Autistic kids under siege

JEAN-Marie Hetu was forced to pull his nine-year-old autistic son out of an eastern suburbs school because his child was being bullied and teachers were struggling to support his disability.
The Mitcham man said his son, Jean-Louis, has now been home-schooled for 12 months.

``He now produces art to the level of his age group, when upon leaving school all he could do is smother paint,’’ Mr Hetu said.

``... It is not blaming the other children, it is not blaming the school staff, but there needs to be more awareness and understanding of autism.’‘

The family is the human face of Autism SA figures, released to the Eastern Courier Messenger last week, which show the state’s 3400 school children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are nearly four times more likely to be bullied at least once a week.

And at least 24 school children with an autism disorder were suspended or expelled from SA schools in Term 1, prompting calls for urgent support for students, teachers and parents.

Frustrated at a lack of support in schools, parents such as Mr Hetu are increasingly opting to home-school their autistic children or cut back their school attendance to a ``part-time basis’’

Autism SA says a doubling of annual ASD diagnosis over the past four years from 370 in 2005 to 720 in 2009 has led to a crisis in schools as the education system fails to keep up.

Autism SA chief Jon Martin said at least a quarter of the 400 calls to the Autism SA Info Line every month were now from parents struggling with education-related issues.

“It’s not unusual for me to visit parent support groups where there are high levels of stress and anxiety,” he said.

“Some parents are pulling their children out of school while others are reporting more often than not that their children are only attending school on a part-time basis.” Mr Martin said the organisation’s School Inclusion Program, which has 20 staff who regularly visit schools, was getting 30 new referrals each month.

He said Autism SA asked staff from the program to record the number of known suspensions and expulsions in Term 1 totalling 24 the first time such a figure had been collected. “In a term of 10 weeks, you’re looking at two-and-a-half per week.”

Mr Martin said a separate study of SA students revealed 62 per cent of children with an ASD reported being bullied “once a week or more often”, compared to 17 per cent of the general population. “Indications are that school children with an ASD face higher rates of bullying, exclusion and suspension than the general population.”

The key problems were the education sector’s inability to understand and recognise the specific needs of children with an ASD; a lack of support and professional development for teachers; and a limited number of educational options tailored to autistic children.

Mr Martin, who is also chair of the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders, said the board would soon release an Education Position Paper, suggesting:

Every child must have access to a responsive educational service appropriate to his/her needs;

Educational services are based on sound evidence and quality indicators;

There should be a range of educational services for children with an ASD, from specialised autism-specific programs to mainstream programs with appropriate adjustments; and
There is a waiting period of no more than six months between application for an educational service and enrolment.

Mr Martin said Autism SA welcomed the Rann Government’s election campaign pledge to build two special education units with a focus on ASD within two state schools by 2014.

Education Minister Jay Weatherill said the government had yet to decide where the units would be located: “The State Government has also committed to provide $4.25 million in additional funds over four years to provide more assessments and early intervention services to children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”