Asher's Story

Reporter: Monika Kos

He may sound like a highly trained guitarist, but Asher Gregory is self-taught. Asher's also an award winning student, one of WA's best and brightest. A recipient of a Curriculum Council Award for Excellence and a former student councillor.Not bad for a boy who was told by doctors there was only a one per cent chance he'd ever live a normal life. Though he may look like any other eighteen year old, Asher has Autism, a life-long developmental disability that affects one in 110 children - one in 70 boys.

We first met Asher when he was four years old, he lived in a world of his own - unable to speak, or play with other children. Keith says "You could walk behind Asher with a couple of books and smash them together and he wouldn't flinch he was there in form but not in mind. So his autism was severe? Yes, he was diagnosed with inner-spectrum severe autism."

Asher's parents searched the world for help, discovering an American method for treating Autism called Applied Behaviour Analysis. Keith says "ABA in a nutshell is nothing more than getting a child to do something and as soon as that child does it, reinforcing that behaviour."Students at Perth's Murdoch University who'd been researching ABA became Asher's therapists. Autistic children need to be taught everything that comes naturally to most other children, such as simply looking at someone when they're talking, to sitting still, and identifying emotions.

As a child, Asher endured 30 to 40 hours a week of this intensive training, a teaching method Asher's dad, Keith, uses even today. "The ABA never stops, never stops, you keep on reinforcing." And it's paying off. Keith says "As much effort as we put in, he's returned the effort and as much effort as we put into his school work, Shenton College returned that effort."

"He's a wonderful young man and to see the journey he's been on is something that should be celebrated." Mike Morgan is Principal of Shenton College.Deb Pratt, one of Asher's favourite teachers. "This is Asher Gregory, and Asher was doing exactly the same course as what you're doing now and he achieved an A in this course as well as getting a certificate of commendation."

The former student graduating with thirteen A's.. and a couple of B's. "If everybody's on board and everybody's going in the same direction, it really does work and Asher's proof of that." Asher's success offering new hope to other parents whose lives revolve around their autistic children.

"It's been an incredible story of hope and it's given us all a massive boost to keep doing what we're doing every day." Mandy Mason is the mother of an autistic daughter.. she's also the Chief Executive officer and Founder of Learn- a centre that specializes in ABA therapy. "And I thought it was very important that services be provided under one roof, where parents had a community of support and it was a hub for learning."The centre currently caters for one hundred students, each child visits for at least eight hours a week.

"The research shows that 47% of children who get intensive ABA in their first years of their life there's a 47% chance that the child will be able to be successful as an adult in the mainstream environment." Behavioural psychologist Dr Charna Mintz, is the centre's Clinical Director and says early intervention is critical. "That's a lot easier to revert than when a child has had patterns of learning, or patterns of not attending to their environment for 4 or 5 years." But such intensive therapy doesn't come cheap. "30 to 40 hours a week can be 100 thousand dollars a year, and research says you need that for two to three years. There's a lot of pressure on families to be able to pay for therapy."

Thirteen West Australian families are currently on Learn's waitlist. Mandy would like the government to contribute more funds, so her centre can meet the demand. "Particularly for a parent of a child with autism, to turn away parents who are begging for services, it's heartbreaking." Mandy's confident some of her young students could achieve the same success as Asher.. he's now studying sound engineering, and dreams of touring with a rock band. Asher says "And maybe in twenty years, I might even have my own band." Keith says "You aim for the moon, you aim for the stars and you may get your own little star that we think we've got"

Learn Foundation for Autism

217 Canning Highway, East Fremantle.

(09) 9438 3800

www.learnaustralia.org