I have documented in great detail in other blog posts (see ‘Concern for the well being of those with autism in the special school’), that the mental health is concerning due to disproportionately high occurrence of mental ill-health amongst the population of people with autistic spectrum conditions.
In special schools we see and participate in the early stages of the journey each of our learners will take. If we can include in the curriculum the right activities to develop the spiritual side of our learners then perhaps we can limit the potential for poor ill-health in the future. These activities could be those that reduce the level of anxiety experienced by our learners with severe autism, teach them skills that will help to achieve independence and to develop their ability and willingness to express their personalities .
Social groups, in which learners with autism can spend time together can be very important in developing relationships. Children with autism often relate well with each other, this can be a source of resilience and comfort (Karim, Ali, Oreilly, 2014).
The Big Lottery Fund National Well-being Evaluation found that social interventions to improve relationships and reduce social isolation such as focussing on befriending and self-help groups were key in projects aimed at improving well-being for pupils with autistic spectrum conditions (CLES Consulting and new economics foundation, (2013).
Although schools are inherently social places where large numbers of people meet regulalry, they do not necessarily prioritise social interaction as there are other priorities. However, I would argue that for learners with autistic spectrum conditions this would be a crucial area of learning.
Social relationships are crucial for maintaining emotional well-being and learning to be around others, to share and enjoy a space alongside other people are all helpful skills for our learners which will help them to stay healthy and calm throughout life.
In our school, in an effort to encourage learners to socialise, communicate and extend their interests, we have had a push on encouraging learners to be part of social clubs. This was initially very difficult because the learners all travel to and from school on minibuses and taxis that are scheduled by the council and cannot collect the learners at different times on days when there are clubs. However, as we are introducing a new curriculum we have been able to include clubs as part of the weekly offer, learners can choose to attend the clubs they want, each of which relate in some way to their EHCP intentions. At the moment we have dance club, rambling Club and football club. There are plans afoot for a gardening club and LEGO club.
In class we have a Sherborne session each morning. Sherborne Developmental Movement is used regularly in our school for a wide range of learners including those who have autism. We have always found the approach to be useful for our learners but in the course of researching this blog I have come across evidence that supports the use of an effective form of therapy, the positive impact of which has been shown to be significant improvement in the cognitive, emotional, social and motor development in children with autism (Zawadzka, 2014).
What is brilliant about Sherborne as a social intervention for our learners is that it involves touch, a significant aspect of human behaviour (Denworth, 2015), within a safe, relaxing environment.
Our sherborne session takes place at 11am each morning. We turn down the lighting, play music that is calm but has a beat, this helps us relax whilst remaining alert, the learners and staff remove their shoes. Learners check their visual schedules, remove the ‘sherborne’ symbol then match it to the corresponding location on the group carpet area. We say and sign Sherborne (in the absence of an official makaton sign I use the Yoga sign). One learner, who is learning to recognise more complex instruction symbols, looks at our visual instruction board and tells us what movement we do first, the order of movements remains constant although once learners have all learned to participate to the best of their ability we add in another movement. When ready to move on we count down from 10, the learner removes the symbol of the movement we have just done then reads out the next one, we work on that movement until we finish counting down from 10 again and move on to the next. The first and last movement is always walking around in a circle around the outside of the classroom. I have found that this is the movement that most learners can participate in so means that the session starts and ends with full participation so everyone has achieved success and ends on a high. Most of the movements involve two participants working together. We encourage learners to work together if possible or pair a learner with an adult, to help build a relationship the pairings remain constant for a term or until the learner expresses who they would like to work with.
If anyone else uses Sherborne and would like to talk about what you do I would love to hear about it to improve my own session.