ACT News

Shock and sadness at 'cage' for Canberra school boy with autism: Ricky Stuart

The ACT government has confirmed the cage structure built to contain an autistic Canberra school student had a roof, as shock and distress at the behaviour control technique spread nationwide.

Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart - a prominent autism awareness advocate - joined a chorus of disbelief after Thursday's revelation a primary school had used a 2m by 2m structure made of pool fencing as a "withdrawal space" for a 10-year-old boy.

Stuart said incidents like this must never happen again and said it highlighted Australia's lack of resources for children with disabilities, which he described as "third-world".

Stuart, whose 17-year-old daughter, Emma, has autism, campaigns for awareness of the disorder and has created a foundation to raise funds. 

Stuart said he was shocked at news of the Canberra structure, but he understood the difficulty of caring for autistic children.

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"My initial reaction was shock and sadness for the child, but without knowing the details of the individual story, I also know how difficult it can be at times having to deal with these children. Sometimes you have to have eyes in the back of your head," Stuart said. "...  I often say people are born carers, they're such special people. This teacher who has had to resort to this, there's obviously real issues."

Also on Friday, federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne tweeted that he was "disturbed" by the story and assistant Social Services Minister Mitch Fifield said he was "appalled".

The structure was erected in a Canberra classroom on March 10 and dismantled on March 27, the day after the directorate became aware of it. The alert was raised by a member of the school's Parents and Citizens Association. 

The school has written to parents of children in its special needs unit, saying that while the space was "clearly unacceptable", it had been intended to "provide sanctuary in response to the needs of a student".

The principal has been put on administrative duties in the education directorate during an investigation, with education director-general Dianne Joseph describing the structure as an example of "very poor decision-making".

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch was similarly horrified, "Words cannot put into place my absolute disappointment and horror that anyone in our schools would consider a structure of this nature in any way shape or form to be acceptable."

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said on Friday that as well as investigating the case, the government was reviewing disability practices in ACT schools. He said once the two investigations were complete, the government would establish a select committee.

Autism Asperger ACT manager Susanne Morton said while it was wrong and inappropriate to put a child in a cage, the school might well have thought it was doing the right thing.

"Schools are trying with limited resources and obviously they're getting it wrong sometimes," she said. "Generally I'd say to be cautious and know everything about the case because we have a lot of contact with the schools and they try really hard."

Children with autism often needed a safe place and her organisation worked in schools to set up a "sensory corner" or a chair where they could take time away, she said.

"The fact that they've used fencing might make it seem it was more sinister than what was the intent – it doesn't sound appropriate, it sounds a bit scary," Ms Morton said, but she expected the family would have known about the structure from taking their child to and from school.

Schools were under-resourced and teachers not adequately trained to deal with autism, with one in every 80 children now diagnosed with the condition, she said. 

Children with Disability Australia chief executive Stephanie Gotlib said the group was fielding an increasing number of calls from parents distressed at the treatment of their children.

"We are hearing about incidents of restrictive practices more frequently, including restraints and seclusion," Ms Gotlib said. "It 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."

Children had been locked in "time out" rooms or physically restrained. 

"It is a form of abuse. Would teachers physically restrain a child without a disability?" Ms Gotlib asked.

Ms Burch urged caution on publishing details of the case, saying the government had not disclosed the age and diagnosis of this child, nor the school involved. And she said the government was still clarifying "whether the withdrawal space was ever used, and if so, how many times and under what circumstances".

The Canberra Times has chosen not to name the school to protect the identity of the child.

The Ricky Stuart Foundation begins building a care and respite centre for disabled children in Chifley this month, and  plans a second facility in the capital.

Stuart's daughter was diagnosed with autism at 11 and is unable to communicate verbally. He was visiting a school for autistic students in Albury, as part of World Autism Awareness day, when news of the Canberra case emerged.

"Initially you get angry, but then you think back to your worst moments at home," Stuart said. "I'm sure the teacher is genuinely a nice person who was probably at the end of their tether. Without knowing the background of the story or person, I can visualise the situation the teacher would have been in.

"... Just because they may not be able to talk, or they look and act a bit differently, they've still got a mind of their own, they still want to communicate. A lot of the frustration and meltdowns come because of the difficulty communicating.

"My passion is to give parents the break this teacher obviously needed."

- with Georgina Connery, Rachel Browne

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