School autism project improving attendance and changing lives of children, families

April is National Autism Awareness Month

April 11, 2018 by Rebecca Carmody

This article was originally published on ABC.

Until recently, four-year-old Hussain Hussain communicated with his mother by pulling at her and pointing to what he wanted.

He managed the odd word but could not put two together.

His mother, Sohaila Ibrahim, suspected something was wrong and was not surprised when Hussain was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in late 2017.

As devastating as it was, the diagnosis turned out to be a blessing, making it possible for Hussain to attend a new school specialising in learning for students with ASD.

And the early signs have been extremely positive.

Within weeks of attending Marangaroo Primary School in Perth’s northern suburbs, Hussain started putting words together — first two, three, then four words in a sentence.

“It’s just a wonderful, wonderful feeling,” said Ms Ibrahim.

“It was very stressful before. Sometimes he’d cry for no reason. I would talk to him and he would just repeat what I’d say.”

She said Hussain also had delayed echolalia, and after watching television he would then begin singing the songs he had seen in the middle of the night.

“So he would stay up all night, singing and singing repetitively,” she said.

“[Before] I just didn’t know what was wrong with him but now he will say ‘hurt’ and he’ll point to where it hurts and and now I know what is wrong with him.

“Whereas before it was just crying, tantrums, meltdowns and very difficult, he’s giving more eye contact now. He’s interacting with his siblings more.”

Pilot program making an early difference

Marangaroo Primary School is one of five public schools in WA hosting a new program for students with ASD, catering for 124 students.

By 2020, it is anticipated there will be 16 programs throughout the state — costing $32 million over four years.

Under the program announced by former Education Minister Peter Collier, ASD students receive intensive instructions in their own classes, while given every opportunity to integrate with mainstream students.

The ultimate aim is for them to transition into mainstream classes. When they are able to fully transition, a vacancy in the ASD program is created.

The programs follow the WA curriculum and target age-appropriate academic skills while addressing the many challenges associated with ASD including socialisation, emotional regulation, limited interests and repetitive behaviours.

Eligible students require an ASD diagnosis, without accompanying intellectual disability, and need to be independent in terms of toileting and dressing.

‘It makes them feel worthwhile’

At Marangaroo, which turned specialist this year, there are 21 students with ASD placed in three different home rooms, each named after an animal.

The Possums cater for students who would otherwise be in kindy or pre-primary, the Koalas cater for Years 1-3, while the Quokkas consist of Years 4-6.

The cute animal names are designed to normalise ASD.

Michelle Koppel said her daughter, Mikayla, 11, who has ASD and auditory processing disorder (APD), had completely transformed since starting at Marangaroo this year.

“It’s been phenomenal, it really has. I was really, really stressed about her coming to school again, because I’ve been home schooling for two years, but honestly, it’s a different child.

“I can’t explain to you how it’s chalk and cheese.

“Previously we had huge, huge issues getting her dressed, getting her out of bed, even the sleep pattern, she wasn’t sleeping at all, I was co-sleeping with her until basically this year, where now she’s become more independent.

“Because these children are different, they pick up on that and they feel unaccepted. I think coming here, the program makes them feel accepted. It makes them feel worthwhile — that they have something to offer to society.”

Last year, Mikayla developed a phobia about touching paper. For her it was like running fingers down a chalkboard.

But under intensive supervision and with the right encouragement, she has been able to overcome her fear and is brimming with excitement about going to school.

“At my old school, I’d beg mum not to go to school, now I’m begging mum to go to school,” she said.

“I just have so much fun.

“The teachers are really nice.”

Children taught to manage anxieties

If attendance records are any guide, Marangaroo is off to a flying start.

In the Quokka home room, attendance is at 97 per cent. In the past five weeks, no student has missed a day.

Andrew Maloney, who teaches Years 4-6 ASD students at Marangaroo, said the key to the program’s success was creating a classroom environment where it was OK to fail.

He said once ASD students accepted they did not need to be perfect all the time, they were better placed to manage their anxieties, which freed them up to learn.

“It’s about setting up a classroom environment where mistakes are accepted and they’re part of learning,” he said.

“Very often these students are very critical of their own work and there’s no such thing as a draft. It’s got to be a final copy and the perfect final copy.

“So just establishing the fact that getting part of the way there is ok, and not having to get that perfect product every time.

“I really hate having a day off.

“I [don’t] want to not be there for the students. They’re making a lot of progress.”

Gosnells Primary School was the first to host the program in 2017, while Heathridge PS, Samson PS and Cooinda Primary in Bunbury are now also involved.

Each program is staffed with a program co-ordinator, three teachers and up to eight education assistants.

By 2020, it is expected the program will cater for 344 students with ASD.

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