Staff at a Melton school are leading the way in the way children diagnosed with autism are educated and supported.
Birch Wood Area Special School offers the only specialist autism provision in Leicestershire with pupils taught in small classes and often on a one-to-one basis.
Around 40 per cent of the 160 children at the school are autistic but 14 of them, who have high functioning autism, are benefiting from sessions with highly trained teachers in the bespoke department.
Head teacher Rosalind Hopkins said: “Primary schools would find it difficult to meet their needs but, when you do, these children are capable of accessing the mainstream curriculum.
“A lot of our success is down to the fact that they want to be here, they feel safe and they feel understood.
“It helps that we take an individual approach to every child with small class sizes and one-to-one teaching.
“We refer to their autism as a super power. They see the world different to how we see it but working with these children forces you to see the world in the unique way that they see it and you feel you would be missing out if you didn’t see it that way.”
Birch Wood, which employs 123 members of staff, was the first area special school to be opened in the county back in 2004. The younger children are taught at the original Grange Drive site and pupils aged 11 to 19 attend its Birch Wood Vale centre on Burton Road.
Students, who are aged from four to 19, have a range of health challenges, with some having profound learning difficulties and others being capable of attaining ‘C’ grades in GCSE exams.
The specialist autism provision is at the Grange Drive site and began around 18 months ago with just one pupil.
Pupils from Melton who were diagnosed with high functioning autism had to previously be schooled out of the county because of a shortage of appropriate teaching in Leicestershire.
Their opportunities in education and their prospects in life are now much brighter because of schools like Birch Wood.
Amy Dunstan, assistant head teacher and autism lead at the school, said: “There is so much more understanding about autism now.
“We see their issues as differences rather than difficulties and we have high aspirations for all of our students.”
The specialist autism provision at Birch Wood is organised into three small classes with a maximum of five or six children in each.
The classrooms are equipped as low arousal study environments, with individual booths and sensory equipment.
Pupils have access to an educational psychologist and a speech and language therapist and they can gain qualifications up to GCSE level, as well as important life skills.
When the Melton Times visited the school’s specialist autism provision department on Tuesday, the children were designing their own newspapers and writing stories based on their experiences at Birch Wood.
Charlie wrote: “For the first time I feel safe and happy at school.”
Joel’s story read: “My learning is going really well and I love this school.”
And Leon wrote: “My favourite part is the teachers because they really help me with my work and make school fun.”
The head, Mrs Hopkins, worked in mainstream education earlier in her career but she says she prefers teaching in special schools.
She added: “It is a privilege to get to know children individually in a special school.
“You see the best of human nature because of the children’s healthcare needs.
“It’s sometimes difficult for parents letting go when they bring little ones here for the first time but we provide a safe learning environment where they soon feel comfortable.
“We have great support from all our parents and we’ve had such lovely feedback from them.”
Autism facts (from The National Autistic Society):
* 700,000 people in the UK are diagnosed on the autism spectrum (one in 10 of the population)
* Autism can be diagnosed at any age and affects males and females.
* Five times as many males as females are diagnosed with autism
Common autism symptoms:
* delayed or absent speech
* problems listening, concentrating and understanding
* frequent repetition of words and phrases
* taking things literally
* difficulty sensing and interpreting people’s feelings
* disliking changes to routine
* difficulty making friends and socialising