Taking Giant Steps

18 June 2019

Jayson Forrest

Jayson Forrest is the managing editor of Money & Life Magazine.

Giant Steps Australia is helping young Australians with Autism Spectrum Disorder reach their full potential, while providing support and guidance to their families.

As a parent of a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Luke Priddis is keenly aware of the extensive daily assistance required to help children on the autism spectrum to participate in every day activities.

Luke – a CFP® practitioner with Sydney-based CPR Wealth – has been involved with Giant Steps Australia since 2012. Giant Steps Australia operates a school and intervention services catering specifically for children and young Australians who have been diagnosed with ASD.

ASD is a neurological disorder affecting social communication, including delayed or impaired language development, difficulties developing and maintaining relationships, difficulties understanding and using non-verbal communication and social imagination and play, as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour and/or interests. According to Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, ASD affects one in every 100 children. There is no cure to this lifelong condition.

Making it personal

Along with his wife Holly, Luke – a former high profile rugby league player – started a charity in 2006 called the Luke Priddis Foundation, with the aim of “supporting kids and their families living with ASD”.

As Chair and founder of the Luke Priddis Foundation, Luke is acutely aware of the importance that funds and grants, from organisations like the Future2 Foundation, play in ensuring that the valuable programs provided by not-for-profit charities continue. It was also a key reason for Luke’s endorsement of Giant Steps Australia’s application for a Future2 grant for its Vocational Education Program for Young People with Autism.

“Autism is a part of my family’s daily life, with my third child being diagnosed on the autism spectrum since the age of two and more recently, my wife and youngest daughter having also been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum,” Luke says. “As a family, we have had a personal association with Giant Steps over the past several years.”

Giant Steps Australia

Located in the Sydney suburb of Gladesville, Giant Steps Australia was established in 1995. It provides a program that is trans-disciplinary, meaning intensive occupational, speech and music therapies are combined with educational programs catering specifically for each individual student.

The team at Giant Steps provides maximum support to families through the provision of home programs, support for siblings, frequent consultation with parents and carers, and aims to improve the understanding of autism in the wider community.

The Future2 grants committee was impressed with the work Giant Steps Australia is doing in the local community, awarding the organisation a $10,000 Future2 grant.

Vocational Education Program

Giant Steps does not charge any fees to the students or their families of its programs. The cost to provide the specialised education and therapy that each student requires is approximately $95,000 per student per annum.

Understandably, Giant Steps Australia’s Communications Director, Phillippa Talbot was delighted to receive the $10,000 Future2 grant, saying the funding will go towards Giant Steps Australia’s Vocational Education Program for Young People with Autism. This program was established for ‘high support’ students to learn appropriate work and community behaviour skills.

“The Vocational Education Program is an integral part of the curriculum, not just for our students and staff, but also the students’ families,” Phillippa says.

“The opportunity to experience real work environments is invaluable and would not be possible without the support of corporate and community partners. All work placements are designed to be meaningful for both the young person and the employer.”

Phillippa concedes that opportunities for young people with autism are few and far between and even less so in the workplace, therefore the Vocational Education Program was established in response to the need for Giant Steps’ high support students to learn appropriate work and community behaviour skills.

“The funding from the Future2 grant is being used to support students with autism learn and practice valuable life skills, while accessing meaningful work opportunities,” Phillippa says.

Student Benefits

According to Phillippa, 56 young people between the ages of 12 and 25, all of whom have moderate to severe autism, will benefit from the program’s outcomes. The program provides opportunities for students to reach their optimal physical, mental and social abilities in a supposed environment.

“Many young people with moderate to severe autism experience anxiety, depression and extreme mood swings, without a means of communicating their needs. This can result in highly challenging physical behaviours, leading to social exclusion and isolation,” Phillippa says.

“Active participation in the wider community, independence and making a meaningful contribution to society are some of the goals of this program.

“Learning and completing a set of tasks in a real work environment, which includes learning skills for employment, using safe and appropriate behaviour, learning to recognise money and take directions from people outside a school and family context, are all part of this program which is helping young Australians with autism.”

Phillippa adds that in addition to the students and staff involved in the Vocational Education Program, the program will also benefit 18 corporate and community partners currently involved in the program.

“Each student completes meaningful work that adds value to the organisation, as well as assisting workplaces to learn more about autism and the many challenges it brings,” she says.

“The program promotes positive employee relationships, as well as offering organisations and their employees an opportunity to assist people who are often excluded from society.”

The benefits to the students and their families by participating in the program are immense.

Instead of receiving negative feedback about their children’s disability and behaviours, families are empowered to know that through the program, their child is valued in the community.

“The improved outcomes and skill development that each student gains through the program has a far reaching effect, as these skills can be used to participate in the broader community, which is so important to the wellbeing and enjoyment of family life,” says Phillippa.

Firsthand experience

Luke has had a long association with Giant Steps, having had his third child with ASD educated there.

“Although my son no longer attends Giant Steps Australia, I remain an avid supporter of the organisation and the tremendous work it does on a daily basis,” Luke says.

“The Future2 grant will allow young Australians with ASD to participate in a program that allows them to be fully supported as they go out into the community to undertake work experience, allowing them to explore potential post school options that will result in them being active participants within the employment sector.

“Like anyone, if you feel you are making a contribution to the community, it provides you with a sense of self-worth, achievement and the ability to live a fulfilled life.”