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Autism and schools - there's a long way to go

Tim Chan has severe autism and cannot speak or write. He uses an electronic voice-output device to communicate and write poetry.

Tim Chan has severe autism and cannot speak or write. He uses an electronic voice-output device to communicate and write poetry. Photo: Getty/Paul Jeffers

Poet and activist Tim Chan sits in the front room of his family home in Kew, his mother resting her hand gently on his shoulder. Mr Chan has severe autism and cannot speak or write, so he uses an electronic voice-output device to talk about the Australian school system, typing words that the machine reads aloud.

"The most important thing is people and their attitudes of acceptance, and treating us as people first and special needs second," he said. "The educational policies are inclusive but often practice may not be ideal."

Mr Chan was diagnosed with autism at three and his mother, Sarah, a psychologist, immediately got him started on an intensive early-intervention program.

He attended a school for autistic children, but Mrs Chan said it was not intellectually or socially challenging enough for him, so he moved into the mainstream system after two years.

Primary school went well for the young Tim, but Mrs Chan describes his experience of secondary school as "hellish" – the school initially tried to ban him from using his voice-output device, leaving him without a means of communication, and he struggled to make friends.

School administrators need to rethink how they accommodate children with high needs, she said. "Instead of saying what he can’t do, you [should] ask what does he need to succeed."

According to information released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in June, 86 per cent of children with autism who attend school, either in the mainstream or special education system, reported having difficulties. Most said they had problems fitting in socially, learning and communicating.

British expert Rita Jordan will give a workshop in Melbourne this week on autism and schools as part of the Victorian Autism Conference held every two years. She said Australia had lagged behind Britain in creating inclusive school environments for autistic students, but she hoped they could learn from mistakes made in British schools.

Mr Chan benefited from the help of integration aides throughout his schooling, but Professor Jordan said too often integration aides were creating a barrier to inclusion. "No self-respecting kid is going to play with someone who comes with their own adult," she said.

She said aides should instead be taught to observe where the child is struggling and develop support structures, including among their peers, to help them succeed.

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