Making room: Helping children with autism integrate into mainstream schools

Where there is a will there is a way to integrate children with autism, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

Making room: Helping children with autism integrate into mainstream schools

IN the early noughties a new special need appeared on the radar in Berrings NS, a rural school north of the River Lee, 30 minutes from Cork City.

Liam Walsh was principal for just a year when a distraught mother came to his office during summer holidays in 2004.

“Her son was five and she was at her wits’ end. He had autism and there was no placement for him locally. She pleaded for a place in the school

“She wanted him in a mainstream setting because she felt things would improve for him there.”

Berrings NS took him in — and Walsh and then resource teacher Ann Linehan met the Special Education Needs Officer.

They visited the few other mainstream schools that had special classes for children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder).

Liam Breathnach, principal, outside the first classroom for the Naíonra early intervention group at Berrings N.S

Liam Breathnach, principal, outside the first classroom for the Naíonra early intervention group at Berrings N.S

“We looked at their set-up, how the class was functioning in mainstream and what supports there were for children and teachers.”

The visits were depressing.

“You got the impression of children left aside. They were ‘off down there’,” recalls Walsh.

Now retired but on Berrings NS board of management with responsibility for special education, Linehan had previously worked with Cope Foundation.

“My idea has always been for children with extra needs to learn from their peer group.”

Both she and Walsh wanted this class for children with autism as the centre point of the school.

“That first classroom was the exact centre of the school. This was to show people these children were an integral part of school life,” says Walsh, a father of one son.

“I felt any child that came into this class could be my child. If it happened to me, if I had a child with autism, I’d want people to oblige me and deal with compassion.”

For Walsh, it was simple: something was needed — and Berrings NS could give effective help.

The class began in September 2005 with just two pupils. It was named Rang Bláthmhar – “not ‘the special class’ or the ‘unit’, as in some schools” – a name inspired by the local Cill Bláthmhar (Church of Flowers).

“The whole idea was of flowering, growing, blossoming and nourishing.”

Linehan became the Rang Bláthmhar teacher. North Lee Services helped with classroom layout and provided speech/language and occupational therapies.

Linehan went on a day’s training that “opened up the whole world of autism to me”.

She learned about TEACCH (www.teacch.com) —“based on understanding the learning characteristics of individuals with autism and the use of visual supports to promote meaning and independence”.

It was her “answer to everything”.

She saw how important a screened workstation was for each child – for developing focus and independence. She learned structure was vital (“these children are organised, like structure and respond well to it”) and that knowing each child’s favourite interest was crucial in motivating them to complete tasks.

Room layout was important — “an area for everything: a snack area, library area, music area; the workstation is sacred, it’s only for work, and the centre of the room is an open space where group activities happen”.

Ever present for Linehan and Walsh was what the distraught mum pleaded for at the outset — integration into mainstream.

“Integration’s a big part of it. If they go into a class of 30, they have to be able to tolerate the noise,” says Linehan.

Preparation for integration had to be gradual, comprehensive — and at the child’s pace.

The first step was Sonas An Lae (‘happiness of the day’), a daily 30-minute venture for Rang Bláthmhar out of their classroom into the school hall, where the focus might be language development, physical/mobility education or board games.

Here they met mainstream children, who needed resource teaching.

The second step saw a child from Rang Bláthmhar going with the SNA to a mainstream class of similarly aged children with a ‘message’ for teacher.

The child would have learned to knock on the door and open it.

“I’d have teacher primed to ask ‘so what’s your name?’ The child would have to respond. Teacher would say to the other children in the room ‘so this is Harry’. They’d all say hello to Harry. The child would hand the envelope [with the message] to the class teacher,” explains Linehan.

RETURNING along the corridor to Rang Bláthmhar, they’d be certain to meet Walsh or a pupil from another class who’d initiate a conversation. “It was lovely to see it happen, kids being part of normal, enjoyable life. What you want for a child is that s/he’s fully human, fully alive, in an ordinary setting,” says Walsh.

Following these classroom visits, the Rang Bláthmhar child, accompanied by SNA, would spend small break sitting in the classroom of nearest-aged children.

“To ensure a positive experience, teacher designated a seat for them near a reliable, gentle child. If there was a hiccup, we’d analyse what was behind it and replay it in the cosy, supportive Rang Bláthmhar setting, so as to up-skill the child if it happened again,” says Linehan.

Yard integration with mainstream pupils happened in a similarly gentle, supportive but resolute fashion.

“In the final minutes before the bell rang, the SNA would bring the child to the appropriate age group’s area and watch them play. It was a slow process. The outcome had to be positive — or it was a negative for life.”

In 2009, the Department of Education invited Berrings NS to take on the Early Intervention Programme for children with autism.

In saying yes, the school became one of the first in Cork to undertake such a programme.

