Ground-breaking approach to autism being pioneered at Bright Futures School

Date published: 05 September 2020

In 2016, research published in The Lancet showed that if parents were supported to change their communication and interaction style with their autistic children, they could actually decrease the severity of their child’s autism.

This finding was reflected in the recommendations of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines on managing autism in children (CG170), which recommend that commissioners should provide this type of approach to addresses core autism difficulties.

There are a handful of approaches which meet the criteria set out in the NICE guidelines and one such approach was already being used at Bright Futures School (BFS).

BFS was set up in 2010 by Zoe Thompson and her late husband Dixon Milburn when the local authority was unable to find a suitable educational placement for their son Philip, who has autism.

Readers may already be aware that the school recently moved to Greenfield after an extremely generous gesture from cleaning firm Robert Scott, who built a fantastic new school for staff and pupils that opened in February, 2020.

Staff at BFS put the approach into practice with some of their pupils and whilst some good progress was made initially, it did not  generalise outside school, except for one pupil – Philip, whose parents Zoe and Dixon had already been using the approach in the home for a couple of years.

Zoe said: "This just bore out what the Lancet research had found – that it is parents who have the power to make these life-changing differences to their child’s autism.

"School can support what parents do, but unless parents are leading the implementation of the approach, it is not possible to bring about such far-reaching and lasting changes."

After several years of using the approach, Philip’s autism score decreased from 19 out of 22 to 12 out of 22 on the ADOS test, which shows the severity of the autism.

Zoe has revealed that she is aware of families all over the world who use a similar approach to that used at BFS and that some of these children no longer meet the criteria for autism.

"Our goal is to help our kids to master the developmental milestones that they missed when autism got in the way," she added. 

"Whether they stay on the autism spectrum, or come off the spectrum, it doesn’t matter….what we want is to give our kids the competencies they need in order to better manage uncertainty and unpredictability so that they don’t become overwhelmed and/or unhappy.

"I’ve seen too many autistic kids crushed because they can’t cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability that  everyday life brings and their families often go under with them.

"It’s time to change that."

Zoe’s next goal therefore became seeking to use her pupils’ Education, Health and Care plans (EHCPs) to get this approach in place in the home, so that staff could mirror in school the work that parents were doing in the home, supporting and reinforcing the changes that parents were able to make.

Lauren, who is currently running a home-and-school programme for her daughter who attends BFS, says of her experience: "When I began my home-and-school programme, I felt really lost and hopeless. 

"I couldn't think about the future for my daughter or even read her school reports because it was just too painful. 

"My daughter self-harmed frequently by biting her arms. 

"I felt really disconnected from her and completely powerless to help her. 

"Then I began to focus intently on our RDI home programme. 

"My Consultant worked with me, providing feedback and advice after watching videos of me interacting with my daughter. 

"I started to change my interaction style with my daughter bit by bit.

"As a result, my daughter has come a long way. 

"She understands me so much more and I understand her. 

"She accepts the limits I set and she is much happier overall. 

"Her self-harming is not an issue any longer because she can communicate more effectively and with more intent, so  she doesn't feel the need to self-harm in frustration. 

"She has more confidence in the face of challenges and her problem-solving is blossoming."

The approach used by BFS is based on the principles of Relationship Development Intervention (RDI).

More information about RDI is available at:

Further information about Bright Futures School for children with autism is available on the school website:

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