Working as a freelance SEN (special education needs) consultant in Norfolk, I am in and out of mainstream schools. I advise on adapting the curriculum, teaching styles, timetables, and classroom layout, in order to maximize the learning potential of children on the autism spectrum, to reduce their anxiety, and to nurture their well-being. My aim is also to encourage awareness among all staff and pupils of the challenges faced by pupils with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) around every corner at any given minute of the day. In encouraging these changes, I am most often regaled with pleas of budget poverty, lack of resources, lack of staffing, no money for training or for staff cover, no time to implement labor- and timesaving strategies: “Not when it’s just for one or two children”; not for the “minority.” Like the expense can’t be justified.
Imagine then, my complete surprise and utter delight when I heard about an establishment that had sought and been granted funding, and given a wealth of time, careful thought and planning – in short, the best of everything – for the learning environment of young people with autism and Asperger’s. And this isn’t a special education facility; this is City College of Norwich (CCN), an essentially mainstream setting. They have sought the best design advice and the students’ vision and creativity; their awareness of their own needs and their own ability to meet them have been allowed to come to the fore. For the first time in many of the students’ lives, their well-being has been made a priority, putting them at the top of the planning and financial agenda.
It would be fair to say that while CCN is an excellent higher education establishment with excellent resources, aesthetically a few of the buildings leave much to be desired. Walking down some of the cream painted brick corridors, you could easily believe that you were in HMP Norwich (a prison). But step out of the lift in the main block, on to the second floor and through the door and you find yourself in an amazing space, or rather, pockets of amazing spaces within one large room. Welcome to the RUGROOM.
The RUGROOM is the base for the Regional Center for Learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorders in City College Norwich. It is a unique space: the result of a collaborative development partnership between the learners with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) who called themselves the Really Useful Group on a good day and Really Useless Group on a bad day (hence RUG) and Team A-Go-Go, a design company.
But just how did a center like this come into being? The story is an impressive one – of people with vision, tenacity and commitment who saw an opportunity and maximized it.
The Center was funded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) who were looking to fund a small project to improve the choices and access into local colleges for people with Asperger’s syndrome. At the time, there was a small group of AS students at the college who were asked, “What do you need from college?” The answers were, as you might expect, and included “not having to explain myself,” “somewhere to go at lunchtime,” and “somewhere quiet.” So the team, led by Danusia Latosinski, began the process which has culminated in the RUGROOM that you can see today. Initially, a vacant room was set aside each lunchtime for the AS students, but because it wasn’t the same room each day problems arose.
A central place was needed and a room in a house on the edge of campus was utilized. Use of the room increased, and soon more and more students who had not previously disclosed their AS on their college application came forward and joined the group. As well as a lunchtime retreat, it was used as a time-out space for students who weren’t able to cope with the demands of the college day. Some students felt they were victims of bullying; others felt that they didn’t fit in – it was a place to come and talk over and make sense of what was happening and get the help they needed.
Danusia and her team noted that students were retreating into pockets and corners, so steps were taken to encourage interaction. A Playstation™ and other games were bought. Lunchtime hobby clubs and poker games were started, and soon students were leading them. The students decided that while they liked the seclusion that their room at the edge of campus offered, it was quite a walk away from where lessons were, and they felt they wanted to be more a part of the college.
Additional funding from the Learning and Skills Council was obtained. By this time, the group had grown from about 8 to 20 AS students, and a concerted effort was made to find a big enough room within the main college for the students to use. In the end, the staff agreed to give one of the staff rooms over to the project. The learners organized and presented a student conference at which to get students’ ideas, and then a representative panel of the AS students worked directly with the design team. No staff members from the college were involved with the design layout – which is probably why the staff’s office has no storage space for purses and coats, etc.! The design team gave the AS learners panel colored pens, color charts, pictures of various designs, furniture and layout options. They were told to put a smiley face sticker on the designs they liked and/or to write what they thought was good for them and what wasn’t.
