Rocketing autism numbers met with education shortfall

HEATH GILMORE, July 26, 2010

AUTISTIC children are being forced into mainstream classes because of a lack of places in specialised learning groups in NSW schools, an inquiry has heard.

The families and teachers of autistic children have complained to the NSW parliamentary inquiry about the failure to provide an adequate number of places, despite a sharp increase in students diagnosed with learning problems.

The inquiry heard that one in 10 students in NSW public schools are disabled or have special learning needs. More than 7000 students were classified as autistic last year, a 165 per cent increase since 2003.

These students are educated either in specialist schools, support classes in regular schools or mainstream classes with specialist support.

A mildly autistic child, Lachlan Deitz, has been part of a support class at Sherwood Ridge Public School in Sydney's north-west for most of his education.

These classes inside regular schools are staffed by a teacher and a full-time school learning support officer, catering only for children with learning needs or disabilities.

Next year, however, the 11-year-old will start high school in a mainstream class, despite the protests of his family and a Department of Education panel deeming him eligible for a support class placement.

His parents, Darren and Natalie, said all the support classes at nearby high schools were full and he had been placed on a list.

Mr Deitz said a lack of long-term planning existed for the needs of students like his son.

''On all reports we have had back the recommendation is that he continues within a support unit setting purely because of anxiety levels,'' Mr Deitz said.

''The support units are a great way to help him develop socially and be part of the mainstream community.

''Basically everything we have worked so hard for is in danger of fading away: the academic side of things is endangered but more importantly will be his relationships and friendships.''

A spokesman for the Department of Education said more than 16,000 students with a confirmed disability were supported in regular classes in regular schools - through the Integration Funding Support Program.

He said the department worked closely with the families of students diagnosed with disabilities to ensure the best available assistance is provided at school.

''Where a parent's preference for a support place is not immediately available, one may be offered at a nearby school until a vacancy arises,'' he said.

''The location of support classes in mainstream schools is determined annually in consultation with regional disability support staff, local principals, parents, the school community and the regional director's office.''

The parliamentary inquiry chairwoman, Robyn Parker, said an immediate investigation was needed into the level of unmet need for student places. The Liberal MLC said the uncertainty facing parents was unfair.

The Association for Children with a Disability executive member, Jane Salmon, said: ''The diagnosis of these kids takes place so early that the long-term planning for these kids should not be a problem.''