In 2015 an estimated 22,600 autistic children and young people living in Victoria attended school.7 The Victorian Government is committed to establishing Victoria as the Education State, in which every Victorian has equal access to the knowledge and skills to shape their lives. Part of this work is to promote inclusive practices in schools so they can better support all children and young people.
The inquiry and consultations heard about some of the challenges facing autistic children and young people in accessing school education.
Consultation survey responses highlighted the importance of coordinating supports and strengthening inclusion in schools by:
- building the capabilities of school leaders to create an inclusive school environment
- emphasising the benefits of inclusion for all students and staff
- strengthening accountability for implementing inclusive practices and for supports provided.
In response to the inquiry recommendations, the Department of Education and Training took a number of immediate actions, including:
- providing 60 scholarships for teachers to undertake the Master of Education (Applied Behaviour Analysis) through Monash University
- doubling the number of scholarships offered to Victorian government school teachers to complete the Graduate Diploma of Teaching Students with ASD through the Autism Teaching Institute to 40 in 2018
- appointing eight regional autism and inclusion consultants (two in each of the four regions of the state) to provide evidence-based information, training and mentoring to school leaders and other school staff in Victorian government schools on best practice in supporting autistic students
- working with Yellow Ladybugs to produce Spotlight on girls with autism, a resource for teachers to better understand and support autistic girls
- working with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to design autism training that can be delivered across the government, Catholic and Independent school sectors
- undertaking the Project to Accommodate Students with a Disability in Schools to establish a prioritised and evidence-based specialist infrastructure pipeline, covering both inclusive and/or standalone specialist school sites.
In 2017 and 2018, the Department of Education and Training and Amaze worked with stakeholders to develop priorities for better supporting autistic students in Victorian government schools. These are outlined below.
The Department of Education and Training will build on these priorities to develop an evidence-based strategy that will describe the department's comprehensive and joined-up approach to meeting the educational needs and aspirations of autistic students in Victorian government schools.
School staff capability
Improving knowledge of autism and building staff capability in supporting autistic students applies to school staff at all levels – including school leaders, teachers and education support staff.
4.1 Increase the workforce capability in Victorian schools to support autistic students
- From 2019, provide additional scholarships (75 over four years) to continue to support teachers and regional allied health professional to undertake the Master of Education (Applied Behaviour Analysis)
- An additional university course has also been included in this initiative to deliver a Master of Education (Autism Spectrum Disorder) through Australian Catholic University.
- Provide more scholarships to Victorian government school teachers to build their capabilities to teach autistic students
- Work in partnership with teacher training institutions to strengthen teacher capability in teaching autistic students
- Improve the professional competency of Victorian government school teachers to teach students with disability, including autism, through scholarships to undertake a Master of Education (Inclusive Education)
- Roll out school-wide positive behaviour support that assists school professionals to improve social behaviour and learning in schools
- Work with Yellow Ladybugs to produce Spotlight on girls with autism, a resource and website for teachers to understand and support autistic girls
- Build all new Victorian government schools, including mainstream schools, tech schools and specialist schools, with flexible learning spaces that are appropriate for teacher training and professional development
- Existing schools that undergo significant upgrades will also have these design features included.
- Improve online resources and training for early childhood professionals to increase knowledge and confidence in supporting young children with disability and developmental delay to meet their learning and developmental needs
- Investigate how to build and maintain relevant allied health expertise in the education system in rural and regional areas
- Identify how best to ensure that all staff in Victorian government schools are aware of their legal obligations relating to autistic students, including obligations around enrolment and making reasonable adjustments for autistic students
Inclusive school environment and family-school partnerships
Schools are responsible for providing an inclusive social environment to support all students, including those with autism, and addressing any negative attitudes and behaviours towards students with additional needs to ensure an inclusive education experience for all. Strong family and school partnerships are vital for positive school experiences and engagement for autistic students and the wider school community. Families play an important role in children having positive experiences of school, and clear communication between schools and families can improve social, wellbeing and educational outcomes for autistic students.
Under the $40 million Inclusive Schools Fund, Victorian government schools have been provided with quality new spaces and more inclusive facilities, based on best practice research and design. Since 2015, this fund has supported 181 projects which build and enhance a school culture of inclusion as well as enhancing the participation of students with disability, including those with autism.
4.2. Strengthen inclusive practices in schools
- Continue to provide opportunities for families who homeschool their children to seek a partial enrolment at their local government school so their children can access particular subjects or activities at school
- Support the expansion of the I CAN Schools program, which provides face-to-face mentoring for autistic students by autistic mentors in Victorian government schools
- Support the I CAN Network to develop, pilot and evaluate an online mentoring program for autistic children and young people to develop self-acceptance, belonging, optimism and confidence at school
- Expand the Bully Stoppers online toolkit to include evidence-based anti-bullying practice guides and resources for schools, with a focus on students with disabilities, including those with autism
- Scope models of outreach success, including for regional and rural Victoria, to determine evidence-based best practice
- Support Victorian government schools to review and refine their inclusion policies and provide high-level information about the policies on school websites
- This will help families to see how each school is promoting inclusive education.
