Schools treating children with autism like terror suspects

Bill ​O'Chee

It is shocking to discover that children with disabilities are being disciplined using the same methods used by the CIA in the torture of suspected terrorists.

While the CIA's interrogation methods have attracted widespread condemnation, there has been but a muffled squeak over children with autism being locked in darkened rooms, cages or boxes in Australian primary schools.

If the objective of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques" is to terrify and break the will of grown men, imagine what it must do to the mind of a child, especially one with a disability.

In Queensland recently, it was revealed an eight-year-old child was locked in a darkened storeroom some 20 times at Kawungan State School, in Hervey Bay.

Hell, it would scare me, let alone an eight-year-old child.

Yet Education Queensland still tried to pretend it was just a "time out".

Last month it was revealed that a day centre in Melbourne put children with autism in a "desensitising box" in a classroom.

And this week a boy with autism in Blacktown had been found chained in his house by his parents.

It is a disgraceful and appalling way to treat children, but one which is entirely unsurprising according to a leading autism advocate.

Nicole Rogerson, the chief executive of Autism Awareness Australia, says Australian schools do a poor job of dealing with children with disabilities such as autism, and that teachers are just not properly supported.

"Education departments have no idea of how to manage these children in an educational setting.  Putting a teacher through a one-day workshop isn't enough," she said.

"And you can't ask a teacher with 30 kids to put together a program for autistic children, and help them to develop appropriately."

When teachers are incapable of coping with the demands, then unfortunately children end up the victims.

No doubt there are some readers who will be privately saying that children with disabilities should be confined to special schools, but I respectfully disagree.

Children with disabilities have a wide spectrum of capabilities, and confining them all to special schools would deprive them of the opportunity to grow, to achieve their potential, and to be valuable members of society.

I can speak with some experience. 

My 17-year-old son has Down Syndrome, but was chosen last month to be a school prefect at Kedron State High School, a position he won on his own merit.

Just as importantly, how we treat others is a good measure of the sort of people we are ourselves.

People with disabilities are part of our communities.

Our schools should be the pathway to their active participation as members of our communities. Shoving every child with a disability into a special school is shutting the gate before they can step foot on that pathway.

The difference between good news stories and the horror stories we hear too often, is all down to the teachers and teacher aides.  In my son's case, he has had some truly outstanding teachers, at both primary and secondary school.

However, Nicole Rogerson is quick to point out that a lot more needs to be done.

She says that with proper professional staff to assist children with autism to settle into schools, teachers can help these children flourish.

But that can't be done by just a single teacher, with minimal training, who has to look after 30 other students.  It's just not fair on the teacher.  It's also not fair on the students.

Because of the behavioural difficulties children with autism sometimes face, autism is part of the front line in the battle for disabilities in schools.

It is time for everyone to do better.  That extends from the federal government - which largely sees it as a state education issue - to the states themselves, the schools and even the parents.

While there are many parents who do a great job, there are some who are happy to leave it to others.

For decades the systemic neglect of children with autism has been bad enough, but the outright abuse revealed on an intermittent basis demands we change the way we shape the lives of these children, and soon.