This chapter provides an overview the primary legislation underpinning equality of access to education in both school and higher education settings. It then discusses common challenges to improving education outcomes for autistic students, as well as ways to improve the transition from education to employment.
Although the education system also encompasses early childhood education and child care, this chapter focuses solely on school and higher education. This reflects the balance of the evidence provided to the committee. It also reflects the fact that early childhood education and child care settings have a strong focus on early intervention, which is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 11.
As outlined in Chapter 3, school educational outcomes for autistic people are far worse than those of the general population. In terms of post-school education, autistic people's outcomes are also worse than those of people with other forms of disability.
In addition, actions taken to date, such as the introduction of the National Disability Strategy 2010–2020 (the National Disability Strategy), appear to have made little difference. For instance, The Sycamore School noted that in the decade since its introduction, there have been no improvements in 'educational attainment levels for autistic students, and the numbers of students whose developmental and academic needs are unmet also remains unchanged'.
Stakeholders were also critical of the Disability Standards for Education (DSE) which set out both the rights of students with disability, as well as the obligations of all education and training providers, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Disability Discrimination Act). All jurisdictions, education sectors and providers are required to comply with the DSE (see Box 12.1).
Box 12.1: Disability Standards for Education 2005 (DSE)
The DSE aim to ensure students with disability can access and participate in education on the same basis as other students. Students with disability must have comparable opportunities and choices in relation to:
participation in courses or programs; and
use of facilities and services.
Accordingly, the DSE cover enrolment, participation, curriculum development, accreditation and delivery, student support services and elimination of harassment and victimisation. Education providers have three main types of obligations under the DSE. These are to consult, make reasonable adjustments, and eliminate harassment and victimisation.
This means education providers must:
consult to understand the impact of a student's disability and to determine whether any adjustments are needed to help the student;
make reasonable adjustments to help a student with disability participate in education on the same basis as other students. An adjustment is reasonable if it does this while accounting for the student's learning needs and balancing the interests of all parties affected (including those of the student with disability, the education provider, staff and other students); and
develop and implement strategies to prevent harassment and victimisation of people with disability.
The DSE apply to preschools, kindergartens, public and private schools, public and private education and training places and tertiary institutions including TAFEs and universities. It is unlawful to breach the DSE.
The DSE do not currently apply to child care providers, although they are subject to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. It is proposed the DSE will be amended to include the early childhood education and child care sector from 2023.
Despite the requirement for the DSE to be reviewed every five years, the Australian Autism Alliance (the Autism Alliance) indicated that its shortcomings remain unaddressed and key inclusion indicators are 'going backwards'. According to the Autism Alliance, there is a need to substantially overhaul the DSE in order to:
…positively reframe inclusive education as a right, strengthen protections and create accountabilities in the education system for progressively improving outcomes (e.g., improved school attainment, reduced suspensions and expulsions, elimination of restrictive practices).
Other stakeholders, such as the Disability Discrimination Legal Service (DDLS), recommended rescinding the DSE altogether, as well as making a number of amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act. If not rescinded, the DDLS advocated reforming the DSE to:
ensure the term 'reasonable adjustment' is commensurate with the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act;
ensure it includes examples of the sorts of actions that may help students with cognitive disabilities such as autism;
ensure the definition of 'consultation' is consistent with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in relation to the participation of people with disabilities in decision-making;
more adequately recognise the obligation on providers to protect students from bullying, including strengthening the test for compliance; and
emphasise the primacy of expert knowledge of disability in relation to decision-making for reasonable adjustments, and reduce the discretion given to education providers.
The most recent review of the DSE took place in 2020, with the Final Report of the 2020 Review of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (the DSE Review Report) released in March 2021.
Evidence provided to the committee suggests that many of the concerns raised by stakeholders in relation to school and higher education settings were also reflected in the DSE Review Report and its recommendations. Overall, the DSE Review Report made 13 recommendations, with implementation progress to be reported annually. A summary of key actions is shown at Table 12.1.
Table 12.1: Disability Standards for Education: areas for reform
Information for students and their families
Develop information products that explain students' rights and provide information to students and families at relevant points
Clearer rules on consulting with students and families and handling issues and complaints
Change the DSE to explain how education providers should consult with students and their families about supports and adjustments and handle issues and complaints
Sharing information when students change schools
Look at how to transfer relevant information about students' needs when they change schools or move to training or higher education
Strengthening the knowledge and capability of educators and providers
Information for education providers
Develop information products that explain provider responsibilities and provide examples of good practice
Training school teachers and leaders
Ask state and territory governments to ensure teachers and school leaders receive training on the DSE and supporting students with disability
Including the DSE in higher education policies
Make sure the DSE are included in the policies and practices of higher education providers.
More accountability for the Standards throughout education
Making sure education policies match the DSE
Work with state and territory governments to make sure that rules and policies that apply to education providers align with the DSE
Improving vocational education and training
Work with state and territory governments to strengthen delivery of vocational education and training for students with disability
Public information on how schools support students with disability
Require school education authorities to explain the services and supports their schools provide for students with disability on their websites
Data and reporting
Work with states and territories on principles for data collection and reporting on how students take part in school education
Checking how well the DSE are followed
Ask state and territory governments to conduct an audit to see how well the DSE are followed.
Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Summary of the 2020 Review of the Disability Standards for Education 2005, 12 March 2021, pp. 1–2.
While the committee heard that many of the challenges faced by autistic people in school and higher education settings have the same genesis—such as a lack of understanding of autism or discriminatory practices—it also understands that these challenges can manifest differently for students in each setting. In addition, the length of time spent in school and its compulsory nature mean that the bulk of evidence provided to the committee about education relates to school education. For this reason, the remainder of this chapter deals separately with school and higher education. The exception to this is the section on the transition from education to work, which covers both school and higher education settings.
Mainstream versus special education settings
Information about where autistic students are being educated is not clear as data on autistic student enrolment types appear to vary. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings reported that 40.8 per cent of autistic children in 2018 attended a special class in a mainstream school or a special school. By contrast, the Autism Alliance survey found that:
72.2 per cent of autistic students attended a mainstream school;
10.9 per cent of autistic students attended a special school;
9 per cent of autistic students attended a dual (mainstream and special) school;
3.3 per cent of autistic students were home-schooled; and
2.2 per cent of autistic students undertook distance education.
However, various stakeholders also noted that there has been a shift in enrolments away from mainstream schools and into special schools. For instance, Children and Young People with Disability (CYDA) stated that enrolment rates in Victorian special schools have increased by 53 per cent since 2010.
According to the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC), the increased numbers of students in segregated education settings may be the result of 'concerning inconsistencies in the access and implementation of inclusive practices throughout Australia' identified in multiple commissioned reviews over the last five years. The Autism CRC also noted an increase in the number of children being home schooled, with 'special learning needs' being provided as a rationale for 25 per cent of home-schooled students in NSW in 2018 (compared with 20 per cent in 2016).
The Autism Alliance concurred and argued that both the rise in segregated enrolments and the increase in home schooling 'speaks volumes about a system that ignores the needs and rights of autistic people'. People with Disability Australia (PWDA) also suggested that while some parents may view special schools as necessary, 'this is because there is currently no real choice between special schools and mainstream inclusive education'.
For some stakeholders, such as PWDA, the reported increase in special school placements raises concerns that Australia is moving toward a segregated education system. Accordingly, some submitters advocated for the phasing out of segregated education in Australia. This reflected a view that segregated education does not meet Australia's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), as well as evidence showing better educational and social outcomes for students who are integrated into inclusive mainstream education environments. However, in relation to the CRPD, the DDLS noted that 'while the CRPD indicates that inclusive education for students with disability in mainstream environments should be the norm, there may be exceptions'.
To create inclusive education environments, stakeholders, such as the Autism CRC and the Scope-University of Melbourne Partnership (Scope-UoM), proposed the adoption of a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach. According to Scope UoM, UDL seeks to identify universal supports that will help most students and then makes individual accommodations where needed for individual students. The Autism CRC also noted that UDL is able to incorporate various evidence-based teaching strategies to accommodate students with diverse abilities and backgrounds.
However, the committee also heard conflicting evidence about the increase in special school enrolments. For example, Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia (A4) questioned some of the figures that have appeared in education journals and the media that claim to reflect ABS data. Instead, A4 argued that the most recent ABS data showed an increase in mainstream enrolments and a decrease in special class and special school placements (see Table 12.2).
Table 12.2: School enrolment types 2009–2018
Source: Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia (A4), Submission 54, Attachment 1, p. 12.
Aside from a lack of definitive data on autistic school enrolments, other stakeholders suggested there is also a need for a more nuanced approach to the debate about mainstream and segregated education. For example, specialist education provider Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) advocated for a model that accounts for individual student needs and recognises the role that specialist autism schools can play in helping autistic students transition into mainstream schools. Under this model, special schools are just one part of a 'specialised, comprehensive, multifaceted approach':
The approach to education for students on the autism spectrum needs to be flexible, align to the student's specific autistic learning styles and needs, and involve a continuum of special education services that is inclusive of their strengths and abilities.
This continuum includes autism-specific special school placement, small support or satellite classes staffed by autism-specialist teachers in mainstream schools, autism-specific itinerant teacher services to support students who are included in mainstream classes and full mainstream school placement…
The role of specialist autism schools was also highlighted by The Sycamore School which submitted that the 'distinct challenges' faced by autistic students necessitated 'specialist and focused strategies' and meaningful supports to achieve good outcomes. In line with this, The Sycamore School advised that it provides access to speech therapy, occupational therapy, wellbeing and independent living skills, social work and mental health supports. In addition, it delivers the Australian Curriculum 'in a meaningful and adjusted way, paralleled with an autism-specific curriculum that supports the developmental needs of each student'. In contrast to advocates of UDL approaches, The Sycamore School cited research showing that 'best practice' includes the use of 'an autism-specific curriculum aimed at addressing the developmental needs of autistic students'. It considered the success of its approach to be evident in:
…the educational progress our students make, the levels of engagement with learning we experience in our classrooms, as well as the developmental gains many of our students have made. Our students take responsibility for their goal setting, and using the self-advocacy skills we teach, are learning to take control around their independence.
