What is different about The Key School?

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Jenni Gous

The Key School in Johannesburg educates children with autism between the ages of two and 12.

This is no mean feat as every child brings his or her own unique challenges, and it is up to staff to find, learn and implement methodologies that address the specific needs of autistic children. Individual developmental programmes (IDPs) are developed for each child.

The Key School uses a variety of methods

There are so many methodologies available that it is difficult to choose which to use. We, however, only use scientifically sound methods, including:

  • Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-handicapped Children (TEACCH) is used extensively throughout the school. TEACCH is an evidencebased service, training and research programme for individuals of all ages and skill levels with autism spectrum disorders. TEACCH builds on the strengths that autism provides children and teaches the important skill of independence. TEACCH has come to be called ‘structured teaching’, and emphasises structure by using organised physical environments, predictably sequenced activities, visual schedules and visually structured activities, and structured work/activity systems where each child can practise various tasks.
  • Aspects of the SCERTS model are used in the school. SCERTS is an acronym for Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support, and encompasses many of the methods mentioned in this article.
  • Makaton, widely known as keyword sign and gesture, is used as an approach to communication. It is a system of communication based on a combination of spoken words, sign language vocabulary (originally adapted from the British Sign Language system) and graphic symbols. The idea is to use keyword signing to support the communication development of children or adults who are unable to use verbal communication, or whose speech is difficult to understand.
  • The Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) methodology includes all forms of communication that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write. People with severe speech or language problems rely on AAC to supplement existing speech, or replace speech that is not functional. Special augmentative aids, such as picture and symbol communication boards and electronic devices, are available to help people express themselves. This may increase social interaction, academic school performance and feelings of self-worth. AAC users should not stop using speech if they are able to do so. The AAC aids and devices are used to enhance their communication.
  • Aspects of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) – the science of applying experimentally derived principles of behaviour to improve socially significant behaviour – are used. ABA takes what we know about behaviour and uses it to bring about positive change (Applied). Behaviours are defined in observable and measurable terms to assess change over time (Behaviour). The behaviour is analysed within the environment to determine what factors are influencing the behaviour (Analysis).
  • Dr Stanley Greenspan, a child psychiatrist, has developed a form of play therapy that uses interactions and relationships to teach children with developmental delays, including autism. This method is called the Developmental, Individualdifference, Relationship-based model, or DIR®/Floortime for short. Floortime is based on the theory that autism symptoms are caused by problems with brain processing that affect a child’s relationships and senses, among other things. With Floortime, the child’s actions are assumed to be purposeful. It is the parent’s or caregiver’s role to follow the child’s lead and help him/her develop social interaction and communication skills.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a communication system that uses picture cards which offer individuals with autism the ability to communicate needs, desires and even ideas without the need for spoken language. Since many people on the autism spectrum tend to learn visually, it makes good sense to communicate with images. Images are a universal means of communication – and they are just as understandable by strangers or young peers as by parents or therapists.
  • Teaching social skills often becomes a primary focus in working with children with autism. Success in this arena can increase self-confidence and lead to positive results in other areas of the classroom for these students. Social story modelling is a powerful teaching strategy for children with some degree of autism. A social story is one that depicts some particular social skill being acted out (or modelled). A good social story will focus on a particular social situation or interaction. A trip to the store, meeting a new person, or going to the school lunchroom with your class – these are all good examples of situations a social story might focus on. The story serves a number of purposes:
    • It provides details and information for the child reading the story – important because autistic children often find social situations confusing.
    • It provides the child with a list of the events and interactions that they will have to negotiate in a particular social setting.
    • It spells out expected behaviours for the child and explains why those behaviours are expected.
    • Sometimes a social story will explain the consequences of not meeting those expectations.
  • Music intervention is particularly useful with children with autism, owing in part to the non-verbal, non-threatening nature of the medium. Parallel music activities are designed to support the objectives of the child as observed by the therapist or as indicated by a parent, teacher or other professional. A music teacher might observe, for instance, the child’s need to interact socially with others. Musical games like beating a drum to music or playing sticks and cymbals with another person might be used to foster this interaction. Eye contact might be encouraged with imitative clapping games near the eyes, or with activities that focus attention on an instrument played near the face. Preferred music may be used contingently for a wide variety of cooperative social behaviours like sitting in a chair or staying with a group of other children in a circle.
  • Life skills development includes regular outings, which help to desensitise children to the world and sometimes overwhelming stimuli. It also helps to develop appropriate behaviours and social interactions in a variety of contexts.
  • Early intervention (EI) incorporates toilet training (if needed), the establishment of routines and the setting of boundaries. EI is effective and can be critical for improving development, language ability and social interaction, and it can lessen anxiety-causing sensory anomalies.
  • We have introduced iPads into our methodology for good reason. Parents and educators say the ease of use, visual impact, portability and intuitive nature of the touchscreen of a tablet computer have led to nearmiraculous breakthroughs for many children with a variety of disabilities. “These tablets are giving children a voice,” says Gary James, a Connecticut, US, father who started a website to review apps for children with special needs, based on his own experience with a sixyear- old son, Benjamin, who has autism.1 For some children with autism, images on a computer screen excite closer attention than pictures on paper. For older children, a sleek tablet does not carry the stigma of bulky, conspicuous special education equipment. Most importantly, a touchscreen eliminates the difficulty that a child with autism or motor disabilities might have with manipulating a keyboard or understanding the connection between a mouse and cursor.
  • Integrated movement therapy includes all types of movement and exercise such as brain gym, swimming, walks, cycling, ball skills, trampolining and so on.

Helping children for 40 years

The Key School has had many children passing through its doors over the last 40 years, most of whom who have had autism in some form or another, although we also care for children who experience serious barriers to learning, such as Fragile X,2 and children on the Asperger spectrum. All the children make progress with time and, recently, we have seen non-verbal children develop speech because of our use of the PECS system.

Three past pupils have gone to university and have studied a variety of topics at PhD level. Within its own context, The Key School sets the standards for other schools for children with autism in South Africa. It is registered with the Department of Education and Autism South Africa and it is a member of ISASA. Teachers need to be qualified with a specialisation if possible. Staff, including therapists who work at the school, are required to be registered with their requisite professional bodies.

The school offers help with the following services:

  • inclusive education
  • children who learn differently
  • assessments for developmental delay
  • classroom structure for children with Asperger Syndrome or autism
  • training in barriers to learning
  • consultations
  • referrals
  • placements.

A new sustainable model The Key School has experienced a roller coaster ride when it comes to funding, but has started 2013 with a different business model, one that will ensure its sustainability.


1. See http://a4cwsn.com/. 2. See http://www.fragilex.org/.

Category: Autumn 2013

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