Like any mother, Christina Holly wants her daughters to do their best at school.
The fact that 12-year-old Jasmine has autism does not change that but it means she needs extra help, and sometimes that is not possible in a regular classroom.
The Year 6 student struggles with literacy and numeracy, and that is when her teachers make the call she is better off in the nearby special education unit.
At John XXIII College, the Mary Ward Centre provides that backup and ensures she does not become too anxious, and her mother says it feels like the right mix.
“It works really well because they always endeavour to include Jazzy wherever possible, but they make the call when she needs some assistance with things like comprehension,” Ms Holly told Agenda.
“She is very capable, and they’ll push her when she needs it, and just like with children in mainstream schooling you have expectations for them.
“Sometimes Jazzy just needs extra time but you also want her to be independent and not rely on someone else, so it is getting the balance right.”
Seeing their children happily integrated into mainstream schooling has long been at the top of the wish-list for many parents of children with autism.
A good education is seen as the ultimate goal but one of the biggest fears of families is the thought of their children being isolated or missing out on basic social skills.
Jasmine Holly, 12, centre, who has autism, with her sister Madeleine, 7, and mother Christina at their Floreat home.
But while that has made “exclusion” a dirty word in schools in recent years, some parents and educators are questioning whether inclusion is really helping children with autism, or is just a feel-good policy.
An Autism West symposium in Perth this week has heard that the shift away from special schools and the push for inclusion has not been the road paved with social and educational success many parents expected for their children.
A growing number of parents have been so unhappy with their experience they have opted to homeschool their children, often at great emotional and economic cost to the family.
Experts have likened the experiences of some children to a type of stress disorder, where they end up feeling shattered by attending schools which are not geared to their needs.
Others argue inclusion has not worked because it has not been properly resourced so was doomed to struggle.
Silvana Gaglia understands why parents of children with autism are often desperate to have them in mainstream school and not feel excluded.
But the co-founder of the parent-led group Autism West says the reality is that many children feel excluded anyway, with mainstream schools not set up to deal with the sensory and anxiety issues associated with the condition.
Even with her 19-year-old son Julian, who attended a relatively progressive mainstream private school, it seemed like they were just treading water.
“It felt like sometimes he was just being babysat — he was prodded and pushed to do things but because the environment wasn’t right his learning wasn’t optimised,” Ms Gaglia said.
“I think they were really struggling in the last few years to understand his needs, and I don’t think he did much learning at all.
“The choice for parents currently is a mainstream school or a special school, and in many cases neither is the ideal solution, which is why so many parents resort to home schooling.”
The State Government believes it has part of the solution, announcing three months ago a plan to spend $32 million to set up programs specifically for children with autism at 16 schools.
The programs, which start from next year, follow a surge of children with autism into the education system, including more than 4000 in public schools.
Ms Gaglia says while the programs will not necessarily be the answer, they will help to bridge the gap that exists.
She supports setting up facilities that cater exclusively for children on the spectrum, believing many children need this in order to be able to achieve their potential, or to use it as a pathway to mainstream schooling.
“A teacher can certainly modify the curriculum but if the environment isn’t conducive to a child’s learning, they may not learn, and that’s certainly not inclusive,” she said.
“At present some of the great work being achieved by early intervention is lost when children enter the education system.
“It is a bit hit and miss, and children on the spectrum are different so what fits one doesn’t suit another.”
Perth developmental paediatrician John Wray is not convinced the planned specialist schools are the best way forward.
“In a sense it’s taking kids out of mainstream but not providing the solutions for them, but instead sort of distancing children with autism,” Dr Wray said.
“What we see in these children — the ones who find the education system traumatic — is post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They have battle fatigue and the solution is certainly not sending them back to the frontline every day.”
Dr Wray says that if families reluctantly decide to homeschool to protect their child, the money attached to their child at school, such as funding for an assistant, should be redirected to them.
He believes that instead of having programs at certain schools, the money could be better spent offering more flexible options for families.
Edith Cowan University school of education senior lecturer John O’Rourke, who is trained in special education, also questions if separate classrooms and schools are the answer.
“I believe segregation is a backwards step,” Dr O’Rourke said.
“It’s a slippery slope to start going down that path, as it may perpetuate thinking that it is not possible to support such students with their same age peers.
“My gut feeling is that we could use the funds in a better way — to beef up the expertise across all classrooms to make them more inclusive.”
Dr O’Rourke concedes it could be challenging for teachers, who are also under pressure from some parents of children without special needs who may feel too many resources are being diverted.
“I think teachers are generally receptive with the idea of inclusion but they struggle when they can’t quite understand a child’s behaviour,” he said.
“Without a doubt more expertise in this area is needed in schools but what we really need is to build up the capacity to support not just children with autism but the diversity that exists.
“It worries me this could be seen as a way of thinking we have autism sorted and it will be hard for schools to be encouraged to raise the bar if they know there is a ‘special needs’ school just down the road.”
Speakers at this week’s forum agree that educating children with autism is not a simple decision of inclusion versus segregation.
Dr O’Rourke says not all parents will be happy with the services their child receives.
“There’s always going to be a conflict to some degree because no one loves their child like a parent does,” Dr O’Rourke said.
“A teacher is simply doing a job, albeit a very important one, and can’t understand all the nuances of autism like the parent.”