With the number of school-aged children with autism in South Australia reaching 3,400, a small group of first and second generation migrants have established the state’s only autism-specific school in the state, due to open its doors in Term 3 (end of July).
It is a known fact that there is a critical lack of affordable specialist education services for children with autism in South Australia, leaving the majority of children in mainstream schooling unsupported.
“It got more and more obvious that 50 per cent of autistic children were enrolled in schools that have no disability units or special classes to support these kids and their families,” explains deputy chair of Aspect (previously Treetop) Specific School, Phillip De Pinto, who is married to a Greek and whose seven-year-old son Mario was diagnosed with autism at the age of two.
According to Mr De Pinto, the benefits of an autism specific school to students, their families and the community at large are numerous; students will be able to learn in environments suited to their needs, be provided with designated areas to regulate their emotions and sensory output, have small class sizes (maximum of eight students), be taught by teachers specifically trained to deliver purposeful and quality education aimed at providing life skills.
The school, which will be located on the old Ashford Special School site, will offer a unique program with its main goal is to help students develop the skills to become as independent as possible and succeed in the wider community in the future.
The Department of Education registered program aims to help students develop the following skills:
– Literacy and numeracy
– Play and imitation skills
– Gross and fine motor skills
– Communication skills
– Social interaction and relating skills and positive behaviour
“The SA Department of Education has offered a school site which is currently being renovated. The renovation and establishment of the school will cost up to $6 million over the next two to three years. The first stage of the school will see us take 30 students in five classes and the second stage will extend the school to 14 classes and 80 students,” explains Mr De Pinto.
So what is the stimulus for the Greek community to get involved in all this?
It basically all started when 38-year-old Greek economist and mother of two Fiora Christou had her son diagnosed with autism at the age of three-and-a-half.
“After placing Andreas, into both a private and later public school, it was clear that the education system in SA was unable to provide an education suitable for him administered in a safe environment,” she explains.
After extensive research, the family relocated to Victoria where a more progressive educational system had been in place since 1971.
“It was not an easy decision to enrol our beautiful child at Bulleen Heights Special school and on our first visit there we saw children that were lower functioning than Andreas; I remember looking at my then husband and saying with tears in my eyes, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’,” Ms Christou recalls.
Within a few short weeks of attending the school, Andreas who was completely non-verbal, started saying his first words, brought his first readers home and knew how to write his name.
“We were thrilled with his progress; he became happier, more relaxed and looked forward to his school days.”
Andreas continued at the school for three years, before the family decided to return to Adelaide with the hope that the educational landscape would have changed in SA.
“Unfortunately that was not the case and at that point I could no longer just sit and hope for a better outcome; I started researching autism-specific schools around the world and that’s when I found a school based in London called Aspect Treehouse.
Aspect has a network of eight autism specific schools and 90 satellite classes in NSW delivering educational services to over 1000. Because of their expertise they were chosen to take on the project to establish and run the Treetop School in Adelaide.
“I am not a teacher nor do I have an educational background, and so it was never my aim to run the school. My dream was to be its founder, and be part of an educational system that would give my son all he needs to become as independent as he can.
“Fortunately, Dr Trevor Clark, who was on our curriculum board expressed an interest in running the school. This was Aspect’s introduction to Treetop and a concrete step towards an autism specific school in this state.”
The determined mother of two admits that the road to the school’s opening had not been easy and that she was fortunate enough to be surrounded by individuals within the Greek community, who were as dedicated and focused as she was.
“I knew that I needed help if this project was to ever get off the ground and so I tentatively asked friends I had made during my days at university to help. Talented and successful in their own right, they all agreed to give large amounts of their time in order to create a flawless business plan. Dimitra Tolis gave her legal expertise, John Dagas contributed his management skills, Costa Fotiadis gave an insight into educational requirements, Phillip De Pinto was able to make use of his large social network, I was able to contribute costings and of course the years of research I had accumulated.
“We lobbied government, outlasted three education ministers, published an online petition that generated over 8,000 signatures in support of our school, gained the support of the Catholic Education system and ultimately were successful!”
Although Ms Christou has been awarded an Order of Australia, a Pride of Australia, a Citizen of the Year and an OEEGA award for her work, she says that nothing fills her with more pride than knowing that Aspect Treetop will provide her son and other children with the education they deserve in a nurturing, positive and safe environment.
“My hope for the school is that they provide a curriculum suited to the individual student as opposed to just a babysitting service. A day that is filled with stimulated learning, lots of fun and exercise resulting in happy, healthy children.”
As for Ms Christou’s advice to anyone with a child who struggles with learning in an educational system that is geared toward neurotypically developing children, her message is clear: “Never give up on your child, or the system or in your ability to change the seemingly unchangeable.”
The Board of Aspect Specific School, SA is currently fundraising to purchase a new commuter bus in order to have suitable and reliable transportation for the children.