initiative offers hope to autistic children in Surrey
Former Surrey Advertiser reporter Jane Hepburn, who now teaches English in the ancient city of Bukhara in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, took time during a visit to her family in the Guildford area to report on plans for new school for autistic children being set up in Surrey.
new school for autistic children is about to be pioneered in Surrey.
September 14 is the target date for the opening of the Jigsaw School, brainchild of local parents who have children with this perplexing disorder. The school, only the second of its kind in the country, will be set up initially in Mytchett, and offers hope to families whose children cannot adjust to mainstream education, but who would nevertheless benefit greatly from intensive help in a specialised group setting.
The Gillard family from Guildford, whose moving story was featured in the Surrey Advertiser two years ago, are among the instigators of the plan to start a school based on the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), an approach to autism which has had remarkable success in Norway and America.
After being told that their daughter, Rosanna, might never even speak following a diagnosis of autism at two years old, they have been amazed to see her progress using this approach. For the past two years - using specific behaviour modifying techniques, with the help of an army of volunteers and specialists, six days a week and six hours a day - Rosanna can now speak in short sentences, ride a bicycle, get herself dressed and eat independently. Although Rosanna is still a long way behind her peers, as far as the Gillards are concerned, her progress is nothing short of a miracle. But this is a miracle they would like to see repeated in the lives of many more of the hundreds of autistic children they know to exist in Surrey.
According to Mrs Gillard, although children make progress with the ABA approach, they tend to fall badly behind if they are put into a mainstream school before they are ready. They can become confused, disruptive or very withdrawn.
Nine Surrey families, seeing the desperate need for their childrenís continuing education, have decided that the best way forward - given the shortage of specialised places in Surrey - would be to start their own school.
"Our children have all come so far in ABA, and badly need the right environment to continue their progress in a school away from home and with their peers", said Mrs Gillard. Each autistic child must have a tailor-made curriculum to suit their own particular needs and this cannot always be provided in schools for children with other kinds of special needs Time is short, according to Mrs Gillard, who says that the best age to start the children on ABA is between three and four-years-old. So far all the parents have been battling with their problems alone, and have set up individual programmes for their children at home. They now feel it is time to pool energy and resources in a single initiative. "We are wasting precious time while our children are getting older and not attending school. These are valuable years and must not be lost", said Mrs Gillard. "We are sure that this school will help the children to progress in life, and achieve their full potential".
Many people are helping to make the dream to open in September a reality. A Montessori nursery school in Mytchett has offered premises and the chance for children to join in its own activities where appropriate. Local trusts and companies have been approached and individual fund-raising activities are already under way. Thousands of pounds have been raised but thousands more are needed still.
Leading professionals in the field of autism such as the National Autistic Society, registered charity PEACH, The Honormead group of special schools and the Parents Autism Campaign for Education (PACE) are acting as advisers and the Surrey Local Education Authority is showing interest in the project.
One other such school exists in Camden, North London, but there is nothing else like it anywhere else in Britain. In Surrey alone, the local education authority estimates that 670 children have disorders somewhere along the autism spectrum. "Resources are pressurised and current provision cannot meet the needs of all these children", says Guildford mother Kate Grant, whose son is also autistic. "Research in America using the ABA method has shown more improvement than in any other teaching programme". She added that the Jigsaw school aimed to broaden the scope of provision in the area, and would address the needs of up to 14 children. The vision was to have a fully established school in its own premises by 2005. "Our children live in a world of their own as if they are behind a piece of glass, and just canít enter in. This is often a very frightening and distressing place for them to be and the earlier we can help them to break out of this, the better", says Mrs Gillard. "The Jigsaw school will make all the difference".
Those interested in the work of the school or in helping in some way are asked to contact Mrs Kate Grant on 0870 0544729 or 087000 JIGSAW. Donations can be sent to: The Jigsaw Trust, 15 Gatley Drive, Guildford, GU4 7JJ. The trust is a registered charity, number: 1075464. More information about the project can be found on its website: www.jigsaw.org.uk or you can e-mail Jigsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Surrey Advertiser 1999. Used by permission.
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