Western Autistic School

The school logo is a student's drawing of a Melbourne tram

The school year has just started.  If that sounds a little bit strange to my northern hemisphere readers, remember that it's summer over here in Melbourne, Australia.  The summer holiday between school years starts just before Christmas and ends around the start of February.  This year, school started on Friday 4 February 2011.  And no, it's not customary to start the school year on a Friday:  we all think it's weird, too.

I have previously blogged about our attempts to send our kids to regular preschools.  It only seems fitting, at the start of the school year, to talk about Western Autistic School, the public school which caters to the autistic school-starters in the western suburbs of Melbourne (website is here: http://www.westernautisticschool.vic.edu.au/).

Autism is perfectly normal here:  you would think nothing of seeing a kid stimming, or melting down, or having his hand held tightly by a staff member out of fear he might run away.  There's a trampoline in the gym.  There are electric hand dryers in each bathroom, because many autistic kids are scared to death of noisy hand dryers and they need to become accustomed to the infernal machines.  Bike riding lessons and toilet-training are often a big part of the first year's curriculum.  There is not one big schoolyard where a kid might get lost in a crowd:  instead, there are multiple small playgrounds where small groups can be closely supervised.

The classes are small:  any classroom will have 6 to 8 students (usually just six), two teachers and one teacher's aide.  That's a staff-to-student ratio of 1 to 3!  There are onsite speech therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists, all working full-time.  Some of the staff have been working with autistic kids for decades.

With so many staff members on hand, the school spends a lot of time matching students to the right classroom.  Little Johnny screams all the time and little Timmy has a tantrum every time someone screams?  It might be best not to put them both in the same classroom, then.  That might seem like common sense, but it's not the sort of problem which is likely to be diagnosed and fixed in a traditional school environment with 1 to 20+ staff-to-student ratio.

The place is a like an Alcatraz island for autistic kids:  not even my two little Houdinis could escape it.  The knobs on the doors are so high that shorter-than-average adults struggle to reach them.  To get in and out of the schoolyard, one needs to pass through a veritable labyrinth of gates, again with the latches so high that no child could reach them.

Shopping and cooking are part of the weekly curriculum.  My first instinct about the cooking lessons was to dismiss them as a waste of time:  they are "soft skills" which the kids would eventually pick up anyway.  But the teachers work on language throughout the whole lesson.  Plus they have used the lessons to help Rémi overcome his squeamishness about certain textures.  They've also used them to help Gaston try foods he wouldn't normally touch with a ten foot pole (crazy foreign foods, such as rice).

In fact, everything which is done in this school seems to revolve around language development.  Even lunch and recess are opportunities to learn language and social skills.  With such a high staff to student ratio, there is always someone watching them and helping them learn how to play appropriately.  We've heard reports of Gaston pushing other kids—a problem which the staff addressed almost immediately.  More recently, Rémi surprised me when my friend Julie came around for a visit and he looked her square in the eye, waved and said "Hi Julie".  He definitely didn't learn that from his Mom and Dad.

The school does a lot of excursions, many of them to local parks, shopping centres and grocery stores.  The school does other educational excursions, too:  to the museum, to the zoo, to the airport.  But for the most part, the staff teach the students about everyday life:  how to behave at a mall's food court, for example.  I reckon this has had a huge part in helping my boys behave in public places.

Every child has an individual learning plan.  When Rémi went through a phase of having a meltdown every time we went to McDonald's, we told his teachers.  So they made a point of going to the local McDonald's once a week.  And, just to make us out to be liars, Rémi behaved perfectly.  The staff did eventually witness some of the bad behaviour, though, and I think they have contributed greatly to its eventual taming.  Similarly, when Gaston went through a phase of screeching every time we told him not to do something, we put our heads together with his teachers to devise a plan to overcome the problem.  We're still working on it, but he has come a long way.

The school's ultimate goal is to place every child into a regular primary school by the end of their fourth year of school.  It's not possible to place every child, but the staff is certainly trying.  Anne and I went to a parent-teacher session which was all about the eventual placement into a conventional school.  It was a real eye opener:  we would need to find a school ourselves, and not every school could cope with an autistic child (this will be the subject of a later blog).  Gaston's teachers reckon he'll be ready for placement by the end of his fourth year (he's now starting his third year).  To help him along, Gaston occasionally does some traditional classroom learning with a 1 to 20 staff to student ratio.  It's only a couple of hours each week, to get the kids accustomed to the conventional teaching style.

Years ago, when it became obvious that Gaston and Rémi would not be able to go to a conventional school, I had to get over the stigma of sending my boys  to "special school".  What made things more difficult was the fact that Melbourne adults are obsessed with schools—it's a British way of thinking, and I'm glad I didn't grow up with that sort of snobbery.  I got over it quickly and did what was right for the boys, and boy am I glad I did:   the non-stop teaching, the special facilities, the specialised staff, the personalised education plans, the regular excursions…  The combination of all these things must work.  Both my boys' language skills have developed immensely since they started school, and they've learned a lot of social skills.  They've got a long way to go if we expect them to go to a conventional school, but I have faith this school is right for them.