Celebrating children with autism and special needs: 'Different is not wrong'.

by Nicole Gundi | Apr 24, 2017
boy Autism blocksHow well do you know and understand autism?

Just like each of us have our own personalities and all different, autism presents differently in different people which is why it’s also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder which affects how people communicate and interact socially with others. People with ASD may also experience behavioural changes and sensory issues.  

April is Autism Awareness Month and according to the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers by Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 164,000 Australians with ASD in 2015. More than three quarters were aged between five and 24 and almost 84 per cent of children with Autism had difficulty at school. 

With more and more people being diagnosed, chances are you’d know a few people in your circle of friends, family or colleagues who have ASD.

Primary school teacher and 2015 ASG National Excellence in Teaching Awards recipient (ASG NEiTA) Keith McMullen sees it every day and lives by his mantra that, ‘different is not wrong’.    KMcMullen action 2

Keith teaches special needs children, who in most cases have severe and complex disorders. We spoke to him a few months after he received his ASG NEiTA.

“These children have multi-faceted needs. So my kids will have autism and they’ll have clinical anxiety and depression which gives them a mental health rating. They can also have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, ADHD, and foetal alcohol syndrome.”

While Keith has seen other teachers walk away from similar positions, he volunteered for the demanding role despite having no formal qualifications.

“I’ve had to teach myself very quickly but I’ve also got life experience.

What we’re doing with these kids is instinctive, you’ve got to have an inbuilt empathy or passion for them.

When people hear some of the stories they say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ but I love it so it’s got to be in you. You have to be resilient, you’ve got to be able to see what it is you want to achieve because you’re not going to get huge results really quickly, so you’ve got to be persistent.”

Resilience, empathy and passion are qualities Keith’s life experience has taught him.

When my son was young he was diagnosed with Leukaemia and at the time, I was working at the Faculty of Medicine at Sydney University, I was supported by people who knew I was going through. He is 21 now, we got through it, but it was a traumatic event in our lives, which brought a lot of its own issues for supporting a child into adulthood.”    

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Keith has carried those life lessons into his classroom and has been described ‘as a saviour’ by parents. 

“It means they’ve found someone who is willing to listen and work together on the same page. The kids and the families are often isolated, so the satisfaction I get come from being their champion as much as I can by teaching their kids that ‘different is not wrong’, building confidence, skills and resilience.”

Keith says his biggest challenges have also made him succeed, by pushing boundaries and questioning principles.  

“You’ve got to understand the traditional structured ways schools work, the governance from the department and the curriculum and you’ve got to pick the bits that are going to help your kids.

My main philosophy with these kids is that everyone has worth, so everyone has something positive to contribute.”

Related information:

Autism Awareness Australia

Facts about Autism in Australia

A profile of Autism in Australia


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