Vera School for learners with Autism

Vera School for learners with Autism


Human life is precious and deserving of the respect implied by the Declaration of Human Rights in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

People with disabilities have the right to live a life free from discrimination. They are entitled to appropriate care, education and training, with adequate scope for the exercising of their abilities and interests. This will be realised through:

  • The extension and improvement of support systems to assist parents or guardians to cope with their obligations;
  • The improvement and refinement of all approaches to care, education and training respecting, the rights of the individual;
  • The provision of adequate services and facilities to meet their needs;
  • The effective training of personnel directly involved in their care and education;
  • The development of co-operation and mutual sharing of expertise between the school and other parties working in the field of Autism;
  • Educating the community to accept them and to take shared responsibility for their care and integrated living;
  • Continual research in all related fields;
  • The acceptance by government of its role in facilitating the attainment of the above objectives.

Admission Criteria

Vera School makes provision for learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

ASD is now used widely in the United States of America and is also used in the formal diagnostic tool that we use namely “Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ” (DSM 5).

There is the existence of common core features and the disorder is presented as a spectrum. The DSM 5 does not categorise sub-groups as in the past but it requires that the clinicians specify the severity of the current symptomatology in terms of level of support required for each of the two main domains; social communication and social interaction difficulties; and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interest, or activities and sensory difficulties. The levels of support are divided into three categories of severity, namely; Level 1 – requiring support, Level 2 – requiring substantial support and Level 3 – requiring very substantial support, and these allow for discussion of priority areas of development and/or intervention. The DSM V also requires that clinicians specify if the person presents with ASD with or without Intellectual impairment and with or without language impairment.  The aim is to develop a specific understanding of that persons presentation of ASD in order to intervene effectively.

How is a child admitted to school.

Your child would need to be seen by a professional in the field of health, education or social services. If they are of the opinion that the child needs to be admitted to an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) specific school, they will send a referral form to the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) ASD central waiting list at [email protected]. The ASD WCED outreach team which is based at Vera School, manages this centralised waiting list. The outreach team will capture the child’s details on this waiting list.

Learners will be allocated to a school according to the geographical area in which they stay. The following schools cater for ASD learners: Ligstraal (Paarl), Chere Botha (Bellville), Noluthando (Khayalitsha), Beacon (Mitchels Plain), Glenbridge (Plumstead), Vera (Rondebosch East), Alpha (Woodstock). Before the allocation of learners to schools, all enquiries can be referred to the ASD WCED outreach team. After the learners have been allocated to a school, the respective school will contact parents of these learners.

The schools will contact the parents of the particular child to come to a screening interview (SI). During the SI, the child will be observed by a teacher, and a therapist while parents are interviewed by one of the school’s other professional staff members. This takes about an hour. After the interview, the interviewer and the staff who observed the child will meet to discuss their findings. The parents and child would be asked to wait for the outcome of the team’s discussion. If they only saw a few or no characteristics of ASD or if the primary diagnosis is severe global developmental delay, the findings will be forwarded to the ASD programme manager who is based at the WCED head office (HO). The programme manager will support the child and parents further. If the SI team saw characteristics of ASD or if they are not sure about what they saw and heard, the child will be invited for an observation period of 2 weeks at the school. Due to the huge number of learners on the waiting lists at the ASD schools, it cannot be guaranteed when the child will start the observation period. Older children and those who have been waiting for a long period of time, are prioritised. A few recommendations regarding interim interventions are made at the SI. No formal assessments with detailed reports are possible and available at the SI. The venue for the observation period is determined by the child’s physical address and whether the closest educational institution has a full trans-professional team. When the child comes for an observation period at an ASD school, it would be for 2 school weeks. The observation period normally starts on a Monday. The trans-professional team discuss their findings on the last Friday of the observation period.

The main purpose of the observation would be the placement of the learner in an educational setting by the trans-professional team. During the observation, formal assessments would be done by the school’s teachers, therapists and psychologists. At Vera, a feedback meeting happens on the first Tuesday after the observation period. This is done in a formal meeting. The diagnosis of ASD does not necessarily mean placement at an ASD school. The observation period determines what the most appropriate placement for the child would be. Here are some criteria which will determine whether a child is a suitable candidate for an ASD school: An ASD diagnosis; ability to function in a group of 6 to 9 learners; ability to display some independence skills; not to pose a danger to himself/herself or others; not to display excessive destructive behaviour; ability to display some imitation skills;  ability to display some motivation. If the trans-professional team does not find the child to be a suitable candidate for a school, alternative interventions are recommended where possible. All reports of such a learner will be forwarded to the ASD programme manager at the WCED HO. The programme manager will support the child and parents further. Pro rata school fees are charged for the observation period. If the child is found to be a suitable candidate for a school, his/her name would be placed on the waiting list for admission. The child will be admitted to the school as soon as an appropriate opening in a suitable class becomes available. Immediate admission of a suitable candidate to the school after an observation period is possible but not guaranteed.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Autism is a lifelong development disability whereby those affected display:
Severe communication and language difficulties
Difficulties in relating to other people
Narrow restricted repertoire of thinking and behaviour

How common is Autism?
The highest estimates for the whole Autism Spectrum range from about 40 to 50 per 10 000 births, but the true figures are still being investigated. These figures are based on international estimates. There are no South African incidence studies.