In addition, while not believing that 'segregation should be the norm', the DDLS suggested that disability-specific schools will be required in response to the language needs of particular students or for 'some students with cognitive disabilities or disabilities that manifest with challenging behaviour'. However, the DDLS considered that, in this situation, a school would 'provide targeted and intensive evidence-based support with the objective of facilitating the student moving/returning to a mainstream education setting'.
According to an Autism Queensland survey, a mixed model also appears to be supported by parents, with most respondents preferring mainstream schools but with notable levels of support identified for combined options, as well as autism-specific classes in mainstream schools and autism-specific schools. While the least preferred options were home schooling/distance education and general special schools, the most significant gap between current placements and parents' preferences were in relation to wanting autism-specific classrooms and schools—as opposed to special classes and schools that are not autism-specific (see Table 12.3).
Table 12.3: Autism Queensland survey: current and preferred school placement types
Combination of part-time options
Special class in mainstream school
Autism-specific class in mainstream school
Autism-specific special school
Home school/distance education
Source: Autism Queensland, Submission 129, pp. 8–9.
However, the committee also heard some evidence that the quality of special schools can be variable. Some submitters, such as Communication Rights Australia, also raised concerns that special schools have been the subject of allegations about the use of violence against students.
While not a commonly preferred option, other stakeholders such as the Ethnic Disability Advocacy Centre called for home schooling to be supported as an alternative for autistic children 'that do not fit in mainstream and special schools'.
Similarly, Yellow Ladybugs highlighted the benefits of remote and flexible learning for autistic girls. These include reduced anxiety, less sensory overwhelm, less pressure on executive functioning skills, a lack of bullying, and more one-on-one support. This was reflected in the experience of one student who, prior to remote learning, had been experiencing disengagement, self-harm, mental health concerns, bullying and school refusal:
The shift to remote learning has been a positive experience for her, and an eye-opener for me … Learning from home has allowed K to relax. She has less anxiety and is more physically comfortable without sensory overload. She is able to learn without needing to wear her 'mask' and is more engaged as a result. I've seen her learn and do more work in the past four weeks than she did in the past four years! ... This experience has proved that we need to rethink how we deliver education for those autistic girls for whom neither physical school attendance, nor traditional home schooling, meet their particular needs.
Overall, while there was significant support for improving inclusive education practices in mainstream schools, the committee also heard that a range of school placement options may be required to meet the specific and varied needs of autistic students.
Challenges to school education access and outcomes
Broadly, the committee heard that the main challenges faced by autistic people in relation to school education access and outcomes relate to:
discrimination, bullying and low expectations;
a lack of adequate supports and adjustments;
insufficient autism knowledge and understanding; and
inadequate resources to implement adjustments.
Discrimination, bullying and low expectations
Multiple stakeholders reported experiences of discrimination and bullying in schools. For example, according to the Autism Alliance, over one third of survey respondents felt their child 'had been discriminated against in school or when seeking to access an education'. In relation to bullying, a survey by Autism Queensland found that it was the second most common reason for autistic children changing schools.
For many parents, discrimination began before their child was enrolled at school, with gatekeeping practices often reported. A4 stated that these practices occur at both primary and secondary school levels and that 'private schools rarely enrol autistic students'. Examples of gatekeeping provided to the committee include a student being refused enrolment by a private school due to his autism diagnosis and a student being refused enrolment by a government primary school until the school was sure the child would secure disability program funding.
In response, one submitter advocated for wider application of the approach they claimed is used in Queensland, whereby the Queensland Department of Education contacts schools directly if it is notified about a refusal to enrol a student.
The committee heard that discrimination and exclusionary practices can continue even after a student is enrolled, with some schools only allowing partial attendance, excluding autistic students from school activities, or suspending or expelling students. This aligned with the findings of CYDA's 2019 National Education Survey which found that 12.5 per cent of respondents with disability had been refused school enrolment, with another 16.6 per cent not attending school full-time and 14 per cent having been suspended.
In addition, some submitters noted that discrimination can take the form of low expectations about the ability of autistic people to achieve academically, which the Autism Alliance described as the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'. While not specific to autistic students, CYDA reported that about 70 per cent of students with disability responding to its survey stated that they 'were not encouraged to complete or to choose subjects to lead a good ATAR score for higher education'.
The Autism Alliance also observed that once in school, autistic students are 'significantly more likely than their non-autistic peers to be targets of bullying and suffer depression and anxiety'. This was reflected in research by La Trobe University's Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) which found that 59 per cent of autistic students were bullied at school, versus 45 per cent of non-autistic students. Scope UoM explained that differences in communication and social interaction, which affect how autistic students understand social norms and the use of social skills in particular contexts, can leave them more susceptible to bullying.
According to one submitter, the level of bullying and ostracism experienced by autistic children is 'horrific', leading to challenging behaviours, suspensions and exclusions, as well as severe school avoidance. The Coalition of Autistic Women also highlighted school refusal as a common occurrence when children 'can no longer bear daily bullying, harassment and abuse by students and sometimes, staff'.
One 11-year-old submitter described being 'hit, threatened, sworn at, and excluded from playing' because they are different. In addition, they had belongings stolen and put in the toilet, and were not invited to parties like the rest of their classmates. As they told the committee:
This makes me feel very, very sad and lonely. It makes me feel like I'm not welcome at school. It makes me feel less than other people.
That's not fair.
Yellow Ladybugs relayed the experience of one student who went from being an academic high achiever to not completing Year 10 after suffering severe bullying and mental health issues:
After experiencing severe bullying in Year 7 my daughter transferred to a different secondary school (for Year 8) but due to her increasing mental health issues found it difficult to make social connections. She therefore withdrew from mainstream schooling and commenced distance education. Prior to doing distance education my daughter was one of the smartest students at school, her NAPLAN results were in the top triangles, she received distinctions in the UNSW competitive exams and often received academic awards (her abbreviated IQ is also in the gifted range). So an intelligent student, who was once a top student, isn't even completing Year 10 because of so many barriers.
As noted by the Department of Social Services, Department of Education, Skills and Employment and Department of Health (the departments), coping with bullying and teasing was a 'top ten issue' for autistic students. Despite this, the Autism Alliance survey found 'an absence of support for the social and emotional wellbeing of autistic students.
In addition, some submitters recommended strengthening anti-bullying education programs to ensure the safety of autistic students at school. Autism Queensland suggested that this should include:
greater accountability and responsibility for bullying, including the family and parents of the perpetrators; and
supervised lunchtime programs for students who are vulnerable to bullying.
Scope-UoM also highlighted the importance of providing supported opportunities for social engagement, as well as whole school approaches to positive behaviour support via the use of frameworks such as School Wide Positive Behaviour Interventions and Support. The importance of supported opportunities for social engagement was also emphasised by a mother whose autistic son has been bullied at his local primary school:
He is bullied in the playground and has never been invited on a playdate. His social needs have not been supported at school. He has been punched in the playground several times and been unable locate a teacher on duty. While he has an [education assistant – EA] in class, there is rarely an EA in the playground and the teachers on duty rove around the school. … The playground environment is the perfect place for autistic children to learn important social skills such as turn taking, conflict resolution and flexibility with play. However, without guidance, this will not happen naturally. This is an opportunity to teach life skills that could significantly improve the quality of life for people with autism.
Scope UoM also pointed to other initiatives, such as gaming clubs, where students come together to play video games with staff support. This allows autistic students to 'use their established knowledge as a basis for engaging with their neurotypical peers' which 'positions autistic students as relative experts often providing much needed confidence'.
However, other stakeholders, including the 11-year-old submitter referred to previously, also noted the broader need to improve understanding of autism within schools:
We need a national education program for schools to better include and accept neuro-diverse kids. This should target kids, parents, teachers and schools.
Understanding autism better will make other kids stop bullying kids who are a bit different and help them be kinder. It will also help teachers teach neuro-diverse kids better.
Adequate supports and adjustments
The committee heard that school environments can pose multiple challenges for autistic students. As described by Aspect, they can include:
…large physical settings that can be noisy and chaotic, large class sizes that restrict individualised support, and an increased emphasis on unspoken social rules and academic progress as a student progresses through the upper primary stages of learning and into secondary education.
In addition to environmental and social factors, Aspect noted that the unique learning styles of autistic students can also create barriers to autistic students accessing the curriculum. Aspect noted parents particular concerns about access to what it described as the 'hidden curriculum'. That is, social and general life skills which may not be taught directly 'but are nevertheless critical to the progress of young autistic people who may not acquire them in the usual ways'. These skills include self-care, self-regulation and speech and language skills.
The challenges faced by autistic students were reflected in the ABS Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, which reported that autistic students 'may need a high level of support to participate in their education'. It found that in 2018, 40.4 per cent of autistic students needed special tuition and 32 per cent needed help from a counsellor or disability support person. In addition, almost half 'indicated that they needed more support or assistance at school than they were receiving'.
The committee heard that specialist autism education providers such as The Sycamore School, Mansfield Statewide Autism Services and Aspect are generally well-equipped to provide a tailored and inclusive educational experience for autistic students, supported by qualified and experienced educators, support staff and allied health professionals (see Box 12.2).