“We wondered were we mad. We were walking into the unknown, taking on recently diagnosed three-year-olds.”

The newness of it wasn’t the only challenge. “Parents [of mainstream children] were anxious — questioning the whole role of children with autism in the school. We’d always had a high level of achievement. They wondered would this be compromised,” recalls Walsh.

“I set out my stall — I welcome all, no matter age, creed or ability. We would look at these children’s progress and evaluate it at the end of the year.”

Wider societal awareness was growing that early intervention represented the best hope for children with autism. “We felt if we could get them early there would be huge progress,” says Walsh.

But the first year was tough. A big fear for parents was whether their child would ever communicate.

“I remember one boy’s parents — their only question was ‘will he talk?’” And, says Walsh, “it was all so new to us. They were babies.”

But by the end of the first year, children were verbal, who hadn’t been. They were toilet-trained and engaging socially.

“These milestones had been achieved — it had taken a huge amount of commitment and expertise.”

Not only that: within the school, an ethos of acceptance blossomed among all pupils. Parents’ concerns receded.

Of the six children who began that first Early Intervention Programme, four are fully integrated into the mainstream school; two are 50% so.

“If you’d foretold that progress seven years ago, I’d have said you were off your head,” says Walsh.

When parents of children newly diagnosed with autism come to the school, he shows them the senior Rang Bláthmhar class, aged nine plus. “I tell them: ‘that’s the hope — it’s likely your child will go on this journey too and maybe extend it’.”

When I visit Rang Bláthmhar, the children surround a display of photos of themselves. “Where’s your photo?” one boy is asked. “In the one at the top,” he says, “that’s me with a standing stone – if you look closely, you can see some markings.”

BERRINGS NS has 214 pupils — 24 in integrated classes for children with autism, now named the Naíonra (aged 3-5), Rang Áine (aged 5-7), Rang Nora (aged 7-9) and Rang Bláthmhar for the older children.

They include local children and some from Ballincollig, Macroom and Cork City’s north-side. With a recently opened new building (comprising sensory, speech/language and occupational therapy rooms), the physical school has doubled since 2003.

Pupils in the sensory room for children with autism at Berrings N.S. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Pupils in the sensory room for children with autism at Berrings N.S. Picture: Denis Minihane.

There’s a sensory room with: multicoloured fibre optic string, bubble tube that changes colour, slides of rotating discs showing nature scenes, walls painted with sky/sea scenes and soft classical music.

The quiet room off the Naíonra (all four classes have a quiet room for the child “who has an off day and doesn’t want to be part of the group”) is decorated to a space theme.

“It could be painted completely differently by Easter to reflect interests of the children currently in the Naíonra,” says Walsh. Each child’s favourite item is stored here, in readiness for the day s/he will be stressed and need soothing.

Numbers of children diagnosed with autism are spiralling. In the Berrings NS classes, there’s a big waiting list. “It could be 10 to one to get a place here,” says Walsh.

Meanwhile, services are diminishing.

“Eight years ago, speech/language and occupational services visited every three weeks for a day. Four years ago, they came every six weeks. They visited just twice in 2015.

Last year there was no service. Parents must make contact with North Lee Services — children could be on a waiting list for six months. Appointments are outside of school.”

Yet, you can’t help feeling that — no matter the challenges — everything that can be done here for children with autism will be done.

Walsh looks out of the window at the prefab where the first early intervention class was housed.

Though it’s now a temporary mainstream classroom, the sign on the external wall reads ‘Naíonra Early Intervention Class’.

“I left the sign up. It’s part of our history,” he says.

And a reminder of how far this school has come in helping every child be fully human, fully alive.

Putting pen to paper

‘Every Child Can Be a Writer’ is a collection of creative writing by the pupils of Berrings NS.

Here is the writing of two children from the integrated classes for pupils with autism.

‘Starting the Car Again!’

One night, at the Mardyke, Max and John came out the door and got into their car. When they got into the car, it wouldn’t start.

Max tried and tried but the car still wouldn’t go.

Then John got out of the car and opened the bonnet. There he saw that there was no engine. Then Max and John said they would push the car to the next car workshop.

So Max and John pushed and pushed until they came to the car workshop.

Then finally, they reached the car workshop.

Max and John ran into the car workshop. Max asked if they sell car engines but the workman answered ‘No’.

Then John saw pedals. He ran over to them and took them. He paid the workman for them. Max and John put the pedals on the car, got in and pedalled off .

Mikey, age 9.

‘All About Me’

My name is Skye

I always sigh

When there is lots to do

Now where do I start

To play my part

And be the best in school

I have brown eyes

With a beautiful smile

And a dimple on each cheek

I like to sing

And wear some bling

With a beautiful voice/speak.

Skye, age 7.

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