PLASN-R Newsletter Issue 5

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Pan London Autism Schools NetworkResearch ( PLASN-R ) issue 5

winter - spring 2018

“It has been so exciting and also rewarding to see how the school has grown from an unused building to an excellent learning environment for young children with autism.�

editor: anne fritz

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The Pan London Autism Schools Network (PLASN) is a network of schools

from across London that all specialise in autism. The PLASN-Research group is a subgroup of PLASN that provides links between schools and autism researchers (from a range of universities). This research-practice link enables us to identify topics for research that have a positive impact on the educational experiences of autistic children and young people. By working collaboratively, we ensure that schools adopt evidence-based practice. In this fifth issue of the PLASN-Research newsletter, members share the latest findings from some of the research studies they are currently working on....

The development and feasibility of a multimodal Talking Wall to facilitate the voice of young people with autism and complex needs: A case study in a specialist residential school The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) states that all young people have the legal right to be heard and to have what they say taken seriously. However, protecting and enhancing these rights when that young person also has autism with communication, sensory, mental and emotional needs above and beyond those of their typically developing peers undoubtedly presents challenges. A recent report on the wellbeing and rights of children and young people educated and living in residential special schools in England, ‘My Life at School’ (Pellicano et al, 2014) aimed to reveal the views and experiences of these children. Amongst the recommendations of this report, it was concluded that it is equally vital to listen and understand young people’s views around day to day matters, as well as decisions about schooling which have more profound consequences. However, there have been very few research studies that consider effective methods for ‘listening’ to autistic young people with complex needs. Norah Richards at Prior’s Court led a research study (in collaboration with Laura Crane from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at UCL Institute of Education) to design and investigate a possible method to create not only the space and opportunities but to allow staff to listen and to respond to the views of young people at Prior’s Court. Phase 1: Design Focus group discussions with 18 staff members looked at existing evidence-based methods. Staff decided what features would be necessary to allow for young people at Prior’s Court to participate and give their views. As a result, we designed shared wall spaces, where the young people were supported to record their experiences: positive “like”, indifferent “O.K.” and negative “don’t like”. We called these spaces Talking Walls. plasn-r news

Phase 2: Develop The Talking Walls were trialled in one house and two classrooms. Training sessions informed staff about the project and a social story was produced for the 10 young people participating. The advice to all was that the Talking Wall is ‘a place to tell us how you feel’. Of course, this can be very difficult for the young people and the first step for staff was to model and label emotions as they observe a young person experiencing them, for example “You are laughing and smiling, I think you are happy!” To support this observation, physical evidence such as photographs, sound recording buttons, post-it notes, staff observation notes, maps or tickets from day trips, restaurant menu cards and bowling score cards were all ‘posted’ on the Talking Wall to show when a young person had enjoyed or not enjoyed an activity or experience. Staff were encouraged to be innovative in their approach and it was interesting to see how the Talking Walls began to look very different in each of the areas. Phase 3: Evaluate To evaluate the Talking Walls a series of observations of the young participants working with their familiar adults were carried out. These observations were divided into structured observations and field notes, or incidental observations made by the researcher.

The structured observations showed that even when the young people are more able to communicate with spoken language, they still rely heavily on ‘pre-symbolic’ means of communication, i.e. they move to stand close to their familiar adult, they look towards them for prompts and clues, they also use facial expression and gestures to make sure that their views are known. Echolalic language also featured prominently, as you may expect. Additional field notes highlighted the fact that the Talking Walls were most successful when the supporting adult is familiar and perhaps more confident to interpret the young person’s feelings. However, even when the supporting adult is familiar and feels that they can interpret the young person, there is some evidence to suggest that the young person may be trying to give the ‘right’ answer. In general, staff found it easier to focus on positive experiences. In this early pilot stage, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no observed spontaneous independent use of the Talking Wall by a young person. As a final step, evaluation interviews were carried out with four staff members who had been involved in the pilot. When asked what they thought had worked well and not so well, their responses can be summarised in two points. Firstly, regarding emotion: It is important that we model and teach the expression of the emotions that underlie preferences. It was easier to label positive emotions, but we are beginning to work on negative emotions and focus on ‘being positive about the negative’ e.g. in an upbeat tone with a smile, saying “thank you for telling me that you are worried, let’s…. to fix that”. Secondly, we must consider the impact of transitions: instant recognition and response is key. If we label the emotion and support Visit us at:

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A big THANK YOU from DE-ENIGMA! the young person to express their preference as close to the event as possible this helps to maintain meaning. It was interesting to note that sometimes the photograph or artefact acted as a transition object when the young person carried it back to the wall, helping to maintain the meaning between locations or over a short period of time.