Box 12.2: The Aspect Comprehensive Approach
The Aspect Comprehensive Approach (ACA) is a framework that offers positive behaviour support through environmental accommodations, structured supports, transition planning, transdisciplinary expertise, family involvement and professional learning for staff.
The ACA is underpinned by five principles:
it is applicable to all people on the autism spectrum;
interventions support all areas of a person's development and are based on an assessment of individual strengths and needs;
the approach is a positive and supportive model rather than a deficit approach;
the approach involves collaboration between people on the spectrum, parents/carers and professionals; and
the approach is based on ongoing reference to research, evaluation and continuous review.
In addition, Aspect curriculum programs include detail of accommodations required by students, which are individualised to meet students' cognitive abilities as well as their autism areas of difference.
However, the committee heard that the experience of students in mainstream schools is much more inconsistent and is heavily reliant on the knowledge and skill of individual teachers and school leaders, rather than the more systemic approach found in specialist autism schools. One mother, who chose a dual placement for her son, explained:
Enrolling him in specialist school was streamlined, the staff knew exactly what to do, what plans to make, and their expertise, organisation and approach to educational guidelines and policy has been exemplary. There have been no barriers to my son's participation in any aspect of his schooling at his specialist school; assembly and perceptual motor program days were adjusted so my son could be present and participate. His mainstream school however needed reminding of their obligations to my son, reminding of Department of Education policy, and prompting to treat him with the dignity and respect he deserved.
Another parent described how their son's experience fluctuated in response to changes in teaching staff:
From year to year we were always hopeful for our son at school, but progressively things got worse for him until his Grade 4 teacher. Her classroom provided an inclusive environment and teaching for all students. Our son was wearing his uniform each day and more positive about school. His attendance increased and we started thinking differently about his future, the opportunities for secondary school that he may be able to attend widened. However, this was short lived and the following year our son's experience of mainstream education was at its worst.
For parents, the lack of a systemic approach in mainstream schools creates significant anxiety about changes in school leadership or in teaching staff. This was reflected in the experience of one autistic mother whose autistic son currently has 'an amazing teacher and supports'. However, she explained that she is 'already depressed knowing he won't have his current teacher forever, or the same education assistants in the future, and I have panic over what that will look like'.
The committee heard numerous reports of failures to make adjustments and provide appropriate supports for autistic students. Even where adjustments are made, the Autism Alliance survey found they are often inadequate:
Less than half of parents with schools aged children responding to our survey reported that adjustments made at school were mostly or completely adequate. Just over a third indicated that adjustments were partly or not at all adequate.
According to the Autism Alliance survey, the most commonly made adjustments were 'having a key point of contact at the school to discuss their child's needs and progress; modifications to curriculum, assessment and exam conditions; and access to an education aide'.
Autism Queensland pointed to the frequency of movement between schools as evidence of the failure of mainstream schools to meet the needs of autistic students. In response to its survey, Autism Queensland found that 34 per cent of autistic primary school students and 53 per cent of autistic secondary school students had changed schools because the school was 'not a good fit'. Of those who had changed schools, 30 per cent had changed more than once. In addition, the most frequent reason for changing schools was a lack of appropriate support. As one parent reported to Autism Queensland:
We have tried several schools that said they could support my son, but they could do very little for him and he could not continue attending. He could not cope with the social environment of school and was not able to perform his calming rituals and behaviours. We left four schools in three years, not staying longer than one term in each. He was bullied more than enough at each school. The social pressures caused severe depression. Home education worked for a short time, but his symptoms were debilitating, and we had to find a school that could take him on. We moved the family to the city to find a school fit.
However, the committee also heard of mainstream schools, such as Adelaide's Springbank Secondary College (Springbank), that have successfully implemented systemic, inclusive approaches to education (see Box 12.3). Springbank's success was also highlighted by the Commissioner for Children and Young People South Australia, who relayed students' reflections about the inclusive nature of their school:
The [disability] unit was never merged with mainstream and now they are merged and people treat them like normal and you won't get that at a different school (Year 10–12 group).
This school allows everybody to be themselves ... A myriad of schools squeeze students into a tiny little box, they want every individual student to act the same, dress the same, and function the same and if you go against that you're ridiculed for it. This school allows students to be individuals and take their own direction in life. (Year 10–12 group).
There is no bullying happening since I've been here like my old school, no one has name called me. (Year 8–9 group).
In addition to general adjustments and supports, the committee also heard that particular supports may be required for the transition from primary school to secondary school, as well as for students transitioning through puberty.
Box 12.3: Springbank Secondary College, Adelaide
The committee visited Springbank Secondary College (Springbank) in Adelaide on 16 November 2020. Springbank is one of 15 South Australian schools participating in the Inclusive School Communities project, which aims to build the capacity of schools to create inclusive school communities.
While Springbank has had a disability unit since 2006, the deteriorating condition of the building that housed the unit led the school to rethink its segregated approach to disability education. As a result, Springbank committed to becoming a fully inclusive school by 2025. To date, this has involved reducing segregation and creating opportunities for true inclusion, including:
moving the Year 8 cohort out of the disability unit and into mainstream classes, supported by co-teaching arrangements (from 2021 this is expected to extend to the current Year 9 cohort, with the aim of disbanding all separate disability unit classes by 2025);
providing the option for senior disability unit students to join some mainstream classes, if desired;
removing labelling of classrooms as either 'unit' or 'mainstream' and changing the language used to describe student cohorts in the school; and
establishing a professional learning community to support the development of inclusive practices, including understanding and supporting students with autism.
The committee heard that the co-teaching model had helped break down barriers between disability unit teachers and other teaching staff. It has also gained in popularity since its introduction, with 12 out of 22 teachers applying to be co‑teachers for the 2021 school year.
Key challenges for Springbank include having enough teachers to implement co‑teaching arrangements, helping new teachers adjust to the school culture and approach, building community awareness of inclusive education, and increasing enrolments from cohorts other than students with disability (for example, 'stretch' cohorts).
Transition to secondary school
As outlined in Chapter 4, the characteristics of autism can make school transitions difficult for autistic students. Various stakeholders identified the transition from primary school to high school as an especially challenging time for autistic students due to the new routines and people, increased academic and social pressures, and a more complex learning environment.
The committee heard evidence of inconsistent and ineffective approaches to transition support. For example, one mother described her daughter's transition into high school as 'marked by failure on the school's part to deliver inclusion processes as stated by the Department of Education'. In response to questions about the support available for her daughter, the school psychologist told both her and her daughter:
We can do nothing for you. This is high school and you need to learn that you will be one of 800 girls here and you do not get everything you want in life. We have a very good transition program and we transition all our girls the same, they don't need anything other than what we offer.
As a result of experiences like this, at least one stakeholder called for schools to fund specialised support for key school transitions.
In addition, Scope-UoM advocated for a nationally-consistent approach to supporting transitions from primary to secondary school settings. It suggested this could include:
visits to the new school prior to starting;
visual supports where appropriate, such as a school map and photos of the school and teachers;
developmentally appropriate transition tools such as checklists, schedules, transition songs and visual cues;
the use of a peer buddy system, supported recess and lunch breaks, and communication methods that suit student needs; and
developmentally appropriate self-regulation tools developed in conjunction with a student's allied health professionals.
The Commissioner for Children and Young People South Australia also identified a need for more information about the services available to support school transitions.
Transition through puberty
In relation to support for students transitioning through puberty, submitters identified the need to improve the availability and quality of sexuality and relationship education for autistic students.
As explained by Family Planning NSW, comprehensive sexuality education is 'crucial to help people with autism to adjust to the physical, social and psychological changes associated with puberty'. Stakeholders noted that appropriate education and support would help:
support the development of healthy and respectful relationships;
decrease the vulnerability of autistic people to abuse and exploitation; and
support autistic people to engage in healthy, safe and socially acceptable sexual behaviours (see Box 12.4).
Box 12.4: The need for improved sexuality and relationship support
People with autism experience increased vulnerability to poor reproductive and sexual health outcomes, including STIs, abuse and sexual exploitation. Sexuality and relationship support is important for people with autism to develop positive relationships and lead healthy lives, reducing the risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.
Without proactive sexuality and relationship support and education, adolescents with autism may have difficulty expressing their feelings in a socially appropriate manner and understanding emotions expressed by others.
People with autism may also have fewer social opportunities, have more significant anxiety about finding a life partner and worry that others misinterpret their behaviour. Misunderstandings and misconceptions about people with autism can lead to experiences of social exclusion.
Adolescents with autism are more likely to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviours, including non-consensual touching and sexual behaviour in public than their neurotypical peers. Due to a combination of the lack of social understanding and the perseverative nature of some individuals with autism, behaviours may evolve into a determined pursuit, harassment, or intimidation.
However, there may be a range of reasons behind the behaviour (for example, sexual behaviours viewed as 'inappropriate' may be a sign of possible underlying health issues, a need for education on consent and privacy, or experiences of violence or abuse). The behaviours may also be normal, healthy and consensual, but are perceived as inappropriate.
Source: Family Planning NSW, Submission 28, pp. 4–5.
However, as noted by A4, existing sexuality education is 'often limited and not designed for an autistic communication style'. In addition, the opportunity to learn from peers can be hampered by 'social isolation and negative peer experiences'. Family Planning NSW also observed that teachers currently lack the skills and confidence to deliver comprehensive sexuality education that is inclusive and accessible for people with disability.
Impact of inadequate supports and adjustments
The committee heard that a failure to provide adequate supports and adjustments can have serious consequences for autistic students, particularly for those who demonstrate challenging behaviours. In the worst cases, this can include a reliance on restrictive practices as a behavioural management strategy.
