This year, more children were diagnosed with autism than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined, yet there is no known medical detection or cure for this condition.
For children who are on the autism spectrum, trying to learn, and communicate with, their mainstream peers can be a daunting and frustrating experience.
This is because the condition not only affects the critical social and communication skills that young people need to thrive in the classroom.
Fortunately, some schools have tailored all of their learning programs to these students and are making incredible progress in helping students with learning difficulties achieve their best.
One of them is Giant Steps Sydney, established in 1995, which is now recognised as a leading education centre including a range of integral services to meet the needs of students from 5-18 years.
In recognition of its outcomes for students with disabilities, Giant Steps Sydney was recently named a finalist in the Special Education School of the Year category ahead of the Australian Education Awards 2020.
Resilience in the face of adversity
The school’s acting principal Andrew Frakes said the year had barely begun before the impact of COVID-19 was felt deeply by the school’s staff, students and school community.
“We recognised very quickly that it was not possible for our families to successfully replicate the supports required to facilitate their child’s learning in the home environment,” Frakes told The Educator.
“Given the vulnerability of our student population and the impact of having a child with autism at home for sustained periods, Giant Steps provided continuous service, remaining open”.
Frakes said that during the various stages of COVID-19 restrictions, student attendance rates were in excess of 80%.
He said this coincided with significant measures to ensure the wellbeing of both students and staff.
“The success of our school during this pandemic is undoubtedly attributed to our hard-working staff,” he said.
“Not only did they continue to deliver normal programming and adapt to the additional workload brought on by COVID-19, they also implemented a new school-wide literacy initiative”.
Frakes said the school’s transdisciplinary approach to education has played a significant role in the success of its programs.
“Autism specific supports and strategies, including speech, music and occupational therapy support, are layered onto the curriculum within the classroom setting, to ensure our programs are engaging and motivating to our students so they are active learners,” he explained.
“Individualisation of these supports and outcomes allow for students to be at their edge of learning, while remaining part of the social context of the classroom”.
Frakes said the strength of the program also derives from the support of the school’s Board, who he said have been responsive to new ways of helping teachers and students achieve their best.
“[The Board] are passionate in their promotion and support of innovative practice and excellence in Special Education”.
‘School’s mustn’t become stagnant’
In May, research from the Centre for Independent Studies found that the approximate impact of a term of school closures for disadvantaged students range from 1.5 weeks to 3.3 weeks of lost learning, depending on subject and year level.
This followed a series of other studies by leading universities which found the learning outcomes of 46% of all children could suffer from the transition to remote and flexible learning.
“It is often said that a crisis tends to expose existing inequalities in society,” he said.
“The most important challenge facing special education is ensuring that the inequality so often faced by our students is not exacerbated by the pandemic”.
Frakes said special education can play a big role in ensuring schools remain operational wherever possible.
“As remote education is not possible for many students in special education schools, it is pertinent that schools look to institute measures that allow them to safely operate through any lockdown,” he said.
“It is also important that schools do not become stagnant. This crisis may last many years and it is vital that special schools continue to develop new initiatives and continue to improve processes”.