Autism support groups have warned of an impending national crisis, as growing numbers of children diagnosed with autism reach high school age, with few options for specialised education and public schools with a dramatic shortage of trained staff.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Finding the right school for a child with autism can be difficult and frustrating for parents, and it's even harder when students reach high school.
Some families resort to home-schooling or teenagers may drop out altogether.
More children are being diagnosed with autism than ever, and that means support groups are warning of a looming national crisis, with few trained staff and limited options for specialised education.
As Tracy Bowden reports, a community north of Sydney has decided to take matters into its own hands.
TRACY BOWDEN, REPORTER: This has been the ultimate community effort - driven by desperation.
There was no specialist high school for children with autism in the Hunter Valley, so dozens of locals got together and built one.
HILTON GRUGEON: The parents badly needed it, and so the community just gets in behind it.
TRACY BOWDEN: Local businessman Hilton Grugeon is the unofficial project manager.
HILTON GRUGEON: We'd have a painter turn up on his own, that lives locally and offers to paint a few classrooms.
We have other businesses that send their workers here and don't put in a bill for it.
TEACHER: We are going to play Hang Man to introduce our novel that we'll start reading next week, okay?
TRACY BOWDEN: This is the result - a class with 13 students and four specially trained staff.
TEACHER: Just a few of our classmates that are just about to finish and then we'll do it all together.
LACHLAN, ASPECT HUNTER STUDENT: Okay.
TRACY BOWDEN: Why is it better than your old school?
LACHLAN: Mainly because I don't get pushed, being called names or being bullied.
TRACY BOWDEN: Why do you think they were doing that?
LACHLAN: 'Cause I'm different.
LARA CHENEY, PRINCIPAL ASPECT HUNTER SCHOOL: The criteria for enrolment is a diagnosis of autism.
So we have children across the spectrum and all of our students have such individualised needs and we, and strengths and interests.
So we work with their strengths and interests, look at what their challenges are and develop a program that is very individualised.
TEACHER: You can go again. Put this in your bag, thanks Brittnie.
TRACY BOWDEN: The high school is being run by Autism Spectrum Australia, or Aspect, Australia's largest non-profit autism service provider.
TEACHER: Okay, you can keep going through that Brittnie.
TRACY BOWDEN: Several of the students, like 15-year-old Brittnie Gilmore, were being home-schooled before starting here.
Brittnie has a nine-year-old brother and a 15-month-old little sister. Her mother is breathing a sigh of relief.
TONI JANALY: When we found out that it was now an option, oh, you know, just, just praying that we'd be lucky enough to get a spot, and we were, thank goodness.
TRACY BOWDEN: Brittnie went to an Aspect specialist school during her primary years, but there was no high school option in the area.
She was miserable in the mainstream system.
TONI JANALY: She wasn't able to regulate her emotions and become heightened to the point where she would sometimes become physically violent towards teachers and, of course, resulting in suspension.
BRITTNIE, ASPECT HUNTER STUDENT: I'd get bullied a lot and no-one never done anything about it. Yeah, the teachers, yeah, they called me a monster and said I was too dangerous to be around.
TONI JANALY: We got to the point where Brittnie was home more than at school, due to continuous suspensions.
So, we, yeah, our only option was home-schooling.
NICOLE ROGERSON, AUTISM AWARENESS AUSTRALIA: We know that this is a tsunami level of kids about to hit high school, and we're not prepared for it in any state in Australia.
TRACY BOWDEN: Nicole Rogerson, from Autism Awareness Australia, warns that parents across Australia are facing the same concerns as those in the Hunter Valley, and state governments need to act.
So, do you think the priority is to have better systems in place in public schools or to build more specific schools?
NICOLE ROGERSON: My preference, absolutely, would be to have better services and support in the local schools so that all kids can be educated in their local community and that we have a truly inclusive education environment.
That's what we really want but I do understand, for some families, for some kids, that's just not as easy as it sounds and even in big cities like Sydney and Melbourne, let alone if you are in smaller states.
There are very few high schools that are dedicated to educating children on the autism spectrum.
TRACY BOWDEN: Back at Aspect Hunter, 13-year-old Callum Unstead is quickly settling in after being left out and teased at regular school.
CALLUM: I get more one-on-one time with teachers and friends, and I like this school so much.
SUSAN AGLAND: Callum had gone to a mainstream primary school all the way up until the end of Year 6.
But those schools just weren't resourced to manage his autism and so we were a little bit concerned about what high school would present for him, the challenges that he would present, and having this opportunity to come to a school that understands autism so well is really exciting for us.
CALLUM: We all understand each other in our class, and so there's no bullying.
It's all just, we all understand each other in here. Good friendship, yeah...
TRACY BOWDEN: So, it's a pretty big deal, isn't it?
TRACY BOWDEN: Is he a happier boy?
SUSAN AGLAND: Much, much happier boy.
TRACY BOWDEN: So, how is school going so far for you guys?
CALLUM: Really good.
TRACY BOWDEN: Principal Lara Cheney explains that while the standard school curriculum is taught, they are also preparing the students for adulthood.
LARA CHENEY: We're always looking at what students need to engage and learn at their best.
So, for some students, it might be standing up and running down the ramp of the school, and then bringing themselves back to class and ready to learn again.
Other students might be completing their work on the floor. They may be sitting in swings to complete their work.
TRACY BOWDEN: How important do you think this school is in helping you to achieve your goals?
TRACY BOWDEN: The ASPECT school could eventually take up to 60 students.
SUSAN AGLAND: So, he's not a number, he's not one of hundreds of children attending a school. This is a much smaller school and he's going to learn in an environment that understands his particular challenges and gifts, and his specific gifts.
LARA CHENEY: It's just nice to see students coming together who have had similar experiences. Some positive and some not so positive and looking at this opportunity as a fresh start.
TONI JANALY: It's such a relief for Brittnie and to see her happy and to feel included and accepted. You know? And genuinely happy. She's happy now.