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Rotherham Outreach Service

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Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has an Autism Communication Team which works alongside the Learning Support Service and in partnership with the Rotherham Youth Service and Extended Services Team to provide dedicated support for children and young people on the autism spectrum.

The team operates across the school age range and throughout the borough where there are currently over 1,000 school-aged children with an autism diagnosis. Funding is provided primarily from education budgets so referrals come directly from schools. The team has created a menu of services from scratch to support the 102 primary schools and 16 secondary schools in the area, with the primary aims of:

  • successful inclusion to ensure that all individuals receive the education to which they are entitled
  • increased peer-awareness of autism in school

This case study offers information about the range of support options this outreach service offers, advice about setting up similar services in your area and downloadable templates of some of the key documents you will need to get you started.

A good understanding of autism and a desire for change are the two most important factors in delivering effective strategies for supporting children with autism in school.”  Gill Capaldi, Team Leader, Rotherham Autism Communication Team.

The Rotherham Autism Communication Team (ACT) takes referrals on a case-by-case basis. Schools can access initial advice from the Rotherham Learning Support Service which in turn refers on to the ACT if they feel additional support is required.  A member of the ACT then carries out an initial observation and creates a sensory profile for the individual via a questionnaire. This profile is regularly updated and stays with the pupil to aid transition phases. In addition, the ACT writes an action plan for each individual, provides resources as appropriate, attends relevant meetings and writes reports for the assessment panel.

Beyond providing the framework for provision and assessment, the ACT offers support in setting up and running a range of services designed to help pupils with autism and their siblings cope in school. The menu of options offered includes social groups, peer awareness sessions for pupils with a diagnosis and their peers, youth groups and sibling support. The team has been as creative as possible in constructing services and tried to ensure that the help offered is sustainable and that staff feel empowered to deal with situations independently. Crucially, by using a cascade approach (training others to deliver services in the longer term), they are able to make the services they offer sustainable across the whole city, even though the team operates on only a small staff. (The team comprises three full time employees, one term time only worker and a part time speech and language therapist.)

Importance is placed on measuring results. Demonstrating the efficacy of services is vital in securing future funding. Ongoing evaluation of services shows the overwhelmingly positive impact they have had. Elements of the service which are regularly evaluated are:

  • Social groups
  • Siblings support groups
  • Youth groups
  • Peer awareness programmes

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On receiving a referral from the Learning Support Team, an appointment is made to visit the pupil and observe them in the setting. Not only does this allow the ACT to build a picture of what may be required for an individual, it gives them an opportunity to begin the sensory profile questionnaire if necessary. Following this initial visit, further consultations are made to education staff, parents / carers and any additional appropriate professionals already in contact with the individual.

The profile is generally compiled during primary schooling and in 2009 all Year 6 students with an autism diagnosis went up to Year 7 with a profile. It is an important transition tool - a preventative measure so that new staff are aware of all things that may impact on the young person. It should include things they may not be able to ‘see’ but which could be triggers of anxiety during the day. 
 Sensory picture

Many children with autism are over-sensitive to light. At home a child or young person may counter this by switching off lights as necessary. At school, this would not be possible so the school should identify light as a potential issue and plan for it with opportunities for ‘time-out’ or ‘dark-time’ as appropriate.

Other children have sensory issues with clothing – a dislike of seams or labels or a need for clothes to be a certain type of material or to be washed in a certain detergent. Again, at home parents can recognise and meet the needs of their children (turning socks inside out, removing labels, choosing the correct washing powder) but at school issues may arise which need additional planning.

A parent/carer, one other family member or friend and the school are all asked to complete a questionnaire. The ACT worker then compiles the responses to form the sensory profile and suggests strategies for overcoming issues based on responses. Both the school and the family are then sent a copy of the profile in order that suggested strategies are shared and duplicated to promote consistency.

For ideas for creating a sensory profile refer to Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism: Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds by Olga Bogdashina.

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The Rotherham team currently carries out two types of training for teachers and their support staff.

1) Teacher / Teaching Assistant training day.
This training day looks at the triad of impairments common in all children and young people with autism as well as additional communication, sensory, social stories and behaviour issues. It is split into two half day sessions to keep costs lower for the school (HLTA’s can cover ½ days). At the end of the training we ask the attendees to set themselves a specific target - a way of immediately using some of the skills they have learned. A member of the ACT team arranges to meet with them (usually in the next half term) to track progress and see if they need any further help. For example, a teacher may decide to use a social story as part of regular class time. The ACT worker would support them in this and offer guidance as necessary.

2) INSET days
The Rotherham team offers schools an INSET day for all staff to be trained in autism awareness and effective strategies to overcome issues associated with it.

