Rather, his excitement involves a squad of long-necked, fleecy animals.
Alpacas, to be precise.
The devoted educator from Gin Gin State High School, west of Bundaberg in rural Queensland, has launched an alpaca therapy program that is working magic on children who present with an eclectic gamut of special needs.
“In 2017 I looked at the cohort coming through, there was a wide range of disability, two non-verbal, autistic Year 7 boys … some more on the Aspergers end of the spectrum and some with ADHD,” Maskiell recalls.
Intent on finding a way to reduce the students’ heightened levels of anxiety, Maskiell went out on a limb and linked up with a local stud farmer to see if her brood of alpacas could assist.
“I wanted these students to really like being at school, you could see there was a lot of anxiety … some of the behaviour was quite anti-social between [each other] and generally not terribly rule-governed…
“So I set up a bit of a trial and we brought the alpacas in using the stud people to run a modified paraded program.
“Now, that’s basically putting a halter on an alpaca and going for a walk with it around a series of obstacles, but we also introduced a stand where they needed to understand alpacas, their characters, so there was that sort of learning going on in the classroom,” Maskiell shares.
The goal-orientated sessions have churned up some spectacular results.
“The behaviour in the unit just improved dramatically,” Maskiell says.
“They felt more part of a group, settled down in class, talked to each other, followed social rules, they were just generally more considerate and more supportive of each other…”
With anxiety levels dulled, and negative behaviours diminished, Maskiell reports the kids were freed to kick goals in other areas. Alongside their alpacas, of course.
“We did a couple of shows … they got ribbons.
“So now for first time the [Special Education Unit] kids are standing up in the mainstream Monday morning assembly, proudly showing off their ribbons – and I think a lot of people went ‘oh my goodness’. You know, that was quite incredible,” Maskiell says.
The group also wrote stories about the animals which they presented to their peers during an English lesson. It was a poignant moment for Maskiell.
“The HOD of English … was there along with the principal, and they turned around to me and said ‘you know, we would be struggling to have the quality of writing in terms of the richness and the enthusiasm that’s written in these stories’.”
There’s more. Maskiell says that the weekly sessions have quite literally given his charges a voice.
“[We’ve] developed far more eye contact with the non-verbal autistic students, and we actually started to get some vocalisation, very early sort of language stuff…”
He now intends to get some explanations for these outcomes.
“There is a lot written about animal therapy in relation to dogs, riding for the disabled etc. Those animals are largely trained; we are dealing with young animals that are not trained, so the student and the animal [are] learning at the same time … there is a question I have there.”