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April 28, 2024, Guardian: How the rise of autism and ADHD fractured Australia’s schools
Almost a million Australian schoolchildren now have a disability – that’s one in four enrolments. Parents, teachers and advocates say education is at crisis point

Every morning before school, Emerson Cook would ask his mum to check the weather. If it was raining, she knew her then five-year-old would be anxious.

“He was always worried about rain,” says Alicia Cook, Emerson’s mother. “And if the weather forecast was rain, I would be anxious too.

“Every day in the pit of my stomach was the worry about going to school.”

At the time, Emerson’s anxiety was put down to a flood evacuation that had taken place at his small private school in Launceston, Tasmania. But what Alicia didn’t know was that Emerson’s worry was an early sign of what would later be diagnosed as having anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

Alicia would try to coax Emerson into class, but more often than not he would refuse.

In an attempt to get her son the support he needed, Alicia moved to an inner-city public school in Melbourne.

Here, the problem worsened. At times Emerson tried to escape to come home, climbing the school fence, and Alicia would regularly receive phone calls asking her to collect him.

“You just live in a constant state of anxiety,” she says.

Despite his diagnosis, Emerson was ineligible for individualised support funding in school because he had advanced language skills, and after “trying everything” – including a third school – Alicia made the difficult decision to pull her son out.

“It was just causing everyone so much distress that we had no choice,” she says. “It was devastating.”

Almost a million students like Emerson
There are now almost a million school students in Australia needing extra support because of a disability, equivalent to one in four enrolments.

And while some families have given up on the system, most are attempting to make it work, with almost 90% of students with a disability still enrolled in mainstream schools.

The number of students with disabilities has been growing at lightning speed, jumping almost 40% since 2017. Social or emotional disabilities have grown at almost 10% a year. This compares with enrolment growth of 1% a year over the same period.

In classrooms today, an estimated 4% of seven- to 14-year-olds now have a primary diagnosis of autism, while between 6% and 10% of children have ADHD.

Experts point to the National Disability Insurance Scheme as a key driver of the growth, along with changes to how schools assess disability for reporting purposes. . . .

At the same time, teachers report being overwhelmed. Resources are stretched to their limits.

Many families are in upheaval, quitting jobs to home-school, or shifting schools to try to find somewhere that works.

“Inclusive education” – the idea that students with a disability should be involved and supported in a mainstream school environment – is considered the gold standard. It is supported in principle by all state and territory governments.

But is it working? Are schools and teachers coping? Are children with disabilities learning?

The teacher’s dilemma

For Amy Harland, a teacher and assistant principal in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, the statistics present themselves daily in the classroom.

Some of the classes in her low socioeconomic school now have more than two-thirds of students registered as having a disability that requires the school to make an “adjustment”.

“If you’ve got a class of 30 students and two-thirds of those students have got a disability, teachers are having to adapt and change their routines for every lesson,” says Harland, who is speaking in her role as an executive member of the NSW Teachers Federation because teachers are not allowed to speak freely to the media.

“That could be a visual timetable, a choice board, a feeding plan. It could be extra support in the classroom. It could be a myriad of things.”

“You are going to have to manage a range of different abilities and disabilities within the one classroom,” she says. “In a year 6 classroom, you could have to differentiate activities from a kindergarten level to potentially a year 7 level.

“You might have a student who might be on the autism spectrum and they find the classroom noisy and they might have headphones, or they might have a specific card that they flash to the teacher that says ‘I want out’ and need a sensory break.

In the same classroom you could have children with attendance issues or other challenging behaviours, she says. “You have got mental health issues … kids who have friendship issues – because that is the nature of being a child. You could have kids who are [in] out-of-home care.

“You will have a whole range of disabilities, formally diagnosed and imputed, and you could have some of those kids that come with IFS [integration funding support] or partial attendance programs.

“It can be confronting. The classroom and the behaviours are becoming more and more challenging and the time that teachers are being given hasn’t changed.”  . . .


Harland says teachers are expected to develop behaviour support plans and personalised learning and support plans, as well as document the adjustments they make over the course of at least 10 weeks to register students for the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students, which is linked to federal funding. . . .

 “It’s becoming very obvious that ‘inclusion’ is less about the kids as it is saving the government money.”

Staff exposed to ‘real violence’

Troy Wright, who advocates for student support officers in his role as assistant general secretary of the Public Service Association in NSW, says these workers are also feeling overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of change over the past five years.

He points to the 34% increase in workers’ compensation claims in the NSW Department of Education in the last financial year as a clear sign that something is wrong.

Many of these claims relate to workload and stress, but others relate to a growing number of physical injuries, he says: one recent claim related to a student learning officer having their finger bitten off by a student.

“Our members are being exposed to real violence,” he says. . . . 

 ‘Are you giving up on our child?’

Sophia* was just six when she received her first suspension. The lanky seven-year-old who loves jazz ballet and gymnastics attends a public primary school in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs. But over a six-month period Sophie missed 44 days of Year 1 because of multiple suspensions and, finally, an exclusion.

