Autism rise hits schools

BOY IN A BUBBLE: Paremata School has been very welcoming to autistic pupil Lachlan Thomson, his mother says.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/The Dominion Post
BOY IN A BUBBLE: Paremata School has been very welcoming to autistic pupil Lachlan Thomson, his mother says.

A sharp rise in children diagnosed with autism is putting schools under pressure and forcing some parents to withdraw pupils from classes because of their "out of control" behaviour, principals say.

Children are becoming "nervous wrecks" and are routinely disrupting classes because they do not have the support to cope at school, they say.

Principals warn that unless the Government contributes more funding and resources to schools, the problem will get worse. The situation is highlighted in a new one-hour video Autism at School, which filmed teachers, parents and experts talking about the issue.

The health and education ministries do not keep figures on the number of people with autism, but experts say they are seeing a large increase.

Autism New Zealand has 2947 people aged under 16 on its books and adds about 25 cases a month. The true figure was likely to be thousands more because not everyone with autism registered with the group, spokeswoman Bobbi Oliver said.

"We have seen a massive increase in the last few years, mainly because parents are more aware of it and get help early."

The plight was highlighted by a family that was asked to remove their child from an Auckland school last week because it did not have the resources or knowledge to cope, a principal said.

The school told the parents if they wanted the child to return they would have to pay for a teacher aide. It was only after intervention from a school that specialises in dealing with autism that the child was allowed to return to school.

"The family was frustrated, heartbroken and felt alienated from society," said Judith Nel, principal of Auckland's Parkside School, which helped the school deal with the situation.

"Nobody was accepting their child and they couldn't see a way forward."

The Education Act guarantees all children the right to attend their local school.

Mrs Nel said many schools were not equipped to understand or deal with the behaviour and needed help.

IHC, which advocates for people with intellectual disabilities, lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission last July backed by affidavits from principals, teachers, parents and school boards outlining discrimination and serious resourcing shortfalls in schools. Advocacy director Trish Grant said the complaint included concerns about resourcing for schools to deal with autistic children.

DAILY REALITIES TOUGH FOR PARENTS

Not being able to dine at a restaurant or fly on a plane rams home the realities of having an autistic child, Janine Thomson says.

Her eight-year-old son Lachlan was diagnosed with autism when he was three and it has been a big learning curve for the family ever since.

He looks "perfectly normal" but people notice the difference when Lachlan is in public.

"He does things that make people look, like making funny noises," Mrs Thomson says.

"Socially it is hard going to restaurants and we have had a lot of problems flying on planes, so holidays have been limited during the last few years."

When it came to deciding which school he should attend, the family carefully considered its options.

Mrs Thomson visited four schools before deciding on Paremata School because of its experience in dealing with autistic children. "There was such a welcoming attitude and nothing was a problem.

"The school explained to all the other children what autism was and that made such a big difference."

Lachlan spends the mornings in the classroom, but takes part in Riding for the Disabled lessons in the afternoon because a lack of funding means there are not enough teacher aides at school.

His behaviour has improved since he has been at school, Mrs Thomson says.

The Dominion Post