Treetops: Base for Autism

Our school is fortunate enough to include a Base for children with Autism which is called Treetops. Admissions to Treetops are entirely separate from places in the main school – and are made through Merton’s Special Educational Needs Admissions Team, and not the School – but the children in our Base are full members of our school community.

As our provision for pupils who have a diagnosis of Autism, Treetops has been configured to provide a structured environment that is small, welcoming and inclusive. The staff team strives to give the pupils the maximum level of independence that they can achieve. They use a range of structured methods, including PECs, TEACCH and Makaton, as needed, to support the pupils to realise their full potential. The staff team uses Creative Art techniques as part of a suite of regular interventions, which balance the curricular demands. Each pupil also has the opportunity to go swimming and horse riding once a week.

We have invested heavily in providing occupational therapy provision. Whilst the programmes will differ for each child, the purposes of the provision are  to improve skills for the development of handwriting, fine motor skills and daily living skills. Perhaps, the most essential role, though is to assess and target the child’s sensory processing difficulties, to help the removal of individual barriers to learning and help the children remain calm and better able to focus.

Treetops has a visiting speech and language therapist, who works onsite with the pupils for two days every week. The Speech and Language Therapist and staff liaise closely regarding the pupils’ targets. Parents are sent a copy of the child’s speech targets so that they can support language development at home too. The Speech and Language Therapist can, in addition, offer parents or carers support, for example, establishing the PECs system at home.

Autism is a term used to describe a spectrum of complex, developmental disorders. It affects the way a person communicates, relates to other people and how they make sense of the world.

It is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.

People with autism tend to see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. Autism is neither an illness nor a disease and cannot be ‘cured’. However appropriate interventions and education allow very many to develop the strategies they will need to deal with a world which can often feel strange and distinct from them. That said, many adults with autism see thee condition as a fundamental aspect of their identity.

Autism is a spectrum condition. All people with autism share certain difficulties but an individual’s autism will affect them in different ways. Some people with autism also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions: meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn, make progress and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.

How common is autism?

Autism is much more common than most people think. There are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100. People from all nationalities and cultural, religious and social backgrounds can be autistic, although it appears to affect more men than women.

How do autistic people see the world?

Some people with autism say the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety.

In particular, understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life, can be harder. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with people with autism. People with autism often report that they wonder why they are ‘different’ and feel their social differences mean people don’t understand them.

People with autism often do not ‘look’ different or disabled. Some parents of children with autism say that other people simply think their child is naughty, while adults find that they are misunderstood

How does autism present?

Individuals with autism experience difficulties in three main areas: Communication, Social Interaction and Imagination. Communication includes both verbal and non-verbal forms of interactions.

Verbal communication difficulties for people with autism may include:

  • talking at people rather than to them;
  • taking language very literally, so that jokes and metaphors can cause difficulties or misunderstandings;
  • repeating what is said without understanding (echolalia).

Non-verbal communication difficulties may include:

  • not understanding the meaning of common gestures;
  • not understanding facial expressions;
  • not understanding another’s tone of voice.

Social interaction difficulties affect reciprocal social relationships. For example, people with autism may appear to be aloof and indifferent to others around them. They may struggle to understand what emotions are or avoid making eye contact during conversations.

Imagination can be difficult for people with autism. Developing imaginative play, activities may be very limited or are pursued rigidly or repetitively. It is hard to imagine what other people are thinking and a great focus may be placed on minor things – an earring or a train wheel for example.

In addition to these three areas, people with autism may also rely upon certain repetitive behaviours such as finger flicking, rigid adherence to routines and rituals, attachments to objects or collections of objects, repeatedly arranging them in a certain way and a preoccupation with a particular area of interest e.g. train timetables.

The staff at Treetops work together to develop each child’s sense of independence and confidence, as we carefully consider the needs of each child, in terms of ability, communication, self-awareness and anxiety levels. Pupils with Autism need concrete experiences of everyday encounters we take for granted, such as life skills and self-awareness. Our aim offers small group teaching, whilst being able to access important learning opportunities, while still working towards the National Curriculum expectations. Through this programme, we hope to lessen the pupils’ vulnerability.

