Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 13, 2023


Neurodiversity Celebration Week

Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. E.S. Bourke:

That this council—

1. Recognises 13 to 19 March 2023 as Neurodiversity Celebration Week;

2. Acknowledges Neurodiversity Celebration Week as a time to increase knowledge and understanding of neurodiversity and celebrate neurodivergent people, including members of the autistic community; and

3. Congratulates the Malinauskas government's commitment to start supporting neurodiversity through the establishment of the nation's first Office for Autism in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, placing inclusion at the heart and centre of government.

(Continued from 8 March 2023.)

The Hon. H.M. GIROLAMO (17:51): I move the amendment standing in my name:

To delete paragraph 3 and substitute the following:

3. Calls for the Malinauskas government to put in guarantees that no child will be worse off in attention, funding or outcome as a result of this policy and funding change and reminds the government that the children and young people should be at the heart of this policy area.

I rise to speak on this important motion today and indicate that, whilst we are supportive of the first two parts of the motion, we do have an amendment to the third element. There are some estimates that one in seven people are neurodiverse. Weeks like Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which was held in March this year, seek to celebrate those who are under the umbrella of neurodiversity. That can include those who are living with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia or have ADHD, along with others.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week is a worldwide initiative that challenges the stereotypes and social misconceptions about neurological differences. By providing support to schools, universities and organisations, it hopes to celebrate and recognise the many talents and advantages of those who are neurodiverse. Increasing the knowledge and insights of our community to those who have different qualities is very important.

Founded in the UK by 16-year-old Siena Castellon in 2016, it is now a worldwide initiative. The focus of Neurodiversity Celebration Week is, as the name suggests and also in the organisation's own words, 'to help the world to understand, value and celebrate the talents of neurodiverse minds'. We as a society must do more to help to the fullest those who have a different way of participating in society.

I want to speak of a young man who I recently met. Ji is a-20-year-old young man who is described by his mum as diligent, punctual and determined, and he is trying hard to find full-time work. He has been trying for two years since he left school. He has a driver's licence, forklift licence, security licence and has volunteered for the Salvation Army for the past two years. The assistant minister knows of the correspondence his mother sent through to her, federal Minister Shorten, the Minister for Education and myself as shadow minister for disabilities.

All she and Ji are looking for is a fair go. In his mother's words, they were not looking for the world to change and adapt but rather are wanting to contribute to the world, as we all do. Ji wanted to feel useful and needed. The assistant minister referred Ji to the Office for Autism, and they have given Ji some resources to assist in his job hunt, and I wish him all the very best.

Speaking of the Office for Autism, should it result in an increase in employment and opportunity amongst neurodiverse people, my hope is that it also increases the employment rate for those living with a disability right across the state.

Turning now to my amendment, it removes the politicalisation we commonly see with this government, instead focusing on what we need to do as elected members to ensure that all people feel included. This motion, as an example that the assistant minister last spoke about in March of this year, congratulates the government themselves on an initiative only announced in February.

My amendment to the motion today seeks to ensure that children who are neurodiverse are not forgotten in the race for a headline or news grab by this government. My amendment to the motion is to leave out paragraph 3 and to insert 'calls for the Malinauskas government to put in guarantees that no child will be worse off in attention, funding or outcome as a result of this policy and funding change and reminds the government that children and young people should be at the heart of this policy area.'

The danger when government seeks to do what the private sector is already doing is upsetting the balance of things. There are examples where government intervention is needed and is an improvement, but we on this side will not be afraid to call out the government if they are simply taking from Peter to pay Paul when it is the children and young people who miss out, recognising that instability can do damage to a young person's self-worth and ability to thrive in a world that already treats them differently.

Next year's celebration week is just over six months away, 18 to 24 March 2024, and I encourage all members to seek out ways to include those who are neurodiverse in the community so that they may all participate in society to their full potential.

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (17:56): I rise on behalf of the Greens with great pleasure to speak in support of this motion, and I thank the Hon. Emily Bourke for bringing it to this council. I also rise to acknowledge the work of my federal colleagues, particularly that of Senator Jordan Steele-John in advocating for the rights of those with disabilities. My colleagues have often been outspoken on the flaws within the system, such as the NDIS, and even giving a dissenting report criticising the federal inquiry into services, support and life outcomes for autistic Australians.

