Australia

'Calm spaces' at this Adelaide school are improving the lives of students with autism

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With the number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum increasing, one school is adapting to meet a growing need - and finding some positive results.

Nathan Laverty used to dread his phone ringing.

He was on constant alert for a call to come and pick up his now 10-year-old son Vinnie from Christie Downs Primary School in southern Adelaide.

Vinnie, who is on the autism spectrum, was frequently excluded from the classroom due to behavioural incidents.  

“We’d go through periods where it would be great, and then there would just be a mass of blowouts, and no one could really pinpoint where or why it was happening,” Nathan told SBS News.

Vinnie and his dad
Vinnie and his dad Nathan.
SBS News

Vinnie agrees it was a distressing time.

“I kept lashing out, with no other way except for going to the office to calm down,” he said.

“I always got asked if I wanted to go to the office, but I always refused because I got so angry.”

I kept lashing out, with no other way except for going to the office to calm down. 

- Vinnie, aged 10

After five suspensions last year, his parents and teachers were worried about his future.

“We were terrified Vinnie may not have had a school to go back to because of the level and the severity of what was happening,” Nathan said.

This year though, there have been no behavioural incidents or suspensions.

Christie Downs Primary School
Christie Downs Primary School.
Supplied

Nathan and Vinnie both credit this to the introduction of a new program at the school where students can retreat to ‘calm spaces’ that have been set up around the school.

Each calm space features low lighting and soft music, as well as tactile surfaces and special toys that help children as young as five focus on their immediate environment.

“There have been no aggressive blowouts,” said Nathan, and “reasoning, massive amounts of reasoning. You can compromise with Vinnie now.”

The change has been so vast Nathan has been able to return to work without having to worry about being called away again.

“It’s been huge. Such a weight that’s been lifted.”

Reduction in incidents

Todd McGrath, Senior Leader at the school, said Vinnie was far from being the only student at the school who needed support with his behaviour.

School data showed there were about 1,000 behavioural incidents at the school over the first two terms last year.

“Often, there would be violence in the classroom, room trashing, tables tipping, chairs being thrown,” he said.

“Lots of things that take away from kids learning."

He said that’s now reduced to about 200 incidents over the same period this year.

“That’s a pretty drastic change.”

Students at Christie Downs
Students at Christie Downs Primary School can retreat to 'calm spaces' when the classroom overwhelms them.
SBS News

The number of children diagnosed on the autism spectrum is increasing. Last year, Autism Spectrum Australia revised its prevalence rates from 1 in 100 to an estimated 1 in 70 people in Australia on the autism spectrum. 

Mr McGrath said many students now use the ‘calm spaces’ as places to manage their emotions. They run in conjunction with an interoception program, set up to help students on the autism spectrum understand how they are feeling.

“The calming spaces, they’re set up in all the classrooms and they’re used by all the kids if they need a bit of quiet time,” he said.

“This year, especially, we’ve created a program where kids can go and work on different emotions that they’re feeling at different times.”

The school also has a therapy dog, Pippa, which helps students calm down. 

Pippa
The school also has a therapy dog, Pippa.
Christie Downs Primary School

While the school has the same academic requirements of any other primary school in the state, its student body is unique. About 80 students have some form of disability.

And although the calming program initially targeted children on the autism spectrum, school principal Gail Evans said it was also having a positive effect on another group: those who have experienced trauma, having been exposed to poverty, drugs or violence.

“Trauma re-wires the child’s brain, and they really need a different approach to learning, because they have big feelings, they have things they cannot control or manage in their private life,” she said.

Ms Evans said the high number of behavioural incidents at the school was linked to the fact that many pupils needed extra help to get to a place where they were ready to learn.

“How they can come into school having had a really shocking night, and how can they be ready to learn academically when their basic needs aren’t being met?”

She said transforming the school has been a gradual process over the past few years. The calm spaces and playgrounds filled with nature-based play are recent new additions.

Support success

Vinnie now visits one of the calm spaces twice a week, as well as whenever he or his teacher feels he needs some time out.

On one visit, he peers at some glass canisters with coloured water and glitter swirling inside.

“Whenever I use stuff like this, I feel like there’s no anger, nothing inside me,” he said.

Vinnie
Vinnie says the calm spaces have really helped him.
SBS News

On other visits, he’ll work on guided activities designed to help him understand and manage his feelings, such as coping strategy wheels and anger charts.

“It’s really helped,” he said. “I’ve had a lot more time to actually tell people how I’m feeling.”

It’s really helped. I’ve had a lot more time to actually tell people how I’m feeling.

- Vinnie

Nicole Rogerson, chief executive of Autism Awareness Australia, welcomed the approach. 

“This is a really new initiative, and no, not a lot of schools are doing it,” she said. “I really applaud them for looking at this as a possibility.”

She said isolated reports of students on the autistic spectrum being held in cages at some Australian schools in recent years point to a need for a more systemic approach to supporting such children in the education system.

“Definitely, there has been some horrendous stories that have quite rightly made horrible headlines about how some children have been managed poorly, and usually that comes down to a school in crisis, a school who don’t have the expertise and don’t have the resources to have that child there.”

She said she would like to see the federal government put in national guidelines on how to best educate children with autism.

“At the moment, it’s very patchy, there’s no set overarching rule as to what’s the best way to manage these kids.”

At Christie Downs, transforming the school has come at a cost.

The interoception program, part of a state-wide trial, will be funded by the South Australian government until 2020.

Ms Evans admits the approach might make the pace of academic learning slower, but said students who come to class with extra challenges need to be offered more time to prepare for learning.

“Are we meeting standard educational department guidelines? Maybe not all the time, but sometimes considering what the child is experiencing outside of school, the fact that they’ve moved four readers up is a miracle to me."

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