Outline of an INSET training day

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In addition the Rotherham Autism Communication Team works alongside the Learning Support Service, to deliver Basic Awareness Training (BAT). This is designed to be delivered in a staff meeting (1 – 1.5 hours) and looks at the triad of impairments, some basic classroom strategies and briefly touches on sensory issues. This awareness training is delivered by the Learning Support Service as it is seen as ‘the basics’ for all school teaching staff.

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4. Social Groups

A six-week social group programme led by the Autism Communication Team has been carried out in all secondary schools in Rotherham. It is open to all children with an autism diagnosis. Most schools have continued to run the programme, delivered by a school staff member. The groups have been a successful way to provide sustainable support where the resources were lacking to support children individually. 

The group explores topics such as friendship, feelings and how to relax. Feedback is collected from the young people and their parents via a follow up questionnaire. The young people have said how helpful they found the sessions and are particularly interested in looking at why people might have autism, which is something they might never have addressed before. 

One Year 6 pupil had been trying to get rid of his Asperger syndrome since he found out he had it but after attending the group said he no longer wanted to.

Another Year 11 pupil, who was very able and well liked, didn’t know why he had it and found it reassuring to learn he had been born with it and that it was just part of who he was.

When asked what they had learned at the group, one young person replied: “To think about other people and listen to them” and another simply said “How to be happy.”

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Download social group lesson plan outline.

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The peer awareness programme was created in response to many parents of children with autism reporting that they found situations such as the playground and going out in public difficult for both their child and for themselves. They were aware that idiosyncrasies in their child’s behaviour were attracting attention, often negative. The aim therefore was to start increasing awareness and understanding among other children to reduce that kind of attention, and in the long term, it was hoped this awareness might also build into a level of support for their children.

In secondary schools, the sessions are given in tutor groups or PHSE lessons to all Year 7 students across the borough. The team also provides training to teachers, so that they can deliver the sessions in subsequent years, again enabling it to be sustainable. The team gathers direct feedback on the day, as well as a three-month follow up, which is always very positive. Schools report that the programme has had a positive impact and feel it is worthwhile and important to carry on. It was found that after the programme had taken place, young people with a diagnosis were more willing to tell people they had autism. In a three-month follow up evaluation, one teacher commented: "They respect and support each other more now. They do not use abusive language when talking about children with ASD. They understand why some children have LSA support in lessons and why sometimes, they are allowed to do certain things such as leave the room."

Download Year 7 lesson plan and evaluation form

Peer awareness is also taught in primary schools, across Key Stage 2. This programme is based on Carol Gray’s ‘Sixth Sense’ lesson plan, which the teacher delivers to the class. The Autism Communication Team goes into the class a week later with four games which focus on the triad of impairments (social interaction, communication and flexibility of thought).

Download Key Stage 2 evaluation form

The team collects feedback from primary school pupils on the day and follows up the impact of the lesson with the school’s SENCO – feedback has always been positive. The Team is confident that when a school sees the programme through, it will change the perception of autism in the long term.  It is hoped that as understanding filters through, in five years time all pupils in secondary schools in Rotherham will know about autism.

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The Autism Communication Team runs two youth groups in partnership with the Rotherham Youth Service. The groups are open to young people aged between 13 and 19 who have a diagnosis of ASD. There are 45-50 regular attendees across the two groups, which are funded through the Aiming High for Disabled Children Short Breaks programme. The groups cater for children from the borough’s mainstream schools, as well as schools for young people with moderate learning difficulties. None of the regular attendees access any other leisure activity.
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The youth groups aim to give young people an age appropriate social activity and a chance to socialise in a safe environment. Certain behaviours displayed by the young people who attend the groups would often result in them being excluded from similar provisions and can be challenging. The youth groups give young people with autism a chance to be teenagers, make friends and socialise in an environment where people understand them. Young people travel from all over the borough with journey times varying from five to 40 minutes.

There have been very positive evaluations that show the success of the youth groups. When questioned, 13 out of 14 young people said it was very important for young people on the autism spectrum to have a youth group just for people with autism. Setting up the youth group has given members of the Autism Communication Team a chance to work with young people face to face and all those involved find it inspiring and motivating to see how much the young people get from it. 

Jemma Wilkinson, one the Autism Communication Team in Rotherham, talks about setting up a Youth Group:

“Our Youth Group is really popular and is something which could easily be replicated elsewhere. If you are thinking about setting up a Youth Group for young people on the autism spectrum in your area I would recommend you start by contacting the leader of the Youth Service at your Local Authority who can suggest suitable venues.

"Once you have identified a suitable venue – somewhere ideally with a large main room for regular activities and at least one smaller room which can be allocated a quiet / sensory room – you will need to carry out all the necessary risk assessments. These may be required by both the venue itself and the Local Authority so it is worth checking. If you are hoping, as we do, to take the young people on external trips and outings such as bowling or to the cinema, additional risk assessments will be required on an ad hoc basis. And it goes without saying that all members of staff are required to have full and relevant training and be CRB checked.

