Nine-year-old girl with autism applies filter, then sets Pauline Hanson straight

Ivory Clark. Photo: Tammy Law
Ivory Clark. Photo: Tammy Law

Much like Mrs Potts, the character nine-year-old Ivory Clark is auditioning to play in her school's production of Beauty and The Beast, Ivory is a kind and intelligent voice of reason, or so her teachers say.

But last month Ivory found herself angry  after overhearing remarks made by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson.

"I heard she said children with autism shouldn't participate in classes because they're disruptive," the year 4 student said.

"I heard her say people like me shouldn't go to school."

However Ivory, who has high-functioning autism, also has a filter.

Her mother, Kylie Clark, says: "When she sees something and she wants to tell someone something, she needs to stop, think, breath, think about it again and then, if she's not sure, just leave it." 

And that's just what Ivory did. However, this time she decided not to leave it, instead penning the senator a poignant open letter on the injustice of the comments Hanson aired in June calling to segregate children with disabilities.

"I am intelligent and I have lots to contribute to my class and community," the Brisbane primary school student wrote in the note published by her mother on Facebook. "I am proud to be part of a country that is inclusive and welcomes people with differences.

"I have done lots and lots of work with my psychologist about social skills. I have learned that you need to think about what you say and filter your words so that you don't hurt others.

"Lots of kids were talking about autism because of what you said. A few kids said some mean things. That's OK because I know how to deal with that. However I think you should be more thoughtful."

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The youngest of four, Ivory was diagnosed with autism at the age of two, and work with psychologists and speech pathologists has allowed her to integrate into the mainstream education system. But poor understanding of autism has presented challenges.

"There has been a swimming club when Ivory was very young that refused to take her as a swimmer," Ms Clark said. "They'd never met Ivory, they didn't know Ivory. They had no reason to make that call at all."

Ms Clark said the stigma attached to the disability could limit opportunities for those affected by autism to access appropriate support.

"My concern is that, if you knew that getting a diagnosis and assistance for your child would ultimately result in something that could be quite damaging for your child - the pattern would then be not to get a diagnosis at all, which would then mean kids are not getting the help they need," she said.

One initiative attempting to redress the inequalities those on the autism spectrum may face in the classroom is currently being undertaken by the Autism Cooperative Research Centre.

"Not every child has success – there's quite large [number] of children who are bullied or excluded because sometimes there's difficulties with interacting and behaviours," National Director of Research at Autism Spectrum Australia, Dr Trevor Clark, said. 

"Sometimes parents ... get fed up of trying to get schools to support their children so they will take them into home schooling. It's not always a rosy picture, which is exactly why we're doing all of this research."

The Transition Models of Practice study, led by Autism Spectrum Australia, seeks to equip teachers with "practice briefs" to best manage the needs of students on the spectrum.

After receiving validation from a range of international autism experts, coaches this week were being trained in a range of strategies to be rolled out in classrooms across Australia later this year.

"We find that many children on the spectrum can thrive very well in mainstream schools," Dr Clark said. "To support any child with a disability, it's very important that the school understands autism and the best way to support children within a mainstream education system."

And for Ivory, acceptance at her school has allowed her to find her voice.

"I did ask her after we talked ... why she wrote that letter, and she made a very smart point: 'Well Mum, I have to, because some kids with autism can't speak'."

Findings from the research are expected to be published early next year.