“We have tried everything for our autistic child.  Segregated schools for autistic kids?  Who am I to say, but I do fear any future that limits options for each parent and child to choose.”  – Madeleine

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability submitted its conclusive report to the Governor General on September 29, 2023. This comprehensive report comes after an extensive four-year process that included nearly 8,000 submissions and 32 public hearings. Among the 222 proposed measures aimed at improving the well-being of individuals with disabilities, one recommendation stands out: a plan to gradually eliminate segregated schools for autistic kids by the year 2051.

This recommendation has sparked extensive conversations and prompted concern among many parents and carers of a child with a disability, who value the option of specialised education.

For parents and carers in the Autistic community, viewpoints are mixed. Many feel that options are already restricted and a prevailing view is that instead of forcing autistic students to be “neurotypical”, we should embrace them and offer a safe schooling experience.  I recently spoke with a number of parents in The A List community and appreciate their openness and candour, as they share their hopes and worries when it comes to educating their Autistic child.

This article features highlights of these conversations, in the hope that some of the perspectives resonate with you and it triggers ongoing discussion.

Ashleigh – parent of Autistic son, aged 7

Today, Ashleigh’s son is thriving in a mainstream primary school setting. It’s a large school with up to ten classes per grade, with a specialist learning teacher allocated to each year level, along with teacher aides.

He participates in a special program focused on academics, and usually stays with the same class each year, ensuring consistency and reliability. This makes it easier for him to make social connections and forge friendships with fellow classmates.

This is particularly helpful as the biggest struggle Ashleigh reports so far has been social. To help overcome this the school offers ‘lunch time clubs’ – featuring sports, Pokemon, gardening and iPad groups – to take the pressure off kids finding friends in the playground.

Ashleigh is happy with mainstream education for her Autistic son.

“As a parent the experience has been positive for me. I feel supported and have been able to have open conversations with other parents about autism and what it means, who can then share this information with their own neurotypical children. Raising awareness in the community about what autism looks like has been positive for my son.

“He feels part of something and when he needs a sick day, he feels upset and stressed about not going to school and not seeing his friends!”

But Ashleigh is realistic and knows that while this is the right environment for now, things may change.

“School is not a traumatic place for him right now, it’s a place where he can go and feel safe. We know this may change, as the kids become older they gain more knowledge and there is the potential for bullying, we are aware of this. We take each day as it comes and know we have options, such as home schooling or distance education.”

Diana – parent of Autistic son, aged 14 

“I admit I didn’t want a different kid, I want my son, but I want him to feel comfortable, to thrive in his own skin in the world he lives in.”

Diana who works with Empower Autism in community engagement reflected on the joy and challenges of parenting children with different needs.

“Just when you think you’ve got it sorted you get someone completely different, who presents completely different needs, and you have to build a relationship around that individual.”

When it came to education, Diana enrolled her Autistic son in an Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP) where students with developmental delays or disabilities are given supports to access the curriculum and the social connections that come with schooling.

“I was really lucky that he started in that system quite early, and it was a real opportunity for me to learn the way schooling could look different. I had come from an education background and ECDP was very different to what I was expecting. Our plan was that he would transition from ECDP to attend a mainstream school with our older son, but that was not to be.”

It was a journey for Diana and her family to find the best educational fit for her son. Her older son’s mainstream school was certain the fit wasn’t right and some specialised schools said his support needs were too financially cumbersome.

Eventually Diana made the decision to enrol him in his local specialised school, where he began the ECDP, so thankfully it was a community her son was already engaged in and had sense of belonging.

Is Diana an advocate of special schools?

“I am an advocate of people getting access to the curriculum and feeling like they belong in their educational setting, and I don’t think that that can be broken down into special schools or mainstream schooling.

“We need a place of safety where we can advocate for ourselves if something is not working. It’s extremely challenging for my son to enter a space that is very noisy and unpredictable, it will shorten his ability to access that location.  He will have better access if he understands what’s going to happen during the day, because it reduces anxiety and fear. And that’s across the board. That’s special schools and mainstream schools.  

“If special schools don’t exist, there is an expectation that my son would be included in his brother’s mainstream school, but there is a lot of policy that has to change before that is to be the case.

“Systemic change is required to ensure all children have access to the curriculum and to feel as though they belong in their school. In other words, education that works for them. This also means creating safety, understanding and support for educational professionals, and those experts building the curriculum and supporting assessment.

“I think we need all options because there’s power in choice.”

Jac, Autistic parent of Autistic children, aged 7 and 9

Jac is a late identified autistic woman, who was a primary school teacher, ran Autistic youth groups and is now working with Empower Autism.

Thoughts on mainstream schools?

“I go back and forth. I really do. But I think mainstream at the end of the day is what everybody needs to be where everybody needs to be.”

As an educator, Jac has felt the frustrations of not being able to help the kids that needed additional support.

“Ultimately, I think they everyone deserves to be given an equitable chance to have an education. And it’s not happening. But when you’re a solo teacher in a group of up to 30 kids with many diverse needs, it’s a really difficult job.

“Teachers need to be provided with easily implementable tools, strategies and knowledge that can be used in the trenches. I want to see all kids being given an equitable chance in a mainstream classroom, and having enough support in that classroom, so that they are given

just the same as everybody else.”

Jac believes autonomy is essential and talked about the importance of promoting a positive Autistic identity from a young age.

“We’re trying to say that we’re diverse and we’re promoting diversity and inclusion but how are we supposed to promote that when we can’t even talk about what difference is, or who is different?”

Universal design is a style of learning that is favoured by Jac as there is a learning goal, but how the child gets there is determined by them, and what works for them. Some may use tech, others visual pictures. They’re embracing learning in their own way and taking responsibility for their autonomy, in a mainstream or specialised setting.

“As they grow older, they’re going to be in multiple environments. So, we want to give them the knowledge and the vocabulary, to be able to articulate for themselves. Find the autistic affirming place that allows the development of your child within a safe space.”

Jenny, parent of Autistic son, aged 32

For Jenny, the debate around segregated schooling has reinforced her earliest mantra – it’s not what the parent wants for their child, it’s what the child needs in order to reach their personal potential.

Jenny has worked in the disability sector for 25 years, in specialist school settings and also worked as a behaviour management strategist.

“My personal belief is that the closure of specialist schools would only lead to further stress, anxiety, pressure and angst for so many families, already under incredible pressure just managing the NDIS for a start.

“My work motto has always been honesty, transparency and clarity and quite likely my commentary may not be well received in some quarters, but my role was never to be popular, but to always focus on the needs of the person I was supporting.”

A word from me:

This is a conversation close to my heart as I home school my Autistic daughter after spending time in a mainstream school, then support unit, then lastly distance education. So do I think there should be segregated schools for autistic kids?  For me, choice and options are essential. Who am I to say a mainstream education is best for your child? Who am I to say mainstream schools are incapable of providing access?

But what I can confidently say is that each parent, carer and family, has a right to choose what is best for their Autistic child, and shutting down options is stressful and limiting, in what can already feel for some, an overwhelming situation.

I am hopeful for a future that provides autonomy, and that mainstream settings increasingly offer an accessible and inclusive program that supports all abilities.

If you would like to hear the full conversations you can click on the names below.

Ash talks about her child in mainstream school

Diana speaks about her experience of her son in a special school

Jac talks about her experience as an ex Primary School Teacher

If you are interested in further articles from us, click here

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