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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5195

Senator CHERRY (7:29 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on the issue of autism and education. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability. There is no cure, although changes in ability and behaviour occur over time and some children can show remarkable improvement throughout their lives. Autism is a dysfunction of some parts of the central nervous system, including the brain, which affects the way the individual processes information. Autism affects the way in which a child learns to understand and use language, interacts socially with people, makes sense of the environment and develops and uses imagination. Autism affects as many as 167,000 people in Australia and is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls. Up to 93 in every 10,000 children born will have some form of autism spectrum disorder and will receive significant assistance for most of their lives. In New South Wales that translates to some 40,000 individuals. Autism occurs with equal frequency within all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Children with autism vary enormously as to their educational needs. The effects of autism may be mild or severe and not every characteristic is evident in every child, with different features of autism displayed in different contexts. Children with autism, because of their different understanding of the world and sensory sensitivities, often experience overwhelming anxiety, frustration and confusion when faced with the demands of everyday life. Anxiety, frustration and confusion may give rise to repetitive movements, self-isolating behaviours and sometimes even aggression. Children with autism are visual learners, and hence early intervention and other programs focus on visual learning style. Visual strategies enhance communication, support behaviour, facilitate learning and develop independence skills. The services provided by schools that service autistic children must cover early intervention, education outreach and support for families in the region.

I particularly want to mention today the South Coast School for Children with Autism, located in Corrimal in the Wollongong area in New South Wales. The South Coast school caters for children with autism who are aged three to 16 years. The area of enrolments, from Helensburgh in the north to Kiama in the south and Appin in the west, covers around 400 square kilometres. The Corrimal base school has a preschool, infants and primary classes, as well as a high school adolescent unit, covering those children who require a specialised curriculum, community integration and a structured physical environment to support their moderate to severe autism. The base school is utilised by the Illawarra Interchange Respite Service, who hold a Saturplay Leisure Club for children enrolled in the school, and the Illawarra Asperger's Support Group, who hold meetings at the school every six weeks. Vacation care is also available for children enrolled in the school and is coordinated by Illawarra Children's Services.

The school currently has 56 students ranging from the age of 3½ to 16 years and would take more students but for a lack of facilities, sites and, of course, funding. Indeed, there is a waiting list of 15 to 20 children. The school is one of only six Autism Association schools in New South Wales. The fact that there is such a waiting list for such an important facility is a very sad statement on public funding priorities, particularly by the New South Wales government. The school also provides advice and referrals to services for families whose children cannot attend the school. Because teacher training in New South Wales has no autism-specific provisions, the school has to actually train its own teachers. In spite of the fees being very low, it remains that many parents in the Wollongong area cannot afford them. However, the school covers these children and hence relies heavily on fundraising to provide services to children and parents. The aim of the school is to work as early as possible with children to achieve transition, ideally by the age of nine. They generally achieve a 10 per cent transition every year into mainstream education, which I think is a marvellous performance for a school dealing with such difficult children. However, older children in the school have high support needs or challenging behaviours that make transition more difficult, which means they require more long-term intervention and assistance from the school.

A number of the children attending the South Coast School for Children with Autism suffer from Asperger's syndrome. Asperger's syndrome is a type of autism that involves high intellectual function but poor social and interactive skills. Because children suffering from Asperger's syndrome are highly functioning children, they tend not to experience developmental delays and hence they may not attract carer allowance but, nonetheless, they have particularly high needs and challenging behaviours. The situation, however, for all these children is not as bleak as it must at first appear. Appropriate intervention early in life, specialised education and structured support can make a significant difference to an autistic child's life, helping to maximise their skills and achieve their full potential as adults.

I turn now to the whole issue of how much assistance is provided to the families of children with autism. Prior to 1998, children who were diagnosed with autism and whose parents provided long hours of care and attention were entitled to the child disability allowance. This allowance of less than $40 a week nonetheless enabled parents to contribute towards the additional medical and intervention programs to enable their children to progress. In late 1997, the Howard government decided that too many children were receiving the child disability allowance and they changed the rules. The test for the child disability allowance, which was renamed `carer allowance', was no longer the amount of care provided by parents but simply whether the child had a medical condition that led to a developmental delay.

It remains that not all children with autism, particularly those with Asperger's syndrome, suffer developmental delay. In fact, many of them are high functioning, notwithstanding that their parents must provide hours of care. The changes made by the government from July 1998 have meant that many parents of children with autism no longer qualify for carer allowance. Without that little bit of financial assistance, many cannot afford to send their children to special services, such as those provided by the South Coast school. Children will miss out on individual early intervention programs and will be unable to access education programs, which need to be based on their individual strengths and needs. For many parents of children with challenging behaviours but who do not suffer developmental delay and hence do not qualify for the carer allowance, it means they are denied the opportunity to participate in non-aversive management behaviour programs. These are not offered in mainstream education and must be funded by parents who, without the carer allowance, just cannot afford it, particularly in an area with the economic challenges of Wollongong. This in turn means that schools are facing an alarming growth in the number of children with special learning needs, but the Commonwealth and the state are failing to meet the rising cost of their education.

The Australian Democrats wish to commend the work done by the South Coast School for Children with Autism and the Autism Association nationally—indeed, all carers and parents. We particularly want to commend their efforts to provide services to parents regardless of their ability to pay. We call on the Howard government and indeed the Carr government to commit to a carer allowance for parents of children with autism to enable them to access the essential intervention and education programs they need to enable them to use their abilities, realise their dreams and attain the best possible quality of life. We call on the Carr government also to address the issue of the waiting list for places at the South Coast School for Children with Autism and ensure that, where the need is identified for a child, they are given the best chance of a decent life in Australia.