The result is the present RUGROOM. It offers a safe haven for students throughout the day, with different social spaces in the form of two different pods with social seating, one with TV/light display screen and floor cushions, and the other − the “pinkpod” − with pink fabric seating cubes that can be arranged as needed to form a social space, or for students to build up and provide a wall of privacy while they wind down. There is a den used for lunchtime clubs, activities, gaming, meetings, and individual lessons; a kitchen with eating space; and individual IT workstations. There are also spaces that allow students to withdraw and seek silence when needed. In addition, there are specialist support staff as well as specialist lecturers actually based in the RUGROOM. They are available to the students at any time. Students’ art and photography is displayed boldly along one wall.
The Center’s ethos – that of the learners being at the forefront of every decision and that they are the experts in determining their needs – is almost palpable as you walk around. The space is light, bright, and airy with a minimalist feel that belies its multi-purpose design and frequency of use. That ethos permeates everything – social activities, lunchtime groups, right down to what must be a total logistical nightmare for staff – completely individualized timetables. Students in the Center are enrolled on a variety of courses, from B-Tec and vocational courses to A levels and GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). Still others are enrolled on the Phoenix Purple course – a discrete transitional course tailored around the individual needs of each AS learner. The Improving Choices Funding from the LSC provides for students who might otherwise have to go out of county to attend residential courses. The Center has a group of specialist support and lecturing staff who support and deliver the Phoenix Purple curriculum, which includes developing social and independence skills. All students are accommodated. There may be students who arrive later/leave earlier so that they miss the crowds; students who can’t cope with large classrooms; students who can only work in a 1-on-1 setting. This course is massively flexible and staff can move lessons and timetables around to suit each student’s needs.
It can be a logistical nightmare but as ever with this team, the philosophy is “if that’s what it takes, then so be it.” Extra support staff, team teaching, speech and language, and anger management therapists can all be utilized on this course where needed. Students are free to choose in negotiation with staff. Together they look at the end result and what is needed from a course in order to achieve that end. Through confidence boosting skills, participation in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, and group and project work involving filming and animation, there has been phenomenal success in developing and maintaining communication and social skills. This program has been very successful with students who had not succeeded under specialist provisions in Norfolk and out of county. The number of people with AS applying to college is increasing as CCN reputation grows. For example, one student who came at 16, having “failed” at previous schooling (failed being in quotation marks for obvious reasons – we are well aware where the failure lies) was enrolled on to the Phoenix Purple course. School had been a sensory overload, and he coped by sitting under the table and refusing to leave the classroom at the end of the day. Now, through the course, he has set up and accesses his bank account, is part of a friendship group, and travels to and from college on the bus. Another student came from a special school. Although he was academically capable, the stress of the social communication involved in mainstream school meant that he was unable to cope. Although his academic ability was proven, he was unable to take exams at his special school. He was enrolled initially on the Phoenix Purple course, which helped develop his social and communication skills; from there he went on to do math and English GCSEs and then A-levels. He is now going on to university to study for a degree in business and information technology. The successes of this Center, of this team, and of these learners goes on and on.
It is often found that students at school who may outwardly seem to cope with the school day end up with meltdowns at home where they feel safe to de-stress and where the frustrations and anxieties of the day get released. With the RUGROOM there are opportunities for students to de-stress and unwind and be themselves throughout the day, and time-out slots can even be timetabled in. Stress doesn’t build up. No one has to explain why he or she is stimming, or reading Thomas the Tank Engine or sitting alone in a pod. Everyone is accepted for who they are. Due to the number of learners now using the RUGROOM, it can get noisy, especially with the lunchtime activities. Students who had previously been unable to cope with classroom noise seem to be able to cope in the RUGROOM, because they know it is a safe and non-threatening place – even if noisy. Staff members have noted that students with sensory overload and personal contact issues are now able to sit close together at the popular Quiz and Chips events while the strong smell of fish and chips wafts around! Everyone has fun.
Lunchtime activities have evolved and have been extremely beneficial in helping students who find unstructured time difficult. The activities provide learners with shared interests and new opportunities. They foster social skills, helping students with such challenges as learning to lose, resolving conflict, being part of a team, negotiating and teaching them about pitfalls when navigating the Web, including illegal downloads! Students have developed other talents; clubs include Arabic percussion, jewelry making, flute playing, chess, and sports. One student, known for her exceptional ability with computers, is now enrolled on a beauty course having developed an interest and a talent in a beauty therapy lunchtime club.
