World Autism Awareness Month: Here’s why Australia’s children with autism are falling between the gaps

by By Kay Turner, MSSC UWS, Bed (Early Childhood) Macq, MAICD GIA (Cert) CEO, SDN Children’s Services

April 18

World Autism Awareness Month is upon us – a month where diversity is celebrated and inclusion embraced.

 

In Australia, one in one hundred people are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. For most, this diagnosis comes early in life.

 

A child’s ability to learn starts long before they enter school, with early learning playing a vital role in their development. For a child with autism, this is particularly critical. Access to quality early learning is a right for all Australian children, yet those with autism continue to experience exclusionary and discriminatory early learning settings, and struggle to access quality education.

 

When world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, the international community reaffirmed its strong commitment to inclusive, accessible and sustainable development, and pledged that no one would be left behind. However, despite international and national anti-discrimination legislation and various government policy commitments, children with autism continue to fall between the gap.

 

This has been exacerbated with the individualised approach of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the removal of Priority of Access Rules when the Child Care Subsidy replaced the Child Care Benefit, and the ending of subsidised professional development for early childhood educators.

 

Inclusion is a response to discrimination and inequality, and it is the key for all children, regardless of their strengths, challenges or backgrounds, to succeed in the future. But, too often Australian families who have a child with autism, still have to fight for them to be fully included in the early learning setting of their choice.

 

Removing priority of access requirements is making it even more difficult, and then when a child does get access, there is often limited specialist support available for the educators. This is especially true when referring to specialist professional development that aims to build educators’ capability and capacity. This situation often leads to unsustainable enrolment ultimately leading to even less access.

 

Approximately 7.6% of Australian children aged 0-14 years have a disability or developmental delay (including autism). There is a strong association between disability, developmental delay and low family income, because of the costs associated with having a child with a disability and the challenges in sustaining employment.

 

Without sustainable enrolments in early learning, a child’s educational foundation may be compromised and a family can struggle to maintain work and/or study. The compounding stress this situation places on a family can lead to unstable housing, compromised mental health and family breakdown.

 

Those who start school behind often stay left behind for life. Quality early learning is essential for all children to assist with their preparation and transition into school and to optimise engagement in organised learning environments. Children need to arrive at school ready to participate and thrive in their ongoing learning journey.

 

Australia therefore needs inclusive attitudes and policies to create better opportunities for our children (and their families) with disability or developmental delay. Investment and reform are required to include a range of additional, targeted, wrap-around services for children and their families, to ensure all children can fully benefit from quality early learning.

 

If we want an equitable Australia where all children thrive, then urgent attention must be paid to the consequences of our national policies. Change is required to ensure all children have fair and genuine opportunities to participate in, and learn from, the everyday routines, interactions and learning experiences that occur in early learning environments.

 

This World Autism Awareness Month, we ask our government to do just that – acknowledge our children with autism, reform the policies that exclude them, and embrace the diversity they offer to our schools and communities.

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