A Co Down primary school has given a disused caretaker’s store a illuminating makeover to help support pupils with autism.
The former store is now a sensory room where children can experience a calming environment should the pressures of school get too much for them.
The sensory room at Carryduff – one of only a handful of mainstream schools in Northern Ireland to have specialist classes for children with autism – was created by one of the parents at the school.
Principal Barbara Preston said: “Children simply cannot learn if they are dysregulated. Many pupils need support to regulate and an area like our sensory room is invaluable in providing that child which a calm, safe space.”
Resources in the new sensory room which opened at the end of last term include a bubble tube, projector, fish panel light, relaxing scents, UV lighting and fibre-optics.
Carryduff Primary School on the Killynure Road has approximately 200 pupils in nine classes and also operates two Social Communication Unit classes which aim to support pupils with a variety of social and communication difficulties associated with Autistic Spectrum disorders.
The highly structured learning environment supports up to eight pupils per class with a teacher and two classroom assistants.
These pupils follow all areas of the curriculum, with a specific emphasis on developing the social and communication skills necessary for the pupil to reach their full potential.
Integration into school life and mainstream classes is encouraged as and when the individual pupil is ready.
Barbara said: “The school has been able to create a fantastic regulation space with the help of one of its parents, Lee McCluskey from LM Services, who offered to help turn a neglected caretakers’s store into a sensory room for pupils attending the school’s Social Communication Units.
“We looked at it and thought it was too small. It’s amazing what’s been done with it. It’s a perfect size, so snug, so cozy.
“With the addition of a generous sensory pack funded by the Education Authority, they now have a fully equipped space to support pupils with emotional regulation.”
Autism is on the rise amongst school children in Northern Ireland with boys almost three times more likely to be autistic than girls.
Meanwhile the cost of providing support for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) has increased to around £270million a year.
According to figures from 2016/17 there were 76,300 children with SEN in Northern Ireland’s schools in 2016/17, 22% of the school population.
While the vast majority are educated in mainstream schools the permanent secretary at the Department of Education Derek Baker has said it costs more than £270million annually to provide help for SEN pupils, most of which comes from the EA budget.
In terms of autism, figures published earlier this year by the Department of Health showed the number of pupils aged four to 16 with autism or Asperger’s syndrome had trebled in a decade.
The department revealed the estimated prevalence of autism within the school aged population in Northern Ireland increased from 1.2% in 2008/09 to 3.3% in 2018/19.
The department’s analysis said that increased awareness and the effect of the Autism Act NI which was passed in 2011 were potential reasons for the rise in diagnoses.
Figures showed 5.1% of males were identified with autism compared to 1.5% of females.
Barbara explained how children with autism often experience ‘meltdowns’ when they feel situations are getting on top of them: “If you or I are getting annoyed or upset or hot we’ve got our own strategy to deal with that – you’ll take your jumper off, you’ll take yourself away from whatever situation is bubbling or boiling. Kids with autism can’t.
“They haven’t got the strategies to deal with that. That’s why you see so many children having meltdowns.”
She said: “It’s great that we have a space where you can take a child when staff spot that they are starting to get worked up.
“If you leave it until they blow there’s nothing that can be done and you need to wait until they come down the other side.”
She continued: “There would also be some children who don’t transition well in the mornings. Some children go straight into the room in the mornings.
“Some children from the main school would use the room as well as pupils in the two SCUs.
“The two units are for the children who need more one-to-one support. They are mainstream ability but are just not managing in mainstream classes at the minute. There are eight children in each class with three adults and the rooms are totally structed for autism. The first sensory room is beside those units.”
She added: “We have plenty of kids dotted through the school with autism as well. That’s why we want a second room too. One of the other dads who is a carpenter is going to screen off the corner of a rescource room for mainstream children to use as a sensory room. Parents are fundraising to secure the necessary equipment.”
Discussing the school’s SCU classes, Barbara said: “There’s only a handful of schools who have these unit. More and more schools are finding the need for a sensory room. Autism is on the increase, children aren’t coping with life as well as they used to for a whole variety of reasons.
“The stigma around autism also needs to be removed. Our autistic children are some of the the quirkiest, most fun kids you’ll meet. You wouldn’t want to lose that.
“What is possible is to teach coping strategies for these children when they get overwhelmed. With the right support nearly everything can be managed.
“The sensory room is one of those strategies, our unit classes would also use calm music and yoga, particularly to calm down after break time.
“Everything is very structured in those classes, that’s important.”