The teachers using physical force to manage autistic children.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Psychologists and disability sector experts are worried about what they say is a hidden problem across the country - the physical abuse of autistic children.

It's allegedly occurring in both special and mainstream schools and the experts say it's due to a lack of teacher training.

Mary Gearin reports, and a warning that this story starts with some disturbing images.

(adults wrestle with and pin down a boy, who moans and cries)

MARY GEARIN, REPORTER: This is a video of an autistic schoolboy being restrained, held in a prone position on the ground. That's against expert guidelines and current best practice.

This incident was filmed in 2007 but people working in the sector believe the manoeuvre and other forms of physical restraint still happen unnecessarily.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR MEITH MCVILLY, DEAKIN UNIVERSITY: These practices are placing our children in danger day in and day out. Their health, their well being, their safety is in danger and also, disturbingly, the safety of our teachers and our teachers' aides are also in danger.

These practices must change, they must stop now.

MARY GEARIN: The problem is that you've got a lot of nonverbal children who cannot tell their parents what is happening and how it happened. All you've got is the injuries.

MOTHER OF ASPERGERS SYNDROME CHILD: Well, it's assault. It doesn't matter how they try and define it, it's assault.

MARY GEARIN: We can't name this woman for legal reasons. She says her 8-year-old son with Aspergers told her he was held down in a similar way by his aide at a mainstream Victorian school.

MOTHER OF ASPERGERS SYNDROME CHILD: One day he came straight out and gave a demonstration of how they restrained him. He would be thrown to the ground face down with his arms stretched out and pinned beside him, and the aides's knee would be the in back of his knee and sometimes he would be sitting on him with his full weight.

MARY GEARIN: Dr Rebecca Matthews recently oversaw guidelines on restrictive practices on the disabled, and she said what this parent has described, if accurate, is not acceptable.

DR REBECCA MATHEWS, AUSTRALIAN PSYCHOLOGICAL SOCIETY: There are documented cases of people - both children and adults - dying as a result of a restrictive intervention like that. It doesn't meet the guidelines. We would say that is not an appropriate intervention for a child.

MARY GEARIN: At any point?


MARY GEARIN: Neither the Victorian Minister nor anyone from the state's Department of Education would be interviewed for this story, nor would they comment on individual cases.

But in a statement, the Department did say that schools can use restraint only as an absolute, short term, last resort to protect children from hurting themselves or others. It wouldn't comment specifically on the forms of restraint that should be used.

This mother believes that in her son's case the prone position restraint was used as a first resort and without her knowledge.

While one 2010 incident report from the school said her son was aggressive and at times threatening, it was when he was trying to push into another class that he was restrained for 15 minutes. She says that doesn't establish that her son was endangering anyone and other methods could have been used.

The police are now investigating whether to lay assault charges against the aide.

MOTHER OF ASPERGERS SYNDROME CHILD: I feel pretty angry. To throw him down on the ground, face down, in front of all the other kids was just- it's disgusting, it's appalling and it shouldn't be happening in this day and age.

MARY GEARIN: That boy at least can talk. This autistic boy cannot.

His mother, who also can't be identified for legal reasons, says her then 8 year old son would at times come home from his Victorian special school last year soaking wet and unchanged - at times with unexplained bruises.

She made a formal complaint when he came home with scratches on his face. She says the school gave her a series of contradictory explanations.

MOTHER OF AUTISTIC CHILD: They didn't write an incident report or anything like that and of course because he can't talk he can't tell, he can't tell us what happened that day.

MARY GEARIN: The mother says she felt fobbed off by the Department of Education.

MOTHER OF AUTISTIC CHILD: This did send me into a real emotional spin because it just conjured up all kinds of issues of trust. If I can't send him off to school and trust that the teachers are going to look after him and care for him, you know, who can I trust?

MARY GEARIN: Both mothers we spoke to stress they know many wonderful teachers and aides doing one of society's most challenging jobs. But overall, they believe there's a lack of training and one lawyer agrees.

JULIE PHILLIPS, DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION LEGAL SERVICES: At the very light end, if you like - if there is a light end of physical violence - you've got pinch marks and scratch marks. And I'm talking about reported to happen by teachers rather than other kids in the school.

And then at the other end, you've got children being forced to the ground and sat on and restrained in that manner - chipped teeth, bruising, a whole range of things which are very unfortunate.

MARY GEARIN: Julie Phillips acts on behalf of those who sue over treatment of autistic kids in both special and mainstream schools and says the situation is alarming.

JULIE PHILLIPS: The same stories year after year continue to occur.

MARY GEARIN: And nothing's being done?

JULIE PHILLIPS: Well, unless something's being done right under the radar, not that I know of.

DR REBECCA MATHEWS: There are ways that you can defuse the situation, or prevent the situation from occurring that isn't happening - so psychological interventions, behavioural interventions, environmental changes that can occur that will lead to a better outcome for these children.

MARY GEARIN: Victoria's Education Department has confirmed just a small number of schools began trial three years ago of positive behaviour support programs that emphasise nonviolent engagement and preventing frustration in students. It seems the problem, though, is nation-wide.

DR REBECCA MATHEWS: We know that around one in four children will be restrained at some point of time and that's higher than it is in other countries such as, for example, in the UK.

KEITH MCVILLY: How widespread is this problem? We don't have the data. And this is a matter of great concern.

MARY GEARIN: Professor Keith McVilly says ongoing bad practices lead to long term suffering.

KEITH MCVILLY: What we're seeing is children with disabilities graduating from the school system, moving into adult services and they are clearly traumatised by many of the experiences that they've had.

MARY GEARIN: Professor McVilly is also weary of so-called time out practices in locked areas such as this one in a special school. Generally, such schools say the areas are used for just a few minutes to calm the child and the Department says it's a last resort.

KEITH MCVILLY: What really is a worry, though, is time out is all too often used as a punitive approach, where it's used as a punishment technique, and the child is removed, socially isolated, all too often left on their own in a room.

This is downright dangerous and certainly not educational or therapeutic in any means.

We're very frustrated. The psychological society, OT Australia, Social Work Australia and Speech Pathology Australia are all concerned about what's happening in our schools for students with a disability.

MOTHER OF AUTISTIC CHILD (on trampoline): Boing! Boing!

(boy laughs)

MARY GEARIN: Both of children featured in this story have grown in confidence after changing schools, their mothers say, apparently not requiring any physical restraint.

Both mothers say they know many other parents afraid to speak out on behalf of those who cannot.

LEIGH SALES: Mary Gearin with that report.