Autism intervention program

Mr DULUK (Davenport) (15:06): I rise today to speak about the Autism Intervention Program at Blackwood Primary School and Blackwood High School. Autism SA reports that autism, and related disorders, is the most common primary disability across all NDIS trial sites, representing one-third of participants nationally. Growth in diagnosis in South Australia has been a consistent trend for many years, with Autism SA's 2015-16 annual report noting that there were 1,195 new diagnoses in the state during this period, representing a nearly 10 per cent increase on the previous year.

The growth in prevalence is placing greater pressure on families, educational institutions, service providers and government to meet the unique and evolving needs of people on the autism spectrum. In my community, the Autism Intervention Program at Blackwood Primary School and Blackwood High School has been important part of helping to meet the needs of local students dealing with autism. It is a program that has strong support and has always been held in high esteem when I speak with parents and teachers at the schools. That is why the recent decision by the state Labor government to close the Autism Intervention Program has left many families in my electorate feeling distressed and frustrated.

In the Autism Intervention Program, up to eight students per class were supported by staff with expertise in autism spectrum disorder. Each class was assigned a full-time teacher and school services officer. The schools are equipped with modern facilities, including purpose-built autism intervention classrooms, each with a quiet withdrawal room that opens onto a secure outdoor courtyard. All rooms have access to interactive whiteboards, laptops and iPads, and rooms are equipped with a variety of specific equipment to cater for individual sensory and learning needs.

The investment in Blackwood Primary School and Blackwood High School has been significant. The benefits of the program have been considerable. Testimonials on the school website highlight the value and extraordinary success of the learning environment at Blackwood. Parents comments include, and I quote:

One has to be part of the wonderful environment that is the AIP to understand that, no matter what, our children will be able to be who they are, without judgement, to take a breath, stretch their wings, and grow into the people they want to be.

Another quote on the website by a school parent says:

After just a few weeks at AIP (he) has started to sing again…He was like a bird freed from his cage. I think many of the kids at AIP feel like cage birds before they get to AIP.

That is the resounding endorsement of the parents of children in the AIP program at Blackwood High School and Blackwood Primary School. That is why the government's decision to close AIP at the schools in my electorate has been met with shock, frustration and, indeed, considerable distress. I have been contacted by a number of parents, staff and administrators, who are deeply concerned about the government's decision to transition AIP students back into the regular classroom in 2018.

I have had primary school parents from feeder schools in my electorate contact me who were hoping to have their child start at the Blackwood High School year 8 AIP but have been told their child can no longer attend the program. Now there are parents who are looking for other mechanisms to support their children through their learning development. Parents in my community are frustrated by the lack of communication and consultation over the changes. I cannot understand the government's decision. In 2010, Labor made an election commitment to build two autism-specific units on state school grounds - which were to be located at Blackwood High School and The Heights School in Modbury, in your own electorate, Deputy Speaker. It was not until 2013 that the Autism Intervention Program was opened after three years and a large amount of money had been invested in infrastructure, equipment and developing workforce capacity and capability to deal with the demand from the students. The DECD July 2014 annual report notes:

…additional specialist training was provided to all program staff, DECD educational psychologists, speech pathologists and disability coordinators involved in preparing enrolment packages for the Autism Intervention program.

Yet, only a few years later, the government has decided to close the program. It is a decision that does not make sense to a lot of families, teachers, administrators and specialists who have contacted me to express their dissatisfaction.

Yesterday, I asked the minister to explain why the government has made the decision to close the program at Blackwood. Unfortunately, the minister was unable to provide much detail, except to say that the issue raised with the minister was the effectiveness of the use of the money and effectiveness of the program on site. That position by the minister would seem to be at odds with the personal experience of those involved in the AIP at Blackwood. I certainly look forward to a more fulsome response from the minister as promised yesterday, as do the families and school community in my electorate.