Frederick Hugh House was a dream at first. Soon other dreamers came forward with the determination and drive to turn it into a reality. Obstacles cropped up constantly but we muscled through, turning no into perhaps and finally yes. The yeses were daunting, opening bewildering mazes to negotiate: consents, contracts, policy requirements, and bureaucratic red tape that multiplied as we grew closer to our goal. These challenges were complicated and magnified by the variety of issues that abound in educating the special needs children we serve. But if there is anything that we parents, teachers and therapists have learned from our experience with special needs children, it’s that giving up is not an option, and that anything is possible.
My own daughter’s astonishing progress in her home programme convinced me that other children would blossom as she had, by creating a special school that utilised the vast array of therapies and treatments we had implemented since she was a baby. That program had evolved steadily as I researched and tried every known tool and therapy that would give my daughter the happiness, self-esteem, education and quality of life that all parents want for their children.
Through the work of some very talented special needs professionals, I began to imagine a place where the often solitary efforts of parents to find answers and solutions to the challenges of raising a special needs child could connect to a community made up of other children, parents, and professionals in an environment designed for the comfort and growth of our very special children, each with his or her unique personality and potential.
Making progress with a special needs child is a daily uphill battle: it takes not just enormous energy and patience, but also flexibility and awareness. Most of us start out without a road map; many of us struggle with denial and the well-meaning advice of other parents who cannot identify a special needs child. Our days consist of constant fulfilment of demands, learning to seize the natural moments in which we can practice methods for calming a child who has reached the limits of sensory overload, to create and maintain boundaries in which the child will feel safe. Many of us will also be simultaneously teaching siblings to respect those boundaries, and trying to apply equal attention to them. The frustrations can be overwhelming. It takes a lot of strength to keep your special needs child moving forward toward their particular goals, be it broadening language, improving gross or fine motor skills, or simply learning to play with other children. We are asked to somehow find in ourselves the patience of a saint, the energy of a power plant, and the resources of a wizard to perform these tasks, all the while riding our own emotional roller-coaster. Our anxieties for our child’s future are magnified by the costs of funding appropriate care and tutelage for them. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole lot of villages to raise a special needs child.
What all this effort is crowned with is not merely the acquisition of social, emotional and educational skills, but the most important gift that all children deserve: being happy in the world in which they function. This is the underpinning of the philosophy and programmes at Frederick Hugh House.
It is because of my own experience with my daughter that I wanted a school that aims for ambitious progress in each child and that would also be able to go the extra mile for a child with additional, unique needs. I envisioned a school that could provide all the latest techniques, the physical layout, and most importantly, a caring staff who are passionate about what they do, who are inspired to see their work benefit the children, and who are prepared to think outside the box and come up with new ideas. We wanted the kind of professionals who are naturally creative, inventive, and loving; who are people who care about and respect their co-workers and the parents as much as they do the children. I believed that every child must have their own high spec programme, tailored specifically for them as individuals. All these goals require a highly qualified staff with an enormous array of tools and tricks in their ever-expanding repertoire.
We do not do things differently just for the sake of novelty. We are not here for our self-gratification. We are here to make the DIFFERENCE for each pupil, which in turn has a wonderful impact on their families, who can now belong to a community that understand them and their children intimately, who will know that they are not alone. Making that change in the lives of the families as a unit is one of our keenest desires.
Our perspective in determining how to work with a child is strictly non-textbook. We don’t see a child as an x diagnosis, or a y syndrome; we resist the mind-set that because a child has been tagged with a defining special need, any presenting problems are symptoms of that diagnosis. Special needs children respond to their particular world in any number of ways for any number of reasons, just as all of us do as children and as adults.
We look at the whole picture when we determine what we can do or what we are doing that isn’t working. We continually question our own methods, and although we believe in structure and routine, we try to be child-led; we are always child-inspired. We consider every step, and examine all outcomes in each child’s programme. We want to see miraculous changes in the children and we see those changes often enough to remain enthusiastic and gratified by our work.
We hold IEP meetings each term, which allow us to change tack and modify our methods if the child is not responding as we would hope. Time is of the essence in the world of a young special needs child, who simply cannot wait a whole term for staff and therapists to come together to discuss his or her progress or problems. IEPs are open to parents, whose input is invaluable to the staff, who take into consideration any issues in the home life when evaluating the child’s needs. We have an open door policy: the parent’s contribution to the IEPs is key to our ability to guide the child through a consistent transition between school and home on a daily basis, as well as to discuss any concerns about areas the parents thinks need attention. Together we are a team, a village, you might say, that is behind each and every pupil in the school. We hope that the model the children see of the adults in their lives, learning to work together in harmony, will stay with the child as a core value for the rest of their lives.