The Greens have repeatedly made informed choices about the language used to describe disabled people. In doing so, we have consistently emphasised the significant contribution made by neurodiverse people to our communities. It is respectful curiosity that I bring to this chamber today and reflect on the language in the workshop that I enjoyed that was hosted by the Hon. Emily Bourke earlier on this sitting day.

We in the Greens acknowledge the deficit language surrounding neurodiversity that says that people have deficits. It is actually a fundamental truth that we are all neurodiverse, just like we are all diverse in ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality. Neurodiversity simply refers to the diversity of human minds and all the unique and different ways that people can exist, that people think, that people act, that people process, and that people feel and function.

Neurodiversity Celebration Week was celebrated quite a while ago now, from 13 to 19 March 2023, and it provided us with an opportunity to celebrate the immense contributions of neurodiverse individuals to our communities, our workplaces and our society as a whole. It is estimated that around 20 per cent of Australians are neurodivergent and yet often being neurodivergent is considered a negative thing surrounded by that negative stigma, and significant barriers still remain across far too many areas of life.

The neurodivergent population is grossly under-represented when it comes to employment in Australia. Amaze, an organisation in Victoria that provides resources and implements change for people with autism, commissioned a report in 2018 that found that the unemployment rate for autistic people in Australia is 31.6 per cent, three times higher than for people with a physical disability, and six times higher than the average for Australians without a disability. This is shocking.

This is despite much research showing that improved diversity in our workplaces can only positively contribute to an organisation and improve internal culture and acceptance and improve business outcomes. Educational institutions, workplaces and communities should be designed to support neurodiversity. We must ensure there are reasonable accommodations, awareness programs and anti-discrimination policies in place to protect the rights of neurodiverse individuals.

Also, while ADHD significantly impacts the lives of one in 20 Australians, it still remains fundamentally misunderstood. Earlier this year, the Greens undertook a survey asking people with ADHD to share their experiences with getting a diagnosis and with getting care in our healthcare system. There were more than 10,000 responses and still counting. I would like to share with you some of the outcomes of that work and some of its more distressing figures.

More than 63 per cent of respondents who suspect they have ADHD said that cost is the reason they have not been formally diagnosed. More than half worry that medical professionals will not take their ADHD concerns seriously and over 82 per cent of respondents identify as women, non-binary or gender fluid people. This tells us that cost and lack of training are big barriers to ADHD diagnosis and that these barriers impact women and LGBTQIA folks the most.

We know how to address this because 92 per cent of those respondents told us how; that is, add ADHD diagnosis to Medicare. Such insights are why community engagement is so important. In order to ensure equity and drive attitudinal change to disability, governments have the responsibility to provide the necessary funding in all areas, including education, health, housing, mobility, employment, transport, sport, and cultural and social engagement and, indeed, as was noted in the workshop today, in planning with inclusive design.

We should all strive to create a world where neurodiversity is not just accepted but embraced. We must encourage and celebrate the unique strengths that neurodiverse individuals bring to our communities and champion the idea that difference should be celebrated and not stigmatised or demonised. The Greens know that different does not equate to lesser than and I hope that in all our lives we not only empower neurodiverse individuals to reach their full potential but also to enrich our society and benefit from that.

In closing, I do wish to reflect and thank again the Hon. Emily Bourke and her team for the workshop they provided to members of parliament today and the news that there will be an Office for Autism under the Department of the Premier and Cabinet. It is welcome news. It is positive change. It was a really insightful hour of reflection and I absolutely appreciated it, and I appreciated the generosity with which it was provided. I sat there, though, thinking that we were there learning, and I was certainly learning. There were things that reaffirmed what I already knew, but there were things I did not know, and I welcomed being given a safe environment in which to learn.

This motion recognises Neurodiversity Celebration Week and acknowledges that week as a time to increase our knowledge and understanding of neurodiversity and celebrate neurodivergent people, including members of the autistic community. It congratulates the Malinauskas government's commitment to start supporting neurodiversity through the establishment of the nation's first Office for Autism in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, placing inclusion at the heart and centre of government. It is a very simple motion that is all a statement of fact. Sure, maybe you want to remove the word 'congratulate' and simply 'note', but I do congratulate the Malinauskas government for doing this. It is a national first. It is something I think is well overdue and is incredibly important.