Who is affected by Autism?
ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) affects 4 times as many boys as girls. It is found equally in all socio-economic and cultural classes.

What causes Autism?
Unraveling causes is difficult because Autism has so many varied manifestations. The exact cause of Autism is currently unknown. Research suggests that there is probably a genetic predisposition with environmental, biochemical factors impacting. There is also some evidence for structural brain abnormalities as a possible cause of Autism. Autism is regarded as neurological disorder and not as an emotional disorder, more specifically, not because of disrupted mother/child bonding.

What is the most common problem in Autism?
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder all have difficulties in the social interactive sphere i.e. problems relating to and communicating with other people.

How is Autism reflected in behaviour?
People with ASD often show very restrictive patterns of behaviour with a very narrow interest range. Extreme reactions are often evident when routines are changed and the person is incapable of expressing his/her needs effectively. Stereotypical movements are sometimes displayed.

Does Autism occur in conjunction with other disabilities?
Autism does not have to but often does occur with other disabilities like mental impairment, epilepsy and syndromes. Eg Down, Fragile X and Tuberous Sclerosis.

What is the difference between Autism and Intellectual impairment?
Intellectual impairment is present in approximately 75% of people with ASD. Many individuals with severe/profound intellectual impairment display Autistic features such as stereotypical movements.

The core deficit in Autism is social in nature. This means that whereas an intellectually impaired learner can be sociable, relative to his/her mental age, an autistic learner, regardless of intellectual ability, will have observable social impairments.

There also seem to be a different pattern of intellectual abilities. Children with intellectual impairment usually show relatively even shill development. Individuals with ASD typically show uneven skill development with more impairment in social ability, language and communication, contrasted with distinct skills in other areas.

Can people with ASD be helped?
ASD is treatable but not curable. All people with ASD can be helped to a greater or lesser degree depending on factors such as early intervention, intellectual capabilities and the degree and severity of affliction.

What therapies are available and what is the best option?
Current research indicates that there is no one method that can be typified as the best method. Most approaches have some evidence of their effectiveness. While one therapy may work very well for one person with Autism, it may leave another untouched.

The most common approaches/treatments are:
TEACCH (Treatment and education of Autistic and related communication handicapped children)
Higashi (Daily life therapy)
Lovaas (ABA)
Dietary interventions and supplements
Auditory Integration Training (AIT)
Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Open Institute (The Son-Rise Program)
Speech and Language Therapy
Occupational Therapy
Delacato and new Delacato
The AZ Method

How can learners on the Autistic Spectrum learn best?
Highly structured programs that emphasise individual instruction have been claimed to produce the greatest educational gains. One of the reasons for individualized instruction is the fact that ASD learners often do not initiate appropriate interaction and may drift into a pursuit of repetitive patterns of behaviour if left to work on their own. Children on the spectrum react well when tasks have been broken down into clear and simple steps. They often need visual clues to facilitate this process. ASD learners need predictability. They like to know what comes next as change can lead to distress. It is important to keep in mind that structure and predictability should still leave room for flexibility and spontaneity as normal behaviour is inherently flexible.

What is the best learner/teacher ratio?
In first world countries a ratio of one teacher to three learners seems to be the norm. In our school we try to meet this standard by appointing a teacher and one class assistant for between 6 and 8 learners per class. Depending on the symptom cluster, some learners might require a higher ratio than even one-to-one, which is virtually impossible to offer in our school system.

Is mainstream placement (inclusion) or specialised school placement the best for learners is ASD?
Any school placement for learners on the Autism Spectrum has its advantages and disadvantages. There is no single correct answer. Factors considered when deciding on placement are:

The needs potential and difficulties of the learner;
The overall program that the learner will have access to.
The understanding and skills of staff.

What happens to learners when they leave school at the end of the year in which they turn 18?
Due to the wide spectrum in Autism, the kind of help needed will vary considerably. Some adults may need occasional support to function independently in the community while others may need full time residential care. There is unfortunately a major shortage of suitable adult care facilities in the country and therefore many learners have to return to their families and live at home. Some learners can adapt to working in a protected workshop environment. Few find employment in the open job market. The school attempts to teach vocational skills as part of the curriculum and where possible learners are introduced to simulated or real work situations.

Will my child copy other learner’s “strange” (stereotypical) behaviours?
Initially some children do seem to be fascinated with, and therefore copy the strange behaviour of other learners. In our experience this behaviour soon subsides.

Will my child ever speak?
Some learners develop verbal abilities and can speak, while others remain non-verbal regardless of appropriate stimulation to develop speech. Some of these learners may learn to communicate via alternative methods. As a general rule of thumb, if a child has not developed speech by 6 – 8 years, the possibility of this ever developing seems to decrease. There are however some learners who develop speech at a later age.

Should my child be in the hostel?
To place a learner in the hostel is a mutual decision between the family and the school. The family however has the last say. Factors that are taken into account are the following:
Other family members and the effect of the demands that the Autistic learner may have on them.
The needs of the learner with regard to a highly structured and predictable environment.
Distance from the school.

Hostel placement is never regarded as a permanent arrangement and contact and interaction with the family is encouraged.

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