Research at Plymouth Institute of Education: The SAFE Project

This week I want to celebrate one of the most exciting projects underway at Plymouth Institute of Education: the SAFE Project.

SAFE is an intervention for families of a child/children with a diagnosis of autism developed by Professor Rudi Dallos and Dr Rebecca McKenzie (Stancer) in collaboration with families of children with a diagnosis of autism.


becky stancerBecky Stancer (formerly McKenzie) writes:

“Systemic Autism-related Family Enabling (SAFE) is a manualised systemic intervention for families of children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. SAFE draws on evidence based principles of Family Therapy and what is known about the strengths and preferences of people with autism. SAFE is delivered by trained therapists and is a flexible toolkit of activities that can be used with families depending on their needs. The purpose of SAFE is to support families to build on their strengths and enhance their problem solving and coping strategies to deal with everyday challenges.

The University of Plymouth and the Plymouth Autism Network supported the development of SAFE. See our news item here

We carried out a randomised controlled trial, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), to assess the feasibility of SAFE. The results of the trial were very positive. A copy of the trial protocol paper can be found here.

Autistica funded a research project which focused on the experience of families receiving SAFE. You can read more about our research on the Autistica website here. The outcomes of the project showed that families receiving the intervention found it helpful in the following key areas:

Therapist as helping reflection

The therapists were seen as helping families to focus and encouraging reflective processes in the family which included a sense of helping them to slow down, pause and think and support the development of new solutions to their problems.

Increased Understanding

This featured changes in understanding of each other, the autism and of family dynamics. This also included a sense that they understood each other better – increased empathy.

Feeling closer to each other and as a family

This contained a sense of the family members feeling less conflictual and blaming of each other. The focus on positive events and cycles assisted with this related to families generally feeling more hopeful, able to cope and to assist each other.

Feeling more confident to cope with problems

There was an overall sense that the sessions helped them to feel more able to cope with problems and important in this was a belief that they could better understand and manage the meltdowns in the future.

More able to reflect and problem solve

This included the families feeling more able to stand back, reflect and think about their dynamics and develop new ways to manage problems. This connected with the sense of being more able to solve problems but specifically contained the view that this was because they could reflect more clearly and constructively.

Improved communication

This contained the ideas that the session helped people to be able to communicate their thoughts and feelings and that the various activities helped with this. Especially for the children being able to express things visually helped them to communicate what would be difficult for them in words

Feeling less alone and isolated

Particularly from the Multi Family Therapy sessions families expressed an important benefit and change in feeling less alone and isolated and a sense of sharing their difficulties with other families. This contained a powerful theme of feeling validated and not to blame for problems, especially with regard to meltdowns which they could experience as humiliating in public.”

What do families say about SAFE?

“The best part of the sessions was hearing positive things. You rarely hear positive things about your parenting and how you are doing well as a family” (Father)

“learning about supporting the family as a whole. Wanting the family to find solutions together. Sitting with husband going through things. Understanding every family is different with ranges of approaches to situations” (Mother)

“talking about our family challenges and listening to your suggestions. Feeling understood, listened to…feeling supported” (Mother)

“the part when we made playdoh figures and what we were like. I told my mum lots more about me” (Autistic child)

“looking at what went well and what didn’t. Because we got to see what can lead to/prevent a meltdown” (Sister)

SAFE for Schools

Families receiving SAFE commonly report interactions with schools as being problematic and their children are often subject to informal exclusions. Discussions with teachers also identified concerns about how to manage difficult behaviour among children with autism and to collaborate effectively with families. These findings led to the development of SAFE for Schools (SfS).

tara vassalloTara Vassallo is the lead investigator for SAFE for Schools and is conducting a research project on SfS as part of her Doctoral Studies. SfS uses the same principles and adapted activities from SAFE to provide an intervention which facilitates people around the child with autism working together, sharing strengths and resources to support each other and the child by:

  1. Developing a secure base- talking to each other and coming to a mutual appreciation of the problems faced and the challenges, successes and beliefs associated with the child with autism. Developing plans for working together
  2. Understanding the challenges- exploring the nature of key difficulties around meltdowns, anxiety and relationships. Furthering understanding by discussing neurological information, attachment theories and models of intervention
  3. Developing solutions- using techniques such as tracking, sculpting and thinking about the interests of the child to develop ideas for change
  4. Moving towards trying out and adapting solutions- trying techniques and discussing successes and challenges and how things may change in the future

beechwood primary school logo

We are currently running a whole school pilot study for SAFE for Schools at Beechwood Primary Academy in Plymouth. If you would like to know more about SAFE for Schools or our pilot study contact us through



Key Team Members on the SAFE project are:

becky stancer

Rebecca McKenzie (Stancer) is a Developmental Psychologist specialising in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Rebecca is an Associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies within The Institute of Education at The University of Plymouth.

Contact Rebecca McKenzie for information about SAFE research

rudi dallos

Rudi Dallos is an Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology at The University of Plymouth. Rudi is an experienced Family Therapist and developed Attachment Narrative Therapy, a well-used systemic approach.