I am really disappointed that the Liberal opposition have chosen to leave out paragraph 3, which talks about the establishment of the new office, and calls for the Malinauskas government to put in guarantees that no child will be worse off in attention funding or outcome as a result of this policy and funding change and reminds the government that children and young people should be at the heart of this policy area.

The reference to put in this new part 3 does not add up with 1 and 2. We are celebrating Neurodiversity Celebration Week. We are acknowledging this week as a time to increase knowledge and understanding, particularly of the people involved, and this part 3 has no connection to parts 1 and 2. It seeks to replace part 3, which talks about the establishment of the Office for Autism. Perhaps, that is what it is referring to. It is not clear to me. I think this was an attempt to politicise and polemicise this issue, which I find really disappointing. I thought that some issues in this place should be above politics and unfortunately that is not the case today.

However, I am an optimist and I hope that the Liberal opposition will reflect on these words, which simply do not make sense as a motion and seem to somehow divide the community and divide this council for political reasons. These words are just not adding any benefit today to this motion, a very positive motion to create the new office, which I think is a very welcome move.

Sure, you may have issues about the way the schools policy has been rolled out, but this motion is not about the education policies of the Malinauskas government, so leaving out paragraph 3 and inserting a new paragraph 3 seems to have no logical reason for being here, unless of course one wishes to think that perhaps politics was being played, and, sadly, that is my conclusion today. With that, I commend the motion. The Greens will be opposing the amendment and we look forward to better discussions in the future.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (18:05): I rise in support of this motion by the Hon. Emily Bourke, recognising Neurodiversity Celebration Week. Neurodiversity refers to the concept that neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, are natural variations of the human brain rather than disorders that need to be fixed. It recognises that these differences contribute to the diversity of human experiences and should be respected and valued.

People on the autism spectrum, also known as individuals with autism spectrum disorder, have unique ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. Engaging and communicating with them requires understanding, patience and calm, to adapt to their specific needs. This complex and challenging area has at last been recognised by one government in this country. I commend and support the initiatives undertaken by Premier Peter Malinauskas and Assistant Minister Emily Bourke in the establishment of the first Office for Autism in the nation. There will also be specialist support in our classrooms, which is quite important and significant.

Hopefully, others will follow this outstanding example of recognising the needs of the community and those with special needs. For far too long, it was not acknowledged, nor were there any tangible efforts made to address and deal with the issue that today impacts so many families. One in four Australians know someone with autism. One to two persons per 100 of the population are autistic—it is a significant number—but we still would not know how many of the population have it because some individuals may remain undiagnosed or may not seek a formal diagnosis.

A member of the Office for Autism put those statistics in perspective during an enlightening parliamentary workshop today: if you were at the Adelaide Oval, with a capacity of 50,000, 1,000 of those attending would be dealing with autism in their lives.

My wife, Angie, and I are proud parents of a person on the autism spectrum. Watching our son, Connor, fly through school and now complete double degrees at Flinders University after being told he would never amount to anything has been an extremely gratifying and joyful experience for us and also for Connor. While it did give us some difficult challenges initially, love and understanding got us through it.

We are looking forward to the next stage of Connor's young adult life once he completes his studies. He actively participates and engages with children and young adults on the autism spectrum through his part-time work at the Gold Foundation, a not-for-profit charity delivering social skills and learning programs to many, which was started by my wife 15 years ago.

One of their projects is the Shine Like Gold mobile cafe, where individuals who participate in Gold Foundation activities are trained as baristas and do paid work in the cafe, attending social and sporting events. It provides them with not just income and work experience but, more importantly, social interaction with the community. As Connor told David Penberthy on FIVEaa only last Friday while making him a coffee:

Young people on the autism spectrum have a lot of skills that put them at a competitive advantage in the job market. We are gradually shifting perspectives on autism from a problem to be fixed to an advantage to be leveraged.

That was highlighted today by the staff from the Office for Autism, who said workers with autism were focused on their job tasks, dependable, loyal and reliable. However, because there are those in the community who fail to understand those individuals' specific needs and traits, it can sometimes result in adverse or tragic outcomes. We were told that the suicide rate among autistic people is still worryingly high.