The impact of a lack of support for these students appears to be reflected in the results of CYDA's 2019 National Educational Survey which found that one in four respondents had been subject to restraint or seclusion. Similarly, the Autism Alliance described the use of restrictive practices in schools as a 'live issue', with no agreed or consistent approach in place regarding positive behaviour management.
As noted by the DDLS, a lack of appropriate support can mean autistic students are caught in a 'Catch 22' situation:
…without appropriate evidence-based supports and adjustments, autistic students very well may develop behaviours of concern due to the inappropriate environment, and maintain those behaviours when credentialled behavioural experts are not engaged. Thus, the situation spirals out of control, an unhappy situation for all involved. This should not be considered to be the fault of the autistic student but rather the inadequacy of the system that is supposed to support them.
More than one submitter highlighted the effectiveness of positive behaviour support in preventing the need for restrictive practices but also stressed the need for it to be implemented by trained behaviour therapists. The need for qualified practitioners was also highlighted by the DDLS which argued that Australia currently has 'no regulation for those that claim to be "behaviour analysts", "behaviour therapists" or those who use other similar nomenclatures'. As an example, it pointed to the use by some state governments of people with backgrounds in martial arts.
In response, a number of stakeholders advocated for all restrictive practices to be removed, while some, such as the Queensland Law Society, also proposed they should be replaced with 'evidence-based behaviour management strategies, behaviour-support plans, functional behaviour assessments and safeguards'. The DDLS expressed a similar view and proposed that this should include mandatory assessments—such as functional behaviour assessments—to determine autistic students' needs and help develop 'an evidence-based positive behaviour support plan/program'.
Autism knowledge and understanding
As with other service sectors, inadequate support in schools is often a function of a lack of autism understanding, particularly in mainstream schools. For example, the Autism Alliance reported that teachers are unsure of how best to support autistic students, with respondents to its survey identifying a lack of capacity in mainstream school settings. The Autism Alliance relayed the views of one teacher who had taught in both mainstream and special school settings:
As a teacher, I do not think that enough training is provided to mainstream teachers and support staff to understand autism well enough. I taught in mainstream schools, but now in a special school, and I know that mainstream schools are nowhere near well enough equipped with the knowledge, strategies or resources to successfully integrate children with more complex autism.
The connection between improved autism understanding and some of the issues described in this chapter was summarised by the DDLS:
If teachers have received a meaningful education in inclusive education principles and strategies, there is less of a need for a segregated education system. If education providers have a stronger grounding in disability education, the discretion they hold in determining reasonable adjustments … may be more justifiable. If teachers have a stronger understanding of inclusive education and disability education there might be less of a need to rely on restrictive practices rather than proactive processes.
As a result, multiple stakeholders identified a need to improve initial teacher education and professional development for teachers, school leaders and support staff. There was also support for embedding autism training in teacher standards and registration processes.
Scope-UoM pointed to the Queensland University of Technology's initial teacher education program as a potential model for teacher training. Under this model, every teaching student completes a minimum of two subjects focused on inclusive education. Within this model, Scope-UoM suggested that teachers learn about:
legal rights of students with disabilities and neurological differences under Australian and international law;
types of functional challenges experienced by students with disabilities and differences; and
practical evidence-based strategies for supporting these learners within their classrooms.
In terms of ongoing capacity building, submitters noted the importance of the federally funded Positive Partnerships program, which aims to build partnerships between schools and families to improve the educational outcomes of students with autism. However, the Autism Alliance observed that the scale of the program is 'has limited reach and high demand means sessions are often over-subscribed'.
The Autism Alliance also suggested that Queensland's Autism Hub (see Box 12.5) was a 'standout example' that could be replicated around the country to help schools better support autistic students.
Box 12.5: Queensland's Autism Hub
Introduced in 2015 as part of the Queensland Department of Education's 'Advancing education, an action plan for education in Queensland', the Autism Hub is designed to build the capacity of school leaders, teachers and parents, and support the inclusion of autistic students.
Autism coaches are located in 7 regions across Queensland. They provide schools with advice on how to best support autistic students in an inclusive environment and improve their educational outcomes.
A website provides autism specific resources including:
a Guided Functional Behaviour Assessment Tool which helps teachers and parents understand, respond to and prevent frequent minor behaviours; and
the Queensland School Autism Reflection Tool which helps school leaders to plan, implement and review processes that support autistic students.
However, the DDLS also suggested that relying solely on teachers as disability experts is problematic given that their knowledge and experience is not comparable to that of an expert medical practitioner. As an example, it pointed to a Victorian initiative where teachers are trained to 'identify and implement their own positive behaviour support programs'. While the DDLS acknowledged the importance of upskilling teachers, it also argued that it was 'unrealistic to expect them to learn the skills of another profession that requires years of learning and practice to master'. For similar reasons, Autism Awareness Australia also described the education system's heavy reliance on 'minimally trained teachers' aides' as flawed.
In response, Autism Awareness Australia suggested the following actions to improve autism knowledge and understanding within schools:
specialist mobile inclusion and behaviour teams that can be sent into schools to design individualised programs for students (thereby helping teachers' skill development and enabling autistic children to engage with learning;
specialist face-to-face help for rural and regional schools to train staff members, as well as remote access to specialists for ongoing management of the situation; and
specialist inclusion and behaviour support workers to replace the systemic use of teachers' aides by state education departments.
However, Spectrum Labor suggested that the issue with teachers' aides is that their roles are 'underpaid and undervalued as stereotypically female occupations'. Accordingly, stakeholders such as Spectrum Labor reflected that transforming teachers' aides into a skilled occupation with ongoing training, higher pay and job security could help 'ensure autistic children get the best quality assistance including the stability that is related to the autistic need for routine'.
A similar view was expressed by Learning for Life Autism Centre (L4L) which argued that the potential value of education support staff was overlooked, with some viewing them as 'just an extra set of hands to play with and supervise' autistic students. L4L argued that with appropriate training, these staff could 'play a crucial role in supporting these autistic students to learn to engage in more prosocial behaviours'.
In addition, Spectrum Labor proposed employing autistic teachers and teachers' aides to 'help promote understanding and acceptance of autistic students and provide positive role models'.
Resources to implement adequate adjustments
The committee also heard that a lack of resources also affects the ability of schools to implement adequate adjustments. This includes concerns about inadequate school funding, issues around student eligibility for state and territory disability funding programs, and problems with the interface between school funding and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Some submitters noted the increased cost of delivering the model of education required to support autistic students. The committee heard that much of this additional cost is attributable to the increased staffing required to implement more inclusive models of education. This can include staffing related to smaller class sizes, co-teaching models and the provision of teachers' aides or specialist support, such as speech or occupational therapy. Other additional costs relate to equipment as well as specialist programs and staff development activities.
As noted by the DDLS, financial constraints 'severely limit' the ability of schools to provide adequate supports and adjustments. It noted the results of an Australian Education Union State of our Schools survey which found that:
…81 per cent of principals believed they had insufficient resources to properly educate students with disability and 88 per cent stated they had to redirect funds from other areas of the school budget to help cater for students with disability.
According to the DDLS, this creates 'an environment where schools, looking for the lowest-cost alternative, provide cheaper supports and adjustments that fail to meet the needs of the child'.
As explained by the departments, the additional cost associated with educating students with disability in schools is recognised in the form of a school funding loading for students with disability. This loading is based on the level of educational adjustments reported by schools under the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Schools Students with Disability (NCCD – see Box 12.6).
Box 12.6: School funding for students with disability
Recurrent funding for schooling is based on the framework of the Schooling Resources Standard (SRS). The SRS is an estimate of the funding a school requires to meet the educational needs of its students. The SRS is comprised of a base funding amount and six loadings to address different types of disadvantage. This includes a loading for students with disability (SWD loading).
The Australian Government and state and territory governments contribute to meeting the total SRS funding amount. By 2023, the Australian Government will fund at least 20 per cent of the total SRS for government school systems and at least 80 per cent of the total SRS for non-government schools and systems. State and territory governments make a greater contribution to the government school sector.
In 2018, the SWD loading was the second largest SRS loading. In 2019 it accounted for 9.3 per cent ($1.85 billion) of the Australian Government's total recurrent school funding of $19.9 billion. Funding for the SWD loading is estimated to grow, on average, by 5.1 per cent per year between 2018–2029.
The SWD loading is based on the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Schools Students with Disability (NCCD). The NCCD is a record of all the reasonable educational adjustments made by schools—across four levels of adjustment—to support students with disability. Three levels of adjustment attract funding under the SWD loading. These are 'supplementary', 'substantial' and 'extensive' adjustments. Adjustments recorded as 'quality differentiated teaching practice' do not attract additional funding.
The use of the NCCD to determine funding represented a shift away from the previous model, where funding was provided through targeted programs, National Partnership funding, or a flat-rate loading based on medical diagnosis (rather than the adjustments actually provided by schools).
In 2018, the majority of students included in the NCCD were in the government sector (67 per cent). This aligns with the government sector's share of overall student enrolments (66 per cent). The government sector also supported the majority of students at each NCCD level of adjustment.
National School Resourcing Board, Review of the loading for students with disability: Final Report, December 2019, pp. v, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13 and 15.
However, as noted by at least one submitter, a 2019 review of the loading for students with disability, undertaken by the National School Resourcing Board, stated that there was 'insufficient evidence to determine the adequacy of current loading values for students with disability' and recommended that further work be done to improve the evidence base for the loading and inform a refined costing model for use from 2023.
