Episode 7- Little Steps into Giant Steps

Andy chats to Dr Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos about the community philosophy of Giant Steps school and college. Based on a successful model from Montreal Canada, Giant Steps in Australia educates and develops children and young adults with high needs autism.

Speaker 1:                        Welcome to Loop Me In, the podcast community for parents and carers on raising children with disabilities. Join presenters Dr. Lisa Interligi and Kristine Christopoulos and their guests in sharing experiences, information and support ideas to help children with disabilities flourish. Loop Me In is brought to you weekly on platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher, to name a few. You can learn more, connect to the Loop Me In community, and listen to more episodes on our website, loop-me-in.com.au.

Kristine Christ…:             Well, hi and welcome back, Lisa. We’ve had a couple of weeks off with some others doing hosting for us, which has been great. Today, we’ve got Andy from Giant Steps. Giant Steps was established in ’95 at the old Gladesville Hotel, by a group of dedicated parents who wanted something more for their children with autism. Andy, how are you today? And welcome to Loop Me In.

Andy:                                Hello, Kristine and Lisa. Thank you so much for having us. I’m very excited. I’m a little bit nervous, but very excited to meet you.

Kristine Christ…:             Don’t be nervous. It’s a very casual conversation, and we are really looking forward to talking to you about Giant Steps.

Andy:                                Yeah. Looking forward to hopefully answering some questions and getting some more information out there about our awesome organization.

Kristine Christ…:             I think the biggest thing I know about Giant Steps is the families that are involved. It’s a very family orientated network of people, and that goes by how it all began in ’95. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Andy:                                As you mentioned, it all started up in Sydney, in ’95, and just like you said, basically, it was a dedicated group of parents that came together and were just looking to do as parents do, which is look for the best opportunities for their children. And within their research, they found out about a school in Canada that seemed to be providing a reasonably unique approach to the schooling and learning and development of the kids, and that helped to reach their full potential.

And so, I think they went across. I wasn’t there, obviously, in the ’90s. I was only, at that stage, probably three or four years old, but basically, they found this unique approach, where, it was called Giant Steps in Montreal, in Canada, and they were able to provide support for these young people with high-needs autism. And the fact that they were able to do that was proof that the system worked, the program worked. And the unique approach was that it was really individualized. It was a strength-based approach. They use what’s called a interdisciplinary model, I believe, which we have adapted for the transdisciplinary model. But, yeah, overall it was found that the school in Canada had the resources and ability to support these kids with high-needs autism, and that they were able to provide that support. So, the model worked, and they wanted to bring that back to Australia, I suppose.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              And how many kids you got in your Giant Steps?

Andy:                                I believe there’s about 100 or so. Maybe 90 in Sydney and about 30 at the other school. I believe it’s about 120 to 130 in total across the Sydney college and Sydney school. And then with us, there’s about 35 to 40 in total across our college and our school.

And so, our school in Melbourne started in 2016 off the back of the same basic needs that parents had. I believe it was the actually parents that were involved in Giant Steps Sydney that were moving back to Melbourne and looking around trying to find opportunities for their children. And what happened was, there weren’t any that could support the kids. Schools that were around weren’t able to support their kids, so there was a big push to be like, we need Giant Steps in Melbourne. We need your support here. And so, that’s how it started. And that was in 2016. And then, we started up our adult services program last year, in 2021, last year.

Kristine Christ…:             Tell us a little bit about the school environment, firstly, like what would be a day-to-day?

Andy:                                I guess how we’re unique is the transdisciplinary approach. That’s a big part of it. Basically, what that means is it involves our therapy team working with our education team together on the same goals. So, we have speech, occupational, music therapists working with our special education staff, which are teachers and educators, collaboratively to develop the individual programs that we have. And that collaboration really helps to develop the learning of the staff, also. It’s not consultative, where the therapists just come in and view a few things then come out and then implement a few strategies themselves, it’s working together as a team. Therapy teams are constantly in classes so they can see how things go, and they’re trying to fill in those gaps there. That’s one really unique approach.

I suppose, looking at what was here previously to Giant Steps, I can’t really talk on other schools, because I’ve really only worked within Giant Steps, but having autism specific schools that could support these kids, there was a big gap there. And so, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to fill that gap as best we can by also supporting the community. And then potentially hopefully within the future in Melbourne, and I know it’s starting in Sydney is, supporting other schools with their understanding of autism and then teaching in those areas as well.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              And what about the college? What is that about?