They also pointed out that understanding the needs and actions of individuals on the spectrum requires empathy and flexibility. Their behaviours may serve a purpose or be responsive to their environment. By taking time to understand their unique perspectives and needs, we can create inclusive and supportive environments that allow them to thrive.

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness and understanding of autism in Australia, leading to improved diagnostic practices and support services through schemes like the government-funded NDIS. By understanding how to identify individuals on the spectrum, communicate effectively with them and meet their unique needs, we can foster a more inclusive society.

While autism is relatively common in Australia, it is crucial to continue raising awareness, providing support and promoting acceptance to ensure individuals on the spectrum can reach their potential. Neurodiversity Celebration Week works effectively to achieve that. I commend the motion by the member but indicate we will not be supporting the amendment by the Hon. Heidi Girolamo.

The Hon. E.S. BOURKE (18:11): I would like to thank the members who have spoken to this motion: the Hon. Heidi Girolamo, the Hon. Tammy Franks and the Hon. Frank Pangallo. I also note that all three members were at today's workshop, and I want to thank you for giving your lunch break to come along to that forum. I think it is a really good reminder about why we need to have a resource like the Office for Autism that we can go to and call on not only their wealth of knowledge but also their lived experience. I think it is really important.

We all know in this place, we have all heard the saying, 'You can't be what you can't see.' The Office for Autism is not just about providing that space for knowledge building but also to remind all of us that autistic people can be leaders—they can be very senior members in our government in the Office for Autism, which is based in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

This leads me to the amendment that was made by the Liberal Party and those opposite. I have to say, to sit here and listen to those opposite say that we on this side are making politics of autism and the neurodivergent community is rather offensive. If there is anyone seeking headlines here, it is those opposite. Quite honestly, it is a bit difficult to follow where they are going with this amendment.

We have an amendment that has been put forward that says we should have, essentially, a stronger focus on children and that young people should be at the heart of this policy. I do not think anyone would disagree that we should be focusing on giving support to children, particularly autistic children. But if we go back, in March the opposition removed the commitments made by this government to give funding and focus to children. They wanted us to remove from that motion any commentary about a commitment of $28.8 million to increase access to autism inclusion teachers in our primary schools.

They wanted us to remove any reference to seeking to increase the number of autism-qualified staff in preschools. They wanted us to remove any reference to working with service providers to offer early intervention services in children's centres, so I am a bit confused why this time they are wanting us to take out a reference to the creation of the Office for Autism which the honourable member made mention of herself.

She said that her constituent Ji utilised the office and was given resources in how to access employment benefits or support. It was a very useful resource for her to call on for her constituent, but she now wants to remove any reference to the Office for Autism, which helped one of her constituents. She then put a focus on children in this motion when she sought to remove a focus on children in the previous motion.

I am a little bit confused about where those opposite are going with this amendment. I do not support this amendment, because that is what we are seeking to do anyway: make our community more inclusive for everyone. We know that you are born autistic and you will pass away autistic, so yes, we are putting those supports into our schools. We are doing things that no other government in the world is doing. We have people from Western Australia coming here to see what we are doing. We have people contacting us from the UK, from the US, seeking information about what we are doing because we are leading the world, literally, in what we are doing here to provide a more inclusive community.

The honourable member wants to remove things that make us a world leader, like the Office for Autism. You did not seek to replace the benefits of having the Office for Autism; it was removed completely from this motion. By removing something that makes our state a leader, by having the Office for Autism removed from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, what message are those opposite sending to the community? We believe in the Office for Autism. It does not sound like you do. I will not be supporting the opposition's motion because we believe in the Office for Autism. We believe in a pillar of knowledge in government.

If you have the time, if you have not done so already, I strongly encourage you to read the consultation report into the first ever strategy that has gone out for autism in South Australia. The consultation report is one of the largest consultation reports into disability in our state ever through YourSAy. It is very clear in that report that they are looking for this pillar of knowledge in government. They want a hub to go to when they are going through the process of 'should I go and get an assessment? Do I need a diagnosis? What is my next step?' People want that pillar of knowledge in government. We are delivering on what the people want by having this and celebrating it through this motion. I thank everyone who supported the motion.

Amendment negatived; motion carried.