David had been to all sorts of specialist schools before he came to Leaways School in East London. Unfortunately none of them were able to meet his needs.
We knew, because of our experience, that David had PDA, or Pathological Demand Avoidance. In the world of autism it’s not an official diagnosis – it’s a bit controversial. People with PDA don’t tend to respond to traditional autism strategies.
The main thing is a person’s anxiety is so high that they are driven by the need to control the only way they can so that they can feel in control. This is very hard in a social context where everything is driven by rules and boundaries.
Traditional support hadn’t worked out for him at all. When he came to us he had become increasingly depressed. His view of himself and education was probably as low as it could be.
When he first came to us, it was a very slow process. We used to let him first of all just come into the reception area where he would sit with an experienced member of staff who has knowledge and experience in PDA. The key was to have no pressure at all. Day by day it was built up – the team built up a rapport with David and he built up a relationship with us. It’s key to stress, this was done at a very slow pace.
He was very responsive to this. At first it was just an hour, and then we introduced the idea of what we would like to happen next and then give him processing time for that. We tried to give him as much ownership of the next stage as we could. We didn’t always get it right!
As time progressed he was able to come through the next set of doors and come into contact with the children who were in classrooms and engage with some learning. There were some obstacles here too – we couldn’t say he had got something wrong for example. The vocabulary had to be more of the “we need to have another look at this”. We had to find the right language so that he wouldn’t be distressed. We worked with him on the fact that sometimes it would be wrong and how was he going to cope with that?
David was able to accept that some things he had done may be wrong and that was massive for him.
We do try and get David into classrooms to do some learning, not as part of the class. Again, this is gradual. We showed him his workstation, right by the door. He now completes work at his workstation.
We have worked to develop a timetable with David and he is going further all the time. He did achieve the objective of being able to tolerate being in a classroom with other children. He will answer questions, work with different teachers. These are real achievements for David.
The next stage was GCSE work and going out of Leaways ARC (the specialist ASC unit within the school) and into the wider school. This was a challenge – a different part of the school and different students. There was lots of preparation work and it’s going really well.
In the meantime David has also taken some Foundation Studies exams. He worked so, so hard and did really well with these and wants to keep progressing.
We’re all so proud of David’s progress – from where he was when he arrived at school to where he is now, there’s a huge difference. He’s working towards GCSEs, he’s working alongside other children and in different parts of the school. He engages in lessons and is internally motivated to succeed. He’s built excellent relationships with the staff and the children and it is a joy to see.
Written by Melanie Whitfield, Head Teacher at Brookways, a specialist ASC day school in North Cheam, formerly the Head of the ARC Resources at Leaways. If you want to know more about the new school please visit https://kedlestongroup.com/brookways .