Helping children with autism in school starts with the national disability insurance scheme

Children in classrooms being locked away. Coming home from school with  bruises from being physically restrained. 

It's a horror you might read about happening in some awful foreign town. But it happened here, in Australia. In NSW.

There is a saying in the autism community that if you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. Autism is a developmental disorder on a broad spectrum. Each child is different. Some are able to articulate very clearly what they are thinking. Others cannot: and so nonverbal children may lash out, desperately trying to communicate.

The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit blue in Rio de Janeiro.

The statue of Christ the Redeemer is lit blue in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Pilar Olivares

I do not pretend to walk in the shoes of a parent of a child with moderate or severe autism. On the United Nations' World Autism Awareness Day when the world's monuments are lit blue, I find myself thinking of the mothers who are unable to get out of the house, to go to work, because their children find it too hard to go to school. I go to work and hope my son doesn't disrupt his class too much with a loud outburst.

Anecdotally, I hear of more and more children with autism being withdrawn from school.

Children with Disability Australia chief executive Stephanie Gotlib says: "It [instances of restraint] is increasing and it's a clear reflection of a system which is inadequate in meeting the needs of students with a disability. Teachers are stretched to the max. Some of them don't have appropriate training. The system is in crisis."

Apportioning blame is time-wasting. Let's look at what we do know.

We know that in the first five years of the federal government's Helping Children with Autism scheme, 19,000 children accessed funding, receiving $6000 per year for two years to help with the cost of early intervention. That's about 4000 children a year receiving a diagnosis and seeking help.

We know that early intensive behavioural intervention (where children receive therapy for 20 hours a week for two years) is best backed by research. We know from the research that half of children with autism who are able to access this kind of early intervention achieve a normal academic outcome by age six. By age eight, another 10 per cent of children have caught up.

We know that it costs a bomb - $25,000 to $40,000 a year - much more than current funding. And this is where the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) comes in.

Premier Mike Baird was criticised for his election promise that Penrith and the Blue Mountains would get access to the NDIS a year early. Mr Baird could have chosen 25 seats more marginal than Penrith. Instead, he chose the area of greatest need and should be applauded. 

However western Sydney won the NDIS lottery, it is the start of fixing the atrocious system of haves and have-nots when it comes to helping children with autism and other disabilities, if implemented properly. It is the start of fixing special education. It is the start of getting more children with autism into mainstream classes and achieving normal outcomes.

Read more:
Follow us: @smh on Twitter | sydneymorningherald on Facebook

The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, chose education and employment as the theme of his World Autism Awareness day address this year.  The day, he said, "invites policy-makers to encourage schools to open their doors to students with autism. With adequate support, they can -  and should -  be educated in the heart of their communities."

Something has to change. And it starts with helping children the minute they are diagnosed.

Kathryn Wicks is a Herald journalist and the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, 2nd edition.