Confidence gained in the playground can change the lives of students at Aspect South Coast School, writes CYDONEE MARDON.
A playground is a place for climbing, sliding, swinging, falling down and getting back up again.
Not much thought goes into this ritual of play, for most kids it just comes naturally.
For a child on the autism spectrum, however, that very same space with its ladders, bridges and slippery slides is so much more.
It holds the key to these children making it in the "real world", a world that doesn't always play by their rules.
Leanne McConville has seen for herself the miracle of play and what a modest climbing bridge can do for a child like six-year-old Riley.
"A playground built specifically with children on the autism spectrum in mind is not simply just a place of fun, as most people would imagine," Mrs McConville said.
'The playground builds skills and confidence. This confidence carries over to all aspects of their life.'
Her son attends Aspect South Coast School at Corrimal, where the playground, although rusty and run-down, is a vital learning tool.
"At the playground our children learn the ability to tolerate other children playing around them, and learn to wait their turn," Mrs McConville said.
"They also learn how to actually use the equipment and the importance of playground safety.
"Many of our children have no sense of fear or safety, for themselves or others."
A day at the park can be a daunting and frightening experience for mums and dads of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
"The playground at the school helps parents feel confident to brave a public playground with their beautiful children, a simple pleasure many of us take for granted."
The Corrimal-based school caters for children from the age of three and nine months, helping them to develop skills to become as independent as possible.
Aspect South Coast School principal Bruce Rowles said an upgraded and updated playground was critical to the education program. The cost is $110,000, a hefty price for a not-for-profit organisation like Aspect.
"We aim to give our students the skills they need to enjoy all the things we take for granted like being able to climb and swing," Mr Rowles said.
"Our children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, for many reasons, find these tasks either impossible or exceptionally daunting.
"The playground provides a safe secure environment for the students to learn the skills they require to enjoy a park with friends and family."
Mr Rowles said many students did not have sufficient body awareness or adequate coordination to gain the benefits of a regular park.
"The playground builds skills and confidence. This confidence carries over to all aspects of their life."
Mr Rowles said community support for their campaign had been overwhelming, with Savvy Fitness donating proceeds from its Summer Survivor charity event to the playground campaign.
The next key fund-raising event is the Autism Dinner supported by the City Motors Group at the Novotel on Friday April 4.
Mrs McConville, and the close-knit group of parents from the school, would do anything to help.
"This school has just been so wonderful for Riley," she said.
"Since starting school, Riley has learnt things most children take for granted.
"As well as the usual development in the Key Learning Areas, Riley has also learnt how to manage his sensory needs, cope in a classroom setting, turn-take, share, play, communicate, follow instructions and most notably, learnt to talk. If he wasn't one of the lucky children who gained a placement at Aspect, we would hate to think where he would be now, and what his outcome would be."
ASD: lifetime disorder of communication
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects, among other things, the way an individual relates to his or her environment and their interaction with people.
The word ‘‘spectrum’’ describes the range of difficulties that people with ASD may experience and the degree to which they may be affected.
Some people may be able to live relatively normal lives, while others may have an accompanying learning disability and require continued specialist support.
The main areas of difficulty are in social communication, social interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviours and interests. People on the autism spectrum may also have:
• unusual sensory interests such as sniffing objects or staring intently at moving objects
• sensory sensitivities including avoiding everyday sounds and textures such as hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and sand
• intellectual impairment or learning difficulties.
• An estimated one in 100 people have ASD, that’s almost 230,000 Australians.
• ASD affects almost four times as many boys than girls.
For more information visit autismspectrum.org.au
Nancy Sakun knew in her gut that her baby was different.
It was the little things only a mother would notice that separated him from other children his age.
When he was just four months old Sakun watched as Max tilted his head to one side, over and over again.
He didn’t sit up until he was 11 months old and on his second birthday he finally took his first steps. He uttered his first words at three.
Max is lucky his mum noticed the signs, followed her intuition, and set about finding ways to help her son.
‘‘All the doctors we saw, the conversations we had, they said to wait and see how it goes, as we needed to do,’’ Sakun recalled.
‘‘Then we had the MRI, CT scan and saw a paediatric neurosurgeon in Sydney who said Max had a development delay and he’s going to have that for the rest of his life.
‘‘I though OK, he can catch up... he was 2, there was no talk of autism then, just that he was delayed.
‘‘So we went through all the various channels. I started working with a wonderful physio, speech therapists’’ they helped us so much and pointed us in the right direction.’’
Max’s first assessment didn’t place him on the autism spectrum – it was the second assessment that gave the Sakun family the bittersweet news.
‘‘In one way it was ‘Oh no, oh dear’, then ‘Yes, now we know what we are dealing with’.’’
Sakun charged ahead with her plan to get Max into Aspect South Coast School, which she had heard ‘‘wonderful things’’ about. One year at the school has changed his world.
The boy who didn’t speak now hops into her car and declares: ‘‘Max played with play dough... Max is happy’’.
The boy who couldn’t walk up stairs now climbs the playground equipment, walks over the bridge and down the slide.
‘‘Watching him do that recently just blew me away,’’ Sakun said.
Fellow parent Kristy Robaard can relate to Sakun’s story.
‘‘Aspect South Coast School has been amazing for us,’’ she said. ‘‘When Hamish was given a spot at the school, we thought we had won the lottery.’’
When her son, Hamish, started he could only communicate with minimal words, often babbling and making sounds no-one could quite understand.
‘‘Now he can speak in full sentences and actually have a conversation with people,’’ Robaard said.
‘‘When he started at the school, if there were too many children in the playground he wouldn’t be able to cope and would just sit down on the bench.
‘‘Now he is making friends, introducing himself and actually playing with other peers and not just playing alongside of them.’’
Robaard said she realised Hamish’s core strength was not strong enough to enable him to sit long enough to concentrate in class.
‘‘Hamish’s teachers have been doing lots of core strengthening exercises and now he can sit for longer periods which enables him to learn more. We cannot believe how far he has come,’’ she said.
‘‘This is all within a year and a half, which is fantastic. Before he started, at times it felt like we had to do therapy all of the time.
‘‘Sometimes it felt more like a therapy session most of the day and didn’t feel like home where you could just relax and be a family as we were always trying to deal with his obsessions.’’
Now, with a lot of the therapy done in school time, home life for the Robaards is much more relaxed.
‘‘I always feel like I can’t do enough for Aspect South Coast School as what they have done for our family is amazing,’’ Robaard said.
Hamish, now 6, is moving to a satellite class at Bellambi Public School this year.
‘‘With the help of Aspect, we will probably have the option to send him to a mainstream classroom in the future.’’
- CYDONEE MARDON