The RUGROOM and its many uses allow staff to see students on many different levels. They are thus able to identify problems and challenges and work with students to help them overcome these. All of the staff get to know each of the students in this way, and it is then easy to step in if a learning support assistant is off sick. They are also able to spot non-eaters, non-socializers, aggressive behavior, etc., and deal with it effectively. It was during one of the informal discussion times that a number of students identified that they didn’t go to their high school prom. An alternative prom idea was put forward – just for students at the Center. It was such a success that it is now an annual event. Quiz and Chips, karaoke nights, and other social events are also enjoyed. www.rugroom.net is a learner-based website where students can converse with each other both in and out of college, again, a student project developed in conjunction with CleverAtom, the IT specialists. At first, external pages were set up, and then an internal online forum was established. This has been extremely beneficial to introduce prospective students before they even set foot in college. They are able to take a virtual tour of the Center, talk to student mentors, join in with the chat and ask advice – all of which reduce the anxiety of a new student. It is an online, ongoing, live social story! It also helps to keep up skills and social contacts when students are out of term time. Each student has a page and can upload work, share thoughts and ideas with other students.
Again, listening to their panel of experts, a student mentor program has been set up. A few of the students take on added responsibilities and are paid to work with other students in the RUGROOM, providing support and encouragement. They can be seen as more easily approachable than the staff, as they are students with AS themselves and see things the same way that as the students who might need extra help. In addition, they have developed a panel of expert learners who advise and contribute to staff professional development both in and out of college. They have delivered presentations at many conferences to raise awareness and of the needs of learners with ASDs and Asperger’s, including Asperger East Anglia, National Autistic Society, Cambridge University, and the BAFTA show. In January 2007, the staff and students presented RUGROOM to an audience in the “Schools of the Future” zone at the BETT Show in Olympia (BETT is the world’s largest educational technology event). CleverAtom joined Team-A-Go-Go and the students to present the successes so far and celebrate their achievements. Around 27,000 visitors attend BETT each year and over 600 education companies exhibit. The students captivated the audience for half an hour, talking about their experiences and explaining why RUGROOM was so successful. More recently, they have led student-focused workshops at the Center’s own regional conferences. A former City College learner with AS who also took part in these conferences has set up her own business offering staff training and mentoring, and she has been very successful.
They seem to have thought of everything. And whatever is available to the students, however they choose to access it, is their choice. Some in the Phoenix Purple and other courses in the college choose never to come in to the RUGROOM. Some use it constantly. Others use it as a place to come and unwind. Some just access the online forum. When the Center was first set up it was used by about 8 students. Now, between 65 and 70 students use the RUGROOM regularly.
This is a multi-award-winning establishment. They have won the Learning Skills Improvement Service’s Star award, as well as The Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education (presented recently at St. James’ Palace). At the Association of Colleges Beacon Awards, the Center received the President’s Award for being a shining example of furthering education achievement. No wonder: “shining example” and “beacon” are apt descriptions.
It doesn’t stop there. The Center’s future includes outreach development plans for the expert learners to go and talk to mainstream secondary school staff, employers, and those at the University of East Anglia. The expert learners will also be devising training packages for staff to be available in a variety of formats, including improving transitions between the UEA and City College for example, with the possibility of more degree courses being offered at City College as well as fostering employment links with local businesses. Developing social and microenterprise for people with AS is another exciting possibility and RUGROOM TV is already being implemented − conveniently, right opposite the RUGROOM is a TV studio!
Looking at the students utilizing this space, you can see how engaged they are and how at home they feel within its walls. As one of the students said, “If I’d had this at school, everything would have been different.” Educators take note. What if such thought and positive intervention was put into secondary schools? What difference then? Or primary schools? If this much effort and these strategies and resources were implemented in your child’s first school experience, what differences might there be by the age of 16? It’s something worth thinking about. And the staff members here do think. And act.
Talk to them for one minute and you realize that in Danusia (program manager), Vicky (team leader), Isobel (Phoenix Purple course leader) and the rest of their team, the Regional Center for Learners with Autistic Spectrum Disorders has skilled and devoted leadership. The sheer love and enthusiasm of staff at the Center spills over the top and out of the sides when you meet them. The commitment and passion of the staff enable them to have a vision beyond the immediate and beyond the Center itself. The very essence of their work revolves around the students, in preparing them for their very best life outside of the college and out into the world.