Ground Breaking Autism School opens on Gold Coast

In what’s thought to be an Australian first, a new school on the Gold Coast has been built exclusively for children with autism, with attention to every minor detail - including the architecture, furniture, positioning of the land, colours and even the movement of fans.

Josiah College has been set up by Emmanuel College and is partly funded by the Federal Government. Even though the land is adjacent to, and owned by Emanuel College, Josiah will be run as a completely independent school.

Emmanuel and Josiah College Executive Principal Patrick Innes-Hill says the college has been many years in the planning and that experts in the field of autism have played an important consultancy role.

“Some of the key challenges for children with autism are social and sensory in nature, and although many children with autism succeed in navigating the social and sensory demands of mainstream schooling, others require something different – Josiah is for these students. They may have the cognitive capacity to cope with the Australian curriculum, but struggle with other issues like social pressures or sensory overload where they just can’t cope in mainstream schools.

These kids are often frequently suspended, home schooled or just out of schooling altogether. That’s the group for whom Josiah has been specifically targeted. So, while Josiah College will follow the Australian curriculum with minor adjustments, because our classes are so much smaller we can help those children learn the skills to then either transition back into a mainstream school later in their school life or continue through to tertiary learning or an apprenticeship.”

Architects have designed the new school taking into account recent research into the sensory sensitivity in children on the spectrum. Mr Innes-Hill explained that noise from outside, flickering lights, the hum of an air conditioner or the movement of a fan may have an impact on learning.

“What to a neuro-typical child is just a background hum or glare from a white-board can be distracting or distressing to a child with autism, so we have designed Josiah’s buildings, gardens and even the furniture with this in mind.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most recent figures show that 86 per cent of children with autism who were attending school reported ‘having difficulty’, the majority of whom had trouble fitting in socially, learning and communication.

The same report said that between 10 and 20 per cent of children with autism are outside of mainstream education, predominantly being home schooled or bouncing from school to school.

Patrick Innes-Hill says: “When we crunched the numbers on the Gold Coast population we realised that there’s room for several Josiahs that could be built here. There are no other specifically autism friendly schools on the Gold Coast – there are those that deal specifically with intellectual disabilities, ASD challenges and cognitive issues, but not any that are approaching the issue in the same way that Josiah is.

Each classroom also has attached to it a soft fall area, a decked area and a grassed area and those areas are unique to each classroom. A child will never be in an unfamiliar group or one larger than 16 kids, which reduces the social pressures to some extent. Outside the classrooms we’ve included sensory gardens and specially adapted play equipment - the whole thing has been rethought and actually looks quite lovely.”

Josiah College will eventually offer places to 64 children from years 2 to 10. The school opens on April 23.

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