It was an experience close to home that first sparked Dina Hasaneen’s passion to help young people with autism.
“My cousin was born two weeks before my son, so I was excited that they would grow up to be best friends,” said Ms Hasaneen, Blackfriars’ Curriculum Leader: Learning Enrichment Coordinator.
“And, bless him, my cousin was born with autism and a language disorder.
“So, I’ve always felt that incredible connection to the cause, looking at how sweet he is, but then all these social obstacles he’s faced.”
April is Autism Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
According to Autism SA, one in 100 Australians has ASD – and boys are 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Of the 145 students at Blackfriars with disabilities and learning needs, 25 have been diagnosed with autism.
Ms Hasaneen’s passion for helping children with autism thrive at Blackfriars cannot be questioned.
“I’m very passionate about all kids with learning needs, but autism in particular. I’ve invested two-and-a-bit years studying autism,” she said.
It was important to acknowledge there was no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping students with autism in an education setting.
“Kids with needs generally, they all come with their individual personality – autism is no exception. There is no mould, there is no manual that fits all, that’s critical to understand,” Ms Hasaneen said.
“In a classroom, for a child with autism, it has to be very structured, very straightforward, no grey areas. We support teachers in drafting their task sheets around that.
“Our Heads of House and the wellbeing team and the counsellors will all work together in terms of the wellbeing support as well.”
But the school’s support of students with autism did not end with the child.
“On a personal level, we try to support the families as well,” Ms Hasaneen said.
“As with any diagnosis, the families go through a whole journey … and that can last for years. We have to be a bit kinder and understand where the parents are at with that journey.
“So, sometimes, it’s not just the academic thing that we do; it’s that emotional support for parents who just want to know that you’re there for them and you will listen and you will understand.”
Staff at Blackfriars also worked to break down any barriers to school attendance for a child with autism.
“The main thing is for the kids to be at school,” Ms Hasaneen said. “Especially at an early age, because that’s a huge struggle – there’s anxiety involved in being around people their age, because child play is very unpredictable and people with autism do not like unpredictability. They want things to be clear.”
Blackfriars runs specialist programs in the Primary School, such as What’s the Buzz, as well as peer mentoring through sport activities and classroom assistance to ensure a school-wide understanding of the issues faced by children with special needs, including autism.
“Then we have our support staff, who are brilliant,” Ms Hasaneen said.
“They just strive to learn. They are always asking questions and wanting to find new strategies to help the students and they work really well in identifying each student and how they work. They spend a lot of time with them, so that relationship becomes a privilege, really. You find that gift that this child brings to your class.”