Andy:                                So, the college started in Sydney in 2009. Like we mentioned, Giant Steps has always been a really family-orientated organization. It was started because of these dedicated parents. Everything that has gone on since has been involved with the parents, involved with the families. And that includes college. I can only imagine how daunting the process must be when a child is coming to the end of their schooling, and the thought of the future looms, and what comes next. And it could be very scary, because you’ve had this support for how many years. What’s next? So, there was obviously a need, the same level of support, but I guess an age appropriate level of support that isn’t curriculum based.

The college, it was called the Giant Steps Community College, began in Sydney. Now the name has changed over recent years due the NDIS terminology, to fit in with the NDIS. So, it’s now the Giant Steps Adult Autism Services. And there’s 30 to 40 participants in the, we still call it college, nickname it college, 30 to 40 participants in the Sydney college, and we just have a small cohort here as we’ve just started our second year. But it was the same thing, we had our senior cohort in Melbourne that were looking to graduate. We’re able to set up a service that could help them in their future.

And basically, it’s next steps post school. And for me, what I really like and often try to think about is my experience as a school leader, as a young adult, what was that like, and how can I try to promote that to these young people? Provide opportunities that are age appropriate, that are similar, that are going to be enjoyable and fun, but that are still going to promote this independence, and learning, and skill development, so that they can have further opportunities in the future they can look to, five, 10, 20 years down the road, to continue to develop, just as we do, just as anyone does trying to develop their skills so that you can find yourself in a workplace or in society and contributing. And feeling a sense of purpose, I think is a really big, big part of that for the college.

Kristine Christ…:             I agree. And I think the biggest thing you said before is age appropriate, because that’s what you don’t find in the day services that you look for when your child… And 18 is quite young as well. Even our mainstream kids at 18 don’t just go out into the workforce, they either go to a college or a uni. So, I think it’s awesome that you’ve tried to apply that at Giant Steps.

Andy:                                So far it seems to be incredibly successful. But that’s exactly right, the gap in that area is pretty evident when you go to day services that may be underfunded and under-resourced. The people that are working there are incredible and have that same passion, but unfortunately, being under-resourced and maybe understaffed means that pairings aren’t always age appropriate. They aren’t always targeting the individuals and their strengths. You have to look at groups. And I suppose the difference between college and school is that we don’t have a curriculum to follow, which means that we look at the individual, and we look at the individuals goals, and then we base programs around their goals, as well as what is going to be motivating for them to do, to engage, make sure they’re engaging, and it’s going to be fun.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              And is that how you measure your success, Andy? Is because it’s not curriculum based and it’s individual goal based, you’re looking at the progression of an individual to achieve their goals as the outcome.

Andy:                                Measuring success is interesting. Looking at, as a role, as a job support working in and doing what we do, it’s rewarding, but we look at little wins all the time. Throughout the days, you have to look at little wins because development for anyone can be a slow process. It’s not day by day. We’re looking at weeks, we’re looking at months, we’re looking at years.

Our program has a number of areas and activities that we look at doing. And we look at process that way. And we keep a lot of data so that we can go back and see how things are progressing, and ensuring that we’re meeting the goals as well, the strategies that we’re using are meeting the goals. I think that’s a big part of it.

And that’s what we’re quite good at doing is ensuring is keeping a track of how that progress looks. And if we find that we have a goal and either we’re not targeting enough, or that the goal isn’t progressing, then we have to, of course, look at the strategies that we’re using to ensure that we can adapt them to hopefully progress further towards that goal.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Yeah. It’s really hard, I know setting goals for Louis’ NDIS funding is really hard. And as a parent, you want to make it achievable, but you have ambitions for your kid too. So, it’s hard to know where to pitch those goals. So, you help the parents. Is that a Giant Steps thing that you partner with the parent to set the goals, or is that part of your curriculum, or not your curriculum, but your approach, that you are setting the goals based on your understanding of the child?

Andy:                                Yeah, absolutely. Goal setting is a massive part of Giant Steps in general, and working as a team to set those goals. So, in school and in our colleges, it looks somewhat similar. We have individual planning meetings within our schools with families in each term, and the people that are involved in that are the parents, the families, the teachers, the educators, the therapists, maybe even anyone else that may need to be involved if there’s care teams involved as well. We want everyone to be able contribute so that we can get the best outcomes. And then, within the college, we do the same. We have person-centered planning meetings. And then looking at what you mentioned earlier, Lisa, with the NDIS, setting those goals, often they can be quite broad. So, targeting them can be really difficult.

So, we would look at the NDIS goals, and of course we need to be targeting the NDIS goals to ensure that funding is continued; however, we have to know the individual, the participant at the college to know how to target that goal.

