With great curiosity and if I’m honest, a wee bit of trepidation, I got as close to living in ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) World as my life allows this week. Two days as a fly on the wall at Southern Autistic School (SAS) in Bentleigh East. The facility runs the gamut from Early Education Program (preschool) to Year 12, and is introducing a VCAL option from 2020. There are currently 273 students attending, 127 staff, including 51 teachers, 52 assistants, and 10 allied health professionals.
Staff shared with me the pressures of needing to be ‘the font of all wisdom’. While the weight of that responsibility could be difficult to manage at times, they agreed that focusing on attaining the best possible outcome for each individual kid is what steadies any anxiety. They are always searching for new ways to get the best out of the kids, both now and for the future.
Through the ‘I Can’ program, for example, the school has found a unique way for some of the older kids at SAS to manage their acquired feelings of negativity toward their autism. My throat lumped at the notion that some of the kids at this school are all too aware that they are different. We live in a world where the importance of “fitting in” and “finding one’s place” seems to be shouted at us from everywhere and everyone. Involving any child with autism, who has fears for what their future may hold, in programs facilitated by adults with autism, is a stroke of genius.
Upon visiting the school’s swimming pool, an indoor heated facility used in a multitude of therapies, and such, I met a young lad of 11. Let’s call him Mack. Mack was walking independently through the pool, acting as a kind of a human fountain, squirting water out of his mouth with impressive accuracy and length. As he enjoyed his aquatic experience, I was able to chat with his teacher while she was in the water, keeping her eye on him, while allowing him his independence.
Mack, it turned out, had a bit of an obsession with water, without any corresponding survival instincts, when he first came to SAS at preschool. He thought nothing of walking straight into any pool of water that he came across, whether he was fully clothed and wearing a backpack, or starkers. Hilarious, until you consider that Mack couldn’t swim. This obsession was nothing to laugh about. Water therapy for Mack consisted primarily of teaching him to survive when he found it, and given his obsessive adoration for it, find it he did, and often.
Recently, Mack and his family moved, a stressful manoeuvre at the best of times. Imagine his family, stressed out, boxes everywhere, kitchen akimbo, when they notice that Mack is nowhere to be seen. It turns out that our water baby had been checking out the new back yard, when he spotted a swimming pool two backyards away. Quick as a flick, Mack utilised his superior escaping powers, and took off to that pool. It didn’t take long for Mack’s parents to realise what had happened, and they bolted into their new neighbour’s place without so much as a “G’day”. There sat Mack, on the side of the pool steps. Alive. Dry. Waiting for an adult. As he’d been taught at SAS. Let that sink in.
Chatting with several parents during my visit, the issues experienced by them daily were brought into sharp focus. Frustrations ranged from being accosted by well-meaning passers-by ‘advising’ them on how to deal with their autistic child’s melt down, to the difficulties faced when learning how to use a new device designed to assist with communication skills between students and the rest of the world. Managing the obsessive behaviours of each individual child was also highlighted as a great challenge. I sat and listened to a mother who described to me at great length the various strategies she has used in order to manage her child’s love for fire. One of these is to be awake all night. Every night. She spoke of her child’s deep distress at his inability to control his obsession. SAS, she told me, was nothing short of a safe haven for her and her family. Her calm resolve to keep caring for her child, and knowing the great benefit to him of being here, helped her maintain her focus on him, rather than her own exhaustion.
In each classroom, across the varying age groups and range of disabilities, there was one constant. The calm. I observed teachers and assistants managing educational tasks, play time, lunch, toileting, communication and behavioural needs. Each member of staff could see, with the slightest “tell”, how each student was doing. Extra support, when required by a student, was provided without fanfare or fuss, and exquisite dance between staff and student.
Parents know that, at SAS, there are eyes on each child, always, monitoring the slightest alteration in body language, facial expression or sound. Significant behaviours are supported swiftly, safely and quietly. All available staff assist, with the absolute priority always being the safety of both the child displaying the behaviour, and any student in their path. Teachers are at times in the firing line. They just fill in the required incident report and get on with the job.
Not one person I spoke with expressed frustration with SAS. There was frustration regarding a lack of funding for extra staff, but none directed toward the school itself. I lost count of the number of times parents referred to SAS as their child’s ‘happy place’, and by extension, their own: a place where parents know their children are safe, their complex needs met with calm acceptance and understanding. Every effort is made to make adjustments for each individual student’s educational requirements, disability severity, personal hygiene, and communication style.
The ability to give over the care of your child, let alone a child with a disability requires complete trust. I don’t care whether your family is the traditional model, single parent, divorced, foster care, or any variation of those, the notion that there is another place in the world where your child is safe, is given every opportunity to learn, and is encouraged to belong must be difficult to entertain. From everything I witnessed, and from the very personal stories shared so generously with me during my all to brief visit, it appears that Southern Autistic School take their values, I Am Safe; I Am A Learner; I Belong, to heart. And now, they have found a place in mine.