New report finds increased awareness has fuelled diagnosis growth

Three students and their teacher work on a STEM activity
Image: Students work on a STEM activity with their teacher

A report commissioned as part of the Disability Strategy has investigated increased rates of specific additional needs among students in NSW public schools. The research delivers on Disability Strategy commitment 4.3 ‘Invest in research to better understand the prevalence of autism and mental health in our schools’.

Prepared by the Department of Paediatrics at Monash University, the report ‘Understanding increased enrolments of autism and mental health needs in NSW government schools’ examined potential reasons for a rise in the number of students receiving funding to support them with autism and mental health needs at school.

Researchers noted that enrolments of students with autism in NSW schools grew 12.2% from 2013 to 2018, and that enrolments of students with mental health needs grew 6.4% in the same period.

Key findings of the report included that:

  • Increases in the number of students receiving funding for autism from 2013 to 2018 were due to better identification of autism that presents without intellectual disability. This is consistent with national and international trends and reflects an evolving understanding of autism
  • Increases in the number of students receiving funding for mental health needs were due to increasing public awareness of the impact of mental health
  • The number of students with intellectual disability has remained stable over the last eight years

Dr Brydan Lenne, a Senior Project Officer on the Disability Strategy Implementation team, said the findings of the report were significant, particularly around autism.

“The complexity and diversity in students with a diagnosis of autism today is very different to students that received this diagnosis ten to twenty years ago,” she said. “This shows the shifting and evolving nature of autism, and further reinforces the importance of the Department equipping schools and teachers with the skills to better support the growing number of students with disability.”

“We need to ensure teachers receive a good foundation in the skills needed to work with students with disability in their degrees, and focus on evidence-based best practice to support students with disability. We need to be encouraging staff to embrace flexibility in teaching practice, and also remember that a diagnosis should not define who a child is.”

Work is currently underway in the NSW Department of Education exploring the integration of Department data with the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD).

The NCCD is an annual collection of data by all states and territories of the number of students receiving an adjustment for disability, the level of adjustment each student is receiving and the broad category of disability of each student.

Want to know more? Read the ‘Understanding increased enrolments of autism and mental health needs in NSW government schools’ summary report.

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