The Saturation Model was originally developed as a tool for supporting autistic learners excluded from or not attending schools in the UK (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011). It has now developed into a school improvement and development tool which is implemented internationally as part of the Studio 3 Low Arousal Supports Educational Resilience (LASER) Approach. In this article, we will explain what the Saturation Model is, and how it operates in conjunction with the Low Arousal Approach to create inclusive cultures in mainstream and specialist schools.
What is the Saturation Model?
The Saturation Model is essentially ‘model for success’ created by Gareth D. Morewood, Professor Neil Humphrey, and Dr. Wendy Symes and published in 2011 as part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) project with the University of Manchester (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011). The concept was originally devised to support autistic learners who were either being excluded from their school settings, or who were unable to attend school. Some learners had even been excluded from private specialist settings. Now used in schools across the globe, the Saturation Model is based on the social model of inclusion, and has eight key components:
Agent of change
Developing the school environment
Direct support and intervention
Policy development and embedding practice
Training and development of staff
Peer education and awareness
Creating a positive ethos
These eight elements work together to create a whole-school system of support around autistic young people (and all learners, as part of a whole-school development tool), which aims to create equal learning opportunities for all, wherever they receive education, by encouraging inclusion rather than exclusion. The model has been so successful that the initial group of young people the approach was developed with all went into further education, employment or training when they left school (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011). Whilst the key goal is to improve outcomes for neurodivergent learners, the Saturation Model is designed to benefit everyone in the school environment by creating a culture of calmness, consistency, and predictability. This includes a strong focus on collaborating with families to create ‘constant consistency’ throughout the school and in the home, so that staff and family members share an approach that creates calm, predictability, and certainty for the young person, which in turn allows them to feel calmer and less stressed (Morewood, 2020a).
‘Families may not have all the answers, and teachers may scratch their heads too, but your pooled experience will bring more in the way of solutions than just one person’s reflections. It’s essential also to listen to the voices of young people themselves, finding out what is challenging for them and designing solutions together.’ (Elley & Morewood, 2022, p.114).
The Saturation Model requires that we focus on things that are ‘within our gift’ to influence and change, rather than parking the perceived ‘problem’ within the young person.
Breaking Down the Key Elements of the Saturation Model
There are eight key components of the model. As the word ‘saturation’ implies, these components all bleed into one another and are constantly revisited and reflected upon to create a school ethos and culture that has inclusive principles and practices at the core of every aspect of school life. Let’s look at them each in turn.
1. The Agent of Change
The agent of change is a positive proactive leader that the system orbits around, firmly placing inclusive practices at the core of the school’s ethos and universe. The agent of change, typically the SENCo, ensures that the system is being implemented across the board and pushes thinking and practice forward. It is important that this person can work effectively with young people and families as well as influence policy and practice at a strategic level.
2. Developing the School Environment
The Saturation Model takes into careful consideration what we can do to minimise external stressors in the wider school environment, be it the classroom’s temperature or lighting, or the noise levels in the cafeteria. Simple adjustments that can make learning more accessible for autistic learners and/or young people with learning differences include placing pupils with sensory sensitivities in quieter parts of the classroom, or nearer the front where teachers can check understanding and provide more clarity on their instructions, or standing at the back with a raised desk to allow for movement not afforded by sitting down all the time.
This involves addressing the whole-school environment, including the emotional, social, and communication environment. What feelings might a noisy, chaotic corridor between classes evoke for an autistic young person with sensory sensitivities to light, noise and touch? Increased physiological arousal in these situations can lead to a fight or flight response, and is often at the root of many instances of distress (McDonnell, 2019). Reducing the arousal levels of the school culture can create calm, controlled environments where young people are less likely to feel overwhelmed. It can be exhausting to navigate all of these concerns within a school environment, leading to fewer coping resources, or ‘spoons’ (Miserandino, 2020) later in the day or after certain periods. The LASER Approach works in conjunction with the Saturation Model to consider the whole-school environment, and to create a continuous positive experience throughout the school for every learner, rather than merely ‘pockets of calm’ at certain moments in the day (Elley & Morewood, 2022)
3. Peer education and awareness
We cannot stress enough the importance of a real sense of identity and good peer relationships in childhood and early adulthood, particularly for autistic young people. Creating a positive, inclusive ethos not only discourages bullying and encourages positive ways of addressing it, when it does occur, but encourages peers to celebrate the achievements of autistic, indeed all young people, and to recognise their role in supporting them. Consider ways in which a school culture can encourage acceptance and connections. Are there extra-curricular activities scheduled that allow young people to explore their interests? Some schools have implemented shared opportunities, through lunchtime clubs, for instance, to create a support network around these shared interests, which often works really well for many young people. However, these must always be voluntary and personalised to the individual. On the other hand, some young people may prefer time alone to regulate. In a recent free webinar for Studio 3, Dr. Carly Jones spoke about an alternatives to ‘traditional’ models of support for people who use breaktimes to chill out and self-regulate – implementing an ‘unbuddy’ bench, for example. Listening to the individualised preferences of young people and facilitating imaginative ways for their needs to be met in a way that is easily communicated to peers and staff alike is part of this process.
