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(Australia) How autism is bankrupting the national health program; it's the future

Jan 28, 2025, WA Today: OPINION
School system needs to evolve to cater for changing society

There are many issues to explore when it comes to the question of whether the structure of our school system has adapted to meet the changing needs of our communities….


Another major challenge for our education system, as we report today, is how to ensure schools can offer enough support to the growing number of students with a disability.

The appointment of one of the world’s leading autism experts, Professor Andrew Whitehouse, to the National School Resourcing Board is significant recognition that serious weight is being given to addressing this challenge.


The growing number of children with autism is well-documented – rates have risen notably in developed nations over the past 10 years with the prevalence of autism in Australian children among the highest in the world.


Australian National University scholar Maathu Ranjan quoted international studies in a research paper last year that showed autism prevalence rates of one in 36 children in the United States, one in 50 children in Canada, and one in 57 children in the United Kingdom.


In Australia, it is about one in 25.


Whitehouse’s appointment comes weeks after schools were asked to shoulder more responsibility for supporting children with autism and developmental delay to stop families flocking to the $40 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), with costs projected to reach more than $100 billion [$658M] by 2032 due to the demand.

A series of reports have highlighted that a higher number of children with autism and developmental delays are joining the NDIS than had been forecast as those children can’t get the support they need in the school system.


NDIS data shows a significant proportion of NDIS recipients under 18 have an autism diagnosis. Children with autism also make up the bulk of new participants on the NDIS, demonstrating the scale of the challenge that school systems and early childhood centres face to step up support.


Major federal government reviews into both the NDIS and the school system, published at the end of last year, have made the case for schools to take on more responsibility – both for accommodating students in the classroom and hosting support services on their grounds.


Bill Shorten, the federal minister with responsibility for the NDIS, warned last year the NDIS can’t be a “surrogate school system”.


“The NDIS is in danger of becoming the only lifeboat in the ocean. So we’ve got to have a conversation in Australia about helping kids with milder forms of developmental delay who don’t need to be on the NDIS,” he said in November.


NDIS architect Professor Bruce Bonyhady has also flagged that there needs to be better support for children with autism in mainstream settings and that the responses to the prevalence of autism cannot be left to the NDIS….


The Sun-Herald welcomes the appointment of Professor Whitehouse to the National School Resourcing Board as a strong signal that the evolution of the school system will be guided with the right expertise to cater for a wider spectrum of students.


We acknowledge concerns from school leaders that teachers are not therapists and any extra responsibility they take on to divert students from the NDIS must be backed by extra resources, including funding, specialist staff and purpose-built facilities.


While the push to take the pressure off the NDIS has a financial driver, the notion that schools should be better equipped to cater to a range of student learner profiles and the increased complexity of children is an excellent one.


A one-size-fits-all model of education means too many children do not get the opportunity for a learning environment which will bring out the best in them, which is what the ultimate experience in our school system should achieve.

 




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