Family and Community Development Committee: services for people with autism spectrum disorder

It gives me great pleasure to rise and make a few comments on the Family and Community Development Committee’s report into services for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is interesting that when this report was tabled it was at a similar time — the same week in fact — that comments were being made in the federal Parliament by Senator Pauline Hanson. She called for children with autism to be separated from other children. It showed ignorance. Supporting children is the way we should always embrace the youth of today and the youth of tomorrow, not ostracising them.

While Senator Hanson was making ignorant comments in the federal Parliament, this committee was making 110 recommendations that would allow access to better diagnostic and clinical services for people with autism spectrum disorder and a more inclusive approach to planning and service delivery. I was a latecomer to the committee, but I was proud to play a role in the development of this report. I think the one thing all committee members took away from this was the enormous and extraordinary potential that people on the autism spectrum have when they are supported and encouraged.

I have spoken in this house before about the I Can Network and the amazing work it is doing in this space. It is an innovative mentoring program that encourages young people on the autism spectrum to live life with an ‘I can’ attitude. I have had the pleasure of getting to know the network’s founder and chief enabling officer, Chris Varney — a man with an incredible passion and drive, who well and truly puts the ‘awe’ in ‘autism’. Chris is an amazing man who believes we need to change the way we look at autism. He believes we need to look at the extraordinary skills people on the spectrum have and not focus on the things they cannot do. He is the perfect example of what can be achieved when those on the spectrum live with an ‘I can’ attitude and have a strong support network around them.

I do not want to detract from the fact that there are extraordinary challenges as well, particularly for families with someone on the autism spectrum, but that is the reason we need to make sure we support families and children in these circumstances, right through to adults and even the aged. We need to consider how we look after people with autism in aged-care facilities. It is right across the age spectrum.

That is what the I Can Network is hoping to develop and is developing: networks that actually help young people develop those networks to realise their own full potential. I have had the pleasure of working with the network’s branch in my electorate, the I Can South West group, which is working hard to establish a mentoring program in local schools and is already running camps which are having a great effect on kids in my electorate. The initial hard work and passion of Anthony and Lisa Boyle brought the network to the south-west, and they now have an amazing group of people around them making this program a huge success. I am really proud to be part of that. I am also very proud that there are two recommendations in the report which, if implemented, will help I Can continue to grow and will offer support to people not only in my electorate but right across the state, particularly in rural and regional areas.

I met recently with Karyn Cook, the director of mental health services at South West Healthcare in Warrnambool, and we talked about the real challenges facing their child and adolescent mental health service. This is a service that a person with autism needs to access, and the waiting lists are extraordinary. The committee report shows that there is a shortage of ASD services, something Karyn agreed with. Extensive travel, for example, is one of those challenges. People have to go to Melbourne because we do not have centres in our region that people can access. The last thing we want is limitations for people who need support services. Travel is a huge limitation and can be even more so for people with ASD.

The committee recommended that the state government establish centres for autism excellence in regional Victoria, which would provide specialist services, including early intervention and therapy services. The inquiry also found that some schools have been refusing to enrol children with ASD, which again reflects the lack of understanding around this disorder. This week I am visiting, with the member for Kew, the Giant Steps facility in Kew, which was set up by a family who have a child with extraordinary challenges. I congratulate people who get behind projects like that, like Mr Barry Irvin, who started Giant Steps in New South Wales.