An interview by Lucie Fitton, Head of Learning and Participation, with Lilian Cooper.

April 20, 2018

Working with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a broad and complex challenge. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and this is compounded when creativity, with its inherent invitation to originality, comes in to play. This emphasis on individuality, though, is precisely why children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can thrive through the kind of learning and engagement that cultural organisations offer, provided the relationship is intelligently and insightfully approached. I’ve been talking to someone in the know about how it’s done.

Hi, tell us a bit about yourself and your school?

Hello, I'm Lilian Cooper, the Leader of the ASD Additionally Resourced Provision (ARP) committee at Hatfeild Primary School in Merton, South London. This is specialist provision for 14 pupils aged 5 – 11, all with a primary special need of autism.

Is it usual for schools to have additional provision for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities?

Rather than separate ‘SEND schools’, it's an increasingly common model for schools to have a separate centre for pupils with SEND who are not succeeding within mainstream provision. This means that we can make sure there is inclusion within the mainstream classes for our children where it is meaningful and beneficial. Their difficulty tends not to be with learning itself, but with learning in an often overwhelming or confusing mainstream environment.

How do you work with creative organisations?

It tends to be the case that I have developed a project then found a creative partner to get involved. I’ve never been approached by an arts organisation. This may be because we have a separate SEND Coordinator for pupils with SEND in the mainstream provision, and often the offer does not filter out to us in the ARP. The mainstream provision from arts and cultural organisations is sometimes extended to our pupils, but they have very specific needs that these activities cannot always inherently meet. For many children with autism, if the purpose of an activity is not obvious, it can be very difficult for them to engage, especially if this is a diversion from their usual routine.

What is the advice you would give to arts and cultural organisations looking to work with pupils with an ASD?

This is a big task and a complex challenge, but there are certainly a handful of actions to consider that can make a real difference to the impact of the work.

1. Coming to us

All the work we do is designed to develop the coping skills of our pupils socially, personally and in their learning, so that they can become confident and capable individuals. An important factor to recognise is the impact of anxiety on children’s ability to engage and participate in learning activities. For many of our children, changing the timetable to take them to a new environment, possibly via public transport, and to then work with strangers, presents a variety of challenges before they have even started to engage in the creative activity. By coming into our environment to work with the children, you enable them to focus on and enjoy the new work presented to them.

2. Re-imagining curriculum links to make it meaningful and relevant

We provide a modified version of the national curriculum for each individual child to ensure that it is relevant and engaging for our pupils. They have such a unique way of viewing the world that we need to use this outlook to drive the content. We also need to focus carefully on the purpose of our learning – if the desired outcome is for a child to write without anxiety or frustration, then it is better to give them something that they are interested in and excited to write about. Focus the challenge and the anxiety to open up the learning for the pupils.

3. Collaborating with teachers and pupils

As you'd imagine, most schools and their pupils are different, so it is vital that we collaborate to shape an activity. So many people have a limited view of what autism looks like, based on a film they have seen or one person they have met. Many people, moreover, frame their thinking from the off around what the children are unable to do, whereas we like to think about using positive skills and interests to shape our work. We lack the time or resources to be constantly having to adapt ready-made offerings – we want the chance to create in partnership. We value the different expertise of creative practitioners and know that this, combined with teachers' knowledge of the children can create the most powerful engagement. This collaboration is key to pupils too – it is important that they have a voice. The most successful activities generate stimuli from the pupils’ own experiences and interests. This needs to guide the creative outputs.

4. Leaving a legacy, including continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers

The best partnerships are those that leave a legacy for our teachers. We are keen to develop creative skills and learn more about the cultural sector. This is especially important at a time when creative subjects are being edged out of the curriculum. Organisations that can help demystify the arts, apply creativity, and make it interesting for our pupils are invaluable. We find that cultural collaboration can ignite a new way of working or thinking, as well as providing a bonding experience for teachers and pupils. It enriches the curriculum and reinforces the idea that learning can and should be approached in different ways.

5. Valuing different perspectives and appreciating the mutual benefits

In fact, this unique way of seeing the world is a key connection between art and people with an ASD. We hope too that cultural partners really recognise the benefits they will get from working with our pupils – especially the different visual and creative ways that our pupils see the world.

6. Appreciating that reaching out to the specialist provision lead requires a different approach

As the lead for the ARP, I don't have a lot to do with the mainstream special educational needs (SEN) provision in our school. It can be more successful to contact the SEN team in your local authority because they will have the contacts for the specialist provision leads.

Written by Lucie Fitton, Head of Learning and Participation
20 April 2018
Featured in April's edition of The Learning Diaries. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.