October 26, 2011
THE number of children in NSW public schools with autism is nearly four times higher than it was just eight years ago, placing a significant strain on the Education Department budget.
Figures released by the department yesterday show that in 2003 slightly more than 2000 students across the state had been diagnosed with the disorder; this year some 8400 students have been diagnosed.
In the same period the number of children in public schools with mental health disorders including depression and some serious behavioural disorders has almost doubled to 8000 students.
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In stark contrast, the number of students with intellectual or physical disabilities has not changed. Fewer students have hearing or vision disabilities.
In 1988 only 1.9 per cent of NSW public school students had a confirmed disability. After doubling by 1998, the percentage has continued to rise and now sits at 6 per cent. By 2020, the government expects one in 10 students to have a diagnosed disability.
In 1998 NSW spent $425 million on disability funding in schools. This year the department will spend $1.18 billion.
Another 6 per cent of the total school population of 740,000 students have additional needs related to learning difficulties and behavioural disorders including attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, language or communication delays.
The fastest-growing categories for primary students are autism and Asperger syndrome and, for secondary students, mental health issues.
Overwhelmingly, parents of students with autism and mental health disorders choose to place their children in normal schools. The majority are in regular classes, although enrolments are also rising for support classes in regular schools. Numbers of students in special schools have risen only slightly over the past decade.
Some 6500 of the students with autism are studying in regular classes, along with nearly 7000 students with mental health disorders. The numbers are forcing a serious rethink within the department on how best to spend the rapidly escalating budget provisions for students with disabilities.
Although parents often request funding for their disabled child be spent on a teacher's aide, the department is keen to focus on developing the skills of teachers to deal with the much larger numbers of students requiring special assistance. Extra federal government funding of $200 million for students with disabilities has been earmarked for teacher support and training.
While students with disabilities are spread across the state, there are sizeable regional differences. In northern Sydney, for example, only 2.1 per cent of students are diagnosed with a disability, compared with 6.7 per cent in western NSW and 5.9 per cent on the north coast. South-western Sydney sits right on the state average for students with a disability but has more than 10,000 students with additional learning and support needs, the highest number in the state.
The vast majority of students with a disability study in public schools. Nearly 77 per cent of students with disabilities are in public schools compared with 23 per cent in the non-government sector, where 33 per cent of all students go to school.
The longer-term impact of disability is profound. Only one-third of adults with disabilities completed year 12, compared with 50 per cent of those without, while average incomes are half of those without disabilities.