The use of the NCCD to determine the loading for students with disability was raised as a particular concern for independent special schools. For example, The Sycamore School noted that prior to the NCCD, independent special schools received a flat loading of 223 per cent of the base funding amount per student, irrespective of the level of need of the student. According to The Sycamore School, the NCCD-based funding model has led to a considerable reduction in funding that no longer covers school-wide supports. While agreeing with the principle of aligning funding with individual student needs, The Sycamore School argued that independent special schools required additional support 'given the nature of the setting, in that all students who attend are diagnosed with a disability'.
In its submission to the National School Resourcing Board review, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment agreed that the NCCD model may not be meeting the needs of special schools:
The administrative burden on staff at special and special assistance schools is greater than in mainstream schools. Related is the comparative difficulty in quantifying adjustments made for students in an environment that caters specifically to high need students. Research indicates that special schools tend to under-report students in the NCCD, despite provision of adjustments for the vast majority of their students.
Meeting the NCCD evidentiary requirements and assurance processes can be challenging for these schools.
Eligibility for state and territory disability funding programs
While school funding for students with disability is calculated on a per school basis, the principle of subsidiarity means that it is not necessarily distributed in the same way. This principle recognises that individual school systems have more detailed knowledge of their students and schools than the Australian Government and enables school systems to distribute funding in a way that addresses 'needs as they see them'.
This means that many state and territory governments use a mix of targeted programs and equity-based programs to distribute student with disability funding to schools. The purpose and eligibility criteria for state and territory targeted programs vary, reflecting individual state and territory circumstances and the needs of their students. Accordingly, there is no direct correlation between a student's assessed NCCD level and the funding they may attract under a state-based targeted funding program.
However, the committee heard that the eligibility criteria of some targeted funding programs do not accommodate the complex needs of autistic students. For example, the committee heard that the autism category within one state's targeted funding program excludes children without a severe language deficit. One parent reported her distress at feeling forced to apply for funding under the severe behaviour disorder category to enable her son to remain in his specialist setting during secondary school:
Despite being a parent who constantly tells her son to be proud of who he is, it was me that was forced to state that my son was just a 'naughty boy', and that his behaviours had nothing to do with his autism, as it is a requirement that the severe behaviour issues are not related to autism, if you are to be successful in attracting support funding under this category. I still cry when I think that I was forced to do this.
Similarly, a survey by Yellow Ladybugs found that 34 per cent of respondents felt their child needed access to a teachers' aide but did not meet the funding requirements. As one parent explained to Yellow Ladybugs:
My daughter has strong language skills, so missed out on funding. She didn't get funding for behaviour because she is not outwardly disruptive to other students, but she is imploding internally, not performing to her potential and I am concerned the real impact will not be seen until her teens and adult life.
At least one submitter observed that this means children who are diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1 and attend mainstream schools can find it 'almost impossible to get any support at school' despite the fact that they 'struggle enormously in school'. As noted by L4L, without support to address the social difficulties experienced by these autistic students, they can end up at greater risk of escalating behaviours and exclusion from school.
As a result, some submitters, such as DDLS, advocated for increased funding for state and territory targeted disability programs, as well as changes to eligibility criteria to support all students with an identified need.
As an alternative to making it easier to access program funding, L4L suggested that an 'emergency funding' category could be built into state and territory targeted funding programs to support autistic students who don't meet the eligibility criteria. According to L4L, its 'evidence demonstrates that with really targeted supports for a period of about a year, many of these autistic students can make significant gains'.
At a more global level, the DDLS proposed tying Commonwealth funding to evidence that 'each school has sufficient funds to cater for reasonable adjustments required for all students with disability'. It indicated that this approach had been taken under the North American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and had been 'proven effective'.
Interaction with the NDIS
A number of submitters highlighted difficulties with the interaction between school funding and the NDIS. For example, more than one stakeholder noted the frustration caused by inconsistencies between eligibility criteria for the NDIS and state-based targeted funding programs. As argued by one submitter:
I would contend that any child that is given access to the NDIS should also receive school funding. It is a logical assessment that any child that has barriers to everyday life will also have barriers in learning.
There was also confusion and dissatisfaction with the delineation of responsibilities between schools and the NDIS for supports provided to autistic students. For example, L4L stated that the NDIS guidelines on the intersection of NDIS and school funding are 'not clear cut'. As a result, L4L found that both schools and NDIS planners often interpret the guidelines to mean it is inappropriate to provide behaviour support within school settings. According to L4L:
This represents a significant barrier for this group of autistic students because best practice guidelines indicate that consistency across environments is a key element to successful support … But this consistency is not able to be achieved if a behaviour specialist is unable to work across both the home and school environments.
In a similar vein, Early Start Australia (ESA) underscored the lack of a coordinated, consistent approach for service providers who work within the NDIS or disability sectors. ESA explained that since the introduction of the NDIS there had been a proliferation of NDIS providers seeking access to schools. While this 'rightly' led schools to step in and control access, it also increased pressure to deliver services in 'limited out of school time slots'. At the same time, ESA noted that the NDIS had delineated personal and education-based goals, referring the latter to state and territory departments of education. However, as ESA observed:
There has not been a corresponding increase in therapy support or funding in education that we are aware of and as a result many of our clients do not have the support needed to ensure educational success.
Some schools, such as The Sycamore School, employ a range of school-wide supports themselves in order to provide a holistic approach to education. However, it explained that although these supports align with the provisions of the NDIS, they are not funded by the NDIS:
These include supports such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, wellbeing and independent living skills, social work and mental health supports. Clearly, these supports fit with the service provisions under the NDIS yet, our families are not able to build these school supports into their packages, nor can the school receive any financial support for these unique school-based services from the NDIS.
As a result of these difficulties, stakeholders, such as the Queensland Law Society, called for strategies to improve the relationship between the NDIS and the school system. According to ESA, this should include the development of guidelines around providing supports in schools, including information about who can provide services.
In addition, The Sycamore School argued that NDIS funds should be made available for school-provided supports that are covered by the NDIS, such as psychology, speech therapy and occupational therapy. Similarly, L4L suggested building a caveat into NDIS funding guidelines that would allow some funding to be used for behaviour-based interventions within school settings.
In response, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) recognised the importance of better 'integration and collaboration' between service systems and noted that:
…there remain some areas at the NDIS and education interface that require further work, and [the NDIA] will continue to collaborate with Disability Ministers and state and territory governments to resolve these issues.
Improving pathways and accessibility to further education and training for people with disability is identified as a policy priority under Australia's Disability Strategy 2021–2031. According to the Mentoring Autism Community of Practice (Mentoring Autism), evidence from both Australia and overseas suggests there are increasing numbers of autistic students entering the higher education sector. However, many are likely to 'either fall short of their potential or not achieve success in their academic pursuits'. As noted by Mentoring Autism, this is particularly concerning given autistic people possess great attention to detail, a tendency toward hyper focus on areas of interest, and a range of 'outstanding cognitive skills and talents'.
The committee heard that the primary challenges faced by autistic people in relation to higher education access and outcomes include:
fears about discrimination, isolation and low expectations;
a lack of transition support; and
inadequate supports and adjustments.
Fear of discrimination, isolation and low expectations
Similar to the challenges surrounding school education, autistic higher education students also have concerns about discrimination, isolation and low expectations. For example, Scope-UoM observed that autistic adults in both the vocational education and training (VET) and university sectors report 'similar experiences of isolation and at times exclusion where their learning needs are not understood and reasonable adjustments to the curriculum delivery and assessment are not made'.
However, the situation in higher education settings is additionally complex as poor school experiences can make many autistic people reluctant to disclose their diagnosis, which may lead to insufficient support. While there are no definitive statistics regarding disclosure of diagnoses, Untapped Holdings Pty Ltd (Untapped Holdings) estimated that only 'one in four or five' students disclose their autism to their university. However, an Autism Alliance survey suggested that the proportion may be higher—with 51.3 per cent of adult respondents reporting they had disclosed their diagnosis.
According to Untapped Holdings, without support these students will often leave university, or only ask for help once a crisis point has been reached:
The stigma they have experienced at high school is a burden that weighs on them and they naturally avoid this and try to get by on their own. … So, it is often the case that towards the end of the first year, when assignments are due and exams are looming, they either drop out or only then seek assistance – when it is likely too late.
The Autism Alliance also reported fears that revealing a diagnosis would lead to bullying and discrimination. It relayed one parent's views about the impact of this fear on their son:
His life at university has been impacted by his refusal to tell the university that he is autistic, he feels that it would single him out and expose him to the same bullying he experienced at high school.
Fears about discrimination and isolation also drive students to mask their autism in order to 'fit in', which can have devastating impacts on students' mental health. The desire to fit in was described by one autistic submitter:
I desperately wanted to fit in though. So I masked. Masking is exactly what it sounds like. It’s basically pretending. Acting. Camouflaging. Masking is when autistic people hide their autism and try to appear neurotypical in order to fit in. For me, it means I copy the behaviours of those around me and try to suppress my own traits that make me stand out. It means I wear a smile and say all the right things (at least, I hope so) and I make sure not to do anything that makes people stare. Don't flap. Don't rock. Don't run. Don't wear headphones. Don't hide under the desk. Don't have a meltdown or a panic attack in front of anyone.
For those who do disclose their diagnosis, the 'soft bigotry of low expectations' can affect how they are treated. For example, JFA Purple Orange described the experience of Sarah, an autistic student who was advised to change her enrolment to part-time purely on the basis of her autism. Low expectations also appeared to play a role in Sarah's treatment by one of her lecturers following a group presentation:
…on the day of their presentation one of the other group members arrived unprepared and Sarah's group had to present without them. At the end of the presentation the lecturer, who was aware Sarah was autistic, told Sarah in front of the class that she should be really proud to have continued on with the presentation and that she should go home and tell her mum about it.
