Pioneering Support for Asperger?s Syndrome at SHSB

I was invited to write this article in my duo role as a parent of an old boy – Mark Potter (class of 08), and as an Old Southendian, (I have been a parent governor at SHSB since 2003). When my son Mark gained a place at the school in 2001, I was informed that he was the first boy to be studying at SHSB with Asperger’s Syndrome.

I was puzzled by this; Asperger’s Syndrome affects about one in 100 people and four times as many boys than girls. People with Asperger’s Syndrome generally have higher than average intelligence. Often referred to as ‘little professors’, these boys are classic candidates for a grammar school.

I decided that Mark’s ‘pioneering’ position at SHSB was due to other reasons: possibly that parents had not received a diagnosis by the time their son was 11, and even if they had received a diagnosis, they were not comfortable or able to accept the diagnosis, let alone share it with the school. As an active member of SAFE (Supporting Asperger’s Families in Essex) since 1999, I am acutely aware of the difficulties parents have in obtaining a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Indeed, it took two years of seeing endless ‘specialists’ before we finally received Mark’s diagnosis. I am also aware of the stigma parents often attach to the diagnosis, preferring to believe that their child’s social disabilities will improve and disappear as they grow older. And, acknowledging the problems are all the more difficult to spot if the child is achieving academically.

The decision to be frank and open about Mark’s Asperger’s Syndrome had many benefits: it allowed us to work closely with the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) Caroline Gaitely, to provide resources, ideas and constructive strategies to help support Mark in achieving his academic potential and in social integration. Two years after starting at SHSB, it was determined that Mark needed extra support through a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN).

Applying for this enhanced support entailed a great amount of time and effort by both parents and the school, particularly Miss Gaitely. Not only were we successful in achieving a SEN, we made history in that Mark was the first student at a grammar school to achieve a SEN after gaining a place. Mark’s extra support continued through his GCSE’s and A Levels. He was, and still remains, the first boy at SHSB with a SEN to have progressed through the Sixth Form.

He is now about to start his second year at the University of Kent, Canterbury, studying joint honours in Theatre Studies and Film Studies. He is also working part-time as an usher at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, a post he has held continuously since February 2008 (goodness knows how many times he has seen the show Grease). All of our ‘pioneering’ work has assisted staff to develop strategies for other boys entering the school with Asperger’s. As a parent, I feel proud that Mark’s experience has helped to pave the way for others with Asperger’s Syndrome to benefit and receive the support they require to achieve their academic and social potential.

As a Governor, I am extremely pleased with the school’s provision for those with special educational needs, which is very much in line with its core ethos of achieving excellence in all of its activities.

Fern Potter (School Governor, 2003-Present)