Parliament: Questions Kelly's Asked

World Autism Awareness Day

The Hon. G.A. KANDELAARS: My question is to the Minister for Disabilities. Will the minister detail the importance of World Autism Awareness Day?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Communities and Social Inclusion, Minister for Social Housing, Minister for Disabilities, Minister for Youth, Minister for Volunteers): I thank the honourable member for his very important question, and therefore his ongoing interest in these matters. Yesterday, 2 April, was World Autism Awareness Day. World Autism Awareness Day was declared, I understand, by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2007. It was designed to raise understanding of autism spectrum disorder and encourage early diagnosis and interventions.

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a group of developmental disorders, including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, which is also known as atypical autism. The word ‘spectrum’ is used because the range and severity of the difficulties people with an ASD experience can vary widely. A diagnosis can range from mild to severe. While approximately 75 per cent of people with autism also have an intellectual disability, ASD also occurs in people with an average and above average IQ.

It is important to recognise that every person with ASD is unique, with different skills, behaviour and interests. There is considerable complexity and diversity within the autism spectrum community. However, there are common characteristics that people with ASD share to varying degrees. These include difficulties in communication, social interaction and repetitive or restricted interests and activities.

Australian research published in 2007 found that one in 160 children between the ages of six to 12 years have a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder. This makes ASD one of the most common disabilities in children. Here in South Australia a large percentage of people with autism spectrum disorders and their families are supported by Autism SA. Autism SA receives $2.15 million grant funding each year from the state government and provides therapeutic support and services to over 5,400 people with ASD and their families each year.

Autism SA provides a range of services including diagnostic, early intervention, advisory, school inclusion programs, training and development, day options and respite. Led by CEO Jon Martin, the team at Autism SA work very hard to meet the ever increasing needs of the ASD community. Autism SA reports that, during the 2010-11 financial year, 846 people were diagnosed with ASD, representing an increase of nearly 14.5 per cent compared to 2009-10’s figures of 739 people.

Given current trends, we can assume an ongoing 12 to 15 per cent increase in people diagnosed on an annual basis; whether that trend holds up is another question. This is consistent with both national and international trends and might reflect increasing prevalence rates, or it could possibly reflect increased detection rates or both. The South Australian government has recognised the need for additional funding in this area. That is why in 2010, as part of our election commitments, we announced an additional $1 million a year for assessment and early intervention services. The funding is split between SA Health and Autism SA, with $500,000 a year to SA Health for a multidisciplinary assessment team and $500,000 per year to Autism SA for assessment and early intervention services.

State-funded early childhood intervention services are complemented by the Helping Children with Autism package—a commonwealth government program providing families access to $12,000 in metropolitan areas and $14,000 in regional areas in autism support. The program runs until the child is seven years of age. It includes a Medicare rebate for up to 20 sessions of allied health intervention for children up to the age of 15.

With the diagnosis rates of autism spectrum disorders growing steadily, we need to ensure the broader community is sensitive to the needs of people with ASD. Better understanding of the complexity of ASD can only be achieved through personal experience and education campaigns, and that is why World Autism Awareness Day is so important.

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I have a supplementary question. What is the government doing to expand supports for people once they pass the age of seven years and, therefore, can no longer access the Helping Children with Autism package?

The Hon. I.K. HUNTER (Minister for Communities and Social Inclusion, Minister for Social Housing, Minister for Disabilities, Minister for Youth, Minister for Volunteers): The government is participating in a range of support services for the community, in particular through working with Autism SA. I can say that early intervention is a very important part of the government’s strategy in terms of dealing with autism. In 2010-11, approximately $2.8 million was expended on disability services and the early childhood program, including additional specialist positions in country regions, with approximately 25 per cent of children receiving services having autism spectrum disorder.

However, we note there is an issue where, if you have early intervention programs and if you front-end most of your expenditure in that area, there is a problem at the other end when people are leaving services, particularly in education. That is an issue that the government is working on with the sector to provide appropriate services to the community so that those children, when leaving education, are not left without supports.