The past year has seen a huge increase in the number of queries handled by OAASIS, the free, impartial special needs information service run by Cambian, the UK’s largest provider of specialist residential education and care for young people with autism and Asperger Syndrome.
According to Andrea Wooldridge, the OAASIS coordinator, the number of enquiries has doubled and parents are often desperate for support and advice. Many, like Tina Hawley, whose 11 year-old son was at a mainstream secondary school, face a prolonged battle to get appropriate education for their children.
The number of appeals by parents to special needs tribunals has almost trebled over the last twelve years, with a quarter of all appeals involving children who are on the autistic spectrum.
“As time moved on, our son was spending more and more time in isolation during the school day and we found it increasingly difficult to encourage him into school,” ran Tina’s original letter to Andrea. “He has been displaying signs of childhood depression…I would truly love to know how dire things have to be before a child is considered ‘bad’ enough for the LEA to consider undertaking an assessment.”
Following advice from OAASIS and with help from a solicitor, Tina managed to secure a Statement of Special Needs for her son, who now has a place at an appropriate school specialising in Asperger Syndrome.
“For my family, this news is better than winning the lottery,” Tina wrote. “Please keep up your fantastic work in supporting parents like myself…I felt that you were extremely sympathetic and understanding at a time when I felt in total despair with the schooling situation.’
Having to fight for suitable provision is highly stressful for families.
“So often parents are in tears over the phone,” Andrea said. “The worst situation is when things have broken down at home because the child with special needs is so distressed that they are aggressive to their parents and siblings, and may be threatening suicide.”
Trying to get a statutory assessment and a Statement of Special Educational Needs for their child and the breakdown of a placement in a mainstream school are the most common dilemmas faced by the parents who contact OAASIS. These problems are sometimes compounded by not knowing where to go for help and support.
“Sometimes it depends where you live”, explained Andrea. “While some areas have excellent parent partnership services, others don’t seem to have the resources. They may not be able to offer someone who will attend meetings with parents, for instance, or parents are not made aware that these services exist.”
Andrea can advise on how to approach the school or local authority and where to go for specialist help. She frequently points parents in the direction of the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), or the National Autistic Society, for example. Contacting Social Services is another suggestion.
“Parents may be frightened to do this because they think their children may be taken into care,” Andrea said. “They don’t realise that Social Services can offer advice, support and respite care, and can be involved in the decision that a residential special school placement is necessary.”
Andrea also finds that children with special needs, especially at the higher end of the autistic spectrum, may manage well in mainstream primary schools, but difficulties can emerge at secondary level. She says that pupils may appear to be coping academically, yet they may have no friends and lack social and independence skills, leading to high levels of anxiety and unhappiness.
Their difficulties at the secondary stage are exacerbated by the size of the school, movement from class to class, less supervised break times, the pressure to organise themselves and by appearing to be ‘different’. Students with Asperger Syndrome often try their hardest to contain their feelings at school, but when they come home, all their suppressed rage can be directed against their parents.
Part of Andrea’s role is to give details of courses or training on particular subjects. She can also provide information on schools which specialise in a wide range of disabilities, including AS, ADHD, Attachment Disorder and Tourette’s, which can be useful for professionals as well as parents.
“I would just like to say a big ‘thank you’ for all the wonderful information you sent me on your organisation and schools,” wrote Pauline Finnerty, who is a parent support adviser in Cambridgeshire.
“I have passed on your details to many of my families, and I am certain they will be as excited as myself.”
*The helpline number is 01590 622880, staffed Monday to Friday 10.00am to 4.30.pm.
e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org or write to:
OAASIS, Freepost RLYY-TAUC-YRYS, Brock House, Grigg Lane, Brockenhurst, Hants. SO42 7RE.
From Friday 3 April 2009, the new helpline number will be 0800 902 0732.
The new address will be: OAASIS, The Croft, Southlands School, Vicar’s Hill, Boldre, Lymington. SO41 5QB.
Information about Cambian’s schools and other education services can be found at: www.cambiangroup.com