"Depending on the age range of the young people you are hoping will attend the Youth Group, you will need to choose activities accordingly. At the start of each term we meet with all the young people who regularly attend our groups and ask them what they would like to do during the term. Some things are more difficult to achieve than others but we try to accommodate everyone.

"Staffing levels can be an issue. Some of our young people require 1:1 support and we try to keep the staff ratio as high as possible for all our young people.

"A typical Youth Group session will consist of a range of regular activities which we have available each week (pool, table tennis, board games, jigsaws, game consoles - for which we encourage two player games - and a drawing and colouring table.) In addition, we arrange a main activity or task for the session, which the young people can choose to take part in if they wish. This might be baking, comic drawing or table tennis lessons.

"The main difference between our groups and a regular Youth Group is the number of staff and the level of understanding required from them and the level of noise at the session. All our young people get a real buzz from coming to the groups and after each session we know it has been worth the effort.”

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The ACT accesses funding through the Rotherham Extended Services Team to provide support group activities for the siblings of children and young people with an autism diagnosis in Rotherham. The Team offers a week-long holiday club during the summer and a day club in the October and February half terms for any child or young person from across Rotherham with a brother or sister on the autism spectrum. The sessions provide an opportunity for the young people to explore and share how being a sibling of someone with autism makes them feel.  It also provides them with a support network of people who might understand the way they feel about their sibling(s) and / or their situation.

The sessions have had a very positive response from children and parents. One parent commented that the group made his daughter “feel special and not be made to feel like she has come second.” Comments gathered from young people who have attended the siblings group include; “The best week ever!” “Great fun!” and “Awesome!”.

Jemma Wilkinson talks about setting up a Siblings Group;

“Our group came about after the team got together to discuss ideas for what else we could do for the young people in our borough. Siblings of children and young people with autism are often overlooked and yet they provide some of the most important and consistent support and help at home, and often, in school. We wanted to create a support group just for them as an outlet for their feelings about autism and a chance to make friends with people who understand.

"Four members of our team have attended the training course run by SIBS designed specifically for professionals setting up sibling support groups. This kind of training is particularly useful for the activities involving exploring feelings so it would be beneficial for at least one person to complete the course. However, it is not essential for the other parts of our group so it doesn’t need to represent a huge cost.

"In setting up our group we have worked in partnership with different teams within the council. Firstly the outreach team and last summer with Rotherham MIND. This helps utilise a variety of skills across different disciplines. In terms of seeking funding the best place to start is by exploring other areas of the council such as extended services teams etc. You could then look at wider government initiatives and also things like Children in Need. Corporate companies such as Tesco and Waitrose have charitable funding departments who often give money to local initiatives so it would be worth contacting your local branch to find out.

"When we run the siblings group we like to do it on a ratio of three days in a centre and two day trips. In the centre we try and split the time 60/40 between games and building relationships and activities designed to discuss feelings/plan strategies. All of these activities come from SIBS.

"We run two siblings groups – one for 7 – 11 year olds and one for 12 – 17 year olds. The types of activity we do at each group differs according to the age range. We try to involve the young people when deciding what to do – we ask for feedback at the end of each session and from this we can see what has worked well and learn which things to change.

"One of the hardest things initially however is finding the young people to attend. We knew there was a demand for this type of group having spoken to parents and teachers about the affect having a sibling on the autism spectrum has on their other children. However, we did struggle to find a week in the holidays when everyone who wanted to could attend.

"In the first year we selected a particular area of Rotherham and sent letters to the parents / carers of every child with a diagnosis in that postcode (over 100 letters) in the hope that a) some of them had siblings b) the siblings where the right age and c) the family where not on holiday. From those letters we had about seven responses! So we tried to fill the group by contacting people on our caseload. We ended up with around 20 young people. In the next year and this year we used word of mouth and opened the invitation out to ALL siblings of someone with an autism diagnosis who live in Rotherham. We sent flyers to schools and asked them to give them out to the parents of all the children in their school with a diagnosis. We promoted the group to other departments within the council such as the Educational Psychology team, the Learning Support Service, the Families Information Service - anyone who may be able to pass on our details. We quickly increased our reach!

"As we now run groups for two different age groups we have to plan two different weeks of activities and make sure that these are age appropriate. With the older group this year we did an afternoon session where they could meet us and each other and then we went on a three day and two night residential which was a fabulous way for the older young people to build bonds and establish relationships."

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Relevant news is disseminated locally via the Rotherham Disabled Children’s Information Exchange newsletter. Download the Summer 2010 edition

For more information about the Rotherham Autism Communication Team, contact:

Team Leader: Gill Capaldi
Address: Psalters Lane Centre, Kimberworth Road, Rotherham S61 1HE
Email: Tel: 01709 336421

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