4. Direct support and intervention
Individualised supports are necessary to ensure that each young person is understood and supported to learn in the best way possible for them. This may mean that staff require additional training or support in inclusive teaching practices in order to support learners who may, for example, communicate and learn best with non-verbal ways of working. This may include assessing each young person’s academic, emotional, social, learning, and personal needs, and planning interventions accordingly, e.g., speech and language therapy (SLT), educational psychology, psychological interventions, or occupational therapy. Again, this is not about normalising or ‘fixing’ an individual so that they meet educational performance standards typically set for neurotypical individuals – it is about recognising where individuals may need additional support in order to have equal access to education. It is also important to ensure interventions start as part of a ‘universal curriculum’ (Morewood, 2023); for example, implementing Kelly Mahler’s Interoceptive Curriculum as part of the core offer to all learners (Mahler, 2019).
5. Flexible provision
No two learners are the same: there is a need to adapt policies and practices to suit individual young people’s needs. Having strict inflexible rules is not compatible with the Saturation Model, which involves proactive planning and personalisation. People will be late, turn up to school distressed, struggle to wear parts of their uniform that are uncomfortable sensory experiences, and many, many more things that we cannot always predict. Building accommodations and planning for differences within policies and practice allows for flexibility and freedom. Examples of flexible provision include allowing learners to access quiet areas as and when they require, adaptable timetables, uniform leniency, and scheduling time before class starts to decompress from the morning.
The curriculum should also be inclusive of differences, and enable autistic young people and all learners with additional needs to thrive. This can involve dual-roll placements (split between two settings) if this suits an individual’s support needs at that time. It is possible to meet the diverse needs of learners when calm, consistent whole-school systems are established.
‘The vital thing about this way of working is the ability to truly personalise responses to the individual setting/establishment’ (Morewood, 2020b).
You cannot have effective personalisation if there are not consistent routines and systems.
6. Policy development and embedding practice
When careful planning and flexible policies allow for most eventualities (you cannot predict everything or eliminate stress completely), practice is supported and enabled to thrive. For example, having written policies for what to do in the event that a young person is late and arrives dysregulated means that when this does occur, there is a clear plan in place for what to do, pro-actively and in advance of the event, and the individual is not thrown straight into a classroom and expected to learn there and then. A good example of this is the implementation of Stress Support Plans, which evolved from the original Student Passports (Morewood, 2018).
‘No one learns from a situation when they’re highly stressed. Learning can only occur after the situation has passed and calm is renewed.’ (Elley & Morewood, 2022, p.123)
The role of the ‘agent of change’ is important here in recognising areas for development and ensuring approaches are implemented across the board and reflected in policies and systems as a result.
7. Training and development of staff
‘If teachers don’t understand autism, then despite their willingness to do the best for their autistic pupils, their efforts may be undermined by a lack of engagement from the pupils themselves.’ (Elley & Morewood, 2022, p.120)
Teachers need to be well-informed about neurodiversity, and how this can impact learning, in order to effectively support their pupils. For example, stimming may be negatively perceived as being distracted and not listening if someone does not know that this particular learner listens better when they are doing this to help regulate. In a report conducted last year by the Office of National Statistics, Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) young people reported that teachers often misinterpreted their behaviours as being deliberately disruptive or inattentive due to a lack of knowledge about SEND (ONS, 2022):
‘Teachers were like “Yeah, I explained that once I’m not explaining that again, because you weren’t listening.” But they don’t really realise that you’ve got to have it repeated for you to maybe understand a little bit more.’
Training should be regular and ongoing, and include the voices of autistic people and families. It can also be very helpful to encourage parents and peers to participate in relevant training to ensure shared good practice and constant consistency, which is key to implementing a whole-school approach. It may also be useful for staff to have training in masking and explore internalised presentations, which are often misinterpreted and misunderstood (Pearson & Rose, 2021).
8. Creating a Positive Ethos
Creating a positive ethos involves ensuring every member of the school community is well-informed about neurodiversity, and that communication is positive and inclusive. In order to make this sustainable, there must be changes in policies and practice, such as using identity-first language, proactively collaborating with families, and embedding solution-focused thinking throughout the setting. This is not about putting on a brave face and perpetuating masking; it’s about creating a helping community that talks openly about differences and challenges, and creates a true sense of belonging.
