In this article, Libby Richards of South Devon College tells us about their specialist autism unit called The Lodge and their approach and experience of transition.
South Devon College - good practice example of transition working
The Lodge is a specialist autism unit based at South Devon College, which is a mainstream facility. The college offers a wide range of practical and academic courses for people aged 16 years and over, with some once weekly programmes for school children from 14 years of age. All children and young people who access the Lodge must be enrolled in a course at the college.
The Lodge started as a pilot project with eight students three years ago; worked with 20 students in its second year and now works with at least 30 learners. The three full time Lodge staff all have extensive autism and educational experience. They offer support to children with autism, and their families, as they go through the enrolment process for the college. Additional college staff offer extra support during busy times such as breaks. The learners who use the Lodge cover a wide range of abilities from undertaking ‘A’ levels with a view of going to university, to other students who have a learning disability and are undertaking basic life skill, numeracy, and literacy courses.
The Lodge offers its learners a wide range of services including:
- a safe place to go during breaks and social time when they may feel more stressed or vulnerable
- support with planning and prioritising work; liaising with college staff if there are any problems that arise with a young person with autism: looking into reasons why homework is not being completed and offer solutions to this problem e.g. the teacher ensures that the child have homework instructions written correctly and clearly in their book before leaving class.
All learners who use the Lodge are given a `time out card` that when feeling anxious or scared just have to show to their teacher and are allowed to leave the class and go to the Lodge. The Lodge staff will assess the learner, offer the appropriate support and in conjunction with the learner make the decision whether they will return to class for the rest of that session or have some quiet time. Support plans will be in place to advise the Lodge staff how to deal with these situations. These would have been devised at the learner`s review - those in attendance would include the person with autism, the teacher, Lodge staff and family members. The use of the card is assessed at review meetings. However, generally learners at the Lodge are so keen not to be seen as “different” they tend only to use the card when absolutely necessary.
Some learners will attend the college for one day a week, aged 14, from school to undertake a level one qualification. Once they are 16 and have left school they will attend college full time to undertake a level two course. This phased introduction to the college often works very well for learners with autism as they have lots of time to get used to the new routine and ample opportunity to get to know teachers and other students, whilst still having the support and safety from school.
The enrolment for learners who do not attend in the above mentioned way is based upon the following steps, but always with the individual in mind:
- The Lodge coordinator will meet alone with the parents or guardian so that they can gain any background and learn how best to interact effectively with the person with autism. Parents sometimes find it difficult to be completely frank if their child is in the room.
- Meet the young person with their parents to talk about the college and what the Lodge can offer.
- The Lodge coordinator will then contact the School’s SENCO to gain an idea of the person’s needs and current support package.
- The Lodge coordinator will attend the Year 11 Annual Review. This is vital as all of the professionals involved with this person should be present e.g. SENCO, Teacher, Head-teacher, Occupational Therapist, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Team Worker (if appropriate) etc.
- The Lodge coordinator will then get copies of:The Educational Psychologist Reports, the Individual Educational Plan, the current and previous statements, any risk assessments and Additional Exam Support needs e.g. extra time, use of a scribe or a reader, own examination room and up to 25% extra time in which to sit the exam.
- The Lodge coordinator will then contact the school to discuss the situation so far and to plan ways in which they can work together to make the transition process as easy as possible for the person with autism.
All new students are offered taster sessions to the college where they can attend for one day to get used to the college routine, staff and culture. For people with autism this can be longer and is very flexible. One learner, who came from a very specialist unit for people with challenging behaviour, was one of just four people in his class and attended the college one day a week from the Christmas term to ensure that he was ready for the transition. This planning worked extremely well and ended with the young person gaining much from their time at college and staff being surprised at just how well they settled in.
The Lodge works with other Colleges in Devon and Cornwall who are interested in setting up specialist autism provision and are really happy to share good practice and to learn from others innovations. It is essential that all stakeholders work together to ensure that the young person`s interests are at the centre of the transition process.
One of the most difficult things to do is to say no to referrals “your needs will not be adequately met here have you considered…” However the Lodge team feel that this is much better than a poor placement that may end badly for the young person, creating a feeling of failure. Despite this honesty there have been a few occasions when a person has left during a term feeling that the college does not/cannot meet their needs. On these occasions the Lodge coordinator will work closely with all involved to find the best solution.
One of the biggest risks of a placement breakdown at the college is when the learner has an undiagnosed mental health problem. This is most commonly depression but can include an eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or a psychotic illness. On occasions parents do not mention the additional problem as they are really concerned that the college will turn their child down and do not feel that there are any other viable options for their loved ones; an awful conundrum for a parent to be in. However the lodge coordinators feel that at the end of the day, communication makes or breaks a transition and if they are aware of all the facts up front there is a much better chance of a positive outcome.
Transition and Employment
The Lodge supports students who wish to attend university with DSA assessments, guiding them through the application stage and helping them choose an appropriate course to undertake. The Lodge will liaise with universities regarding support needs of learners and offer advice on working with students who have autism. On one occasion a member of the Lodge staff left the College to become a support worker at university for one of the college’s students who moved there. This obviously could not happen all the time, but worked very well on this occasion. However, this suggests that there may be a case for local colleges and Universities to share a support worker in order to help people with autism with the transition between the two institutions.
The Lodge takes building links with local employers very seriously as not only does this create opportunities for their learners, but raises the awareness of autism among employers. The Lodge currently has very good links, in terms of finding work experience placements, with six local employers including four charities, Sainsbury and Asda Supermarkets. One young person gained employment as Asda due to this experience. Another learner gained an apprenticeship and the college he attended for this paid the Lodge to offer autism training to the six staff who would be working with this person to ensure that he received appropriate support.
The Lodge is also a member of ‘Project Search’ where learners with special needs will go to a hospital to undertake English and Mathematics courses whilst also be given the opportunity of work placements in various parts of the hospital e.g. kitchen and admin. One learner gained a job as a porter and another was given a Theatre Technician role where he had to prepare theatres for operations; a role that requires a huge amount of concentration and precision and the person is doing incredibly well.
So the Lodge has demonstrated how by listening to learners in order to find out their needs and making contact with a diversity of organisations the transitions process can be a positive and rewarding time.
Author: Libby Richards, South Devon College
Date added: 10 June 2014