For every child with autism, success means something different. When Stacy* arrived at school, she wasn’t a high-functioning student. She didn’t have much language and she struggled to communicate. But Giant Steps, a foundation for students with autism in Gladesville, NSW, helped Stacy bridge that almost impossible gap. 

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurological disorder that essentially, it affects how the brain works in three areas: behaviour, communication and socialisation.

Children or young adults who have autism may have difficulty in social interaction, communication and emotional regulation.

Luckily, research demonstrates that early intervention can positively transform the life of any young child with autism – the staff at Giant Steps see this all the time. “We’ve had more successes than I can name,” said Giant Steps funding co-ordinator Michelle Jocum.

Taking Giant Steps

Along with the standard curriculum, teachers at the school provide support for almost every aspect of a young person’s life. There’s an onsite mental health clinic (the only one of its kind in Australia that we are aware of) that psychiatric teams visit every two weeks. Teachers accompany parents to doctors and dentists’ visits, and they help families find strategies to cope with the disorder.

“Giant Steps staff are very involved with students’ daily life beyond the school day,” said Michelle. “We provide a lot of support not only for the parents, but for brothers and sisters too. We do a lot of out-of-hours work with parents, going into their home to help modify in areas with which the child is having difficulty.”

The objective of Giant Steps is for students to move into regular schools with other children. It offers a program of gradual integration, whereby kids go to these schools for a few hours, then a few days, until they’re permanently at their new school. 

Stacy’s New School

“Our dream and our goal is that each child graduate from Giant Steps and move to a mainstream school,” Michelle explained. “They’ll find it challenging to go to a class, so inclusion is one of our big goals. Just because a child has autism doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the same opportunities as any other child.”

The program, which is supported by the Coca-Cola Foundation, has been an unqualified success. This year, nine students are moving from Giant Steps into mainstream schools. And Stacy is one of them. “I spoke to her mum the other day, and she’s doing really, really well,” said Michelle. “She goes to assembly with the entire school, goes to some classes with the other students, and spends her break with the children. It’s a great outcome.”

*Not her real name