Instigated and led by a small group of first- and second-generation Greek Australians, South Australia’s first and only autism-specific school, the Aspect Treetop School, has seen its number of students double just short of a year since opening its doors last July.
“We are very happy and proud of the way the school has been received by the community and for the trust and confidence the families of these children have shown towards our initiative,” says John Dagas, previous chair of the original Treetop board and now a member of the Aspect Treetop School advisory group.
The benefits of an autism-specific school for children, their families and the community at large are numerous: students are able to learn in environments suited to their needs, they are provided with designated areas to regulate their emotions and sensory output, have small class sizes (maximum of eight students), are taught by teachers specifically trained to deliver purposeful and quality education aimed at providing life skills.
Located on the old Ashford Special School site, Aspect Treetop School, is the ninth Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) independent school to open (others are in NSW) and offers a unique program which aims to help students with autism to develop key skills to become as independent as possible and acquire the ability to transition into the wider community in later years.
“Just walking through the school and seeing the children interact with their teachers and peers immediately gives us a sense of pride in how the school has changed the lives of many SA families, combined with a feeling of admiration [for] the hard work and dedication the Aspect staff have put in to make this system work for the children,” says Dagas in an interview with Neos Kosmos.
According to the latest data, there is a critical lack of affordable specialist education services for children with autism in South Australia, leaving the majority of these students in mainstream schooling unsupported. More than 50 per cent of children with autism are currently enrolled in schools that have no disability units or special classes that provide support to these kids and their families.
“In a mainstream class, Avalon was unable to process information provided to the class. She felt confused, anxious, and unsure of what she was supposed to be doing. By the end of each day, my daughter was stressed and exhausted from trying to cope in an environment where she felt misunderstood and left behind,” says Avalon’s mum who decided to enrol her daughter at Treetop and is delighted with her ongoing progress since.
“We really couldn’t have wished for a better start. The tremendous amount of work the whole staff team have put into this is amazing. I feel very privileged to be a part of it. I couldn’t be offering Avalon a better schooling option,” says Jill.
According to Dagas, The Aspect Treetop School site master plan was segmented into three stages: Stage 1 was complete when the school opened in late July with 23 students in the heritage building formerly known as Ashwood House. Stage two was complete at the end of 2016 with the Anzac Highway building, and the current school year opened with double the number of students and staff.
“With the help and support of the community, Aspect would like to complete the third and final stage of the master plan to be able to continue to increase student enrolments, to offer a range of community support, to develop the Farnham Road wing, to offer therapy support to families, to assist children on the autism spectrum in other schools and to prepare young adults on the spectrum for employment.
“We now have 11 classrooms and 46 students ranging from Reception to Year 10 and we are also looking at opportunities to grow the school and include Year 11 and Year 12 classes as well as the possibility of another campus in the future,” says Dagas who admits that none of this would have been possible without the assistance of some extraordinary South Australians that have helped along the way.
“We are grateful to the Sarah Group that undertook the Stage 1 and Stage 2 upgrade work: Fiora Christou whose idea this project was and whose son already attends Treetop, and Phillip de Pinto and the CMI group for managing the donation and organisation of the school’s new bus,” says Dagas.
The Department of Education registered program aims to help students develop literacy and numeracy skills; play and imitation skills; gross and fine motor skills and communication skills; social interaction, relating skills and positive behaviour.
“As we are such a young school, we are working with the community to continue to be able to offer our students the resources they deserve. Our job is never complete in this area as the costs of running such an intensive school are high. This puts a lot of strain on families and the school to support their children. We are able now to provide many initiatives for South Australians to help, therefore, we are looking for people to sponsor classroom resources and provide opportunities for students who may not otherwise be able to attend by: sponsoring students’ enrolment, upgrading the old kitchen into a learning space to develop independent living skills with the students, and completing the playgrounds so that the students can access stimulating outdoor areas.
“At the end of the day, what we wish is to bring happiness and progress into these children’s lives and see smiles on their faces when they come to Treetop,” says Dagas.
“Nothing makes us happier than seeing children eager to go to school”.