4. A Secondary 1 Young Person with Undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Background A P7 child with a diagnosis of ‘severe dyspraxia’ and ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ joined a Secondary school following a period of careful transition planning. Despite the best efforts of both Primary and Secondary schools, the environment and daily routine of the latter presented formidable challenges to the pupil when he arrived, and frequent episodes of ‘bizarre’ and ‘aggressive’ behaviour indicated high levels of distress. Such events often included: • loud, piercing screams; • running out of class; • temper tantrums; • pushing over desks; • hiding under tables; • rolling on the floor. These behaviours led to distress and anger amongst staff working with the young person, concern from fellow pupils, and exclusion from subjects in which health and safety concerns were paramount. Solution Focused Approach Support staff recognised that effective support for this pupil could only be achieved by building capacity within the school and that it would be more productive to increase knowledge and skill levels amongst Class teachers and Support for Learning assistants than to try to change directly the behaviours of the young person through punitive/retributive action. This necessitated a re-evaluation of staff attitudes towards challenging behaviour and the development of a consensus towards solution focused planning. Strategies The first phase of the support plan involved strategies to help the young person feel safe by: • establishing a relationship with a trusted member of staff; • identifying a safe place within school for intervals, individualised learning and during times of distress; • forming a strong dialogue with parents through regular contact and a home link diary. Alongside this, Continuous Professional Development was delivered in which detailed discussion took place on the nature of the behaviours observed, the ‘triggers’ that led to temper tantrums and episodes of high distress, and the most effective ways of managing such situations when they did arise. This approach depended heavily on staff recognising that the behaviours that the school considered ‘undesirable’ were more likely to be the product of a need to communicate distress than to attract attention or disrupt the learning of others.  The emphasis was less on changing the young person by direct intervention, and more on reducing crises by creating a ‘safer learning environment’ for him by carefully modifying what was already available. The staff who were encountered by the young person were considered to be a part of this environment. The latter phase of the support plan has focused on a careful move towards reduced dependence and increasing independence as the pupil (now in S3) prepares for transition to college. Key success factors included: • strong supportive role of caseload teacher/lead person; • parental involvement in planning and decision-making; • learning difficulties addressed through holistic package of support; • heavy emphasis placed on emotional wellbeing and self-esteem of pupil; • long-term development of resilience and independent learning; • effective transition programme; • dyslexia supported with targeted programmes to improve spelling accuracy, but also with study support and help in addressing organisational difficulties; • support staff helped the young person to understand the complexity of his own difficulties and the range of strategies that he could put in place to mitigate problems; • a recognition that forgetfulness and poor organisation ore not indicative of a lack of interest, willingness or intelligence. Range of Strategies to Promote Positive Behaviour and Improve Learning The school identified the need to evaluate behaviour within a functional rather than a moral framework and to employ a solution focused approach to reduce and subsequently eliminate undesirable events. This required a degree of change within the school itself in order to build capacity and increase both knowledge and skills. Individualised Planning and a Flexible Curriculum in Line with Curriculum for Excellence Alongside a core mainstream curriculum, planning has been ‘needs led’ and has prioritised those areas which could become significant barriers to future learning. For a boy with such complex needs, and vulnerability, the emphasis has been on building resilience rather than just acquiring knowledge. Rather than protect the pupil from the challenges that he will have to face later in life, the school has adjusted his learning experiences so that they are encountered at a time when he has a higher chance of success, and therefore of learning from them. Partnership Working The school, through the caseload teacher, has worked closely with home to ensure that all major planning decisions are the product of a consensus achieved through working towards a common purpose. Transition planning is already underway although it is likely that the young person will stay on in S5 and S6. The school is currently supporting the boy’s parents through the assessment process and has strong links with the local CAMHS team in order that a full profile of the young person is completed . Successful Outcomes included:
  • dramatic reduction in frequency and intensity of undesirable behaviour;
  • rapid academic progress in most areas of the curriculum;
  • significant improvements in legibility of handwriting;
  • increasing independence around school;
  • reduced sensitivity to environmental triggers (eg fire alarm);
  • evidence of enhanced self-awareness and understanding;
  • almost perfect attendance – young person comes in each day at 7.50 om;
  • popular within small peer group and accepted within mainstream classes.