The public lecture 'Supporting autistic students in mainstream schools' featured speakers from the non-profit New England Center for Children (NECC) as well as a former employee, Dr Erin Leif, who now lectures at Monash.

Since opening in the US in 1975, the centre has run programs, sold software and offered consultations helping more than 13,000 students worldwide. However, it's not been used in any Australian school,  founder, president and CEO, Vincent Strully Jr reports. 

According to Strully, Australia’s mainstream schools “only support fragmented hours of intervention for supporting students with autism”.

“In the US, the ratios are different. It’s funded appropriately, but we do use and train the paraprofessionals. We have more of them than we saw of them here," he said. 

The US is streets ahead with its federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDA) Act. It aims to ensure children with disabilities throughout the nation can access a “free appropriate public education” as well as special education and related services.

Students qualify under 13 categories of disabilities. Also, the act was amended in December 2015 through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which came into force in September 2017. It aims to all children access to a fair, equitable, high quality education.

Mere minutes of support

An attendee at the public lecture spoke about one of her friends whose child with autism was only given “10 minutes [support] to attend school”.

“My two boys were also part of these reduced hours. They need learning, they can learn. My boys do have behaviours of concern, but we’re been working with that and have come a long way … we’re working towards functional communication.”

She said that as a member of social media groups of parents with autistic children, she was aware many of those children were “not in school, instead were doing home schooling, have had extremely bad experiences or many were … part time [in school]”.

Need for trained specialist staff

There is a global demand for Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) services such as his to support students with autism, Strully said. This was despite some detractors in the audience saying they had heard reports students had post-traumatic stress syndrome after undergoing an ABA program.

“There’s bad work being done everywhere with lots of people saying they’ve been behaviour trained, but aren’t," Strully noted. 

“There are funding challenges everywhere and it’s really hard to sustain and do. Quality control is vital. You need professionals. The science will prevail no matter what people say about ABA … We’ve been one of the few [organisations] that have been able to scale … our peer-reviewed results."

He argued for the the need for parents and schools to take political action in Australia to increase the number of teachers trained to work with students with autism. 

Where does that leave mainstream teachers?

When asked what a teacher could do to better support students with autism in their mainstream classroom tomorrow, Strully’s response was this:

“Tomorrow is short. I'd really recommend trying to get in touch with someone who has the educational background - a behaviour analyst - to provide the specific training and education that's required to really learn how to effectively support students, implement instruction, maximise student success.” 

Meanwhile, Leif, added: “Applied behaviour analysis is a science. It’s not a bag of tricks being given to anyone or we’d end up with bad practice, which is why we end up with negative perceptions [about applied behaviour analysis]. 

“The take-home point is to understand that behaviours are communication … the behaviours don't occur just because you have a bad or frustrated kid.”

The prevalence of autism is increasing globally, not just in our classrooms. When the NECC opened more than 45 years ago, just one in 10,000 people been diagnosed with autism. Now it’s one in 68 in the US, says the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to one in 70 people in Australia now, according to Autism Spectrum Australia’s revised rates mid last year.

Parents and teachers will be able to access practical advice about supporting students with autism in mainstream schools from Monash University’s Faculty of Education website from April.