Rotorua's Pacific Learning Centre calls for support as number of autistic kids grows

The centre struggles with scarce resources and a shortage of qualified staff, relying on creativity. Photo credit: Supplied

By Grace Tinetali-Fiavaai, Te Rito Journalism cadet

Rotorua’s only Pacific Islands early learning centre is pleading for help from the Ministry of Education as it struggles with funding, resources and a lack of qualified staff.

Of the 20 enrolled children, four have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and another four are undergoing assessment.

Essence of the Pacific Early Learning Centre manager Sera Byrne, of Fijian descent, says in her 40 years of teaching she has never been in a centre with so many children requiring additional attention and care.

The centre struggles with scarce resources and a shortage of qualified staff, often relying on creativity and resourcefulness to meet the children’s needs, she says.

”We get untrained people in while we work with the eight kids,” Byrne says.

However, “staff go above and beyond” to give the children enriching experiences.

Byrne is urging the ministry to recognise the crucial role early learning centres play in the lives of autistic children.

The plea is simple, she says: “I want to push for more qualified and specially trained teachers to help with the large number of children who need more attention.”

Three-year-old Akesa Domonibitu is one such child.

Her parents, Kayla Maki, 33 (Tūhoe) and Filipe Domonibitu, 32, from the Fijian village of Waikete on Viti Levu, enrolled her at the centre last year.

They say they chose Essence of the Pacific because of the centre’s multicultural programme and the opportunity to learn Fijian.

Maki says they sought assistance for Akesi when they began to notice issues at 18 months and autism assessments began when she was 2.

A challenge is not being able to effectively understand or communicate with their child.

”She tends to get frustrated and upset when I don’t do whatever it is she is trying to tell us,” Maki says.

However, Akesi’s autism has “been a beautiful blessing” that has taught Maki patience.

”That’s something I truly lacked.”

They are thankful for the extra assistance they receive from iwi and the ministry’s learning support services.

According to a 2022 study published in The Journal of Pacific Research, the rate of autism among Pasifika children and young people (38.6 per 10,000 people) is substantively lower than other ethnic groups (67.5 for European and 47.2 for Māori).

Professor Jessica Tupou, Māori and strategic adviser for the Autism Clinic, says estimates suggest one in 44 people are impacted by autism.

Referring to the Essence of the Pacific Early Learning Centre, she says having eight autistic children in one centre seems high.

Ministry of Education hautū, Te Tai Whenua (deputy secretary, Central) Jocelyn Mikaere says the centre has “a high number of tamariki that require additional support, as do the other early learning services in this neighbourhood”.

Access to learning supports is needs-based and not dependent on a diagnosis.

She said there is a range of support available to early learning services and schools that respond to students’ specific needs in a learning context. This includes learners with and without a formal diagnosis.

Mikaere says the ministry’s Te Mahau staff are in regular contact with the centre and have provided arange of support to the service to support these tamariki.

This includes professional development for staff at the centre, working with tamariki and their whānau to address specific learning needs such as communication (speech language therapist) and the provision of a part-time education support worker (ESW).

Most of the kaiako (teachers) at this service had participated in the Incredible Years Teacher programme and one kaiako has completed Incredible Years Autism.

”The Ministry of Education learning support team provides an early intervention service for very young children who have learning support needs, and their families, whānau and caregivers. These services are available regardless of whether the child attends an ECE [early childhood education] service or kōhanga reo or not.”

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