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Educating School Children about Autism

A 2007 study found that 1 in 160 Australian children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The majority of these children will be educated in mainstream schools, so it’s likely there will be at least one child on the spectrum - and quite possibly more - attending your son or daughter’s school.

Experts generally believe that mainstream schools are the best learning environment for these children. However, inclusive education presents its challenges.

As the name implies, ASD covers a spectrum from mild to severe. More severely affected children may have limited or no speech and significant learning and behavioural problems. For others—those with Asperger’s syndrome or ‘high-functioning’ autism—the symptoms are more subtle. That, however, doesn’t mean school life is easy for these children: even very bright kids can have learning difficulties and struggle with classroom rules and routines.

Unfortunately the playground rarely offers a reprieve. Children with ASD have trouble keeping conversations going, getting jokes and reading the social cues—all the skills that we need to make friends easily. School can therefore be an isolating and scary place.

Autism Awareness, one of Australia’s leading autism education and advocacy organisations, decided it was time they did something to help.  Using a $300,000 grant awarded to them by the former NSW government, they have produced a short film about autism, targeted at 8 to14 year old children. Written by author Michael Whelan and narrated by TV personality Tom Gleisner, What Are You Doing? sends the message that children with autism should be accepted, supported and encouraged by their peers to be a part of their community.

What Are You Doing? addresses some of the fears children may have about ASD, answers their questions and helps show them how they can be a great friend to a classmate on the autism spectrum. The film features heartwarming and sometimes funny interviews with the brothers, sisters, cousins and friends of kids on the spectrum.

This quote from a teenager captures the essence of the film's theme:

   "I believe if you sort of get under their shell, they’re just perfectly normal, perfectly nice; they’re just beautiful people."

The Sydney premiere of ‘What Are You Doing?’- held on Thursday 28th July 2011 in Leichhardt - was a sellout.  Premieres will also be held in Brisbane on 16th August and in Melbourne on 1st September 2011.  Tickets for these events can be purchased here.

What Are You Doing? will be distributed to 10,000  public and private schools across Australia later this year. So there is a good chance your child will see it one day and be inspired to make friends with a child on the autism spectrum.

Editor's Note: and see a preview of the film on this site: What Are You Doing?