Tuesday 15 June 2010
HANDSARD OF THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL
ASPERGER'S SYNDROME - A-TEAM PROJECT FUNDING
Mr FINCH (Question) - My question is to the Minister for Education. I just caught the tail end of a story this afternoon on radio in respect of the A-team project for young people who have Asperger's. I believe the funding for the A-team was due to run out around this time and I think that other arrangements have been put in place. I am curious about the fate of the A-team. Could you apprise the House of developments that have taken place?
Ms THORP - I thank the honourable member for his question and his ongoing interest in this very important area. The State Government is committed to the ongoing development of services for children with autism spectrum disorder, and as part of this program the A-team pilot project was set up in 2008 to implement and explore intervention options for northern Tasmanian students who have high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome.
The-A team is run by Learning Services North in partnership with local clubs, schools and/or Distance Education Tasmania. Students attend the A-team on a part-time basis for anywhere between two hours to two days per week. Project features included separate access from the other part of the school for A-team students and parents entering the classroom, a quiet, uncrowded indoor and outdoor environment, and the classroom with specific autism spectrum disorder-focused teaching methods.
The aim of the project was to improve learning outcomes, improve school attendance and access to the curriculum; develop a learning and problem-solving space for students, parents and teachers; and provide opportunities for teachers, teacher aides and students to build their skills and understanding in relation to Asperger's syndrome.
As this was a pilot program, it was important to conduct an evaluation to identify the benefits of the program. In order to gauge the effectiveness of the pilot, senior school psychologist, Karen Gee, was asked to evaluate the A-team program. The evaluation focused on 26 students who attended the A-team between 2008 and 2010 and ranged in age from seven to 16 years old. This evaluation has now been completed and I am very pleased to share its findings and recommendations with you.
The evaluation found that the A-team had many benefits for those students studying with Distance Education Tasmania as well as those who were at high risk in regular schools, allowing the students better social interaction, problem-solving opportunities and bringing together parents.
It was found that the majority of students involved experienced greatly improved self-esteem and social communication skills and reduced anxiety and stress. Their attendance and engagement with the curriculum also increased. The evaluation suggested that there should be a range of options for autistic students due to their varying nature and needs and includes 15 recommendations to better support students with autism.
The key recommendation is that an A-team continue along with in-school programs for students. It recommends making the A-team part of Distance Education Tasmania for 2011 when a northern Distance Education Tasmania site is identified or established. In the meantime the A-team will be retained in its current form and on its current site to enable non-distance education students to transition as they are ready into other programs or to develop partnership school arrangements for 2011.
Other key recommendations included developing a partnership model with schools that will enable school-capacity building by using staff with expertise in autism spectrum disorder and those who have built up expertise from the original program, using school resources, such as positive behaviour support, to appropriately support students, develop transition programs for older students who have Asperger's syndrome to reduce the risk of them not completing school, ensuring that support teams consult with parents about how they would like to be involved in the program, and establishing a system of communicating information between schools and families. The State Government will be accepting and implementing the key recommendations contained in the evaluation. We also support and encourage schools to adopt the good practices also recommended in the review. This will provide us with a clear way forward so that we can continue to support students with autism and their families.
ASPERGER'S SYNDROME - A-TEAM PROJECT FUNDING
Ms RATTRAY (Question) - My question is to the Minister for Education, following that answer to do with the A-team funding. Will that funding be incorporated into recurrent services and not into the area that it has been in the past where we come back to this question of needing funding every year, where this organisation that is considered worthy by parents has to keep coming back with their cap in their hand? Will it be incorporated into recurrent funding?
Ms THORP - I thank the honourable member for her question. I understand why you are asking that question and it has validity but I think that we have to be careful with any programs that have a specific group of people in mind to not commit into the future ad infinitum, if you like.
These programs need to be assessed on a regular basis to see if they are meeting the needs of the group they are intending to reach and also I think that when you think about the number of kids in the community that have other disabilities, autism gets a pretty good guernsey yet there are plenty of other disabilities among our student population that we may need to look at in the future. So in direct answer to your question, the long-term fate of the funding for all autism services is bound up in the Education budget. But as to the long term, forever and ever future of any individual program, I would be very loath to do that.