Family and Community Development Committee: services for people with autism spectrum disorder
Statement on report
I take this opportunity to rise to speak on the final report of the inquiry into services for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that was tabled in this place on 22 June this year.
I would like to congratulate the members of the committee for the work they have done.
It is a very substantial report and a very detailed report, and it covers many, many issues.
But the one that I would like to focus on today relates to the impact in regional and rural areas, which attention was specifically given to.
Among the important and insightful outcomes detailed in the report the committee found that there really was a lack of understanding and knowledge in the school sector of ASD and that, notwithstanding recent efforts of government, mainstream schools are really finding it very difficult to provide a model that does include those children. As a result of that, many of these children are homeschooled.
Recommendation 4 deals with the school years, and I particularly refer to recommendation 4.9 because a key recommendation of the report was that autism schools should be established in regional Victoria. There are, I understand, about five specific autism schools in metropolitan Melbourne, but if a school were to be established, for instance, in Shepparton, it would be the first state school of its kind in regional Victoria, and I would really urge the government to consider Shepparton as an ideal location for our first autism school in regional Victoria.
Shepparton is home to a significant number of young people who suffer from ASD, and there are high levels of disadvantage in our community. To date the best efforts of educators have not resulted in there being sufficient services for those young people, and I think that was a clear message from so many people who made submissions to the inquiry. Given the government's stated interest in the wholesale overhaul of education in Shepparton as a result of what has been a steeply declining situation for many years and its intention to focus primarily on the secondary school years, again this issue of how we deal with young people with ASD is very much on our agenda.
In the budget this year the Victorian state government provided $1 million for us to work on a Shepparton education plan, and a strategic advisory committee has been established and is due to report to the government by the end of the year. During this time we have looked at a number of models for schools for our region. We are looking very much at a model that is very similar to the Dandenong model, where a number of schools merged and came together and there are schools within schools, with approximately 300 children in each school. This is a model that may well suit Shepparton. Whether it be on one campus or two is yet to be decided and of course is a matter for the minister.
It was an interesting exercise to go and visit a number of the schools throughout Victoria, including Dandenong; Templestowe College, which has quite a different teaching model where independent learning is encouraged; and of course the Bendigo Senior Secondary College, and senior secondary colleges have been adopted throughout the region.
We want to incorporate services for young people with ASD, but how do we do it? Clearly this is a matter for experts to assist us in as we go through the planning for the education plan. Should it be a school within a school? Should it be a separate school? How do you deal with the different needs of children like this in terms of curriculum if they are in a shared classroom in that inclusive model? I think it is really time to crunch the knowledge about what the best learning environment is for these young people.
We are lucky enough in our region to have the Dookie school, which is part of Mansfield Autism Statewide Services, but that is a private school and an expensive school, and many parents in our region are not able to access it. But it does provide a model of sorts for the sort of education that can be provided to young people, and it does show that if they get the right education and the right support, then they can become productive members of our community, educated and ready to join in.
Many of the children are being homeschooled, some are disengaged and many do not attend school at all, and they are struggling with the system. I hope the minister, in looking at what our Shepparton education plan will look like, will consider the possibilities of these services at early childhood, primary and secondary levels as part of the Shepparton education plan.