A desperate plea for change

EARLIER COVERAGE: Parents call for autism school 

Both parents and schools are calling for desperate funding to help deal with burgeoning numbers of children with autism going through the mainstream school system. 

The mother of a 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum says not enough is being done to cater for autistic children's specific needs .

Michelle* says her family has "been through hell and back", fighting the education system to get appropriate strategies in place so her son can cope at school.

She doesn't blame the teachers, but rather the lack of understanding about autism.

"We know our son can misbehave and we're not saying he is easy to deal with, but what he has been through is just heartbreaking," she said.

Michelle said that in the past her son has been placed in confronting situations at school, like being disciplined in front of other students, which caused serious anxiety. 

Some teachers were also unwilling to let him go outside when he was on the verge of a "meltdown" and did not make provisions for personal space, something crucial for children on the spectrum.

"There are ways to calm him down, but the school refused to accept that he has autism," she said. 

"They say it's a behavioural problem and because of that, he's not getting the help he needs."

It's also some teacher's lack of faith in her son's skills that Michelle says is holding him back. 

"Along the way I've been told my expectations of my son were too high," Michelle said.  

"But to me, that's ridiculous because I've met a police officer and a solicitor with autism. 

"They can do it, which just proves with the right education balance anything is possible for these children."

Michelle says with the right help, and a few adjustments to his education, her son could shine.

"It's when teachers are closed-minded that problems arise," she said.

"We fought tooth and nail and now he's at a new school and getting specialised care - he's just a different person because they let him be himself."   

Many schools have spoken out, not only about the challenges, but the benefits, associated with having special needs children in mainstream classrooms.

Classroom aids, further special needs training for teachers, and individual learning plans are all used to help enhance the learning of autistic children in Bendigo.

But most admit, the lack of government funding puts a strain on local resources.

Camp Hill Primary School assistant principal Chris Barker said while there were challenges, autistic children also fostered understanding and acceptance among students.  

"It can be a really positive thing for the students and we are lucky to have access to an autism coach, which is funded by the education department, so we can learn strategies to help accommodate special needs," he said.

"In the past these kids have been labelled as naughty and their needs haven't properly been addressed, but we are much more conscious of that now and make sure there is a lot of teacher training.

"By helping them cope in distressing situations, it benefits other students too."

St Joseph's Primary School principal Nic McTaggart agreed the lack of funding was creating challenges, but said his school was doing what it could to ensure everyone's needs were met.

"Having autistic children brings a diversity to your school and we have an openness around it," he said.

"There is always more professional development needed, but we ensure our teachers are equipped to help these students and put in place individual learning plans and have monthly meetings with parents because everyone's needs are different."

Girton Grammar has a specific headquarters to cater for autistic children, with five case managers in the senior and primary campus dedicated to the emotional and social wellbeing of the students. 

Head case manager Nigel Vernon said children with autism had so much to offer which often wasn't allowed to rise to the surface. 

"Because these kids present a behavioural problem, or appear distracted sometimes, their skills aren't entirely nourished," he said. 

 "But these kids are out-of-the-box thinkers, potential world leaders, with creative innovative minds that just need to be switched on."

He said the unpredictability and sensory overload of classrooms often caused problems for children with autism. 

"There needs to be more funding, because even if teachers are educated, in most schools there is one teacher to a large group of students," he said. 

"It's hell for these kids if they go through (public education) without strategies in place. 

"They have meltdowns out of pure frustration, but at Girton we've seen the benefits of having a specific space they can go to when they're overwhelmed. 

"The case managers know their whole story, which can be a roller coaster, and we are solely dedicated to their emotional wellbeing which we've seen often works better than aids in classrooms."

Autism Victoria chief executive Murray Dawson-Smith said the answer should be simple - but it wasn't.

"It seems easy to put strategies in place to help these children cope, but it's often challenging to understand the complexities with the disorder and find specific tools," he said. 

"It's challenging, but definitely possible if teachers are willing to be consciously aware of differing needs. 

"We've had stories of kids being locked in the principal's office and being restrained and that's what can happen when teachers don't understand the needs."

He said 120 hours of specific special needs training for teachers at university would go a long way towards solving the problem, as would additional government funding for more classroom aids.

The Helping Children with Autism package is making life easier for families, by offering up to $12,000 of early intervention therapy and services for children until their seventh birthday.

But families with older children on the autism spectrum are finding that waiting lists are growing and life is becoming more difficult.

Michelle said the specific funding requirements for children with autism were tightening, meaning less children could benefit. 

"Often children aren't diagnosed early enough to get the early package and after that there is only limited funding from the age of 13 to 15," she said. 

"Then they're on their own. And the reality is, if they don't get that education, they're on a disability pension for their whole life.

"It's the big picture. It's about looking at what's best for society, not just autistic children."

With five to 10 autistic children in most public and catholic schools, Michelle said it was getting to "epidemic levels" and it was urgent to act now.  

The Department of Education did not respond to specific queries from the Bendigo Advertiser but said it had a coordinated support model to address the needs of all children.

"Priorities driving the reform include localising the provision of support and services for children with an ASD and their families, assisting early childhood settings and schools to become more inclusive environments, and building the skills and understanding of the early childhood and schools workforce," it said.

Michelle just hopes more is done soon.

"It's really really sad we have got to this," she said.

"It's sink or swim for local families with autistic children at the moment and we need to help our kids, if not for them, for the future of everyone."

 *The family wished to remain anonymous. 

"It's sink or swim for local families with autistic children and we need to help our kids, if not for them, but for the future of everyone." - Michelle

With more and more children with autism going through the mainstream education system, EMMA SCHENK reports on what is being done to help.

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