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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Region’s first autism-specific high school to help adolescents develop

There is so much change when students take the leap into secondary education.

But the region’s first autism-specific high school hopes its program will help adolescents develop the necessary skills to gain inclusion within the community.

An estimated one in 70 Australians, or about 230,000 people, have autism – a lifelong condition that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to their environment and interacts with other people.

Aspect Hunter School principal Lara Cheney says the focus, from four years of age, has been to transition children on the autism spectrum to local schools.
The Thornton-based site is now set to open a new high school to its foundation students on Friday 1 February.

“For some children, they maintain primary school placements and cope really well with one teacher, one classroom, and the same group of students,” she tells Newcastle Weekly.

“The whole school knows them and understands and supports them.

“But when they move into the high school years, learning becomes a lot more of a challenge and the social relationships become a lot more abstract – they’re often moving from one classroom to another with up to seven teachers and each one has a different style.

“Students with autism will often learn the rules and will apply those rules but, in a high school environment, there’s so much change.”

Apart from the usual curriculum, the school also aims to build a horticultural centre, including a vegetable garden, an industrial kitchen, a technology centre, and an outdoor gymnasium and cafe.

Ms Cheney adds it will move from 139 students to 164 across seven sites.

She says the high school plans to start with 13 pupils and then increase over the next two years until it reaches full capacity.

“Having this facility has provided the opportunity to move some of our middle school-aged students over here and then enrol our high school students as well,” she says.
“So, we’re servicing our wait list more readily.

“We’re also exploring a distance education provider so that we can reach more people across NSW.

“We’ll move lots of children through this program as they develop their skills, whether it be further education, employment or another school that’s less specialised.”

A well-known local property developer, Hilton Grugeon, has been instrumental in the high school’s progress.

Mr Grugeon asked for tradespeople to donate their time on the project, with painters, electricians and plumbers among those who answered the call.

They have since worked around the clock, often in stifling heat, to finish it before Term 1 starts next week.

Mr Grugeon says the community’s support is remarkable.
“Aspect is not paying one cent – it’s all donated,” he says.

“Seven years ago, when we built that [original school], we then talked about: ‘Do we need high school facilities?’”

“The consensus was ‘No, we really want to get them into mainstream school special classes.
“But, there are just some kids who can’t make that transition and, without this facility, may end up not going to school.”

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