House of Representatives

Dr HAINES (Indi) (11:00): I thank the member for Fisher for this important motion.

In regional Victoria in the 1960s, few people knew what autism was. For people with autism and their families there were even fewer services to support them. Mansfield resident, Dr Joan Curtis, was the mother of one such child and, after looking around for support for her autistic son, Jonathan, and seeing none, in 1968 she established what would go on to become Mansfield Autism Statewide Services. Joan’s philosophy was that the best teacher for the child is the parent and the family, and that’s still the guiding philosophy of MASS today.

Fifty years ago, Dr Curtis believed in the importance of exercise, nature and healthy eating in supporting children with autism and, half a century later, those ideas are now backed up with substantial clinical evidence. Today, MASS is a Mansfield institution. Its mission is to support children with autism and their families from right across Victoria with person-centred, evidence-based holistic care.

Thanks to the NDIS, where individuals can choose the services that meet their needs, demand for services from MASS now significantly outstrips what it can provide in its current location. MASS is planning a substantial new facility—a therapeutic care farm—that would allow it to become a nationally significant provider of autism services and care for hundreds of people every year. On a plot of land in the rolling green hills on the road to Mount Buller, MASS is planning a new day school, a series of residences for respite accommodation, a small retreat for the accessible tourism market and recreational facilities, including a hardcourt, swimming pool, walking and cycle paths and an upgraded equine facilitated learning centre.

A few months ago, I was able to visit MASS and inspect the place for its planned expansion. Director, Simone Reeves, and strategic projects adviser, Judy Dixon, showed me how the new facility would transform MASS’s ability to support people with autism. They described to me how some children with autism who are completely non-verbal can come alive when they’re with animals, and how some children who struggle with attention span can become completely focused when working in the veggie garden.

In July of this year, the entire MASS community held its breath when one of its students, William Callaghan, was reported missing on Mount Disappointment, not far from Mansfield. William, who had been a student at MASS since the age of four, was thankfully found safe and well. After his arrival home, it was to MASS that his mother Penny turned to for respite care to help William and the family readjust after that most traumatic ordeal. Penny said, ‘I contacted them and said, “I desperately needed support,” and they provided a safe place for both my boys for four nights.’

For a few days in July, William’s ordeal brought attention to the care of children with autism and the support that places like MASS can provide. But if MASS is to continue to provide these critical services into the future and if families like the Callaghans are to continue to have somewhere to turn to for support, we need to make investments into these services. MASS needs $28 million to finance their planned expansion.

In September, I submitted a proposal to the education minister—himself a Mansfield native—to support the plans. He knows this place well. The project would not only allow MASS to provide 3,000 respite nights per year, support 102 children through day and term placements and increase total client capacity from 220 to 480 but it would also be an economic boom for the town.

It would create 80 new certificate III and certificate IV training placements, 60 new teacher placements and 32 allied health placements. It would double the number of jobs in MASS from 126 to 250 and generate over $54 million in economic activity for the community over the next four years. At a time when demand for disability care services is higher than ever and when we need to be investing for jobs in regional areas, investing in MASS makes sense on every front.

MASS only exists because of the incredible dedication of some wonderful community members: Dr Joan Curtis, who’s only just retired from the board of MASS after 50 years, and Simone Reeves, who came to Mansfield decades ago as a volunteer to MASS and has never left. To mark this year’s International Day of People with Disability I’d like to recognise the work of each of these individuals and the many more who have built this Mansfield institution over decades. I call on the government to come to the table with investment and help MASS transform the lives of people with autism for many decades to come.

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