Speech by Senator the Hon Jan McLucas

Opening Address of the AEIOU Autism Spectrum Workshop Series by Professor Tony Attwood

Location: Brisbane

Thank so much Alan [Smith of AEIOU] for the opportunity to speak with you all today.

Before I continue, I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Turrbal people, and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

It’s great to see some familiar faces here today.

I had the pleasure of meeting Scott Reading [AEIOU Board Member] and his son William a few years ago.

The determination the Reading family has shown to support William as he develops and grows is an inspiration to me, and of course all of you here today.

As many of you know, I have worked closely with the disability and carers sector for many years in varying roles, and have had the privilege of meeting some incredible people along the way, who have shared some incredible stories with me.

It was through these experiences that I developed a clear understanding of Autism but also recognised the need for early intervention.

The topic of autism is not generally something the wider community knows much about – and for many parents in the past – the condition wasn’t something they were eager to discuss.

In my time as a primary school teacher in North Queensland, I taught many children over a ten year period, and autism wasn’t exactly a subject that many people in the community knew, or even talked about.

And now today, as I stand here, I can see how far the community has come in understanding Autism, the importance of early intervention and the need for support for families and carers.

Having a child diagnosed with Autism can be a shock at first, and for some, a grieving process over what could have been.

For the Kelly* family, hearing the words your child has Autism left a ‘sinking hole’ in their hearts.

I was moved by what they told me:

I remember walking around the hospital desperately trying to come up with a way to help Matthew* but knowing there was nothing I could do, knowing all the dreams we had for him were gone, replaced with uncertainty and an overwhelming desire to protect.

After enrolling Matthew in an AEIOU centre, they quickly saw the dramatic transformation in their son’s behaviour.

They also found that as Matthew started to make progress, their stress began to ease because they were now surrounded by people who had similar concerns and fears.

And because of the support from this centre, I am happy to say, Matthew is now speaking, managing his frustrations and emotions and learning to communicate to his family and friends.

In the words of his family:

I could write a million words to describe that impact the centre had on Matthew and our lives. Where there was despair is now a feeling of hope.

We have different dreams than before, but we have true dreams that Matthew can achieve great things and live a productive, successful life.

You rarely come across an organisation that truly believes in a cause, and even rarer is a group of individuals who are such amazing, caring and compassionate people; in this centre you have both.

We owe a debt that can never be repaid.

And during my visit to the Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre in Burnie, Tasmania, I also saw the impact these centres are having on children and their families – and it was truly a humbling experience for me.

I met a young boy with Autism who just after two months of attending the centre started speaking.

His father was there that day too and was just overjoyed at his son’s development and the fact he could hear him speak. To him it was miracle and something that gave them hope.

This evidence shows that autism-specific centres and their staff are changing lives.

And this is why we are here today.

These workshops are about unlocking the door to support and services for families.

It is also a great opportunity for health professionals, teachers, and researchers to share knowledge and expertise so that nothing and no one is left in the dark.

The key to supporting families is early intervention.

Only with early intervention can we achieve significant improvement in life outcomes for the child and their family.

We want to improve the child’s ability to make the transition into a mainstream education setting.

Every child has the right to an education.

Every family has the right to access the best information, services and support to help their children.

We want children to have the best possible start in life, and through AEIOU, they will.

One of the biggest issues families have raised with me is lack of understanding within the community, or even friends and family, about Autism Spectrum Disorders, which can sometimes lead to isolation.

This is something we, the Government along with AEIOU, are working hard to break down.

And it is why events like World Autism Awareness Day are such a fantastic idea – they are about educating the public about Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The issue we face, not only in Australia but around the world, is that people just don’t understand what Autism Spectrum Disorder is.

And while many will not experience it, tomorrow is a day to learn more about it.

And our awareness-raising efforts won’t end with World Autism Awareness Day; rather the whole of April is Autism Awareness Month.

As you know, buildings across Australia and throughout the world will be lit up in blue to raise awareness for Autism. New York’s Empire State Building, the Sydney Opera House – and of course, Brisbane’s Story Bridge!