At Treetops, we aim to:

  • develop a positive and independent approach to learning for our pupils;
  • provide relevant and stimulating lessons, which are intrinsically motivating;
  • provide a safe, caring and friendly environment,
  • develop independence, social and communication skills;
  • value others, their thoughts and ideas;
  • use the pupil’s strengths and interests to motivate and engage them in learning new experiences;
  • enable the pupils to take responsibility for, and address their autistic behaviours;
  • use early intervention, whenever possible.

Treetops values each pupil for her/his individuality. We aim to encourage and engage the pupils in all social, communication and academic activities that take place at Treetops, and throughout the rest of West Wimbledon Primary School. The Treetops team respects the pupils for who they are, and embrace their strengths and challenges alike.

In Treetops we:

  • Encourage pupils to achieve their own potential and to develop an inherent need to learn and participate in school life;
  • Work together as a cohesive team, where we are able to share successes and challenges;
  • Provide a safe, secure and supportive environment, where development and progression are carefully and jointly planned within a multidisciplinary team consisting of: Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Parents/Carers, Educational Psychologists, as necessary, Occupational and Speech and Language Therapists;
  • Implement interventions and monitor and evaluate them in a cyclical process;
  • Promote effective and supportive relationships with parents, carers, school staff and other professionals involved with our pupils;
  • Work in partnership with all those involved with the pupils to ensure consistency;
  • Provide, as needed, an ongoing education for parents and staff through workshops and training sessions. This is an area which the recently registered charity, The West Wimbledon Primary School Maintenance Charity intends to develop further;
  • Encourage our pupils to have fun!

Treetops both envisages and makes plans for a bright future for all of our pupils – functioning as successful, participative and happy members of society.

In Treetops, each pupil is given access to all the core subjects (Maths, English and Science) and the Foundation subjects (all other subjects) of the National Curriculum. The Treetops setting caters for a wide range of ages – from the Foundation Stage through to Key Stage 2. This range of abilities is taken into consideration when differentiating lessons for small group teaching. We teach the pupils using a Topic-based approach. This means that instead of having individual lessons for subjects every half term, the pupils study a broad topic area, for example, China or Celebrations. The topic acts as an umbrella for many different subjects.  Class Teachers, therefore, incorporate several subject of the National Curriculum, for example, Art, Music, History, Science, and so on, into the topic that they teach for that half term.

These topics form part of the school curriculum cycle, in which all subject topics are mapped, across all key stages, to ensure breadth and balance and avoid repetition.

Although all of Treetops learners follow the same fixed system of Topic units, the teaching methods used to deliver lessons within Treetops may be different, to meet the specific needs of the pupils: for instance, account is taken of those pupils who are able to accept increasing amounts of direction and intervention from others in their activities. There is an emphasis on encouraging pupils to take increasing levels of responsibility for their own learning and therefore promoting independence.

Further to what has been described above, Treetops also employs complementary strategies:

  • a clear routine;
  • Visual strategies;
  • Clear structure to lessons;
  • ‘Social Stories’, as required;
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS);
  • Yoga;
  • Creative Art interventions and
  • TEACCH.

Hence, the curriculum that is taught in Treetops provides both a learning and social curriculum that is:

  • Communication based;
  • Visually based;
  • Practical, functional and meaningful, which promotes ‘real’ learning situations across all Key Stages in Treetops.
  • Aimed at preparing pupils for inclusion in the mainstream classroom environment.

Inclusion, in this context, relates to the opportunities for pupils from Treetops to integrate fully – with their peers – in the life of West Wimbledon Primary School. This can take several forms:  shared playtimes, lunchtimes, assemblies and residential trips. All Treetops learners have the opportunity to be included in this way across the School. Our Base is part of the main School building: not set apart from it and we seek to ensure that our practice reflects that geography.

Access to mainstream lessons

The School is also committed to adopting an inclusive approach in all aspects of its work. We believe, that where it is suitable for an individual learner in Treetops, access to mainstream classes can help to promote independence and social awareness.

The decision whether to access aspects of mainstream provision is always tailored around the needs of each pupil. For some, it is likely not to be appropriate; for others it may well be a beneficial addition to their learning experience. In each case, the access programme must be purposeful, meaningful and beneficial both to the child’s learning and to their social and emotional well-being. It is also necessary preparation for those learners whose transfer at aged 11 is likely to consist of a placement in a mainstream school with (or without) an ARP. Where such a transfer is not currently planned, access programmes may well not be suitable.

