It doesn’t happen very often that you visit a secondary school, and hear its students say they ‘just don’t want to leave’.
But, that was the resounding message from pupils at St Joseph’s College’s autism specific class (ASC) when this reporter visited on March 31.
The specialist unit, one of a handful across Northern Ireland, teaches pupils coming from as far away as Newry and Warrenpoint.
It has four teachers and six full time classroom assistants.
With very few places, it also has a waiting list of around 12, but unlike with other secondary schools parents can’t choose to send their children there - they have to be placed by the Education Authority.
ASC head Una McSherry has been teaching children who need extra support with learning for 27 years.
There was a lot of children that had autism, that had a gift and because they were just lumped in they got lost in the systemMrs Una McSherry, ASC head
But what she says makes this autism unit so different is that the students - when they are ready - can take classes in the main school with other children in their peer group, giving them the chance to mix and build their social skills.
As well as the extra support they get in the ASC unit, students can take time away in sensory areas of the classrooms, and also spend time outside in the school’s rather impressive sensory garden which comes complete with two ponds, bird boxes, a bug hotel, waterwheel, reading area and meditation hut.
Decorated with plaques, murals and sculptures made by the students themselves, it is testament to the all-encompassing approach taken by teachers in the autism centre.
Teacher Helen Ford said: “A lot of our children suffer with anxiety, so something like that helps.
“We got funding through an organisation called Work It and they allowed us to do so many projects like planting, stones and gravel and some of the boys and girls go down to Coalisland Training services to learn skills like joinery.
“We come outside, we do literacy and story telling here. We have frogs in that pond and they can come outside and sit.”
As well as the herb planting, insect area, ground for digging - which helps with conditioning - and hand-made decorations, Mrs Ford also said a local woman comes in and does mindfulness and meditation with the students to help them relax in a hut that was paid for by Neighbourhood Renewal.
“The children are just allowed to be themselves,” she added. “It’s nice that it’s all the children’s own work - they have taken ownership of it.
“It’s incorporated into their curriculum and it’s also used as a time-out.
“In our learning for life and work, we are trying to teach the children how to cope when they leave school with anxiety and what happens when they become overwhelmed - that’s when they brought the alternative therapies in as well.”
Students at the centre, if they are able, go on to do GCSEs with some A*s expected.
“Cognitively they are able,” added Mrs Ford, “but sometimes socially they are not.
“Socially you need to be able to sit in a class of 30.”
But that is what the team at St Joseph’s are working towards.
Some are brilliant and can answer maths problems in seconds, but workings out have to be shown - and this is something the students have to be trained in.
With years of experience with autistic children, staff at the centre have also developed ways to help with the stress and integration issues felt by their pupils.
Ipads are used in class so they can take snap shots of their work, a huge amount of effort is put into making sure change is managed - whether it’s classes, people or smells.
Students are provided with timetables, spinners to help burn off excess energy and support to hone their wide-ranging talents.
“They really need challenged with their work,” explained Mrs McSherry.
Mrs McSherry’s ‘baby’, St Joseph’s College autism specific class was founded off the back of the learning support unit she had worked in for two decades.
“I opened this unit 27 years ago,” she said, “and it was a learning support centre.
“A lot of children with AS were coming through. That’s fine as long as you can integrate them, but there was a lot of children that had autism, that had a gift and because they were just lumped in they got lost in the system.”
But since the class was founded she said they have been able to catch and help those children
“It has developed over 27 years, and it has been lovely work,” she added.
“We had a few children that went to university, but everybody has worked on some level.”
‘It helps that you have somewhere to go’
After his placement at two other schools - one of which was a grammar - Banbridge-based St Joseph’s student Sean Og was given a place at the college’s Autism Centre this year.
Mingling with students in various classes, the bright, talkative third year said he now feels accepted. Diagnosed with Autism recently, he said he felt unable to cope in a normal school environment.
At St Joseph’s, he said: “It helps that you have somewhere to go, and that the staff are easy to talk to.
Asked if he was happy now, he said: “As far as school goes. Yes.
“It wasn’t my other two school’s faults, it was just more that they didn’t have the understanding. They saw me as a pupil that couldn’t be helped... now I’m just a pupil.”