School for autism comes to Perth as parents take matters into their own hands

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Emily Pearce makes 26 trips to her son’s school each week.

“I pick him up for school, I bring him home for recess, I bring him home for lunchtime, and it just allows him to decompress and then go back to school to pull himself together,” she said.

Her son Samuel, 16, is on the autism spectrum and after years of struggling with his education, Ms Pearce is now fighting to give other families more options through WA’s first independent autism school .

Samuel was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder aged just two and underwent hours of therapy each week, but regressed severely after attending a local primary school in North Perth.

“Sam went from being a reasonably happy kid to self-harming, not wanting to go to school [and] he stopped sleeping,” Ms Pearce said.

Emily Pearce brings Sam home for recess and lunch.(ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood)

“We went from school to school, and it became a nightmare.”

Ms Pearce said she felt Samuel was not supported enough in the mainstream school system and was forced to quit her job and homeschool him for seven years.

“If you had told me I was going to be a stay-at-home mom, I would have said more likely to fly to the moon and I’m scared to fly…but there was no other option for us,” she said. .

WA lacks autism-specific school

After hearing about the success of autism-specific schools in other states, Ms Pearce and a small group of parents whose children with autism were also struggling to get to school, decided it was time for WA to follow suit. not.

They founded a non-profit organization called Furthering Autistic Children’s Education and Schooling (FACES) with the aim of opening an independent school for autism in Perth.

“The education system is overwhelmed and now throwing autistic children into the equation, and you have a recipe for disaster,” she said.

Emily Pearce and her son Sam do schoolwork.
Emily Pearce says she had no choice but to quit her job to help raise her son Sam.(ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood)

“We hope to provide another educational option for families, but we also hope to work with the school and community to support teacher development, provide additional resources, and provide additional training.”

The school aims to provide a high-quality, evidence-based education that meets individual needs in all areas of learning, including academics, social skills development, and emotional regulation.

“For children to be part of a school, part of a community [and] to be in a safe learning environment where they can reach their full potential is life changing,” she said.

“It’s almost like a magical experience”

Cindy Smith, a lecturer at Curtin University, is working with the organization as an educational consultant to develop the school’s teaching model that supports academic and behavioral outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Head and shoulder shot of Curtin lecturer and researcher Cindy Smith.
Cindy Smith, a lecturer at Curtin University, said WA lags behind when it comes to proper education for people with autism.(ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood)

“[Children with autism] want to go to school and they want to have friends, but they really don’t know how to engage appropriately to be able to make that happen,” Dr Smith said.

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“This model helps teach them these distinct skills and fill in the gaps so they can succeed. It’s almost like a magical experience, watching them unleash their ability to learn, and it’s really exciting.”

Dr Smith said it was time for WA to catch up with the rest of the nation by opening an independent school.

“We need to catch up as quickly as possible because we have children who are falling behind and in these stages of development, if they fall way behind they may never be able to catch up,” he said. she declared.

Repairing damage is a ‘difficult process’

A six-week pilot program for school is already underway in south Perth, with children grouped according to their abilities and verbal skills, instead of grade or age.

Perth mother Jenny enrolled her 10-year-old son in the program after struggling at several mainstream schools.

Her son has been diagnosed with a distinct pattern of autism, characterized by an irresistible or obsessive need to resist or avoid demands, which can often lead to violent meltdowns and outbursts.

Jenny and her youngest child sitting on the couch.
Jenny’s younger son had a more positive experience at school. (ABC New: Tabarak Al Jrood)

Her youngest son, 7, also has autism but, unlike his brother, had a positive experience at school.

“So for my youngest, the regular system works and he can adapt to it, but for my eldest, I don’t believe there are the right arrangements being made to meet his needs,” he said. she declared.

Jenny and her youngest son are sitting on the living room floor playing cards.
Jenny says the educational needs of her two sons are very different.(ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood)

Jenny said it was “crazy” that a group of parents took on the opening of a school for autism, without any help from the state government.

“Families of neurotypical children can choose where to send their children, but for us as parents it’s not that simple…we have no options, we have your local watershed and if it doesn’t work for you, so we didn’t fall back,” she said.

She hopes to enroll her eldest son in the Autism School in Perth, which is due to open in 2024.

“It’s about options, not segregation”

The WA Department of Education is offering 16 Specialized Learning Programs (SLPs) in a number of mainstream schools for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, with an investment of $18.2 million for eight SLPs announced in the latest state budget.

“Western Australia’s public school system responds to the individual needs of students with autism spectrum disorders by providing a range of educational options based on the principles of equity and inclusion,” said Chief Executive Jim Bell. Acting for Student Achievement at the WA Department of Education. .

However, Dr Smith feels that this is “not enough”.

Cindy Smith working at her computer.
Dr Smith believes there are thousands of children in Western Australia who are on the autism spectrum but have not been diagnosed.(ABC News: Tabarak Al Jrood)

“There are something like 400 places available for children with autism in these schools…it’s a huge, huge problem.”

While some disability advocates argue that separating students into mainstream and special schools is a form of segregation, Dr Smith thinks it’s important to have options.

“There’s an old saying that if you’ve worked with an autistic child, you’ve worked with an autistic child, because every child is so unique,” she said.

Building a better future

Emily Pearce continues to homeschool her son part-time after finally finding a school that works for him.

The 16-year-old hopes to go to university and “would love to do something with computers”.

Although Ms. Pearce is determined to help Samuel achieve his goals, she believes his school experience could have been avoided if other options were available for children with disabilities.

“If these children do not receive adequate schooling, academically, socially [and] emotionally they will not be productive members of society,” she said.

“I don’t know what the future holds for Sam, but I do know that if he had had different options as a child he would potentially be in a very different place to where he is now and his future would be probably a lot more pink.”

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