For some parents of children with autism their greatest fear is how to prepare their child for adult life.
Even simple communication can be a struggle.
“As a parent all you can hope is they’re able to cope in the world,” Brooke Vujeviks said.
When her son Jordan started high school “he literally walked in the door and looked at the ground — barely any eye contact”.
But an award winning program called Talk Time at his school, Condell Park High School in Sydney’s south-west, changed all that.
Jordan is now 19 and works in a program at Coles greeting and helping customers find products.
“Words finally do have meaning to him,” Ms Vujeviks said.
“It gives him a way of being with people. It’s huge.”
Sitting next to his mum, Jordan beams with pride as he explains what he has learnt.
“Communicate in a clear voice to the people you are talking to,” he said.
He is adamant it was the Talk Time program that brought him out of his shell.
Becoming comfortable filling a silence
The first Talk Time session was held at the school 10 years ago, as an experiment with a child who was a selective mute. He could speak, but suffered from tremendous anxiety.
A teacher’s aide sat across from him in silence for 10 minutes each day for a week-and-a-half.
“There was a big, stretching silence,” the now head teacher of the school’s autism support unit, Yvonne White, said.
She said the teacher’s aide was struggling.
“‘This is so uncomfortable. I can’t do this, I need to speak. He’s uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable’,” she recalled the teacher’s aide saying.
“But the aide persisted with the help of a counsellor who said, ‘It’s good he’s uncomfortable because he’s going to want to fill that space with words’. And he did.”
Now, every Monday to Friday at 9.30am the Autism Support Unit students and a half dozen mainstream students meet in the drama classroom.
School Captain Waleed Kurdi high fives them on the way through the door.
“The small step of walking into this school and putting a smile on their face has made a change in me,” he told 7.30.
Like clockwork the students all then pull up chairs and sit down in pairs and just talk.
It is a process of acceptance, engagement and practising speech in a safe, non-judgemental, regular space.
This year the Department of Education awarded the program for its success.
“We’re judged by our NAPLAN data and our HSC data but nobody can tell me, as a principal at this school, that we haven’t added value — the best value to these kids lives by the time they leave school — by helping them to communicate,” Condell Park High School Principal, Susie Mobayed, said.
Opera House performance — a retirement moment
Some of those children may have struggled to talk at the beginning, but last year they performed as a choir at the Opera House.
“When I was at the Opera House and I saw the singing of those kids, there was a standing ovation. I said I could retire today,” Ms Mobayed said.
“I love these kids because we are making a difference in their lives.”
A difference for students like Sadia, Lavashanth and Anton.
“I get really shy around new people sometimes,” Sadia Corfield said.
“I don’t always speak. A lot of the times [Talk Time helps].”
It is the highlight of Lavashanth’s week “because they have something common that I like and it’s really fun”.
Anton Castro’s mum Dawn, who is also his full-time carer, said the change was noticeable.
“Lately he’s very confident in talking to people, interacting, high-fiving, [saying] ‘good job’, especially in sports,” she said.
“It’s a marked difference.”
Yvonne White just wants the students to feel included.
“There’s a moment when they feel like, ‘I am included and I belong in a social situation just as much as anybody else’.”