So, How Does the Saturation Model Work with the Low Arousal Approach?
The Low Arousal Approach originated as a crisis management approach which seeks to reduce physiological arousal by first considering the impact of supporters on instances of distress and dysregulation. Integral to this is the notion of reducing demands that are sources of stress for the individual and enabling individuals to deploy coping mechanisms that support effective self-regulation (McDonnell, McCreadie & Dickinson, 2019). What this means in a school setting is that by identifying stressors in the immediate and wider environments of the school that trigger distress within an individual, staff can remove this stressor from the environment and thus support the individual to remain regulated and calm.
In this approach, self-reflection is key – what can staff, teachers and family members do to reduce stress in the environment? Staying calm when a young person is experiencing distress can be counter-intuitive, but acknowledging that our own actions have an impact on the situation is the first step. Simply calmly keeping a person company from a safe, non-threatening distance when they are distressed can help them to co-regulate and calm down. This collaborative approach with families and young people themselves allows for coping strategies to be built into the system, with policies that support a learner to leave the classroom if they need to, or communicate with their teacher about what they could have done differently to support them in that situation should it happen again.
Gareth D. Morewood, Studio 3’s Education Adviser, has focused on implementing Low Arousal Approaches in educational settings since he joined us in 2018. He has found that the Low Arousal Approach works in conjunction with the Saturation Model to create calm, collaborative, cultures of acceptance and co-regulation. Having developed the LASER Approach in 2019, a whole-school training system for implementing Low Arousal Approaches and inclusive practices, Gareth trains and supports mainstream schools, specialist settings and individuals globally in its practices. As with the Low Arousal Approach, ‘resilience’ here refers to developing resilience in the practices of supporters and the environment, not in forcing autistic young people to normalise their behaviour or conform to neurotypical ideals.
Both the Saturation Model and the Low Arousal Approach are based on the social model of disability and inclusion, a way of viewing the world which says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. The core ethos of these approaches seeks to accept differences and make reasonable adjustments to ensure everyone in the school community is being effectively supported to thrive. Thus, the LASER Approach, in combining both of these concepts, places inclusion and stress reduction at the core of a school’s ethos.
‘Some schools apply a Low Arousal Approach naturally just by how they approach individuals within the setting.’ (Studio 3, 2019)
Implementing the LASER Approach in settings allows for pro-active planning to create calm, consistent cultures, which in turn prevents crises based on the individualised support needs of each young person in a setting. This creates a whole-school system of support around the young person that helps to create predictable routines to reduce stress and improve outcomes. Within these calm, low-key environments, young people can stay regulated in school and have their social, environmental, and educational needs met.
For more information about the saturation model, the Low Arousal Approach, or the LASER Approach, visit our website at www.studio3.org/education, or speak to our Educational Adviser Gareth Morewood directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gareth D. Morewood, Studio 3 Educational Adviser
& Rachel McDermott, Information and Social Media Coordinator
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Mahler, K. (2019). The Interoception Curriculum: A Step-by-Step Framework for Developing Mindful Self-Regulation. Available from https://www.kelly-mahler.com/product/the-interoception-curriculum-a-step-bystep-guide-to-developing-mindful-self-regulation/?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQiAgK2qBhCHARIsAGACuzncK4Nl70kNnCCjXNrkLX9ixqZI3j54apBzgsZuDxu1KQvKWNWXGOUaApjjEALw_wcB.
McDonnell, A. (2019). The Reflective Journey: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Low Arousal Approach. Peterborough: Studio 3 Publications. Available here: www.studio3.org/shop.
McDonnell, A., McCreadie, M.† & Dickinson, P. (2019). Behavioural issues and supports. In R. Jordan, J. M. Roberts, & K. Hume (Eds.) The SAGE Handbook of Autism and Education. California: SAGE Publishing.
Miserandino, C. (2020). The Spoon Theory [Online], www.butyoudontlooksick.com. Available from: https://lymphoma-action.org.uk/sites/default/files/media/documents/2020-05/Spoon%20theory%20by%20Christine%20Miserandino.pdf.
Morewood, G.D. (2023). The Importance of Coproduction, in Myatt, M., & Tomsett, J. (Eds.) SEND Huh: Curriculum Conversations with SEND Leaders. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
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Morewood, G.D. (2020b). Applying Low Arousal approaches in education settings. SENCology Blog [Online]. Available from: https://blog.optimus-education.com/applying-low-arousal-approaches-education-settings.
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Pearson, A. & Rose, K. (2021). A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice. Autism in Adulthood, 3(1): 52-60. doi: 10.1089/aut.2020.0043.
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