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Supporting different needs of students with autism

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The education requirements of children with autism vary greatly and there is a growing need to support different learning settings, says the head of the State’s only Catholic primary school with a special education unit.

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Principal of St Patrick’s School at Mansfield Park, Frank Congedi, spoke of the increasing demand for special education learning in a mainstream environment during a visit to the school last month by Archbishop Wilson and the Archdiocesan leadership team as part of the parish visitation program.

He expressed the hope that the St Patrick’s model could be replicated in the southern, northern and eastern regions of Adelaide through the Catholic education system.

His comments coincided with debate in Federal Parliament over changes to Commonwealth funding for schools, which the Catholic education sector claims could impact students with disability. Senator Pauline Hanson attracted widespread condemnation for her comments about children with autism being removed from mainstream schooling.

“Pauline Hanson has branded children with autism as if they are all on the same level,” said Mr Congedi.

“We have 16 children with autism – some do really well in mainstream classrooms and others are looking at not just special education units but special schools.

“It’s about parents having the opportunity to have the right level of support and the right teaching setting for where their child is at.

“This notion of inclusion and the need to support different settings is an important part of Catholic education…to have this mixed level of support would be a wonderful way of providing the support that some children need to meet their sensory and learning needs and to reduce the anxiety which a lot of children in mainstream education experience.”

Mr Congedi said children with autism could “really flourish” if given the right opportunities.

He described the Archbishop’s visit as “fantastic” not just because he and his leadership team gained a better understanding of what was happening at the school, but because it “cast a light on this particular need and has the potential to create conversations between Catholic Education and the Federal Government to see if we can provide this model in other areas”.

Mr Congedi said in the late eighties his predecessor and renowned educator Sr Mary Mercer, who died last year, began thinking about creating a special class to meet the needs of children with a disability.

He said these needs had increased a lot over the past 20 years and the school was inundated with requests, particularly from parents of boys with autism, from all over Adelaide. “We have parents in tears because we can’t accommodate their child,” he said.

“The unit had humble beginnings in a small classroom but we have kept expanding and adding new facilities such as the open space, sensory rooms and indoor gym area,” he said.

“It is a great legacy of the work started by Sr Mary and a real privilege to have this unit in our school.”

The unit’s coordinator Catia Frasca said she was “blessed” to work in the area of special education and in such a “beautiful setting”.

“If the unit didn’t exist, the students would experience anxiety and have a high risk of depression by being in mainstream classroom settings all the time, and negative behaviours would increase which would make learning environments difficult for all students and teachers,” she explained.

Both Ms Frasca and Mr Congedi completed a 12-month graduate certificate in special education with an autism focus to enable them to help other teachers and staff to understand how best to support students in mainstream settings with a whole school focus.

“They are children who can be taught effectively, you just need the right learning environment and support for teachers to adopt specific strategies so that they know what does and doesn’t work,” Mr Congedi said.

The school also runs a disability awareness program for students every two years to ensure they embrace children with disabilities. The Spirit of Mary MacKillop Award recognises students who support these children.

Ms Frasca said staff in the unit had a close connection with families, many of whom came from migrant communities and need help in accessing assistance, including filling out forms for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

BELOW: Evan Bok works with Ruth Neubauer (ESO curriculum) in the St Patrick’s special education unit. Picture: Nat Rogers

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