In November 2019, the DE-ENIGMA project concluded after three and a half years of work from the CRAE team at UCL Institute of Education, and their European collaborators. DEENIGMA explored the use of robots in autism education, and tested claims that predictable robot behaviours may benefit autistic children. The final project review from the European Commission (project funder) wrote that DE-ENIGMA was “an outstanding example of a collaborative, multi-disciplinary project which has advanced our understanding in the field of human-robot interaction” and particularly commended the team’s engagement with educators.

The conclusions and recommendations of the project can be summarised as follows: 1. It is vital to label and model emotions that underlie preferences. 2. Innovative approaches are required.| 3. Assessing communication widely and holistically gives an in-depth profile of the young person and may help to highlight patterns around the expression of preferences. 4. This is a promising approach, but it needs more time to embed into practice. 5. Future research should extend to include the voices of all stakeholders, in particular, parents.

The DE-ENIGMA team and CRAE would like to offer their heartfelt thanks for the generous support of the PLASN network and schools, which made the project possible and helped secure such a fantastic final assessment of the work.

The team would like to thank the young people, parents and staff who participated in the project.

Mapping anxiety Autistic people report that anxiety has a significant impact on their lives, and it has also been highlighted by parents as the most substantial difficulty their children have to manage. Queensmill School are piloting new research looking at how we can better understand anxiety in autistic pupils, especially those who are considered minimally verbal. In particular, they are looking at how to visualise some of the complexity around anxiety to inform more targeted support, by mapping the perceived relationships between different potential causes of anxiety (PCA) that a student has to manage. This provides data that can be displayed as a network showing how much each PCA may cause another. It can also show which PCA might be the most central to the network. These influencers will then be the target for specific support with the idea that support there will result in a therapeutic cascade that reduces the other PCA in the network.

Phoenix School Sylhet: A model school for children with autism The opening of Phoenix School Sylhet on 16th November 2019 is the culmination of a 5-year project in Bangladesh to share outstanding practice and transfer key skills for the education of children with autism. Phoenix started in 2015 with a vision of sharing their expertise to enable children with autism to be educated and to develop their full potential and to live fulfilling lives.

and in 2018 APASEN identified a property in Sylhet that they felt would be an ideal location for a school and day centre. Phoneix returned to Sylhet in February 2019 to recruit teachers and assistant teachers from the local community, and provided further guidance and support on a follow up visit in June 2019. During this visit, they met parents and children and assessed the children for admission to the school.

Working in partnership with APASEN and the Bangladesh government, that vision has resulted this year with the opening of a model school and day care centre. From the outset, Phoenix have engaged with local practitioners, parents and Bangladesh government agencies to build their rigorous and locally relevant approach to planning and implementation. They have been careful at every stage to set clear objectives for each follow up visit and in so doing have ensured steady progress towards the successful opening of this educational and day care provision. Working with APASEN in London, Phoneix raised funding to continue their work

From September a weekly online communication protocol between Phoenix School London and Phoenix School Sylhet had been set up to help teachers with teaching practice and their management skills. Their recent visit in November 2019 was busy with further training and setting up structures and systems, and completing the rooms so that teachers and assistants were able to run programmes and activities effectively. The opening event brought Government ministers and a lot of publicity, which will, hopefully, provide further funds for the school. “We want to see Phoenix Sylhet continue to flourish and become a model school that offers advice and training for other services across Sylhet and Bangladesh,”

By July 2019, the building was ready and staff were able to move in. Throughout July and August 2019, three teachers and a speech and language therapist provided training and guidance to the Sylhet staff and fully resourced all of the classrooms. The team worked together to start the children and to model practice during this time.

Veronica Armson “It has been so exciting and also rewarding to see how the school has grown from an unused building to an excellent learning environment for young children with autism.” Stewart Harris plasn-r news


Who’s involved..?

PLASN-R School Members

Linden Bridge School The Grove School North London South London

Kestrel House School College Park School North London Central London

Phoenix School East London

Hatton School North London

Eagle House School South London

Sybil Elgar School Middlesex

Durants School North London

Spa School South London

TreeHouse School North London

SpringhallowSchool West London

Russet House School Queensmill School North London West London

Prior’s Court School Berkshire

Manor School North London

PLASN-Research Dr Laura Crane Co-chair of PLASN-Research group.

Lucia Santi Co-chair of PLASN-Research group.

Laura is Deputy Director at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at the UCL Institute of Education.

Lucia is Head of School at The Grove School, a special school in Haringey that caters for children between the ages of 5-19 years with a primary diagnosis of autism.


We are grateful to the research and clinical academics, from a range of organisations, that have contributed to the PLASN-R network.

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