Column with Claire Campbell: Community access for families with children with SEND

Beau has enjoyed outings with Claire and her children

Claire Campbell is a Thanet mum-of-three and SEN teacher working in a specialist school in Broadstairs where all children are autistic with complex learning needs.

She teaches in KS1, lead on sensory integration, and is also PA for Beau, a child in the class, taking him out at weekends or in school holidays to support his mum getting respite and the youngster accessing activities.

Her monthly column aims to raise awareness and cultivate change:

This month we wore odd socks for World Down Syndrome Day, we are ‘Walk(ing) for Autism’, we explored more inclusive spaces, found out about new SEN sessions being provided in Thanet, made friends with like-minded people, and we are currently celebrating Autism Acceptance Week. So seemingly an excellent month in terms of making progress in our family new year’s resolution of supporting better community access for families with children with SEND!

I do know however, that many members of the autistic community are filled with dread when weeks/months labelled with intentions of ‘awareness’ or ‘acceptance’ of autism come around. These weeks can unfortunately be times where misinformation about Autism and damaging myths are shared. Unpicking all this misinformation is a wearing thought.

As I was asked by my school leadership team to take the lead on organising how our school took part in Autism Acceptance Week, I put my money where my mouth is and I tried my best to put all the things I talk about in this column into practice.

The best way for empathy and understanding to grow is for our children to be seen in the community. So there we had our ‘theme’ – community access. We made plans to access the community – swimming, walks, forest school, shopping, cafe visits, and trips to local parks. These are things that many of our pupils may already do ordinarily so I asked if we could challenge ourselves and I gave suggestions of how we could do this.

Could a pupil use PECS (communication using picture symbols) to request a bus ticket? Or use a communication board to ask a member of supermarket staff to help find an item? Could your pupils teach someone that you engage with in the community something about autism? Maybe the person that checks you in on arrival at the swimming pool would be interested to hear from a pupil as to why they wear ear defenders? It was in this way that we aimed to show our community who we are, how we interact, and how we communicate, and that these differences (in play styles or communication methods) are all valid.

We also went out to explore Thanet Disabled Riding Centre (TDRC) this month. Two of the boys in my class access this space as part of our enrichment provision and they get an awful lot out of their time there. I was reminded that it was a place we needed to visit after watching the BBC documentary ‘Inside our Autistic Minds’ and hearing how Murray expressed his feelings about spending time with the horses, ‘sometimes I don’t want to ride but just be in the same area as the horses because they breathe understanding into the air and it fills me with warmth and immunity against ignorance. The horses are dear souls in an autistic world’.

I visited TDRC first just with my three children. We found it to be such a warm and welcoming environment that we felt confident to bring Beau along with us the following week. Molly was such a fabulous host. My eldest daughter Elodie had so many questions about all the horses and their care and Molly happily answered them all. Beau loved being in this lovely outdoor space and was happily bouncing about, climbing fences, enjoying feeling the rough, dry straw and hay and even briefly engaging happily with the ponies.

What has been really nice to discover this month is that I am not alone in my mission to improve community access for families with children with SEND. I made contact with a lady who has been supporting Little Seaside Town in Ramsgate with reinstating their SEN sessions. These are running 12.30-2.30pm on a Wednesday. There is also discussion about developing an after school session where school attenders can then also join.

I also discovered ‘SEE ME: a play space for neurodivergent children and families in Thanet’. This is fortnightly on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month at St. James’ Church in Margate from 3.30-5pm. This is a good time slot for families with children in school and I hope to be able to pop along to the end of a session next month. I look forward to sharing this, and more of our progress, with you in next month’s column.