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Fight for a different normal

  • February 25, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Denise Ryan
February 25, 2008

Faced with limited funding, some students with Aspergers drop out of school. By Denise Ryan.

THOUSANDS of young Victorians with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism have dropped out of mainstream high schools and are spending their lives locked in their bedrooms watching television or on the PC, say autism experts.

These young people have serious problems interacting with others and coping with school because of their disability but receive little State Government-funded help because they do not meet the strict criteria for assistance.

Bruce Tonge, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Monash University, says many 16-year-olds with an autism spectrum disorder drop out from about year 9 but are not eligible for adult autism services because they do not have an intellectual disability.

“They can then spend years in their room staring at the computer, becoming increasingly depressed and sometimes aggressive with their parents,” Professor Tonge says.

He says about 70% of autistic children have an intellectual disability and attend special schools, while about 30% are of normal intelligence but can have ritualised behaviours and serious problems with social interaction. The latter group, diagnosed with Aspergers or high-functioning autism, mostly attend mainstream schools but can find this extremely stressful without assistance.

“It is inaccurate to use IQ as the benchmark as to whether a person gets services or not. Those with average IQ may have poor ability to function in the community yet get no help,” Professor Tonge says.

Meredith Ward, the president of the Autistic Family Support Association, says the Government does not want to broaden its criteria for funding to include students with Aspergers or high-functioning autism.

“The rationale seems to be rationing of services rather than meeting the appropriate educational needs of every student.”

A spokesman for the Department of Human Services, when asked why teenagers diagnosed with Aspergers do not get adequate help, said many receive services funded by the department. The spokesman said schools make decisions at a local level about how to support such students, perhaps by employing a teacher’s aide or a speech pathologist.

Ms Ward, the parent of a 12-year-old with high-functioning autism and the manager of the state plan for Autism Victoria, described this response as “mischievous and inaccurate”.

“High-functioning children without an intellectual disability have to prove a significant language deficit or have severe behavioural problems to get any help. Most don’t qualify,” she says.