Look, I’m not going to patronise you by crapping on about what a privilege it was to hang out at Southern Autistic School for two days. You’re there every day. The last thing anyone needs is some bird with pretty much neurotypical kids (aside from a couple of dyslexics, here and there), patronising you.

I have mates with Autism Spectrum Disorder kids, I have hung out with kids on the spectrum at my children’s kinder and schools. I have a couple of members of my extended family who are on the higher functioning end of the spectrum. My exposure to ASD World is, at best, limited. I’ve absorbed enoughknowledge of ASD through my limited exposure to be pretty sure if a person is on the spectrum. I know bits and bobs from discussions with peers etc. I do not live my life in ASD world.

With great curiosity and if I’m honest, a wee bit of trepidation, I got as close to living in ASD World as my life allows this week. Two days as a veritable fly on the wall at Southern Autistic School in Bentleigh East. Thefacility runs the gamut from Early Education Program (preschool) to Year 12, and is introducing a VCAL option from 2020. There are currently 273 students attending, 127 staff, including 51 teachers, 52 assistants, and 10 allied health professionals. I’m talking ‘speechies’, occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists. There’s also a principal, 2 x assistant principals, office staff, ICT, maintenance and so on. A village. I had a look at the website, the services offered are amazing, on paper.

My first impression of the school was, well, Collingwood Football Club. Having a bunch of rabid Magpie fans at my abode, I zoned in on the black and white clad blokes in the foyer immediately. I felt like I was in a very strange dream, where worlds I was not quite part of had collided. It turns out that the Mighty Pies had arranged for a couple of their players to visit the school and take a few skills sessions with the students, followed by a game of basketball. Against the foreboding figure that is Jack Crisp, the lads from the senior end of SAS held their own, I have to say. Um, not what I’d expected. As a side note, I am hoping that thing on Mr Crisp’s top lip hair was in aid of Movember, because otherwise…well…please don’t.

Anywho, I signed in, was given a set of keys and promptly began stalking the blonde bombshell head of senior school around the joint. 

I wanted to chat with everyone and did. After talking to staff, the expectations that come with being ‘the font of all wisdom’ was keenly felt. Some staff, felt that while the weight of responsibility could be difficult to manage at times, focusing on attaining the best possibleoutcome for each individual kid is what steadies any anxiety. That’s a lot to process. They are always searching for new ways to get the best out of the kids, both now and for the future.

Through the I Can program, for example, the school has found a unique way for some of the older kids at SAS to manage their acquired feelings of negativity toward their autism. My throat lumped at the notion that kids at this school are all too aware that they are different. We live in a world where the importance of fitting in and finding ones place seems to be shouted at us from everywhere and everyone. Involving a childwith autism, who has grave fears for what the future holds, in programs facilitated by adults with autism, is a stroke of genius. Facilitators may be married, have children, jobs and so on, a strong salve for the selfesteem of students who are feeling quite anxious abouttheir ability to manage their future life in the world as adults.

Next stop was to the school’s swimming pool, an indoor heated facility used in a multitude of therapies and such. A young lad of 11, let’s call him Mack, was walking independently through the pool, acting as a kind of a human fountain, squirting water out of his mouth with impressive accuracy and length. As he enjoyed his aquatic experience, I was able to chatter with his teacher while she was in the water, keeping her eye on him, while allowing him his independence. 

Mack, it turned out, had a bit of an obsession with water, without any corresponding survival instincts, when he first came to SAS at preschool. He thought nothing of walking straight into any pool of water that he came across, whether he was fully clothed and wearing a backpack, or starkers. Hilarious, until you consider that Mack couldn’t swim. This obsession was nothing to laugh about. Water therapy for Mack consisted primarily of teaching him to survive when he found it, and given his obsessive adoration for it, find it he did, and often.

Recently, Mack and his family moved, a stressful manoeuvre at the best of times. Imagine his family, stressed out, boxes everywhere, kitchen akimbo, when they notice that Mack is nowhere to be seen. It turns out that our water baby had been checking out the new back yard, when he spotted a swimming pool two backyards away. Quick as a flick, Mack utilised his superiorescaping powers, and took off to that pool. It didn’t take long for Mack’s parents to realise what had happened, and they bolted into their new neighbours place without so much as a “G’day”.

There sat Mack, on the side of the pool steps. Alive. Dry. Waiting for an adult. As he’d been taught at SAS. Let that sink in.

Chatting with several parents during my visit, the issues that were experienced by them were brought into sharp focus. Frustrations ranged from not being able to go grocery shopping without being accosted by a well meaning passer by and ‘advised’ how to deal with their autistic child’s melt down, to the difficulties faced when learning how to use a new device designed to assist with communication skills between students and the rest of the world. Managing the obsessive behaviours of each individual child was also highlighted as a great challenge. I sat and listened to a mother who described to me at great length the various strategies she has used in order to manage her child’s love for fire. One of these is to be awake all night. Every night. She spoke of her child’s deep distress at his inability to control his obsession. SAS, she told me, was nothing short of a safe haven for her and her family. Her calm resolve to keep caring for her child, and knowing the great benefit to him of being here, helped her maintain her focus on him, rather than her own exhaustion.

Parents know that, at SAS, there are eyes on each child, always, monitoring the slightest alteration in body language, facial expression or sound. 

Not one person I spoke with expressed frustration with SAS. There was frustration regarding a lack of funding for extra staff, extra speech therapists, and other specialists, but none directed toward the school itself.  I lost count of the number of times parents referred to SAS is their child’s ‘happy place’, and by extension, their own. A place where parents know their children are safe, their complex needs met with calm acceptance and understanding. Every effort is made to make adjustments for each individual students educational requirements, disability severity, personal hygiene, and communication style.

The ability to give over the care of your child, let alone a child with severe disability requires complete trust. I don’t care whether your family is the traditional model, single parent, divorced, foster care, or any variation of those, the notion that there is another place in the world where your child is safe, is given every opportunity to learn, and is encouraged to belong must be difficult to entertain. From everything I witnessed, and from the very personal stories shared so generously with me during my all to brief visit, it appears that Southern Autistic School take their values, I Am Safe; I Am A Learner; I Belong, to heart. And now, they have found a place in mine.

© Melanie Bateson

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