The suspensions followed incidents where she would become dysregulated and disturb the class, or hurt other students. Sophia has level 2 autism. . . .

Julie Phillips, who advocates for families pursuing disability discrimination cases against the Victorian education department, says that in the absence of adequate funding, schools are resorting to crude measures to manage the pressure with suspensions and exclusions used repeatedly against children with a disability.

While most states refuse to release suspension data publicly, an analysis of the available statistics by Guardian Australia shows disabled children are receiving about half of the more than 200,000 suspensions handed out by government schools each year. This includes those given to thousands of primary school children.

Many students with a disability are also being put on part-time hours, and there are widespread complaints about informal suspensions – where a child is sent home from school on an ad-hoc basis.

Then there is the use of seclusion and restraints, which occur largely without departmental oversight. This could involve isolating a deregulated child in a room by themselves, or the physical restraint of a child. . . . 

 ‘Where are these kids meant to go?’

Marita Nicholas is on the frontline for families trying to make mainstream schools work for children with a disability. Based in Mansfield in regional Victoria, Nicholas is an autism practitioner and advocate for families, and much of her time is spent trying to navigate the education system for children with high needs.

Her clients, all school-age children ranging in age from eight to 18, are categorised with level 2 autism – those needing “substantial support”.

“There is not a single person on my list who hasn’t had to change schools because it is not working out,” Nicholas says.

“The thing about kids on the spectrum is they need consistency and certainty, and their school lives are completely inconsistent and uncertain.”

Nicholas, a former teacher who has been working as a conduit between families and schools for four years, says the eligibility criteria for disability funding are “onerous” for schools in Victoria, with a two-term wait for a child who needs support. . . . 

 “The principal to make that decision to expel will make a lot of people very happy and leave one family devastated.

“So it is about the competing interests, but that brings you to the next point – if you are going to make those decisions, where are those children who are not fitting in? Where are they meant to go?”

Louise Rogers is one of the founders of the organisation School Can’t, a parent-led group supporting families with children who have struggled with school and end up not wanting to go at all. .

The group avoids using the term “school refusal” as it carries the suggestion of a behavioural problem rather than it being a symptom of stress.

A survey it conducted in the lead-up to a 2022 Senate inquiry into school refusal found a significant link with disability and school avoidance.

For children struggling with “school can’t”, 73% had a neurodevelopmental disability diagnosis, and another 10% suspected or were seeking a disability diagnosis. Autism and ADHD were the most significant. . . .

A recent report from Autism Awareness Australia found that 35% of families were refused or discouraged against enrolment for their autistic child, while 16% of autistic children reported being “very unhappy” at school.

A record 40,000 children are now being home schooled in Australia – double the rate before the pandemic in 2019. . . .

 ‘No place for Alfie’

Nathan Bell, a Toowoomba father was faced with this reality when, two weeks before the school holidays, he and his wife, Molly, were called into a meeting with the principal at their local Catholic school regarding their five-year-old son, Alfie.

Alfie, who suffers from a neurodevelopmental disorder, had been attending the school three days a week.

“We were completely ambushed,” Bell says. “They said there was no place for Alfie next term, because they did not have the capability to supply the ongoing support.

“The principal said they thought he was better suited to the special school in Toowoomba and offered to advocate for him to attend that school.”

Bell already knew that Alfie didn’t meet the criteria for the special school – his disabilities weren’t severe enough. . . . 

Parents have ‘unrealistic demands’

Craig Petersen says he believes most schools are getting it right and the vast majority of students who need adjustments for a disability are well managed. But the president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council says resources are always stretched, and that there is a shortage of school counsellors, student support officers (SSOs) and psychologists. . . .

Advocate Julie Phillips agrees the sector is underfunded – but believes inclusive education in Australia has been “set up to fail” by education departments. . . . 

Cherry Baylosis from Disability Advocacy NSW believes it is premature to discuss phasing out special schools given what she sees as “a broken [education] system that is buckling under pressure.”

“In an ideal world, all schools would have the resources that they need to provide inclusive education,” says Baylosis.

“Realistically the idea of phasing out segregated schools, and … placing [students with disabilities] into mainstream education without the adequate resources will be potentially quite dangerous if the issues that we’re talking about are not addressed.” . . . 

 “There are a growing number of children who are struggling within the school system due to developmental disabilities. This is not a marginal issue … this is now education, and it is difficult to think of an issue that affects people more on a day to day basis in the education setting than disability.” . . . 

“It’s heartbreaking to see children who, with some additional support, some changes to how we provide either teaching or how they are managed outside the classroom, could be included, but are excluded from classrooms because all stakeholders feel that’s the best option.

“It is very, very rarely the best option.”

Linda Graham, director of the Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology, believes there needs to be “a systematic, seismic shift” in the way Australian schools approach inclusive education. . . .




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