical disability; all are non-verbal. The class can provide support in a way that is quite different to a local authority or mainstream schooling system.
Lisa and her team of five create a calm environment for the five children in Alum, with school arrival and leaving times separate from the rest of the school, to avoid the bustle that can lead to anxiety. Parents are asked to send their child to school with their preferred food to avoid stress at lunchtime. ‘This is the first time they are at school and the world is a scary place, filled with anxiety because they don’t understand what is happening,’ Lisa says. Being around other children is a new experience for some, who up to this point have been at home on their own with a carer coming in. ‘Just socialising is making a difference,’ says Lisa.
‘We help the children to feel safe and we work on making connections with us, taking it at their pace and often waiting for them to come to us,’ she explains. ‘We then play alongside them and observe their preferred way of communicating’. It’s all based on trust so they know that actually it’s all going to be ok.’
Many of the children are happy in their own company until they need something – so they need to communicate. ‘All the children in Alum class have talents, they all have different ways of communicating and this is one of the first things we work on,’ says Lisa. Staff use various communication techniques with the class, including symbols, PECS (Picture Exchange Communications System) which uses cards with pictures, words or symbols, and signing with Makoton. Students will gradually be introduced to TEACCH, a system which enables autistic students to learn independently within a predictable, clear structure.
Alum class is phasing in students, part-time to start with and building up to full-time attendance by Easter. After time in Alum, the aim for students is integration into other Victoria classes or mainstream school, depending on the child.
Victoria’s students range from three to nineteen years. They represent a wide range of abilities and neurodivergence, and each receive an individually tailored education that builds up skills for adult life.