None of the other group members were addressed in this way, making Sarah feel uncomfortable and questioning why she was singled out by the lecturer.
As noted by OTARC, a supported transition from school to further education is critical to its success. To this end, the department highlighted the existence of the National Disability Coordination Officer Program, which provides around $4.4 million each year to 'assist people with disability transition from school to tertiary education and subsequent employment'.
Despite this, Untapped Holding suggested that the transition from school to further education is neither well understood, nor well supported. As a result, it contended that 'parents and carers don't have confidence in the safety of the transition and the autistic individuals don’t feel empowered to take that step'.
Similarly, Scope UoM pointed out that, unlike transitions between levels of schooling, there is no file transfer or handover process that occurs when students move into higher education. Unfortunately, this lack of support occurs just when students are experiencing increased expectations about their self‑sufficiency:
Tasks such as enrolments, fee management, communication with lecturers/tutors are all required to be done by students themselves, as opposed to secondary school where students are given support ... The requirement to be so self-sufficient, while also managing a new and extremely large environment, increasing academic requirements and an entirely new social landscape almost places greater strain on autistic students than what they've ever previously experienced, and yet most or all supports are taken away.
OTARC also noted research confirming stakeholder concerns about the level of support provided for the transition to higher education. For example, one study showed that while 77 per cent of transition aged autistic people would have liked support, only 28 per cent received support. According to OTARC, 'this indicates a high demand for support and inadequate access to existing support'.
The importance of better support for this transition was highlighted by the experience of one autistic submitter who masked her autism in order to fit in at university:
But I had no one to show me what else to do. There was no autistic mentor program and very limited support for autistic students. I needed, but couldn't find, an older autistic student to look up to. I had no one to show me that autistic students can succeed at university by being themselves. I had no one to tell me which cafes were quiet at which times. No one to tell me which lecture seats were good for a quick exit. No one to help me navigate the social situations which differ greatly from the ones in high school. This left me feeling isolated, anxious and lonely.
Peer mentoring programs were identified as one mechanism institutions could use to better support the transition into higher education (as well as supporting ongoing participation). According to Mentoring Autism, these programs are already used at a number of institutions such as Curtin University, the Australian National University, the University of Newcastle and the University of Tasmania. In addition, peer mentoring is also a feature of the Australian Catholic University's Autism Inclusion Program.
However, Mentoring Autism raised concerns that the ability to plan for the future and leverage off successful peer mentoring programs is limited by ongoing funding uncertainty. Accordingly, it advocated for the Australian Government to establish a dedicated funding stream for good practice support programs, such as peer mentoring.
Mentoring Autism also suggested that there would be value in a review of specialist mentoring programs across the higher education sector, which could help 'establish benchmarks for good practice' and help autistic people 'make more information choices about university selection'.
Other suggestions to improve the transition of autistic students from school to higher education included:
training for students to support the transition processes;
sharing of information about students between schools and higher education providers;
the development of autism-friendly information packs for enrolling students; and
the use of in-person and recorded lectures by autistic students to explain the differences between school and university, as well as how they coped, which parts of the campus are busy or quiet at which times, how to make friends, and what autistic students might find good or hard.
In addition, the Autism Alliance advocated for implementation of the recommendation from Looking to the Future – Report of the review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training that all senior secondary students with disability have access to work experience and have an individual post-school transition plan in place prior to leaving school.
Adequate supports and adjustments
As with school education, the committee heard that tertiary education environments can pose multiple challenges for autistic students. As observed by Mentoring Autism, these can include navigating the built environment, adjusting to different teaching formats, adopting helpful study and organisational techniques, and having limited access to social supports. Autistic students can also have difficulties 'managing everyday routines, coping with anxiety and social engagement'.
In recognition of these challenges, the Australian Government funds the Higher Education Disability Support Program which helps students with disability to access higher education (see Box 12.7)
Box 12.7: Higher Education Disability Support Program (HEDSP)
The HEDSP consists of two components—the Disability Support Fund (DSF) and the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET). Total funding for the HEDSP in 2020 was $7.78 million.
The DSF provides supplementary funding to providers to help them attract domestic students with disability to participate in higher education, and deliver appropriate support for them to succeed.
DSF funding is based on enrolment numbers of domestic students with disability at eligible higher education providers. A smaller funding component reimburses providers for equipment and educational supports for students with disability with high-cost needs.
DSF funding can be used for staff training, to support students with disability, and to modify course content, teaching materials and delivery methods to better meet the needs of students with disability.
The ADCET is an online resource hosted by the University of Tasmania that provides information, advice and resources to disability practitioners, teachers and students with disability, on inclusive practices within the post-secondary education sector.
In addition, the departments noted that the National Centre for Vocational Education Research has developed a Good Practice Guide: Supporting tertiary students with a disability or mental illness, which is designed to help higher education teaching and disability services staff to provide 'individualised or institution level adjustments in teaching, learning and assessment methods to support students with disability or ongoing ill health'.
Despite this, the committee heard that the rate of adjustments for autistic students in both VET and university settings remains low. For example, in response to an Autism Alliance survey, 48 per cent of adults who disclosed their diagnosis reported that 'no adjustments were made by the institution'. One survey respondent described this experience to the Autism Alliance:
It's been horrible, I don't feel like I am listened to at all in the [student] support services, and the teaching has been so inconsistent. Half the lecturers straight up refuse to record lectures, disability service did not advocate for my need despite having an auditory processing disorder, they just said that was it and they can't change it. It has taken me eight years to get to do my last semester of my degree. The whole experience has been depressing.
This experience appears to be reflected in the results of an Autism Queensland survey which found that the most common reasons for autistic people withdrawing from tertiary education courses were anxiety and stress (23 per cent) and a lack of support (20 per cent).
According to the Autism Alliance, for those students who did receive adjustments, the most commonly provided were:
modified assessment/exam procedures;
provision of a disability support person;
being able to leave the classroom without explanation for a break.
However, the committee heard that, in some cases, the support offered does not necessarily match the needs of autistic students. For example, the CoAW reported the experience of one autistic student who was only offered generic supports, such as help in the library (which was not wanted) and access to a quiet room. As explained by the student:
It is up to lecturers to decide what accommodations they will give. They did not want to compromise their courses by giving additional help. I needed to be able to talk about assignment briefs to be sure I understood.
Inadequate supports and adjustments at university can also compound existing anxieties resulting from poor experiences at school. This situation was described by one autistic student who, already burnt out by a lack of appropriate support during school, struggled to manage the 'sensory and social demands' of university without support. She described being driven home by her parents halfway through lectures, after which she would be 'unable to speak or eat for the rest of the day'. In the end, she withdrew from university altogether:
Despite being among the top ATAR students in my school, I am now unable to work and have withdrawn from university twice, as I simply couldn't manage. It's been two years since I graduated and I am still suffering from the intense anxiety that I developed in school.
As with school education, the lack of support and adjustments in higher education settings is driven partly by a lack of autism knowledge and understanding. For example, one autistic student told the CoAW that they failed an exam due to their sensitivity to smell and the strong perfume of a nearby student. The student's request to change seats was 'denied as ridiculous'. Similarly, another female student described being given a support plan 'more suited to a male expression of autism'.
Even when appropriate adjustments are made, a lack of autism understanding among the student cohort can also create challenges for autistic students. As one student reported to the CoAW:
The lecturer was excellent and gave me a dedicated workstation, so I did not have to compete for equipment because being bumped and general noise aggravated my sensory difficulties. Other students were angry that I had special treatment and said I played the 'autism card' so I dropped out because I was too ashamed to face the comments every day.
In response, stakeholders such as Scope-UoM called for better training for all academic and administrative staff in VET and university education settings. Other suggestions included:
encouraging higher education institutions to develop neurodiversity plans to help tailor adjustments (including in administrative services) to student needs;
adding a flag to student records to help minimise misunderstandings when autistic individuals contact student services; and
encouraging Universities Australia to establish policies and promote practices that support the inclusion of autistic students.
In addition, the Autism Alliance noted 'some promising examples of inclusive practices' in higher education settings, including the Australian Catholic University's Autism Inclusion Program which it described as a 'stand out' example of how to support autistic students (see Box 12.8).
Box 12.8: Australian Catholic University – Autism Inclusion Program
The Australian Catholic University (ACU) launched the Autism Inclusion Program at its Melbourne and Ballarat campuses in 2020. The program was rolled out across all campuses in 2021. The program provides individual students with academic, social and wellbeing supports, while also addressing structural barriers to inclusion.
The program is designed to be embedded in the activities of the university, with strong cross-unit collaboration. Core elements include:
access to comprehensive information for prospective students;
working with schools to support transition;
peer mentoring program, including ongoing professional development for mentors;
academic skills workshops;
Education Inclusion Plans;
professional development for teaching and administrative staff;
environmental audits and adjustments;
a low-sensory room on campus;
a webpage and student portal page:
Program development and implementation is being led by autistic staff and students. The program Steering Committee includes representatives of key ACU portfolios. An Advisory Group includes current and former autistic students and academics from ACU and other universities.
Source: Australian Autism Alliance, Submission 52, p. 33–34.
Transition from education to work
While challenges relating to employment services for autistic people are covered in Chapter 13, a number of stakeholders also raised the need to better support the transition between education settings and work.
This concern is driven by research such as that cited by the Autism CRC showing autistic students are more likely than non-autistic students to struggle with the transition from school. In addition to challenges arising from characteristics of autism, the Autism CRC observed that autistic students also experience:
…anxiety about life after school, difficulties imagining their life after high school, and limited opportunities to engage in real-life experiences that help them develop important skills and successfully transition to work and independent living.
