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Tussle over QLD autism early intervention funding

All’s not what it seems in early intervention autism funding in Queensland. So says a concerned mother of a child with autism and her almost 30,000 supporters.

The Queensland Government was due to phase out funding of early childhood intervention programs (ECDPs) for children with autism, with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Yet following mother Karen Bennett’s launch of an online petition that has garnered 29,953 signatures to date, the Queensland education minister, Kate Jones, said her government does “not want any child with a disability to be further disadvantaged as part of the transition to NDIS”, and  announced it will fund ECDPs until 2020, purportedly extending the previous funding framework by 12 months. This means it would last for a year into a fully operational NDIS.

Bennett still isn’t impressed. In a post on her ‘Save the ECDP – Qld’ Facebook page, she indicated Jones’ announcement was essentially meaningless. “I was so disappointed to read that Kate’s statement and position has not changed a bit,” she wrote. “She’s added a nice distant date to it, which makes it sound like the program has been extended, but, all-importantly, the fact remains that children will still only remain in the ECDP until they transition to the NDIS.”

Explaining the reason for her ire to The Courier Mail, Bennett said, “The therapy that the NDIS will fund can’t replace the education-based environment that the ECDP provides in order to prepare children with disabilities and learning delays for school.”

Although she has a meeting planned with Jones to further discuss her objection, Bennett stated a parliamentary petition was also being considered, as this “would force the minister to tackle this issue properly”.

In publicising the funding extension, Jones criticised a deal struck between fellow Liberal MP and former premier Campbell Newman and the Turnbull Government to withdraw ECDP grants upon the rollout of the NDIS. The shadow education minister, Tim Mander, accused Jones of shifting blame.

Mander said the meagre extension was of little comfort to concerned parents with children now enrolled in ECDPs.

But why the concern over a rollover from one funding model to another? As Bennett’s claim to The Courier Mail implied, the ECDP differs from the NDIS in that the former is delivered in an educational context, whereas the NDIS offers one-on-one therapy. Bennett clearly believes the educational model is necessary.

Bella - Karen Bennett's daughter, who has autism

Karen Bennett’s daughter Bella, who has autism.

By contrast, David Bowen, chief executive of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) – the body that delivers the NDIS – seems to think this individualistic approach to early autism intervention is superlative. “The whole premise behind the NDIS is that each person is treated as an individual, receiving support to meet their unique set of needs, wants and goals to achieve the best outcome for them,” he said.

Bob Buckley, co-founder of Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia, apparently disagrees. He said autism experts take issue with the NDIS early intervention strategy’s vagueness, given the NDIA consulted with 400 people over a period in excess of 15 months. Speaking on behalf of stakeholders who advised the NDIA on the strategy, Buckley added that it fails to take research into account.

Nevertheless, perhaps Queenslanders have it good, early autism intervention funding wise, compared with those from other states and territories. A teacher of children with autism in NSW said “the NSW Government doesn’t seem to offer any funding to families of children with autism until they enter school”. And they have additional troubles. The main NSW agency that delivers services to children with disabilities, Age Disability and Home Care, is set to be replaced by a range of non-government organisations. With regard to the latter, “some are good and some are not so good and they push their own agenda, rather than looking out for the best interests of the child”, the autism teacher said.

Despite her state-specific worries, by contrast with Bennett and her Queensland supporters, the autism teacher is neutral towards the NDIS, which will replace the current federally funded early autism intervention initiative, ‘Helping Children With Autism’. She thinks it will be national business as usual. “It is already fairly flexible in its application,” she said.

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