Emily Pearce is making 26 trips to her son's school each week.
"I pick him up for classes, bring him home for recess, bring him home for lunchtime, and that just allows him to decompress and then go back to school to hold himself together again," she said.
- WA does not have a school specifically for children with autism
- A group of parents has decided that needs to change
- Education experts say it's not about segregation, but having options
Her son Samuel, 16, is on the autism spectrum and after years of struggling with his education, Ms Pearce is now fighting to give other families more options through WA's first independent autism school.
Samuel was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at just two years old and attended hours of therapy each week, but severely regressed after attending a local primary school in Perth's north.
"Sam went from a reasonably happy child to self-harming, not wanting to go to school [and] he stopped sleeping," Ms Pearce said.
"We moved from school to school, and it just became a nightmare."
Ms Pearce said she felt Samuel wasn't adequately supported in the mainstream schooling system and was forced to quit her job and homeschool him for seven years.
"If you told me I was going to be a stay-at-home mother, I would have said more chance of me flying to the moon and I'm afraid of flying … but there was no other option for us," she said.
WA lacks autism-specific school
After hearing about the success of specific autism schools in other states, Ms Pearce and a small group of parents whose autistic children were also struggling with schooling, decided it was time for WA to follow suit.
They founded a not-for-profit organisation called Furthering Autistic Children's Education and Schooling (FACES) with the aim of opening an independent autism school in Perth.
"The education system is overwhelmed and now throw some children with autism into the equation, and you have a recipe for disaster," she said.
"We're hoping to provide another educational option for families but we're also hoping to work with the school and community to help upskill teachers, to help provide extra resources and to provide extra training."
The school aims to deliver evidence-based, high-quality education that caters for individual needs in all areas of learning, including academics, social skill development and emotional regulation.
"For the children to be part of a school, to be part of a community [and] to be in a safe learning environment where they can reach their full potential, it's life changing," she said.
'It's almost like a magical experience'
Curtin University lecturer Cindy Smith works with the organisation as an education consultant to develop the school's teaching model that supports academic and behavioural outcomes for children with autism spectrum disorder.
"[Children with autism] want to be in school and they want to have friends, but they really don't know how to engage appropriately to be able to make that happen," Dr Smith said.
"This model helps teach them those distinct skills and fill in the gaps so that they can be successful. It's almost like a magical experience, seeing them unlock their capacity to learn, and that's really exciting."
Dr Smith said it was about time WA caught up to the rest of the nation by opening an independent school.
"We need to catch up as quickly as we can, because we have children that are that are falling behind and in these developmental milestones, if they fall far behind, they may never be able to catch up," she said.
Undoing the damage a 'hard process'
A six-week pilot program for the school is already underway in South Perth, with children grouped according to their verbal ability and skills, instead of their year level or age.
Perth mother Jenny enrolled her 10-year-old son in the program after facing difficulties at multiple mainstream schools.
Her son was diagnosed with a distinct profile of autism, characterised by an overwhelming or obsessional need to resist or avoid demands, which can often lead to meltdowns and violent outbursts.
Her younger son, aged 7, also has autism but unlike his brother, has had a positive experience at school.
"So for my youngest, the mainstream system works and he can adapt to it, but for my eldest, I don't believe there's the right provisions that are made to accommodate to his needs," she said
Jenny said it was "crazy" that a group of parents had taken it into their own hands to open an autism school, without any assistance from the state government.
"Families of neurotypical children can pick where they send their children, but for us, as parents, it's not that simple … we do not have options, we have your local catchment and if that doesn't work for you, then we have no fallback," she said.
She's hoping to enrol her eldest son in the Perth autism school, which is expected to open in 2024.
'It's about options, not segregation'
WA's Education Department offers 16 specialist learning programs (SLP) in a number of mainstream schools for students with autism spectrum disorder, with an investment of $18.2 million for eight SLPs announced in the latest state budget.
"The Western Australian public school system caters for the individual needs of students with autism spectrum disorder by providing a range of education options built on the principles of equity and inclusion," Jim Bell, acting director-general for student achievements at WA's Education Department said.
However, Dr Smith believes that is "not nearly enough".
"There's something like 400 places available for children with autism at those schools … this is a huge, huge problem."
While some disability advocates argue that separating students into mainstream and special schools is a form of segregation, Dr Smith believes having options is important.
"There's an old saying that if you've worked with one child with autism, you've worked with one child with autism, because every child is so very unique," she said.
Building a brighter future
Emily Pearce continues to home school her son part-time after finally finding a school that works for him.
The 16-year-old is hoping to attend university and would "love to do something with computers".
While Ms Pearce is determined to help Samuel reach his goals, she believes his schooling experience could have been avoided if other options were available for children with disability.
"If these children aren't getting adequate schooling, academically, socially [and] emotionally, then they're not going to be productive members of society," she said.
"I'm not sure what the future holds for Sam but I do know that if he had different options as a child, he would potentially be in a very different place than where he is now and his future would probably be a whole heap rosier."