However, the committee heard that instead of attracting additional support at this time, the transition from education coincides with the service 'cliff' described in Chapters 4 and 6. Accordingly, it is common for autistic students to experience a lack of support for the transition from school to further education or work.
In addition, Specialisterne Australia (Specialisterne) noted that some existing supports, such as the NDIS School Leavers Employment Support (SLES) program, are only available to a limited cohort of NDIS participants. Specialisterne also commented that—with a few exceptions such as the Autism Association of WA and Aspect—the SLES program is generally delivered by Disability Employment Service providers who lack the 'specific skill and expertise to work with autistic students and jobseekers'. The Autism Alliance also remarked on the restricted eligibility criteria and argued that the program starts 'too late in a student's school life' and lacks aspiration in relation to student 'potential and prospects'.
As a result, stakeholders like Scope-UoM advocated for governments to fund transition support programs to help autistic students transfer between education and employment settings.
Similarly, the Autism CRC pointed to the need for a 'clear and coordinated transition planning approach'—that starts well before the end of school—to improve the likelihood of successful transitions:
Providing young autistic people with early support using a tailored career planning program can set them up for future success with employment. … starting career planning and goal setting early, preferably in Year 9 of high school, ensures adequate time and opportunities to identify career interests, develop life skills including independent community mobility, and participate in work experiences.
National Disability Services also underscored the importance of starting employment preparation programs while students are still at school. It also stressed that this should involve 'collaboration between schools and agencies preparing people with disability for the world of work', as seen in its Ticket to Work program (see Box 12.9).
Box 12.9: Ticket to Work
Ticket to Work is an initiative of National Disability Services (NDS) that aims to improve school to work pathways for young people with significant disability. It was established in response to poor and falling school to work transition rates for young Australians with disability.
Ticket to Work's connected approach consists of 34 local networks, 205 schools and 145 local organisations. It has delivered 1621 jobs for young people mainly with significant disability. Approximately 38 per cent were students with autism.
Ticket to Work prepares young people for work through a combination of vocational/career development and early contact with work environments. Ticket to Work:
brings together disability-specific and mainstream representatives from a variety of sectors to work strategically and collaboratively;
supports young people to gain access to early experiences that positively influence their views of themselves as workers;
prepares young people for the workplace and gives them an employment pathway that is typical of other young adults; and
meets the needs of employers, providing enhanced retention and profitability.
Evaluations of the Ticket to Work model have shown that participants are substantially more likely than a similar comparison group to work in open employment, complete Year 12, participate in the labour force, and be involved in the community.
Source: National Disability Services, Submission 98.1, pp. 1, 2 and 3.
CYDA also argued that low expectations of young people with disability mean that 'they receive little tailored information or assistance around career planning and early employment'.
More broadly, evidence provided to the committee suggests that transition planning models should include a focus on the following three elements:
As noted by PEERS Australia, a lack of targeted services that 'help individuals research, apply to, and prepare for potential job opportunities' may be contributing to poor employment outcomes. Accordingly, it argued for the implementation of strategies that can be used by practitioners to improve employment outcomes, including:
…checklists (to identify skills and prioritise the goals of young adults), ecological assessments (to assess both students and environments where students spend time specifically in employment settings) and person-centred planning (team meeting approach where the young adult is the focus and plays a major role in decision making and goal development).
In a similar vein, Aspect argued for the development of programs that 'understand and assess an autistic individual based on their strengths and motivate them to be successful in navigating and accessing suitable employment opportunities'.
PEERS Australia also suggested that educators may require training in evidence-based practices in order to help them implement processes that will help secondary school students achieve strong transitions.
In addition, the Autism CRC suggested integrating evidence-based transition planning resources into high school-based transition planning, the Australian Curriculum Work Studies for Years 9–10, and the NDIS SLES program. According to the Autism CRC, one such resource, is the Better OutcOmes and Successful Transitions for Autism (BOOST-A) transition planning tool, which has been incorporated into the myWAY Employability web platform (see Box 12.10).
Box 12.10: BOOST-A and myWay Employability
BOOST-A was developed as an accessible and appropriate transition planning tool for young autistic people and the adults in their lives who assist with them in planning for their working life.
In a nationwide randomised control trial, students reported higher levels of self-determination to achieve their goals for further study or training and employment, than students who used the existing generic school-based transition planning processes.
BOOST-A has been incorporated into the myWAY Employability web platform.
myWAY Employability is designed specifically to help young autistic people plan and prepare for their working life. myWAY Employability:
guides young people though a series of questions to help them identify their strengths, interests, and learning and environmental preferences;
undertakes matching to relevant potential careers and employment pathways; and
provides scaffolded goal-setting to track progress towards employment.
It also contains a variety of articles co-produced with the autistic community, covering topics such as Preparing for Work Experience, Getting Around, Creating a Job Application, Pathways to University, TAFE, or College, and Disclosure in the Workplace.
An educator's guide to using myWAY Employability is also available on the incluionED practice platform.
In addition to transition planning tools, some stakeholders, such as the I CAN Network (I CAN), suggested that the Australian Government run or fund events that bring young autistic people together with universities and employers so that autistic people are able to 'see their future possibilities'.
As an indication of the value of these events, I CAN pointed to its annual autistic career expos which it runs in partnership with ANZ Bank in multiple locations across Victoria:
Each expo is entitled 'AWETISM Expo' because it showcases and celebrates the unique talents and strengths of autistic young people and adults. We bring together autistic students from our face-to-face programs to run presentations and exhibits which express their talents and interests to not only other students but also the media and the community. We also assemble universities and companies who set up stands to expose autistic young people and adults to meaningful career pathways. The Expo has been positively received … with 88 per cent of attendees enjoying 2019's AWETISM Expo (Melbourne).
PEERS Australia also indicated its intention to host the PEERS® for Careers training in Australia once program research has been completed. The PEERS® for Careers program provides skills development for autistic undergraduate and graduate students to help them obtain and maintain a job. It also provides an internship experience that offers autistic students a chance to implement learned skills.
In addition, there may be opportunities to implement aptitude testing tools, used by recruitment companies such as WithYouWithMe, in schools. WithYouWithMe's testing tool has been developed in conjunction with the University of Sydney and includes:
Aptitude Assessment – what is an individual's ability and likelihood of learning a new technology-based skill?
Psychometric Assessment – what type of technology-based role will they be most comfortable with?
Learning Style Assessment – how will they best learn technology-based skills?
Culture Fit Assessment – in what type of technology company or team will they thrive?
As noted by OTARC, limited work history and lack of access to work experience and training opportunities create a challenge for autistic people wanting to transition into the workforce. In a similar vein, the Autism CRC highlighted the importance of work experience to school students as:
...an enabler of post-school employment, developing employability, increasing awareness of career options and employment, and increasing self-understanding and confidence.
The Autism Alliance highlighted the Ticket to Work program as including opportunities for work experience. Despite demonstrating 'significant improvements in employment opportunities and outcomes for young people with disability', the Autism Alliance also noted that Ticket to Work 'has limited reach and long-term sustainability issues'.
As a result, stakeholders such as the Autism CRC, recommended that work experience programs be developed for autistic school students, with governments to support their implementation via capacity building incentives. The Autism CRC suggested this could potentially leverage the growing number of companies with neurodiversity employment programs—including government agencies.
As part of the broader lack of transition support, ESA also noted that there were particular problems in relation to social skill development, which is a 'significant barrier to successful participation in training and employment'.
The importance of extra support to develop social skills was emphasised by one submitter who suggested that autistic students may need to be given an extra two to four years of support:
…as a bridge past the yawning chasm of depression and unemployment that lies in their path at the end of high school. For so many, this will be the difference between an autistic kid being an ineffective manual labourer or retail assistant who can't keep a job, and a kid going on to successfully fill a role that they have true aptitude for.
To this end, another submitter recommended the development of locally based clubs to encourage 'social and employability skills'. They also advocated for government funding for social skill development and support programs such as 'Be Confident Belong for adolescents, the ICAN Network in schools, The Lab computer skills for autistic children and Aspergers Victoria Adult Support Group'.
Different Journeys also highlighted the importance of life skills to supporting independence and employment outcomes. For example, it noted that:
Many of our autistic community are expected to simply go and get a job but people assume these individuals have everyday life skills and do not even consider some could have barriers. Barriers include, but are not limited to, walking out of the house, utilising video chats, having a bank account, using an ATM card to name a few.
The committee is deeply troubled by the experience of autistic people inside Australia's education system. Despite pockets of good practice and dedicated teachers and school leaders, a multitude of reviews and inquiries have heard evidence of gatekeeping practices in schools, inadequate consultation with students and parents, a lack of adjustments within education settings, high rates of bullying in schools, and the use of restrictive practices in place of proper behavioural support strategies. This points to the absolute failure to date of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (DSE) to improve educational experiences for autistic people.
The committee welcomes the recommendations that have emerged from the 2020 review of the DSE and notes that they address some of the key areas of concern raised by stakeholders during this inquiry, including the need to:
provide more clarity about the requirement to consult with students and families;
build the capability of teachers and schools to support students with disability;
provide more information about the services schools provide students with disability; and
strengthen accountability in relation to meeting the DSE.
While the committee supports prompt implementation of the DSE review recommendations, it acknowledges the scepticism of stakeholders who argue that previous reviews of the DSE have failed to generate meaningful change. This must not be allowed to happen again. To this end, the committee is pleased to see that implementation will be accompanied by public progress reports.