- Develop policies and practices to provide inclusive practices in the new inclusion hub schools
- Investigate options to collect information about a student's autism diagnosis to support schools to comply with the Disability Standards for Education for enrolment of autistic students in Victorian government schools
Case study: I CAN Network in schools
"I like how I get to meet and talk to other people who are also on the spectrum … I CAN is really fun and helps me overcome negative thoughts and keeps me more positive."
– I CAN student participant
Coburg High School was one of three Victorian government schools to trial the I CAN schools pilot program in 2016. It started the program with six students in fortnightly sessions with an autistic mentor, with the aim of building confidence and understanding emotional intelligence. In 2017 Coburg High School students took part in stage 2 of the program, which focused on developing leadership skills, emotional intelligence and training to become a mentor.
One student had challenges with communication and experienced low self-esteem. After taking part in stage 1 of I CAN he had built his confidence to the point that he was invited to be master of ceremonies at the I CAN school presentation night. Another student experienced significant anxiety and was becoming increasingly disengaged from school. I CAN mentoring helped him explore these issues and work on problem solving with likeminded peers and experienced mentors. At the end of the program, he provided an engaging and entertaining presentation on his favourite topic and great strength – soccer.
The school's I CAN coordinator, David Snaddon, says the program has "contributed to a culture of understanding, empathy and enhanced capacity in staff". The school has been impressed with the growth and development it has seen in students involved in I CAN. It sees the program as a long-term investment in a positive school culture and hopes the students being mentored today will become the mentors of tomorrow.
4.3 Improve information about education and education support systems for parents and autistic students
- Review and expand the existing online resources to guide parents when choosing schools for their children with disability
- Use the Victorian Home Education Advisory Committee as issues arise to clarify:
- the existing supports available to parents who homeschool their autistic children, including online resources and partial enrolment options
- the expectation that parents considering homeschooling for their autistic children contact their school to discuss options for better engagement in the school setting
Targeted and individualised supports and student wellbeing and mental health
Promoting positive student wellbeing and mental health for autistic students is important to help them to feel less stressed and anxious, more positive about their abilities and future opportunities in education and employment, and more socially included.
"Fairness isn't about everybody getting the same; it's about everybody getting what they need."
– Education workshop participant
We need to strengthen the system of supports currently available to schools to identify and respond to the learning and support needs of more students with disability, including autism.
4.4 Strengthen individualised supports for autistic students
- Pilot and refine tools and processes to inform research into a new school funding and support model for Victorian government schools to better meet the needs of students with disability, including autism
- Promote the Responding to requests for NDIS funded therapy in schools guidelines, which were developed to assist school principals with requests for NDIS-funded therapy to be delivered in Victorian government schools
- Improve career education and pathway planning for students with disability by developing resources and delivering professional development for teachers, career practitioners, students, parents and employers
- Invest in student health and wellbeing, including by:
- employing more allied health service staff, such as speech pathologists and psychologists, in the education system
- funding mental health practitioners in every Victorian government secondary school campus by 2022
- Examine relevant areas of vocational education and training policy and programs in Victoria to ensure:
- the specific issues autistic Victorians face are appropriately addressed in professional development delivered to VET practitioners through such entities as the VET Development Centre
- government-funded support programs offered by Learn Locals and TAFEs, such as Reconnect, are able to respond to these issues through targeted and appropriate supports
- high-quality training and support is available across the state for more people with disability and their carers to access skills, training and jobs
- the Victorian training system is able to meet demand for high-quality training for an expanding NDIS workforce
Increased participation in the workforce would benefit many autistic people and would strengthen the Victorian economy. However, autistic people are under-represented in the workforce – Australia-wide in 2015 an estimated 50 per cent of working-age autistic people were not in the labour force. Of those who were, half were employed part time.1
The inquiry and consultations highlighted a range of challenges that autistic people face in both gaining and sustaining employment.
The challenges include:
- a lack of understanding among employers of the needs of autistic people
- the need for more support to negotiate the social and communication demands of traditional workplaces (such as interviews)
- difficulties in establishing flexible workplace arrangements and negotiating reasonable adjustments.
The government is a large employer and has an important role to play in creating and supporting sustainable employment opportunities for autistic people.
Survey participants highlighted the importance of a commitment from the Victorian Government to employ autistic people.