So, the goal might be accessing the community, or getting out into the community, which is so broad. We want to talk to the families and with our own knowledge of the individual, whether that’s as a support staff, or as a therapist, look at it and say, okay, how can we look at that goal, specify it, and ensure that it’s measurable, so that we can then get data to see how we’re progressing with this goal. Accessing the community could be specifically each day recording where we went or what we did. It could be going to a cafe. It could be going to [inaudible 00:13:16]. It could be going swimming or to the gym. There’s so many different ways. It could be going for a bush walk.

So, really trying to specify, and we try to work with families as best we can just to ensure that we create goals that are, of course, achievable, but measurable also, and specific.

Kristine Christ…:             So, give us an example of a day at the college in comparison to being at the school.

Andy:                                We have onsite and offsite programs at our college. We’ve got a base in Melbourne at the moment, is [inaudible 00:13:42]. We have some really exciting plans at our school. We received a grant from the government a couple of years ago, which is going to allow us to renovate. So, demolition has started with the surrounding areas of the school. And the renovation is going to look at beginning, I believe halfway through this year. And it may take a little while to start. So, we’re in a temporary space at the moment.

But day-to-day, as I mentioned, it’s really individual with our program. So, it really depends on the person, but I guess I can give you an idea on the activities and the areas that we look at. So, firstly vocational experience is one area. So, that is providing work-related skills. It could be work experiences, and we can help with supporting the staff, within, if they have work experience or if they even have a job, we have some partner organizations that can help provide those opportunities, or maybe families have opportunities already set up.

Health and fitness goals is a big part of it. Outdoor education is so incredible for emotional regulation and it promotes independence as well. We can get out and about and go into the bush, and everyone loves going for a bush walk. So, we try to get out and about as often as we can.

Life skills. We have cooking skills. I’m in the office at the moment and I can hear it outside my door, a little cooking program that’s going on at the moment. So, building skills, life skills, within the kitchen, within the household, and a lot of our participants are living out of home, so we try to really specify those goals so that they can bring it back to home and try to… It’s all about promoting independence.

Community access, as I mentioned. Recreation and leisure is another important thing. So, teaching appropriate ways of having leisure time, I think is really important. Some people really struggle to be able to relax, to be able to chill out without having a routine and without having a task sometimes. So, trying to teach that, I feel is really important, because I love chilling out and having fun as much as anyone. And then, therapy, of course, and education, of course. That’s just some of our areas that we look at. And then, we expand and we hone on things from that.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Do you have young kids that are coming in? How old are they? Are they five or six? Are they starting school?

Andy:                                Yes, we have a junior school and a senior school. And within our junior school, there’s, I believe the youngest we’ve had is four year old, potentially, and right up to 18 years old. So, I think our oldest at the moment is 17, who will be looking at graduating as well at the end of the year and coming [inaudible 00:16:29]. So we’re, of course, aiding that transition throughout the year to then coming into the adult services program. So, that’s not just a quick change over. I think that’s a big part of anything with families is ensuring that we’re aiding in that transition so it’s as smooth and as successful as possible.

Kristine Christ…:             Yeah, I think that’s what we’ve both found really difficult, the transition from being in a school environment for almost 12 years and then going into a day service where it’s not as structured. That’s really difficult for them.

Andy:                                Yeah. It can be super challenging. Working with people that have to then get to know your child and get to know the families, it can be really challenging. Takes some time to get used to regardless, but we try to give that time, that transition time, so that once we begin, we’re good to go, and we can get it going.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Yeah. I think that’s something that we learned, as Kris said, that probably, is being conscious of that as your kids are transitioning, whether they’re transitioning from actually just starting school, or starting Giant Steps. Any transition, you have to get your mind around it, and you need to give yourself enough space, and you need to plan it, you need to be working with the people that are managing that transition with you, and adjust everybody, including yourself, and including your child. It’s in the family. It is a significant thing for any child and any parent, but with somebody with special needs and the vulnerability that comes with it, that you are more anxious, I think. And we’ve learned that through any transition that we’ve done is to try and manage that with all your support team around you and give yourself some space.

Andy:                                Absolutely. I think routine is big. Obviously, with people with autism, any change can be challenging, and transitions can be challenging, but I think that’s the case for everyone. Change is always challenging for everyone, and everyone requires forewarning and a period of understanding what’s going to be happening and being ready. The change is always going to be challenging.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              How have you got through COVID? What’s happened? Have you been open, shut, open, shut? And how has that impacted the children?