However, the committee is still concerned that changes to the DSE will not be enough to make a difference for autistic students, whose needs are complex, unique and often invisible. Therefore, if the DSE review recommendations are going to make a difference for autistic students, governments will need to apply an 'autism lens' to their implementation. This needs to include collaboration with autistic people and their support networks.
Bullying was identified as a particular area where schools are failing autistic students. While social and communication challenges make autistic students especially vulnerable to bullying, it appears this is not well-understood or accounted for in many anti-bullying strategies. The committee contends that urgent action is required by education authorities to reduce bullying of autistic students in schools.
The committee supports implementation of the recommendations of the 2020 Review of the Disability Standards for Education 2005 and recommends that the Department of Education, Skills and Employment and state and territory education authorities:
work with the taskforce established to develop the National Autism Strategy to apply an 'autism lens' to the implementation of the Disability Standards for Education review recommendations; and
include specific actions to ensure the Disability Standards for Education meet the needs of autistic students.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government coordinate with all government and non-government education authorities to ensure that policies on bullying include specific measures to address bullying of autistic students, including the use of:
frameworks for positive behaviour interventions and support; and
opportunities for supported social engagement.
The committee is concerned that, despite the significant funding attached to the loading for students with disability, there appears to be no concerted effort by governments to measure whether this funding is actually making a difference to outcomes. This also makes it difficult to determine what models and approaches are working for autistic students and whether they can be scaled up or shared.
While acknowledging that there are attribution issues in relation to determining the impact of particular measures on education outcomes, it is the committee's view that it is long overdue. This work should be guided by an agreed framework developed in consultation with the autism community.
In addition, as a first step toward greater transparency of funding for students with disability, the committee also supports the National School Resourcing Board's recommendation in relation to the publication of school-level Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on Schools Students with Disability student numbers on the My School website.
The committee recommends that the Education Ministers Meeting develop and implement a framework for regularly monitoring and publicly reporting on education outcomes for students with disability from 2023. This should include monitoring and reporting on outcomes for autistic students as a separate cohort and should be informed by consultation with the taskforce established to develop the National Autism Strategy.
The committee heard support for a mix of schooling options from fully inclusive mainstream settings to autism-specific schools and home-schooling options. It is clear to the committee that one size does not fit all in education and that different approaches work best for different students and families. The concept of choice in schooling remains important to families.
In addition, while some stakeholders called for an end to special schools and classes, others recognised there will always be a need for these options to cater for some students who do not cope in mainstream settings, no matter how inclusive they may be. This specialist support may be for a short period of time, or for longer, or it may be part of a 'dual enrolment' arrangement.
Overall, the committee also supports parents' rights to choose. However, in order to make informed choices, parents and carers need more information about the options available to them and the support that is on offer.
While supportive of choice, the committee also believes that all mainstream schools should work toward becoming inclusive schools, modelled on universal design principles. At Springbank Secondary College the committee saw firsthand the results that can be achieved when schools commit to becoming fully inclusive. The committee notes that building system capacity to deliver inclusive education is also a policy priority under Australia's Disability Strategy 2021–2031.
However, the committee recognises that inclusive models of schooling come at an additional financial cost—one that many mainstream schools simply aren't resourced to meet at present. In addition, most teachers and school leaders are already time-poor and overburdened. This explains, in part, why autistic student experiences are so reliant on the skills and experience of individual teachers.
Accordingly, teachers, school leaders and support staff in mainstream schools need better training and support, including in the use of evidence-based adjustments to assist autistic students. As such, the committee believes autism awareness should be embedded in initial teacher education and ongoing professional development requirements, including those related to teacher registration.
However, the committee also recognises that teachers cannot be expected to meet the often complex needs of autistic students without specialist support. To this end, additional specialist support should be made available to all mainstream schools to help teachers meet the needs of autistic students. Queensland's Autism Hub is one model that might have wider applicability.
In terms of school funding, the committee notes that the loading for students with disability is the second largest loading overall, as well as the fastest growing overall in terms of the dollars allocated per student. Despite this, there are concerns that the funding provided to support students with disabilities in schools is insufficient. These concerns relate to the calculation of the loading itself, as well as concerns about how education authorities distribute the funding, with many autistic students missing out on vital support.
Accordingly, the committee supports revisiting the students with disability loading as recommended by the National School Resourcing Board. However, education authorities also need to review the way they distribute disability funding to ensure schools are receiving sufficient funding to meet the needs of autistic students.
The committee supports the 2019 recommendation of the National School Resourcing Board in relation to refining the costing model for the students with disability loading to inform the loading settings from 2023. Accordingly, the committee recommends that implementation of the new costing model be accompanied by stronger accountability measures requiring government and non-government education authorities to demonstrate that schools are receiving adequate funds to meet the needs of students with disability—including autistic students.
The committee recommends that, where state and territory education authorities use targeted programs to distribute funding for students with disability, eligibility for these programs be reviewed and adjusted to better meet the needs of autistic students.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory education authorities and relevant stakeholders to identify and implement measures to build the capacity of teachers, school leaders and parents to support the inclusion of autistic students in schools. This should include the provision of additional specialist support in schools.
The committee recommends that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership work with state and territory teacher regulatory authorities to:
ensure all initial teacher education courses include at least two units on inclusive education, with a focus on the functional challenges experienced by autistic students, as well as evidence-based strategies for supporting autistic students in classrooms; and
incorporate autism understanding into professional development requirements tied to teacher registration.
The committee recommends that the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership work with relevant stakeholders create additional autism-related Illustrations of Practice—across all domains of teaching and for all career stages—to help teachers better support autistic students in classrooms and schools.
The committee recommends that the Department of Education, Skills and Employment works with state and territory governments and the non-government school sector to develop clear guidance on the schooling options available for autistic students so that parents and carers can make more informed choices. This should include information about the role of—and interaction between—mainstream, special schools, autism-specific schools and home-schooling options within the education ecosystem.
The intersection between the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and in-school supports remains problematic despite being raised as an issue in both the 2015 and 2020 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education.
For years, stakeholders have heard the same refrain—that the National Disability Insurance Agency is working with disability ministers and state and territory governments to resolve these issues. All the while, autistic students continue to fall through the cracks in the system, poorly supported in school, with many failing to complete their education.
After eight years of the NDIS, the committee can only conclude that the lack of progress arises from a lack of genuine resolve to do anything to fix this issue. This must now be addressed as a matter of urgency.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government coordinate the National Disability Insurance Agency, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, and state and territory education authorities to:
resolve, as a matter of urgency, any outstanding issues in relationship to the intersection of school funding and the NDIS; and
develop clear guidance in relation to the intersection of school funding and the NDIS, including in relation to the provision of NDIS supports within schools.
During the course of the inquiry, the committee noted with interest that one of Universities Australia's strategic priorities for 2017–2021 was 'encouraging policies and programs that enable and support any person with the ability to obtain a high-quality university education to do so, and support diversity within universities'. Yet this aim does not appear to be reflected well on the ground. While enrolments of undergraduate students with disability have increased by 123 per cent since 2008, completion rates for autistic students are low.
The committee heard that higher education settings are generally not well‑adapted to the needs of autistic students. Significant numbers of students do not disclose their diagnosis out of a fear of being discriminated against. This can potentially leave them without support, exhausted from trying to mask their autism, and vulnerable to not completing their studies, as well as suffering mental health impacts that can be long lasting.
Autistic student transitions into higher education need to be better supported. As the committee learned, only a very small percentage receive adequate transition support. Peer mentoring programs have been identified as one very important source of support but they need to be used more widely.
The committee also heard about low rates of adjustments to meet the needs of autistic students. This may, in part, reflect the lack of pedagogical knowledge and skills among teaching staff, especially in relation to students with disability, including those with autism. As university teaching staff do not require teaching qualifications, autism understanding should form part of their ongoing professional development. This should also apply to staff working in administration and student support roles.
As with school education, the committee also heard examples of good practice. For example, the committee is heartened by the development of the Autism Inclusion Program which has been implemented by the Australian Catholic University. The committee believes such programs should become the norm at all Australian universities.
In addition, the committee notes that there are plans to develop a Student Equity in Higher Education Roadmap. The needs of autistic students should be a high priority for this roadmap.
The committee recommends that the Equity in Higher Education Panel include a specific focus on the needs of autistic students as part of its work to develop a Student Equity in Higher Education Roadmap. This should include consultation with the taskforce established to develop the National Autism Strategy, as well as a focus on:
increasing autism understanding among all teaching and administrative staff;
creating autism-friendly information for current and prospective students;
creating autism-friendly campus environments and services; and
widespread adoption of autism inclusion and peer mentoring programs.
The transition from education settings to work is one of the most critical for autistic students but also appears to be one of the most poorly supported, as it often occurs at the same time as the 'services cliff' experienced by autistic school leavers. Therefore, the committee supports calls for a coordinated approach to transition planning that begins well before the end of secondary school. This will align with the policy priority identified in Australia's Disability Strategy 2021–2031 in relation to improving the transition of young people with disability from education to employment.
The committee recommends that a Transition to Work Roadmap be developed under the auspices of the National Autism Strategy and as part of the National Autism Employment Framework proposed at Recommendation 58. This should provide a nationally agreed and coordinated approach to transition planning across school and higher education settings and should identify actions to:
improve students' social and employability skills;
embed the use of evidence-based transition planning resources, such as Better OutcOmes and Successful Transitions for Autism (BOOST-A) and the MyWAY Employability web platform in schools and work preparation programs (including the NDIS School Leaver Employment Supports);
improve the autism understanding of NDIS School Leaver Employment Supports providers;
expand the reach of the Ticket to Work program; and
establish stronger links between schools, universities and employers to facilitate autism-aware work experience opportunities.