4.5 Increase employment of autistic Victorians
- Enhance employment of autistic people in both the Victorian public sector and broader Victorian economy by implementing actions in Every opportunity: Victorian economic participation plan for people with disability 2017-2020
- Actions under Every opportunity include:
- increasing investment to provide more targeted opportunities for people with disability, including by establishing a dedicated disability employment support stream within the Jobs Victoria Innovation Fund and piloting a new employer liaison role to secure more jobs for people with disability
- using the STEM and Agri Lab models to create employment opportunities for young rural autistic Victorians
- creating 50 paid internships for people with disability, including autistic people, across the Victorian economy
- using the Small Business Festival Victoria 2018 to raise awareness about inclusion and to showcase the contribution that people with disability, including autistic people, make as small business owners and employees
- evaluating the RISE employment initiative for autistic people at the Department of Health and Human Services and considering rolling it out across other Victorian public sector bodies
- promoting the whole-of-government social procurement framework to enhance employment opportunities for autistic people.
- Through the Jobs Victoria Innovation Fund, implement the Dandelion Program to place 20 young autistic jobseekers into small- to medium-sized enterprises in Victoria
- Develop and implement a Victorian public sector disability employment action plan focused on making attraction, recruitment, retention and career progression strategies inclusive of all people with disability, including autistic people
- This will be undertaken in partnership with the Victorian Public Service Employees with Disability Network (the Enablers).
Case study: RISE at the Department of Health and Human Services
"I know what it's like from the other side. I want to be right there on the frontline making the workforce a much friendlier place for the atypicals of the world."
The Department of Health and Human Services introduced the RISE program in 2017 to provide employment opportunities for autistic people. Developed with the support of Specialisterne Australia, RISE is enabling autistic people to be valued for their unique skills and is helping to build a departmental workforce that better reflects the community it serves.
Adam Walton is employed through the RISE program. Before joining RISE, Adam worked intermittently in workplaces that didn't accommodate him and didn't enable him to develop a career path.
"I wasn't always so fortunate. I finally had a good run of luck after a decade or more of career dead-ends, fruitless job interviews, unsympathetic and ill-informed workplaces, and frustration."
Adam sees taking part in the RISE program as a major step in building a career.
"I have been lucky, and I have a lot to thank my lucky stars for. But I am aware that many people like myself have not been so blessed with good fortune … I hope the program I participated in sets a precedent. I hope it is the first of many such initiatives in this country."
Adam is passionate about reshaping the way companies consider and hire applicants. The RISE program gives Adam an opportunity not only to shape a career path but to be an advocate and example for other autistic people.
Parents with autism
Parents' capacity and wellbeing has a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of children and young people. Autistic parents often have little formal support that assists them in raising their children, who may also be autistic.
Autistic parents should be able to raise their children with the confidence that any services and supports they draw on will meet their needs while recognising their agency and expertise.
The inquiry noted there is little formal research into the experiences and needs of autistic parents and their families and a lack of targeted services to support autistic parents.
The Victorian Government acknowledges and promotes Amaze's Parenting skills guide for autistic parents.2
4.6 Increase inclusion and supports for autistic people who are parents
- Together with stakeholders, identify the resource needs of autistic parents, scope existing resources (such as the Parenting skills guide for autistic parents) and make recommendations for additions or enhancements
- Include a focus on support for parents and carers in twice-yearly issues-based forums involving the autism community, cross-government representatives and stakeholders
- Work with autism stakeholders to develop and implement peer support models that respond to the needs of autistic parents
Voice and leadership
The inquiry and consultations highlighted that autistic people want to be involved and should be involved in developing policies and programs that affect them.
The government recognises that autistic people are experts in what is best for them and commits to involving autistic people, their families and supporters when developing policies. The Victorian Government looks to local governments, service providers, professionals and the community to support this commitment to inclusion.
The government established the Victorian Autism Plan Advisory Group to advise on developing this plan. Members represented a broad range of autistic people, their families and supporters. The government also engaged with the broader autism community through targeted meetings, workshops and an online survey.
4.7 Promote the voice and leadership of autistic people
4.7.1 Involve autistic Victorians and their families in improving services and supports
- Establish and operate an Autism Plan Implementation Advisory Group to advise government on implementing this plan
- Forums will include a focus on improving service integration and coordination, support for life transitions, support for parents and carers, emerging research and NDIS transition.
- Partner with the autism community to introduce twice-yearly issues-based forums involving cross-government representatives and stakeholders to ensure that autistic people, their families and supporters are engaged and heard
- Engage with the new Autism Success Network within the Victorian Public Service Employees with Disability Network when developing and implementing disability action plans and other internal policies and processes
4.7.2 Work with autism organisations and others to ensure a sustainable and vibrant network of community support led by and for autistic Victorians and their families
Strengthen autism support organisations and community groups to:
- promote community understanding and acceptance of autism
- better connect autistic people and their families
- provide peer support and advocacy
Strengthen resourcing of community and sector leaders to ensure a sustainable support network for autistic people and their families
4.7.3 Increase the representation of autistic people in leadership positions
Strengthen pathways for people with disability, including autistic people, to Victorian public sector bodies and committees
Support the I CAN Network to develop young autistic people between 15 and 24 years of age as speakers, mentors and emerging leaders
 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015, Survey of disability, ageing and carers 2015, TableBuilder data. This estimate includes autistic adults aged 18–64
 See the Amaze website.