The past caught up with Professor Jacqueline Roberts the other day. Fortunately, it was a positive experience.
The Chair of Autism in Griffith University’s Autism Centre of Excellence, Professor Roberts was in Adelaide for the biennial Asia Pacific Autism Conference (APAC) where she was one of four recipients of a prestigious 2013 Asia Pacific Autism Award.
It was there that the mother of a former pupil sought her out.
“As a child enrolled in the Vern Barnett School for children with autism in Sydney in the mid-1980s, her son was one of the first students in his school to be set up with a visual communication system enabling him to participate socially and academically,” Professor Roberts said.
“It was so good to hear that he continues to do well and has a reasonable quality of life as a young adult.
“Even so, I always think we could and should have done more then, and that we could and should do a lot better now.”
With a background in Speech Pathology and Education, Professor Roberts has been working with people with autism since the late 1970s.
“From the beginning there was something intriguing about these children and adults. As a communication specialist, I felt they presented me with the ultimate challenge and had much to teach us about what it means to be human.”
A director of the Australian Advisory Board on Autism Spectrum Disorders and one whose expertise has informed governments, advisory groups, review committees and health and education institutions, Professor Roberts said Australian schools needed to improve their capacity to meet the needs and capitalise on the strengths of students with autism.
She said the provision of “autism-friendly” classrooms and schools would enhance long-term personal and educational outcomes for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Professor Roberts added there were several related strategies that could be implemented at different levels to increase whole school capacity for ASD.
“We are developing the content and trialling a process to actually implement this in schools. Good leadership, a positive school climate and an individualised approach are the keys,” she said.
“We know that students with autism are perceived to present the greatest challenges to schools, while for children with autism school is frequently their greatest challenge.
“With this applied research we are looking at ways to improve the match, with the goal being one of better outcomes for students with autism and their families, as well as for schools and the community.”
While delighted to receive the APAC award, Professor Roberts said the best reward was the opportunity to work with people with autism and their families.
“Things have improved overall for the autism community in the past decade, but we still have a very long way to go,” she said.