But thanks to the conviction of one Queensland principal, this is about to change.
In Term 2 this year Emmanuel College’s Patrick Innes-Hill will open the doors to Josiah College, a school that’s designed exclusively for children on the spectrum who want to thrive – not just tread water – in their academic lives.
“The dream, and I use that word, is that every child will transition back into mainstream education…” Innes-Hill shares.
“Emmanuel is an incredibly busy school of 1600 students, if you’re a child that finds the social world bemusing and challenging, or who is thrown by sensory overload, 1600 people milling around you is hard.
“So it just struck me that … if we could give [autistic students] skills in a much more controlled environment, in a much more autism-friendly environment, then when they did come to a mainstream school they could thrive, rather than just surviving.”
Following an extensive consultation period with experts, architects and people of all ages who fall on the spectrum, Innes-Hill and his team have come up with a learning facility that is fine-tuned to the needs and sensitivities of autistic kids.
“The walls of the classrooms are lined with lining that reduces echo and extraneous noise, they’re not sound-proofed as such, but the lining modulates the sound,” Innes-Hill explains.
“The light coming into the classroom is diffused light coming through the widows so that it doesn’t glare off desks or paper, we’ve managed to source as close to silent air conditioning as you can get…”
Downlights have been carefully positioned so they don’t irritate young eyes below, while furniture can be modified and used in multiple ways.
For the maximum of eight students that will fill each class, Innes-Hill says Josiah will offer a safe space for kids to tackle an autism-friendly version of the curriculum, aided by some “unbelievably exceptional” staff recruits.
“Way back in the early ‘90s I came across children with what we now call ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), then we called it ‘really challenging’.
“I realised over time like lots of teachers, that the problem with these children was our problem; we weren’t understanding the way they were thinking.
“So we were imposing teaching that had worked before, on children that didn’t understand what we were imposing,” the principal reflects.
The leader credits these “quite uncomfortable encounters” early on in his career as all the impetus he needed to mount his quest to better cater to autistic students on their own terms.
“If we inspire another school to do something like this then I’ll be a happier man than I am already.”