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Ricky Stuart unveils plan for autism respite centre in Canberra

Ricky Stuart's only daughter, Emma, is 16, but her only two words are mum and nan.

Ricky Stuart and his daughter Emma, pictured last Christmas.
Ricky Stuart and his daughter Emma, pictured last Christmas. 

While Stuart's job is to rebuild the Canberra Raiders as an NRL premiership force, his dream is to begin building a $1.5million respite centre by the end of the year for Canberra families coping with disabilities.

Emma Stuart has never really spoken beyond mumbles, but she was 12 before being diagnosed with autism.

Stuart hasn't backed away from his controversial decision to quit the Parramatta Eels last year in favour of returning to coach his former club, the Raiders. He maintains it was best for his career.

But Stuart acknowledges the support of family in Canberra is the bonus in his decision to come ''home''.

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''Emma's obviously the favourite to a lot of them,'' Stuart says of his extended family.

''It's just little things … where the grandparents can be home to pick her up off the bus, we haven't had that for 16 years. Emma was about six months old when we left here. Canberra's home.''

Stuart is passionate about giving other families support, too.

The Ricky Stuart Foundation, which he created to raise awareness of autism, has set a target to begin building a state-of-the-art respite centre in Canberra by the end of this year.

There are three respite centres in Canberra, catering for children, teenagers and adults specifically. But all are in need of upgrading, the foundation says.

It is negotiating with the ACT Government to have land released so it can rebuild one of the centres. Foundation director John Mackay is confident it will go ahead later this year.

''We've got enough money to start the project, there's no doubt about that,'' Mackay says.

''The question is will we [replace] all three. But we'll start one this year.''

Stuart's wife, Kaylie, describes the respite as invaluable.

The couple have used the respite centre in Kambah for one night since their arrival back in Canberra last year, using the time to go out to dinner with their two boys, Jackson, 14, and Jed, 12.

''A lot of people have big-picture ideas, this is mine,'' Stuart says.

''I want to create a clean, enjoyable environment and a respite centre for these children where it is so important for parents to get away and have some downtime with their other children or together. It becomes very stressful at home if you don't get the required amount of time to yourself and family.

''It's also good for the child to be away from mum and dad and live a different life.

''As a family we've had to grow through it. You see all the positives and negatives, highs and lows. In a big picture I'd love to have a five-star respite centre here for kids with disabilities.''

Stuart cannot speak highly enough of carers and teachers for children with disabilities, saying ''they're worth their weight in gold''.

It's more resources for respite centres that's needed, Stuart says.

''Her school Giant Steps in Sydney was amazing, it was exclusive for autistic children. She had some great development through there. Now she's really adapted to Black Mountain School [in Canberra] really well. She enjoys it, the teachers have been fabulous," he says.

''It's purely resources, that's where we'd like to help. On this one, we need government assistance as well.

''I'm probably biased, but I don't think these children get a fair go. I don't think they get treated fairly, I don't think the resources or facilities are anywhere near what they should be. It's not a Third World country here, but at times our children with disabilities get treated that way, I think it's very unfair. So I'm just trying, through our foundation, to make some little difference.''

The Ricky Stuart Celebrity Golf Pro-Am will be held at Royal Canberra Golf Club on Monday. The event has already raised $150,000 in sponsorship and is aiming for a total $250,000, to be put towards the building of a respite centre in Canberra.