In the 1960s little was known about autism, which had only been internationally recognised as a neurological condition some 20 years earlier. In Australia, there was very little information or support available for families with children on the autism spectrum. With a daughter with autism, and struggling with the isolation of autism, in 1966 Andrew and Margaret Vern Barnett and five other families started The Autistic Children’s Association of New South Wales, aiming to provide support and schooling for their children.
From humble beginnings in a rented hall, the parents rallied a dedicated group of professionals who were diagnosing autism and achieving results from some new behavioural and educational approaches appearing in research literature at the time.
By 1969, The Autistic Children’s Association of New South Wales received its first government funding followed by a period of rapid growth in the 1970s which saw five schools open – in Forestville (1971), Annandale (1974), Newcastle (1977) and Kingsgrove and Randwick (1978).
Momentum continued through the 1980s and 90s. More schools were opened in Terrigal (1983), Wetherill Park (1984) and Illawarra (1986). The needs of people with disabilities were acknowledged by the Australian government through the implementation of The Disability Services Act.
In 1984, a name change to The Autistic Association of NSW heralded the beginning of a new direction, with the introduction of services aimed at supporting adults with autism, and vocational services for school leavers. Over the next 20 years, services for people with autism expanded to include advocacy support, parental support, school counsellor roles and early intervention services, to name a few.
On April 6, 2005, a special General Meeting of the Autism Association of NSW approved a new constitution and a name change to Autism Spectrum Australia or Aspect for short. The name change acknowledges that autism is on a spectrum and that there are a number of diagnoses that make up the autism spectrum.
Nearly 50 years on, Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) is the one of the largest providers of disability services in the country, with eight schools and services for children, teenagers, adults, families and carers and professionals, helping more than 10,000 people with autism or other disabilities and their families every year.