Personalised learning provision: Spectrum Space case study
The PDA Society is very grateful to Clare Truman, who set up Spectrum Space, for sharing details of the successful model she has developed for personalised learning programmes that have worked well for children and young people with a PDA profile of autism. Unfortunately, Spectrum Space is now closed, but Clare would be keen to hear from anyone who is interested in replicating the model in their own setting and has created a distance learning provision. Contact details can be found on the website: www.spectrumspace.co.uk.
What is Spectrum Space?
Spectrum Space started as a small community interest company, supporting three autistic students who found it difficult to access school. Within six months the organisation had doubled in size and within a year we were receiving up to three referrals a week from parents and the Local Authority.
We provide personalised learning programmes for children with complex social communication needs and/or autism. Our approach is particularly effective in supporting children and young people with Pathological Demand Avoidance and/or high anxiety.
Our students have often had several failed placements before joining Spectrum Space or have been refused admission to local special schools because those schools felt that they could not meet the child’s complex needs. Our high staffing levels (all our students are supported by two support workers most of the time) means that we are able to provide a completely individualised programme and adjust it instantly to meet the needs of children and young people whose tolerance of demands fluctuates from day to day or during the day.
How does Spectrum Space work?
A typical day at Spectrum Space starts with two support workers going to each student’s house. We don’t use home-to-school transport or taxis, instead each child’s trained and trusted support workers provide transport to and from the centre. We find this helps to support a smooth transition between home and Spectrum Space. If a student doesn’t want to leave the house on a particular day, he/she can stay at home with the support workers and learn there instead. If he/she is ready to leave the house, then support workers either bring them into our centre (a pavilion hired from the local Cricket Club) or take them on an outing in the community.
There are no set lessons at Spectrum Space. Instead, the support workers liaise with one of our qualified teachers to plan the learning objectives for each day in advance. It is then the support workers’ job to incorporate these learning objectives into the activities that the student wants to engage with that day. So, for example, if a child is learning to count to twenty and wants to go to the park for the day, we might count our steps on the way, count leaves and flowers when we get there, count the number of times we swing on the swings, go round on the roundabout or bounce a basketball. Whatever the child is interested in doing that day that is what we do, and we then work out how to fit the learning into that activity. Even in the centre, where more structured learning activities are laid out on large tables, these are presented as invitations to learn which students may want to engage with at some point rather than tasks that must be completed at a given time. We describe this approach as “no lessons – just learning”.
A task about healthy lifestyles presented as an invitation to learn
This works in a similar way when it comes to group learning. We provide opportunities to work together in clubs for cooking, sports, outdoor education, science and ICT. These activities are purposefully called ‘clubs’ rather than ‘groups’ or ‘lessons’ to reinforce the idea that joining in is optional. Indeed, everything is optional at Spectrum Space! Our termly calendar outlines what is available each day and students can choose whether or not they want to participate. So far all of our students have chosen to participate in some group learning during their week. We think that the optional nature of the activities has been key to enabling them to feel able to participate in group learning, when so many of them were unable to access this in previous placements.
A page from our half termly calendar
In line with the best practice guidance for supporting students with a PDA profile of autism, we keep rules to a minimum. We only have four rules at Spectrum Space:
- We keep everyone safe.
- We help each other enjoy activities.
- We don’t make people do things they don’t want to do.
- We follow the legal rules: no hurting, no threats, no damaging other people’s things.
Everything else can be negotiated and we say yes to our students whenever we can. This means that there are no rules about uniform, our students can wear what they feel comfortable in. There are no rules about punctuality, some of our students are ready to go when staff arrive in the morning and others need some more support from the adults to help them get ready. Lunchtime is when we feel hungry and students can eat wherever they like, often making their own lunches or popping to the local shop to buy a meal with their Spectrum Space allowance. By giving students control in these and many other areas, we have found that their independence skills develop quickly, preparing them for adulthood. We have also found that incidents of behaviour that challenges, seen in their previous settings, are often less of a problem in our setting or sometimes do not occur at all as the students are able to make the changes they need to make to their environment to help them feel comfortable and relaxed.
Isla joined us at the age of eleven. In addition to autism she has diagnoses of Pathological Demand Avoidance and progressive mutism. She had spent some time in a child and adolescent in-patient unit before joining us and her anxiety was very high, preventing her from attending school. Attempts to integrate Isla into a local specialist school for autistic children had been unsuccessful as Isla was often too anxious to leave the house.
Particularly when feeling low or anxious, Isla benefitted from the opportunity to learn at home where she felt safe. When her demand avoidance made it difficult for her to engage in the learning activities that had been set for the day we made use of surprises, using the Amazon Prime service to deliver learning activities to Isla’s door. The exciting surprise of a parcel arriving at the door could be enough to motivate her to leave her bedroom and engage with her support workers for the day.
Over time, as her anxiety reduced, Isla was increasingly able to engage with the group learning at the centre and out on outings. Isla is an active girl who loves climbing and physical activities. She has enjoyed group sessions with other students at a local outdoor learning centre and the teamwork involved in these sessions have helped to develop her non-verbal communication skills. She also has a brilliant sense of humour and enjoys playing pranks on the adults when she comes into the centre. When things were at their trickiest, our goal was to ensure Isla laughed once a week. Now Isla laughs out loud almost every day at Spectrum Space.
Christopher also joined us at the age of eleven. With a PDA profile he had struggled to attend mainstream school and a visit to a special school had not been successful. He was very fearful of school and any suggestion that he might join a new school made him incredibly worried. His anxiety was evident in the way in which he would sometimes hide under blankets and under tables in the centre when he first joined us. He benefitted from the introduction of a sensory tent to the centre which he could access whenever he wanted to. This allowed him to self-regulate, withdrawing when he needed to and joining the group again when he was able to.
Christopher is a whizz with technology and has benefitted from ICT club sessions in which he has learnt to code and programme his own video games. He also took an interest in our group outings and at the start of his time at Spectrum Space, often had meetings with our Director to help her plan the calendar for the term. A particular highlight of his was planning a group outing to a local theme park, which was a great success.
Slowly, as Christopher became more confident and comfortable in our setting, he began to talk about school again which was a massive breakthrough. It took a long time of exploring options and slowly building his resilience but he has just joined a local special needs school and the transition has been very successful.
Personalised learning models often work well for children and young people with a PDA profile of autism. For more information about educational experiences with PDA please read our Being Misunderstood in Education report.