Discussion of matter of public importance

MR ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Mr Doszpot): Madam Speaker has received letters from Ms Berry, Dr Bourke, myself, Mr Gentleman, Mr Hanson, Ms Lawder, Ms Porter, Mr Smyth and Mr Wall proposing that matters of public importance be submitted to the Assembly. In accordance with standing order 79, Madam Speaker has determined that the matter proposed by Ms Lawder be submitted to the Assembly, namely:

The importance of providing intensive early intervention programs for children with autism in the ACT.

MS LAWDER (Brindabella) (4.17): It gives me great pleasure to rise today to talk about an important topic—early intervention services for children with autism. Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. ASD encompasses characteristics varying in severity across domains of cognitive, communication and social development with restricted interest and repetitive behaviour.


Individually, each child who appears on the spectrum is different from the next, but sadly ASD is not rare. One in 100 children in Australia is diagnosed with ASD. As a previous member of the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council, I know very well the challenges that families face when they have a family member with a disability. For those families who have a child with autism, there can be further challenges that come with a lack of understanding of ASD in our community.

Commonly, a child with ASD is overlooked, with the assumption that they are just being naughty or simply the result of lazy parenting. It is an enormous undertaking for any family along the time line from when they suspect their child is not developing as quickly or in the same way as others to when they are able to get a diagnosis, help and support. We need to be doing more in the ACT to assist families in this.

Research has proven that the earlier an ASD diagnosis is made and the sooner intervention services can be provided with intensive therapy, the more likely it is that a child with ASD will learn skills and be able to move into a mainstream school and maintain a relatively stable life. We have programs to assist in the ACT now, but they are nowhere near the standard they need to be to have the best chance of helping our children.

The programs are sometimes described as fragmented, that diagnosis is too slow, that support is hard to access and that there are just too few early intervention services. The ACT is one of only two jurisdictions in Australia that do not have a specific early intervention centre for children with ASD. The federal Labor government a few years ago, as part of their helping children with autism program, built six autism-specific early learning and care centres around Australia, but not one in the ACT. These centres provide early learning programs and specific support for children aged zero to six years with ASD.

These autism-specific early learning centres provide parents with much more support than they would otherwise be getting. These valuable centres, through their affiliation with universities and hospitals, also assist with research and workforce training to achieve a better understanding of ASD in our community.

For reasons unknown to us, the federal Labor government did not think the ACT was worthy of this and, along with the Northern Territory, we missed out. The Canberra Liberals disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that the ACT does not need or deserve a centre such as this. We understand the importance of providing intensive early intervention programs for children with autism in the ACT and we believe an autism-specific early learning centre is vital. In fact, the Canberra Liberals took a policy to the ACT election last year to fill the hole we have here in the ACT. It was a fully funded, fully costed policy that we took to the election to have an autism-specific early intervention centre for children aged 2½ to six years here in the ACT.

The school was to be purpose built to cater for up to 40 children in this age bracket with a high staff ratio of two to one. The autism-specific early intervention school was to be modelled on the successful AEIOU Foundation schools already operating throughout Queensland. Unfortunately, the government and the Greens last year smacked this proposal down. They did not want to engage on the merits of the policy. They did not list this as a priority, and they ensured the policy did not get any headway. Again, as recently as April this year, the Canberra Liberals brought a motion into this place encouraging the government to support this policy, because we wanted this centre to go ahead, regardless of politics, because it is not about politics. It is about priorities; it is about people's lives and the future of our children.

Our priority here is supporting those families in the ACT that are most impacted by ASD. Research has shown that 75 per cent of those with ASD who complete a two-year program with the AEIOU early learning centres transition successfully into mainstream school. I repeat: 75 per cent. Can you imagine the pressure this takes off those families? Can you imagine the optimism these families would then feel when their child was able to attend a mainstream school and when their child, as a result of early intervention, was able to learn new skills and communicate functionally? I do not understand why this was rejected for so long.

The AEIOU annual report has the following quote from a mother with an autistic son, which I would like to share with you:

AEIOU has changed our lives. We moved from Canberra so that our little boy could take up the place he was offered and we've never looked back. The professional and loving staff we've met through our time as part of Park Ridge have moved us and we've often been in awe of their skill, dedication and patience.

This family should not have had to leave the ACT to get the support they needed. We need to be doing more here. We need to apply early intervention best practice and really enable those children with ASD to achieve their full potential.

Another story I read in the media only a couple of months ago emphasises why we need an early intervention program here in the ACT. A Canberra family made the tough decision to pack up their Canberra home and move to Manchester in England to give their autistic sons better treatment. The mother said, "When he was diagnosed, my younger son was non-verbal and it was quite a battle to get speech therapy in Australia. Early intervention is key, and we weren't getting any real assurances about the level of support he would have."

Due to the early intervention her younger son was given in the UK, he has gone from being non-verbal to being quite a talkative and happy kid who is now able to say what he wants rather than get angry. Why would a family need to go to the UK to get this type of support? We should be able to provide it here in Australia.

New Canberra Raiders coach Ricky Stuart, who has a daughter with autism, saw the value in this policy and last year publicly pledged that all moneys raised by the Ricky Stuart Foundation would go towards this school, should it become a reality. Last year that amount was in excess of $250,000, which would have gone quite a way to helping these families.

We are hopeful that an AEIOU centre may be under consideration at the University of Canberra. I would like to congratulate the University of Canberra for the efforts they have made so far. It is disappointing that the government have not taken a bipartisan approach to this policy. They rejected our motion in April. But I now encourage the government to do whatever they can to support the university towards their undertaking.

I would very much look forward to an early intervention centre being operational in the ACT at some point in the future and I very much look forward to seeing the benefits within the Canberra community that early intervention for children with autism will provide. Thank you.

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