Saturday, February 5, 2011

Western Autistic School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. The school sounds awesome. Totally sympathise with Remi, I used to hate anything with rice or barley in it when I was a kid.. Buckwheat was the only grain I could handle.

  2. Congratulations on your blog! I have a two little boys, the eldest one has autism and the youngest was juts diagnosed with OCD. I loved to read you blog and hope to continuedoing so. Sorry for my english, I'm out of practice, I am form Bs. As., Argentina. We are about to start school soon.

  3. Sounds wonderful - it is such a relief isnt it? How old are your boys now? Is it rude of me to ask if they have an Asperger or Classic Autism diagnosis? My boys are almost 6 and 9 and have an Asperger diagnosis (the youngest seems to have that ADHD streak though). Just wondered. If you were ever after a non-special school - I am so happy with where we have moved to - it is an independant school and very small. We have moved and relocated so we could send all our kids ASD and non-ASD to the same school.

    Just thought I'd let you know - it's in Monbulk.

    Take care

  4. @Squiggly: if you moved to send your kids to a good school, then you must know all about dealing with bad schools. We are also moving so our kids can go to the rihgt school. But this will be the subject of another blog.

    The boys are on the verge of turning 6 and 8, so not far behind yours. Not Aspergers: they have practically zero language, though Gaston is getting better.

  5. Thanks for sharing and for your point of view, my wife and I have twin boys, both have Down syndrome and both have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder)and we feel them same way about our choice to move to an area with a good school system and that we are very thankful that our boys have each other as best friends.

  6. I am very interested to know where you are looking at a school? Ours is called Mountain District Christian School - I am sure if there is zero language the boys would be entitled to a full time aide - if you are ever looking for a 'non-special' school it is worth a look. I realised this week that out of the 51 new students to this school this year, 21 were preps, and 8 of the 51 were on the autism spectrum. The head of primary came to me and told me they feel very glad to have all these families and are learning so much from this experience and how the whole school community will bennefit. I was amazed to say the least!

  7. That sounds like a great school. We've gone back and forth about a 'regular' school vs a 'special' school. About now, we are leaning towards the special school. Unfortunately, we'd have to prove to the district that they can't help our son...and though they can and have (therefore nixing that argument), it might be *more* helpful for him to have a specific school to meet his specific needs... until the day we hit the's not happening!

  8. If GL were still that age, I think we'd move to Australia!

  9. My son attends this school, and has not seen a speech therapist or an OT,so far this year, and we are one week away form term 1 finishing. Psychologists, we have had to get our own to go to the school to help our child with meltdowns.

  10. Moomba Park Primary School in Fawkner hosts the IDEA Program run by CISCA. Children with autism attend the mainstream school and are placed a) wholly in a mainstream class, b) in the 'Foundation Room' working on independent or small group work or c) a mixture of a) and b). Students are supported by behavioural therapists, psychologists, a special education teacher and in fact the whole staff! One particular child attended Western Autistic School for 2 years and his parents were told not to expect much from him. He has been in the program at Moomba Park Primary for 3 years and is now in a grade 5/6 class doing mainstream work. He is still supported by therapists but he is, for the most part, without support because he NO LONGER needs it. Western Autistic School is no longer a best practice school!