Contact Rudi Dallos for information about the intervention and training in SAFE

tara vassallo

Tara Vassallo is the SAFE Family Consultation Group representative and is the Lead Investigator for SAFE for Schools

Contact Tara Vassallo for information about SAFE for Schools


Our Partners and collaborators

spectrumSAFE family consultation groupNHS cornwall

NHSpeninsula clinical trials

Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit

Brandoninstitue of family therapy


Autism Spectrum Disorder Assessment Team

plymouth child development centre

Plymouth Child Development Centre

plymouth Autism Network

Plymouth Autism Network

Partnership and Collaboration

Education is full of lots of words used in subtly different ways to wider society – ironic when you think that it should be about clarifying issues rather than confusing them…

Partnership is an obvious example:  on the face of it, it is clearly understood  as an arrangement when the parties, or partners, agree to work together for mutual advantage but the context is also important.

Children may asked to partner a peer to  work in class, a bad influence may be described as a partner in crime, adults may refer to the person they live with as their partner, which is clearly a different relationship to a business partner.  All these satisfy the general principle that mutual advantage is derived by the association at some level (although the partner in crime is debatable!), but the term is not particularly helpful in describing the type of relationship.

Partnership is an important term in Initial Teacher Education too.  The nature of the Partnership (which now has a capital letter!) is a key indicator of the quality of the provision and with the diversification of routes into teaching a new term of lead partner has emerged.  What does that mean – lead partner?  If there is a lead partner there must be a follower partner – not something I have really come across in Education!  Most good partnerships are a sort of dance around mutually agreed goals in which strong minded individuals find the best route forward for everyone without losing their own identity. My own experience is that any suggestion that anyone should follow a lead would be very unwelcome to say the least!

My own view is that partnership has an underlying principle of equal power and mutual benefit – and I think that’s one of the key strengths of partnerships in education that I have been privileged to be part of.  I wonder if we apply the term too easily sometimes and in doing so risk redefining it without maintaining that principle – since language evolves through current usage.

My question then is  – when is a partnership not a partnership, and when does it become a collaboration or an association or a federation and perhaps more importantly how would if feel to be in one of those instead?

A new blogger starts out

So – I am looking to set up blogging as a regular way to get some thoughts down and share them.

I am playing with working with Stephen Mumfords Academic writing approach (two sides of A4, bullet pointed ideas, lots of sharing and redrafting) which appeals to my own ‘one side of A4’ style but takes it considerably further…  I hope that it will help me get beyond the blank page block and unlock a more spontaneous approach to writing  that crosses the formal/ informal divide.

To start then – a simple topic close to my heart – chickens!

  1. Why keep chickens?

I like eggs and I like animals (including birds) and I have a large garden with some wild bits in it.  So keeping chickens is one of the options open to me.

I noticed an advert looking for people to offer homes for ex-battery hens who were still laying but at a point in their lives when their production was in decline and so were about to be sold or slaughtered.

The British Hens Welfare Society re-home chickens at this point to try to provide these rather overworked birds with a bit of life quality in ‘retirement’.  They also campaign for better conditions for hens in intensive farming settings.

  1. Rescue hens?

Rescue hens  are often in a poor way when they arrive.  Some have few feathers and others have difficulty standing. Ours didn’t look too bad but had clearly never been outside and didn’t know what a perch was for or what to do with grass.

They continued to lay daily making contented hen noises (my first real aah moment) and gradually became stronger on their legs and more adventurous.

Within a week I saw one experiment with her wings – she ran across the grass and leapt into the air after a fly, then stood staring around her in bemusement at this huge world (another aah moment!).  Now we needed better fences and subterfuge to get them in their ark at night.

It wasn’t all lovely though, they were completely useless with predators, needed us to think about the balance of their diet and to protect them from disease to which they had little resistance once the antibiotics and other medicines left their systems.

They were also not very long lived.  We did our best, watched them carefully and went to the vet or intervened when we thought we should but the first one died quite suddenly within the first year and none made it to 3 years.  Thats quite sad when you get attached to such funny, engaging and trusting creatures.

  1. What about a Rooster?

We were given a rooster.  Maybe that was naive but we were convinced that hens should live in family groups, that he would defend his hens from predators and that we might even breed from them.

He was also faced with being in a pot very soon if we didn’t have him since he was on the farm he was hatched on and so was related to many of the hens – and couldn’t therefore grow up there.

Mr Darcy was beautiful and to begin with meek and unassuming – and the hens bullied him.  We felt sorry for him but he was wilder and less certain of us than the hens so we couldn’t really help.

However, he grew in confidence very quickly, and decided that not only would be defend them against predators but that we might be dangerous too.  He started to attack us if the hens were at all startled and we became used to carrying a broom to ward him off and to be sneaky if we needed to handle the hens – not great.

He did fight off the fox 3 times in total and despite the issues of managing him we were fond of him.  In the end his fights with the fox was the end of him and sadly he died as a result – we wont be replacing him.

OK – so that’s something about chickens which isn’t really what I want to blog about – but has broken the ice – more soon on children as researchers, education generally, free school meals and governance in schools – or more chickens.