It’s that time of year again, when tens of thousands of children across the country are starting school for the first time. So, we thought it would be a good time to talk about Giant Steps’ new Early Years Program, which is designed to get children on the autism spectrum school-ready. Can you tell me a bit about the program?

Prior to the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), Giant Steps did have an early intervention program, which was really popular. However, when the NDIS came in, the whole funding model changed. There was so much demand for the school itself, that we had to pivot our attention entirely towards that.

It has always been in the back of my mind that we should relaunch an early years program when the opportunity arose and when we had the right personnel to do it. One of the things we noticed in the years that we didn’t run the program was the degree of frustration felt by all of us at Giant Steps because students joining the school had experienced such traumatic and difficult times in their early childhood settings. That drove our deep desire to get back into that space and make sure that we can again support young people with very high support needs from an early age.

The new Giant Steps Early Years Program caters for children aged 3.5 to 5 years, with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is designed to provide highly individualised and targeted support for children and their families. We work collaboratively with parents to develop foundation skills for children as they prepare to transition to school. Some of those students will continue on with us at Giant Steps. Others will go into different settings, such as a mainstream school. By working with the students a couple of years before they start school, we’re able to help set them up for success at Giant Steps and beyond.

What are some of those foundation skills?

One of the key foundation skills is social skills – learning that they are part of a social environment and that they need to reference others and share in what’s occurring in that environment.  If a young person goes into a classroom and is unable to interact socially with their teacher or peers, they are going to miss out on so many learning opportunities. So, our teachers work with them in a fun and engaging way to develop relationships and rapport with adults and peers.  This can help with things like lining up for class or passing something around a classroom – where you need to be able to pick up on cues in your environment.

We also work on all aspects of communication. We have speech therapists who develop communication skills and, of course, that’s very different for each child. It’s really a case of meeting them where they are at. It might be that they need to develop alternative ways to communicate, such as visual tools.

On top of that, we have occupational therapists who support students who find it hard to regulate their emotions. We all know that every child has issues regulating their emotions just before they start school. I have a four-year-old, so I know! But, as you can imagine, some young autistic people find that particularly difficult and that’s where the occupational therapists and transdisciplinary team comes together.

Finally, we work to support each child to grow more independently when it comes to daily activities, such as at mealtimes, managing themselves and their belongings, and toileting.

Presumably the benefits of this type of early intervention are huge?

Yes, absolutely. The research continually shows that early intervention has a big impact and that’s across the board, irrespective of the degree of disability. It’s an absolutely vital time for a young person on the spectrum to learn how to develop social relationships with adults and peers and to build trust with adults outside the family. And, at Giant Steps, we have seen some great results from that.

Having said that, we very much believe that that’s not the only time change can happen.

Speaking of money, where did you get the funding for the program?

There have been changes to school funding, whereby special schools are able to take on younger students. Under that model, we were able to reintroduce this Early Years Program. However, to meet the operational needs, we required external support. That’s where FGX [Future Generation Australia) came onboard as our major supporter for the launch of this initiative. Fortunately, we were also able to recruit an experienced teacher and leader, , Sarah Rawlins, back to Giant Steps, who had worked in our prior early intervention program. Sarah has kicked things off and is overseeing it all, with great results so far.

What does a typical day in the program involve?

We engage in a play-based program, which is focused on promoting age appropriate skill development.. We work with the children in small groups, which are focused on a variety of learning areas to prepare them for the transition to school including support from music, speech and occupational therapists. And, of course, there are daily living activities, such as developing their hand washing, toileting and mealtimes routines.

There were 14 children in the program in 2023, but I understand your teachers and therapists also provided support for additional students?

Yes. At different times of the week, our teachers and therapists might go out to a student’s home or daycare or preschool setting. There, they provide training for staff and parents and share their expertise. It creates this ripple effect, similar to that achieved by the Autism Training Hub, which Future Generation Australia provided seed funding to launch. There is a lot of demand for the kind of work that we do, and the resources are seriously lacking. When we share our training and resources and expertise in this way, we can multiply our impact.

Speaking of demand for your services, I notice that you have a waitlist of more than 350 families?

Yes, last year we had more than 120 new applications. That’s just adding to the people who have had applications in for quite a while, so demand is incredibly high for the transdisciplinary, individualised support that we offer.

So how can we meet that demand as a society – if your waitlist is double your current capacity?

Obviously, we need more schools with that level of resources, but we also need further training resources for existing schools.

At the start of 2020, we were supporting 100 families across our school and adult services and this year we have more than 150. So, we are working really hard on growing our enrolment numbers so that we can support more families. But, what is critical to us, is that we grow in a way that maintains the very high quality of our services. That’s tough at the moment because there is a significant labour shortage, for both teachers and therapists. That doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

 To increase your resources, you’re going to need more money. And one area you have highlighted as a vulnerability is your reliance on parents for fundraising. Do you have plans to rectify that?

Yes. We’ve been very fortunate in that our parents have done an amazing job – and continue to do an amazing job – with fundraising events. But, of course, as you grow, there’s a certain saturation point. There are only so many events you can hold! We’ve recognised that if we want to continue to grow our funds sustainably, we need to get more philanthropic and corporate support. So, a strategic aim for us is to reduce our reliance on the huge efforts of our parents and maximise our contact with the corporate sector.

Presumably the cost-of-living crisis will also hinder your fundraising efforts?

Yes, I’m concerned that this year is the year where we’ll really see that bite. We’ve weathered things up until now, but we do anticipate possible tightening across the year. Of course, there is also wage pressure coming from the State government, with public school teachers’ salaries increasing significantly, so we will have those crosswinds too.

You don’t charge your students to attend the school. Is that something you would ever consider?

No. When the school started, and people realised what it would cost to run the program, they decided that it could not be a school only for families who could afford it. That ethos runs through the whole culture of the school: that if everyone does what they can, we will make it work! Culturally, that’s not something that Giant Steps would move away from.

One final thing I’d like to ask you about is the possibility of a rural campus for Giant Steps?

That feels like a bit of a dream at the moment but is definitely a strategic goal that we would love to pursue

We do a lot of outdoor education, and we recognise that the outdoor environment is so conducive to learning for a lot of our students. Many of our adults and students, particularly those with high support needs, find the city environment quite overwhelming.

So, we would love to find a small rural property within cooee of the city, where we could develop a program involving vocational skills – around food production and animal husbandry. At our city site, we have some greenhouses, where we’ve run very successful programs growing and harvesting plants, herbs and vegetables. We have market days every month where the local community can buy these plants. If we were to find a small rural property, that could absolutely scale things for us.

For more information, visit Giant Steps website.

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