Congratulations to AEIOU Foundation for their great work on making this community event come to fruition – it will be a fantastic sight to see Brisbane iconic bridge alight in blue.

This is about helping the community understand Autism so those living with Autism are accepted, understood and supported by those around them.

I encourage you all to get involved, but most importantly to get your family, friends, and neighbours on board too.

By raising community awareness Australia wide, we can achieve better outcomes for people with Autism.

And not just a one size fits all approach, but an integrated service that takes into consideration the individual needs of each person on a case by case basis.

Indeed this is one of the key objectives of the Government’s Helping Children with Autism package, which was one of our 2007 election commitments.

The whole basis of this $190 million package was to radically improve support for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, their families and carers.

To develop policies that incorporate whole of life outcomes – how it impacts the individual, the family and carer, and the community.

Through the package, families now have access to a wide range of support including 32 Autism Advisors nationally, over 100 PlayConnect playgroups, intervention services, education and support workshops, and an Autism Spectrum Disorder website – www.raisingchildren.net.au.

I would like share some of the feedback coming from families that have been attending the PlayConnect Playgroups. It speaks volumes about the real difference it is making to their lives.

One parent attending a playgroup in Victoria said:

My heart fills with joy as I watch my son happily playing and learning. One of the team is constantly beside him, supporting and guiding him. The benefits to my son are undeniably evident even in such a short space of time. It allows me to be hopeful for his future.”

A parent from North Queensland said:

When I first started going, I didn’t know anyone else with a child with ASD, so meeting other parents was great for me – a relief in a way. At the Playgroup, we have guests come along who are professionals in different fields – this has opened up new doors for me and my family that I didn’t know of before.

Our government is delivering 150 of these playgroups and it is so pleasing to continue to see and hear comments like this from families right across country. I had the pleasure of catching up with PlayConnect Playgroups Coordinators just yesterday in Brisbane.

the Helping Children with Autism package also includes the establishment of six Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centres to provide early learning programs and support to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

All six centres have been established across Australia, we have in South Western Sydney, Adelaide, North West Tasmania (which I spoke about before), Melbourne, Perth, and of course, right here in Brisbane, run by AEIOU.

We have also made available up to $12,000 in flexible funding for families to purchase early intervention services like speech pathology, psychology and occupational therapy for a child up to the age of six with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Before I continue, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge some of the issues that have arisen about the Helping Children with Autism package.

Some parents have raised with me concerns about fee increases by service providers.

Let me assure you that any such concerns are taken seriously – any concerns raised with me are confidentially and thoroughly investigated. We want to ensure fees charged are part of the fee schedule and that families are getting value for money

I want to assure families here today that we are determined to deliver a transparent package with the best outcome delivered to families.

Another issues that has emerged from the ongoing evaluation of the program and also my discussions with stakeholders and service providers around the country, is the demands that the program has placed on the allied health workforce.

I also acknowledge that after July 1 and the commencement of the Better Start for Children with Disability program that further demand is going to be placed on the same cohort of health professionals.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to the problem, but I would like to let you know that it is something I am acutely aware off and something we are looking at addressing.

I have also heard some stories about lack of access to interventions to those people living in regional and remote Australia.

This, along with difficulties in reaching into culturally and linguistically diverse groups, are areas which I would ask you to discuss and think about practical solutions.

I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you all today.

These workshops are a valuable source of information and support for parents, carers and professionals, and I thank AEIOU for hosting these workshops as part of World Autism Awareness Day.

For the families here today, I understand that as parents and carers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder you face difficult and complex challenges.

We are committed to supporting you, through initiatives like the Helping Children with Autism package, to help address some of those challenges and help make your job as parents and carers to your beautiful children a little easier.

I want to take this opportunity to thank AEIOU for the continued work in supporting families in our community.

The Government values the work AEIOU is doing, not only for families and carers but also in raising awareness of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the broader community.

Thank you.

*names changed to protect privacy