The right school has made my son so happy “For four long years I felt wretched, but I have had three happy, happy years seeing my son so happy." These are the words of Sharon Davison whose son, James, 19, attends the NEAS Aycliffe School as a day student. Prior to joining Aycliffe School in June 2014, James had been struggling through special needs school, which Sharon felt was failing to meet his needs. James was diagnosed autistic at the age of two, with profound delayed learning following tests to check his hearing. “From about the age of 18 months we were worried that James was deaf,” explains Sharon. “He wouldn’t look at us or acknowledge us when we came into the room. Although he had started speaking, that seemed to be deteriorating, so we asked for a hearing test.” The diagnosis was earth-shattering for Sharon, who felt overwhelmed, and that she had to start learning all over again. Although his formal education started in a special needs school, Sharon had heard of an American home-based learning programme, Son-Rise, specifically designed for autistic children and adults, so, for four years, she home-schooled James. When James was eight, he started attending a special needs primary school, but Sharon still felt his needs weren’t being met. And, at age 11, he moved on to a special needs secondary school, which is when the worst four years of Sharon’s life began. “He did have a statement that specified what interventions he needed, but, although I kept getting promises, they were not being addressed,” recalls Sharon. “James was so unhappy. He would go to school looking grey, and come home looking greyer. His behaviour was becoming increasingly aggressive and challenging, and he seemed almost depressed. The family was at the stage where James moving on to a sixth-form unit was being discussed, when Sharon thought: “I can’t do this to him anymore. Enough is enough.” Fortunately, she was speaking to another parent whose daughter was autistic, and she advised Sharon to look at North East Autism Society's Aycliffe School. I just knew that it was exactly what James needed. It ticked every box. It was a perfect environment for him and offered a specialist autism provision. Sharon went “hell for leather” to get a place for James, and he is now coming to the end of what she describes as “an incredible three years.” Although she was warned that there might be a difficult transition period, Sharon says that she very quickly saw positive changes in James and can’t speak highly enough of the staff at the school. The staff at Aycliffe are so special. They have belief in the young people and they want them to overcome their obstacles. They look for ways to help the students achieve their potential. They are very caring and patient and they concentrate on abilities, not limitations. They support the students and the families in all sorts of ways. I know that James will flourish. He senses that the staff want to help him and he rises to it. Sharon believes that the environment is also key to helping James to do well. “It is a very calm atmosphere, and the young people are not being over-stimulated before they settle down to learning,” she explains. “Additional therapies, such as sensory - head and foot massage, and speech and language, act as a foundation to support the learning. “And if James becomes over-stimulated by an activity, he can run off his energy in the play park. Sometimes he just needs a break to self-regulate.” James has an individual education plan that is carefully monitored with regular feedback to his family. He has an appraisal at the end of each term which highlights his achievements and sets future targets. Sharon also gets a weekly photograph showing an activity that James has been involved in, and she gets a weekly letter that James helps to compile. As a parent, it’s fantastic to see him looking so focused on his task and so happy. The school keeps in touch to tell me how James has been, but they also want to know how he is at home. It’s a two-way support network. “It’s good to know that someone has detailed knowledge of my son, and they will tell me. We talk about the good and the bad.” Seeing what James is doing at school also encourages Sharon to try new things with him at home. “The school has given James a lot more opportunities and he enjoys life more now. They encourage him to make choices, and to be more independent. He does things now I never would have expected him to do – like shopping, and trampolining!” The next stage for James, Sharon hopes, is to move on to an adult NEAS facility where he can continue to learn life and social skills within a community environment. “Life skills are just as important as academic skills and James has not finished learning yet,” says Sharon. Find out more about Aycliffe School.