Mark Metherell, October 3, 2007
Families with autistic children will get long-sought help whichever side wins the federal election.
In a policy duel both the Government and Labor this morning have announced a range of assistance measures for autistic children, who number about one in every 160 children in Australia.
The Prime Minister, John Howard, has acknowledged there are "major gaps" in services for such children.
He revealed a Coalition Government would spend $190 million over five years to assist children with "autism spectrum disorders".
New measures would include Medicare funded services for diagnosis and follow-up, early intervention services for about 15,000 families of children and 450 professional teachers.
Labor leader Kevin Rudd is promising to establish up to six child-care and early intervention services for children with autism disorders.
Autistic support groups have appealed for years for more support to help them meet the special difficulties in rearing autistic children who typically have speech and behavioural disabilities.
"What took them so bloody long? Family relationships have been permanently frayed while we struggle to meet the autism therapy cost crisis. We've been begging for decades. Thank God people are finally listening," said one Sydney parent, Jane Salmon, mother of Lindsay, 6.
AAP reports: Mr Howard this morning told ABC Radio the package would include early intervention services for up to 15,000 families with children under the age of six who have been diagnosed with autism.
The package also will provide training and support programs for the parents of autistic children.
Mr Howard said the Government would establish 200 new autism-specific playgroups across the country to aid the learning and development of children with the condition.
Families with children who have been diagnosed with severe autism may also be eligible for subsidies of $20,000 over two years.
Funding also will be provided to stage workshops and information centres for parents.
Up to 450 teachers and other skilled staff will receive specialist training to help cope with autistic children under the package.
He said part of the motivation for the package came from discussions with Judy Fisher, the wife of former deputy prime minister Tim Fisher, whose teenage son has autism.
Mr Howard said the five-year package, worth $190 million in total, would be rolled out from July next year.
He said autism affected many families, but was rarely talked about.
"Autism is a life-long mental disorder, it is rarely discussed, but has a huge impact on thousands of Australian families," Mr Howard told Sky News.
"It's estimated that one in every 160 children aged between six and 12 has a varying degree of autism."
"I am pleased that as a result of the healthy state of our budget, and of our strong economy, we can afford to generously support Australians in need.
"It is another way in which the Government is sharing the benefits of our strong economy with the community."
Mrs Fischer told ABC Radio the announcement would be well received.
"It's not about Judy Fischer, I can assure you," she said.
"It's about thousands of parents across Australia, and families, who have been fighting for so long to get their needs met.
"Families just need to know there is some system going to be put in place, so that when they get this diagnosis of a much-loved young family member they have somewhere to go, and somewhere to start making progress, because we know progress can be made but it's very expensive."
Labor backs plan
Labor has welcomed the Government's plan, saying it would consider expanding the program if it proved successful.
Opposition families and community services spokeswoman Jenny Macklin said families had been waiting a long time for more specialised services.
Labor today also announced its own funding package for families dealing with autism.
In the first stage of Labor's plan, six specialised early childhood centres will be launched.
"The [Prime Minister's] announcement will be very well received by families who have children with autism," Ms Macklin told Sky News.
"They've been waiting a long time for recognition of the huge burden that they've been carrying and that's why Labor also announced that we would deliver specialised child-care and early intervention services.
"We do understand how important it is to intervene early and provide the support that children need."
Ms Macklin said the Government's commitment represented a "good start" but Labor's plan would go further.
"There's no doubt that there are a significant number of children with autism," she said.
"If [our] new system of specialised child-care, early intervention services, works, we'd certainly like to see it expanded."
She said Australia had had an extraordinary period of economic growth off the back of the mining boom and Labor was pleased that money was going towards children who really needed it.
"Anyone who has had contact with families who have children with autism know that these children really do deserve the additional intensive support that's being proposed," Ms Macklin said.
"We think that parents have been waiting a long time for it."