By Briana Blackett
They say when you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism. Like all children they have unique quirks, strengths and weakness that can’t be catered for by a one-size-fits-all approach.
This means schools need to be resourced, and teachers trained, to adapt the way they teach to suit children who think and learn differently. Children like my seven-year-old son Freddy, who is a daily example of how Gonski funding is helping children overcome their challenges.
Freddy has autism. He can draw all the planets of the solar system, complete with storms and rings and moons. He can write their names and tell you if our own moon is waxing gibbous or a waning crescent. But he can’t tell you what his favourite colour is, why he likes the Thunderbirds, or what he wants for Christmas.
He simply doesn’t know how to have a conversation and this seemingly innocent inability is actually a huge problem. If you can’t tell someone the basic ‘who, what, where, when’ stories – then you can’t complete an exam, a worksheet or a presentation. The rest of the world has no idea what you know because you simply can’t tell them. Until recently, it also meant Freddy couldn’t tell me some really important things, like if he was feeling sick, or scared, or loved.
But thanks to the extra resources his school has received, and the hard work of its staff, he has made huge progress in his speech and in his ability to benefit from school and unlock his potential. For my little boy, Gonski is not some political theory kicked around at election time. It’s a daily lifeline to a future that might otherwise be out of reach.
School crucial for Freddy’s development
Freddy’s autism was diagnosed early and we started with the usual occupational and speech therapies. These are absolutely essential for all children who struggle with speech or motor skills. But therapy alone is not enough for kids like Freddy to triumph over their challenges. Just as learning an instrument requires practice, so does learning to speak or move. It was crucial for Freddy’s development that he have the chance to take what he learned in his therapy sessions and use it in the ‘real world’, including school. This is where he would ultimately succeed or fail.
I initially enrolled him in a mainstream pre-school near home. It was caring and well-intentioned, but Freddy spent most of day isolated and crying. The facility simply didn’t know how to include or engage with him. I then tried a purpose built pre-school for children with autism. It was an amazing facility with fantastic staff but Freddy just didn’t like it. He simply didn’t belong there. That’s the trouble with these “grey area kids” – it can be very hard to find the right place.
But find it we did, in a different mainstream pre-school that was fully aware of Freddy’s needs. Its staff were unbending in their commitment to Freddy. They understood how his autism would make some things hard for him, but they never used it as an excuse for him not to try. The transformation was incredible. Freddy blossomed. By the end of the year we knew we needed a school that had the same courageous philosophy – one that believed all children could learn given the right resources and attitude.
Resources make a difference
This is where Gonski is so important. No matter how enthusiastic the school is, no matter how committed, without the funding it simply can’t provide the training and staff to meet that commitment.
Teachers, like parents, need to be given the skills to teach children who learn differently. They need to attend courses and visit clinics. They need to be able to secure resources; whiteboards, timers, iPads, or visual aids that will help their students. Sometimes they will need an extra pair of hands to help their students navigate the school day. It might sound costly but it’s actually a sound investment. The progress Freddy has made since starting school has changed our hopes for his future. We are actually daring to dream. Perhaps this little boy will grow into a man that is able to support himself and his community.
Half-way through his Kindy year Freddy came to me one morning and told me he was feeling sick. To everyone else this revelation at the start of a busy day might have been an annoyance. But to me it was one worth celebrating. It was the first time he was able to tell me he was feeling unwell. Usually I have to wait for physical signs, a high fever, a burst abscess, a swollen limb. Now, he could tell me he had a sore ear before the infection could take root.
He started to tell me when he felt sad – which was great because I could instantly comfort him and his sorrow no longer lingered.
Then, one night when I was in hospital he sent me a message that brought me to tears. His Grandma told him to record something for his mummy who couldn’t come home that night. She turned on her phone and pressed record. Freddy thought for a moment and said “Hello mummy. I love you. Good night.”
None of this would have been possible without the extra funding his school gets to help him bridge the gap. Without the staff training and teacher aides, there would be no child able to tell his mother that he is sick. Without the special resources and lunch-time social groups there would be no child able to tell his mum that he felt sad. And without the targeted funding designed to help the kids who need it most, there would be no child able to tell his mum that he loves her.
The future is now a blank canvas for Freddy. With each disability conquered, an ability is revealed. But it can only happen with the support of his school. And the school can only provide that support with specialised funding. Gonski is giving Freddy a chance to take on his challenges, and succeed against the odds, and every child in Australia deserves that chance.