Education: hearing, finding and recommending

What has the Disability Royal Commission heard?

The Disability Royal Commission has heard about the experiences of Autistic students across school settings (including mainstream schools and special schools) and their life outcomes. It has heard about: gate keeping practices (where schools discourage or deny enrolment to students with disability); low expectations and opportunities for development; lack of reasonable adjustments, supports and planning; inadequate funding; and insufficient teacher training and education. It is aware of the exclusion many Autistic students have experienced from school and the ongoing use of restrictive practices. It has heard that the key factors for safe, inclusive and quality education are:

  • Strong leadership
  • Inclusive culture
  • Effective workforce training
  • Accessibility, adjustments and supports
  • Increased disability awareness and acceptance

It has heard from:

  • Amy, about the education of her 10 year old son Sam who is Autistic and has co-occurring conditions. Amy spoke of the school’s complete lack of understanding of Sam’s support needs, its failures to make reasonable adjustments, the use of restrictive practices (restraint) and repeated suspensions from the age of 5 for so called ‘aggressive behaviour’. Amy described the emotional impacts of Sam’s experiences and the failures of the NSW Education Department to appropriately deal with her complaints.
  • Rosie, about her Autistic son Noah’s experiences across special and mainstream schools. Rosie spoke of the bullying and abuse Noah experienced from other students and the schools’ failures to protect Noah. She spoke of the use of restraints, a lack of understanding and respect for Noah among school staff and her ultimate decision to home-school Noah to keep him safe.
  • The parents of Patrick, an Autistic teenager, about their experiences seeking to enrol Patrick in their local catholic school. Patrick’s parents were told that Patrick’s enrolment would be conditional on them paying for an extra staff member out of their own pocket to support Patrick’s classroom.
  • Maria, an Autistic woman, about her experiences in mainstream and special schools. Maria spoke about a lack of adjustments to support her learning, bullying, low expectations, exclusionary discipline and the use of restrictive practices.
  • Kobe, an Autistic man with complex support needs, and his Mother. Kobe’s mother spoke positively about her son’s first mainstream school, which he attended from primary school to Year 8. The school understood Kobe’s support needs, made reasonable adjustments and was inclusive. However, when Kobe moved to a new mainstream school in Year 8, he experienced a lack of understanding, repeated suspensions and eventual expulsion. Kobe’s mother spoke about Education Queensland’s poor handling of her complaints. She felt that the key difference between the schools Kobe attended were the attitude, understanding and approach of staff.
  • Kimberley, mother of 20-year-old Mitch who is Autistic and non-speaking. Kimberley spoke of limited schooling options, low expectations, poor communication, inadequate supports to meet Mitch’s learning and communication needs and a lack of transition support and planning from primary school to high school, and from high school to post school life. Kimberley spoke about the importance of quarterly team meetings (including students, school staff, parents and external service providers) to lead a plan for school, home and post school transition.
  • Ed, father to 20-year-old Ryan who is Autistic, has an intellectual disability and is non-speaking. Ed spoke of Ryan’s poor experiences in mainstream and special schools, as well as a lack of adequate or co-ordinated supports post school, which have led to poor outcomes for Ryan. Ed spoke of the importance of choice between inclusive, capable and well-funded mainstream and special schools, the need for better teacher training and support, and the need for a ‘third level’ of co-ordinated and capable supports post school, particularly for young adults with complex support needs.
  • Katie from Yellow Ladybugs, who gave evidence about the experiences of Autistic girls and gender-diverse students. She spoke about the trauma that comes from ‘invisible needs’ not being met, ongoing gate-keeping practices, a lack of adequate funding and supports (as Autistic girls are often not seen as ‘disruptive enough’), regular exclusion from school activities, and vulnerabilities and bullying. She spoke of the need to build understanding, celebrate difference, consider more flexible approaches to schooling (including remote learning) and progress neurodivergent led change. She also spoke of the need to move away from the current approach of positive behaviour support across schools, towards a Collaborative, Proactive Support model which focuses on collaborative problem-solving partnerships. Katie also shared a powerful slide show prepared by Yellow Ladybugs members on what they wish their teachers knew.
  • Alexa, mother to 13-year-old Bridget who is Autistic and has ADHD. Alexa gave evidence regarding exclusion and abuse, sexual harassment by other students, reduced school hours, the negative mental health impacts of Applied Behaviour Analysis (‘ABA’) for Bridget and her challenges finding an appropriate education setting. She spoke about the importance of choice of education settings. She also spoke of the need to remove ABA style approaches from school settings and require more modern collaborative practices. Bridget shared a drawing with the Royal Commission to depict what she had gained from school and Yellow Ladybugs.

The Australian Autism Alliance has made a  submission to the Disability Royal Commission to inform it of the experiences of Autistic people across education settings, and to highlight the urgent need for reform.

What has the Disability Royal Commission found and recommended?

In its report from Public Hearing Report 7 – Barriers to accessing a safe, quality and inclusive school education and life course impacts,  the Disability Royal Commission found that:

  • The provision of reasonable adjustments in NSW and QLD schools is largely left to the judgement and discretion of educators, with little departmental oversight.
  • The regulation of restrictive practices across Australia remains inadequate, which places children with disability at significant risk of harm.
  • The NSW and Queensland state school systems are failing to record data on incidents of ‘gate keeping’, bullying, exclusionary discipline and restrictive practices experienced by students with disability.

The Disability Royal Commission also made significant findings on the treatment of Sam’s case (see above) by the NSW Department of Education. It found that Sam’s repeated suspensions were inappropriate and prevented him from receiving a safe, quality and inclusive education. It also found that the complaint resolution processes followed by the NSW Department of Education were defective.

The Disability Royal Commission is committed to further inquiries across a range of issues that impact Autistic students, including gatekeeping practices, causes of mistreatment in schools, funding issues, how to protect students from bullying, teacher training, use and regulation of restrictive practices, lack of adjustments and supports, low expectations, misuse of disciplinary measures and poor collaboration and oversight.

For more information, please see the Commission’s Interim Report , Public Hearing Report 7 – Barriers experienced by students with disability in accessing and obtaining a safe, quality and inclusive school education and consequent life outcomes, Public Hearing Report 2 – Inclusive Education in Queensland – preliminary inquiry and Public Hearing 24 – The experience of children and young people with disability in different education settings.

We will update this page when the Disability Royal Commission makes further findings and recommendations that impact Autistic students.

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