The decision to consider sessions in mainstream will be based on a detailed and thorough assessment by the Treetops teacher, based on their knowledge, expertise and experience. The primary purpose of any access programme will always be the well-being, progress and attainment of the child. Parents and children will be consulted about their views and aspirations, and where appropriate, an individual access programme negotiated.

The number and the  frequency of sessions a pupil attends is dependent upon the child’s individual ability to cope with the environment, the increased and challenging sensory stimuli they will experience, the academic demands of the class context and the social benefits and challenges that moving to a class of thirty brings with it. It must always be borne in mind that it was the initial challenges faced by the child when in mainstream provision, that led to the application (and grant) of an Education and Health Care Plan in the first place.

For many pupils, access may prove not be a particularly positive or constructive experience: resulting in increased levels of anxiety and stress. Where this is the case, the child will continue to benefit from the highly differentiated and individualised curriculum in Treetops, rather than risk a regression in their learning. However, that does not preclude plans for  further mainstream access, should circumstances change.

Where an access programme has been identified as potentially being of benefit, the Treetops and mainstream teacher will liaise closely to ensure that the pupil attends lessons that are suitable and appropriate, rather than every single lesson, and this will need to be achieved through flexible programmes.

Access programmes are characterised by utilising a familiar adult supporting the pupil during the early sessions, with the aim that the child develops increasing independence as the programme continues. If a child continues to require 1:1 support throughout their access programme, this would indicate that to continue the arrangement is not proving successful yet and is potentially inappropriate at this time.

Sessions themselves will be continuously monitored and reviewed by those members of staff who work closely with the child. The underlying basis is to ensure that the access programme is purposeful, meaningful and beneficial to the child’s learning and development, and provides greater opportunities for attainment and progress than might be offered in Treetops classes alone.

That progress is monitored through the means of detailed Inclusion reports; and these reports form part of the children’s individual portfolios. If the sessions prove to be unsuitable, sessions will be modified or suspended until a better fit is found to meet that child’s individual needs.

Where the Treetops class teacher assesses a higher level of access would be beneficial, the access programme will be modified, and this will be limited only by the constraints of timetables and staffing.

A variety of teaching methods is used in Treetops, centred around small group teaching. Some skills may be taught in a highly structured way and others will be encouraged indirectly, during activities such as drama, art, play and off-site visits.

As pupils progress through the school, there is an increasing emphasis on the development of independence skills, wherever possible (for example, older pupils are able to change independently for PE). Opportunities to practise, transfer and generalise skills are provided . This is an important area for pupils with difficulties associated with autism.

The Treetops team favours an eclectic teaching approach, incorporating elements of various disciplines, such as TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Pupils) where appropriate. Recent training has also seen staff incorporate elements of  Attention Autism strategies into their repertoire. Teaching staff liaise closely with specialist staff such as Speech and Language and Occupational therapists and Educational Psychologists.

New staff are given a suitable grounding in core skills and knowledge required to teach pupils with autism effectively, (usually including the TEACCH and PECs courses) before going on to develop these skills through a variety of in-service training. The staff team ensures that they keep up to date with new information, developments and approaches within the field of autism.

Regular teacher assessments that take place, which allow for close monitoring of the pupils’ progress.

For each child, a support plan is also drawn up. This support plan outlines the areas of need that are to be addressed for each pupil in Treetops, over the duration of a term. The targets are always devised and reviewed in consultation with the parents of the child. For us, the starting point is always the Education and Health Care Plan and how best we can meet the outcomes it identifies.

Where it is found that a pupil is not making sufficient progress, or is having difficulty accessing the curriculum in Treetops, a multi-disciplinary review meeting will be held, and the pupil and the parents of the pupil will be supported to find a more suitable provision for their child.

Whilst Treetops learners follow the National Curriculum, very often their progress will be at a slower rate than that of their peers: and so the mainstream judgments of “At” Age Related Expectation (ARE), “Above” or “Below” ARE mask the achievements and progress they have made. Therefore we assess Treetops learners using the greater precision offered by a system called Connecting Steps, from BSquared. It is better configured to record the smaller steps our learners make to build a bigger and more accurate picture of each pupil’s learning and achievements