Lucy King, 15, had to leave her previous school in September because they couldn’t cope with her behaviour as a child living with autism.
It was a mainstream secondary school with 1,700 pupils, and she couldn’t handle it being so big, so strict, and overcrowded.
“I used to get really angry, really stressed and my anxieties were really high,” she says. “And I was kicking off – refusing to do work and being disruptive. I got into fights.”
She was put in isolation four times, suspended twice, once for three days and then for five days, and ultimately excluded.
Today, Lucy has been chosen to take me on a tour of LVS Hassocks, a ground-breaking special school in West Sussex for children with autism, because she is seen as a role model.
The school for 75 residential and day students was set up by the Licensed Trade Charity and based in a former priory overlooking the Sussex Downs and is set to be replicated in Begbroke, north Oxfordshire in September, when a sister school will open its doors to its first 16 pupils.
Confident, calm and articulate, Lucy shows this visitor around the school’s small but spacious classrooms, each with a table for group work and separate desks for each pupil; and a horseshoe arrangement of residential blocks which arc around a pond and overlook a replica oast house, now used for drama and art.
Lucy credits the schools’ teachers and ethos for the turnaround in her behaviour. She says at her last school she had one-to-one support, but felt they were only interested in trying to stop her getting into trouble.
“Here they treat you like a human being. They have the time of day, you can talk to them about anything,” Lucy says.
The teaching methods also help her. “Stuff here is more visual,” she says. “They break it down more so you can understand it.”
The school caters for children with high-functioning autistic spectrum conditions (ASC), including Asperger Syndrome. These are children who struggle to make sense of the world around them, especially people.
The term autism was originally coined by a psychiatrist, Eugene Bleuler, more than a century ago to describe a tendency towards social withdrawal. LVS Hassocks teachers stress that no two people living with autism experience it in exactly the same way but many share common challenges, such as struggling with social interaction, communication and empathy. For instance they may find it hard to express feelings or to read other people’s expressions.
“I can’t socialise properly,” says Lucy King. “With my anxiety, sometimes I say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or get my words mixed up, so I say something I don’t mean.”
Many also can’t cope easily without a repetitive routine, and struggle with changes of schedule or teaching staff. Particular sounds, tastes or textures, including in foods, may trigger disturbed behaviour and some are obsessed with particular sensations, such as the need to feel enclosed – or the opposite.
The frustration and anger children can experience due to their autism can lead to parents or non-specialist teachers in mainstream schools believing they are simply badly behaved, not realising the underlying problem.
Alex Brown*, 12, who has been at LVS Hassocks for three years, used to throw tantrums at the mainstream primary school he attended and repeatedly ran away from his next school, a middle school for children with special needs. Often when he was caught he would have to be restrained and locked up, he says.
“They didn’t necessarily have some idea of how to be good with kids with autism,” says Alex. “They pretty much weren’t prepared for the hell I unleashed!”
At LVS Hassocks, however, Alex is learning how to stay calm and focus on learning. He doesn’t run away.
Helping the students in this way requires specialist knowledge and plenty of staff.
At LVS Hassocks, in every class the teacher has a maximum of eight pupils and is helped by at least one learning support assistant. In addition, there are specialist teachers for English, maths and IT, who adapt the curriculum to meet students’ individual needs.
On top of that, the school employs the equivalent of two full-time speech and language therapists, 1.5 occupational therapists, a part-time education psychologist and a full-time nurse. A massage therapist is employed to provide massage and help students develop ways to calm themselves.
According to Sarah Sherwood, the Director of Special Educational Needs at LVS Hassocks, who will also oversee the Oxfordshire school, all students are assessed in their first six weeks to see how they experience autism and an individual programme is devised to enable them to cope at school.
“They start with a blank slate and we see how they respond and devise a programme that might include speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, regular massage and movement breaks – allowing them to do activities outside to expend energy – and talking to a member of staff they have a particular relationship with,” says Sarah Sherwood.
Students are grouped according to cognitive and social ability, but within those class groups there are subgroups for particular subjects, to ensure the individual needs of students are met.
Alex says at his previous school he was often set work that was too difficult for him and then mocked by students when he asked for help, but at LVS Hassocks teachers “understand you a lot better”, including what level of work to set and how much help to offer.
His teacher, Lynne Fever, says a crucial aspect is the close relationship between Alex and her as a teacher and between her and Alex’s parents, whom she talks to every day. Alexander, his parents and Ms Fever, also write comments in a home-school book to ensure they are all aware of any problems or progress that Alex is facing or making.
Sarah Sherwood believes the area where LVS Hassocks is ground-breaking is in preparing students for life in the outside world, including employment. There is a strong emphasis on taking vocational qualifications and gaining work experience, but also on getting out into the community and developing the social skills needed to survive in the world of work.
“We try to give students strategies to manage social demands of employment, so they are then able to use their skills for the actual jobs,” Sarah Sherwood says.
Students initially gain work experience in the school office and a student-run café for the public or in the school canteen. Older students spend one day a week in local businesses such as a pet food wholesaler and a Little Chef service station.
Lucy King, for instance, gets the chance every Monday to work in the school kitchen – an experience she wouldn’t get in a mainstream school – where she cooks “rations” for residential students, which means biscuits and cakes and on Tuesday studies for an NVQ in catering.
She can’t quite decide whether she wants to be a baker or a dance instructor and is hoping to do both, by teaching dancing at night. “I have always liked cooking so getting the opportunity here is really good,” she says.
Given her behaviour at her previous school, LVS Hassocks staff were worried when she joined whether this would be the right place for her. “Her old school noted that her behaviour was challenging, she was not engaged, she was disaffected,” says Janet Anthony, Deputy Head, Curriculum. “But she’s a star pupil now.”
Ms Sherwood is hoping the new school in Oxfordshire will have the same transforming effect on children with autism.
Charlie has really enjoyed this week at LVS, it has been a wonderful and positive experience for him, and I would like to say a very big thank you to all the staff at LVS.