Andy:                                Yeah, very challenging. We’ve been very, very lucky with being able to stay open the entire time. We haven’t had to shut our doors at our college or at our school at all the entire time. We’ve had a couple of days due to close contacts or COVID incidences, but we haven’t had to shut our doors for long periods. The big challenge came with, particularly, I think, college. Because our program is often very, it’s a community-based hybrid program, so we’re offsite quite often. So, during the periods where lockdown was on again, then off again, then on again, it would be two weeks, we can’t do something and then we’re back over. And then another week or two where you can’t do something. That was really challenging, because it’s hard to understand why we can go out to a cafe one week and we can’t go the next week, but then we can go the week after.

So, within the big lockdowns, we were able to set a routine, although it was stripped back quite a bit, we were able to set a routine and continue to work on those goals so that it was still successful. But it was very challenging. Still remains challenging. I think it’s not only within schooling as well, it’s within home life. Having siblings that generally should be at school and they spend their times at home, it’s hard to understand why their brother and sister are at home, and I have to go out and do stuff. What’s going on? It can be so challenging. But we manage really well. We try to resource as much as we can to ensure that there’s an understanding, and that the environment that they’re going to be in is comfortable.

Kristine Christ…:             Yeah, that would have been awesome. And I think the other thing I like about Giant Steps is just, you’re trying to get out to the community, and getting them to understand what these children are about, what these adults are about. And I think that’s really important. You have an affiliation with All Things Equal, I believe, which is a great cafe in Balaclava, Carlisle Street?

Andy:                                Yeah, Carlisle Street, Balaclava. Yeah, yeah. We do. We do. One of our participants works there. She works there a couple of shifts a week, and we support her at the cafe. But incredible organization that we’re lucky enough to partner with. And there are many organizations. The community, Giant Steps in general, I think, in the years that I’ve been working here, I think one thing that I’ve realized is that it’s not just about the student or participant and the staff member, it’s about the immediate family, of course, and then, it’s about the extended family, and the friends, and it’s about the community, and then the wider community, and society in general. And Giant Steps is really big in promoting acceptance and inclusion within the community. And we’ll try to do that however we can. With our college program, we are offsite within the community often at different locations, and that, in itself, I suppose helps to give educational opportunities for people that may not be exposed to disability as much, may not be exposed to autism as much.

And there are some organizations, you go to supermarkets now and there are some that have sensory sensitive hours where they reduce the volume of the music, or they turn it off, and they dim the lights, they turn their volume off the machines, and they ask people to keep things quiet and make it a nicer environment, basically. And it’s really cool that that [inaudible 00:22:13].

We actually recently also worked with BOUNCE Inc, which is the trampoline fun place, who were very keen to learn more about that exact thing, acceptance and inclusiveness. So, we ran some sessions with them where the BOUNCE staff were able to hang out with our staff and our students and participants and learn a lot about the way that we interact with appropriate language to use and how we interact with our students and participants. And I think it was incredibly successful. The BOUNCE staff were amazing. But the fact that they’re reaching out to us, to aid in that development for their staff and their organization, I think is a really good push within society to show that things are moving forward and that they’re going to continue to move forward.

So, as we do go forward, we hope that we can continue to provide educational opportunities for people within the community so that we can help to provide a safe, inclusive, accepting environment for everyone, so that they can get out there and they feel comfortable, and then, that in turn, hopefully leads to further opportunities for them, whatever that may be, whether it’s for recreation, whether it’s for work.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Andy, how did you get to Giants Steps? What’s your background? What’s your connection?

Andy:                                I studied exercise and sports science at university. So, big sport fan. Health and fitness is my big thing. That’s why I love outdoor education so much. [inaudible 00:23:48] benefits in it. And everyone knows the benefits of health and fitness anyways, and how it affects mental health, helps with mental health. So, that was my background.

And I fell into it. I met this person who was working at Giant Steps Melbourne two years ago, 2018, potentially, said, “You should come check out the school that I work at.” So, I did a volunteer day and fell in love, basically. So, basically, I saw the environment. There’s this thing within Giant Steps we talk about, and I’ve always called it the Giant Steps vibe, and it’s maybe the Giant Steps spirit, and it’s this passion amongst the staff and the students when you go into school, that you just sense when you go in there, it’s hard to articulate, but you go in there and you really sense this care, and the want to help, the want to develop and progress. It’s just the incredible environment to go to. And we welcome people to come and tour the school to get an idea of what that feels like. We have an incredible staff base that really work hard and want to do better, and they do.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Have you got a funny story?

Andy:                                A lot of funny stories, in fact. Many funny stories. I think there’s probably some that probably aren’t too appropriate to be saying on here. Things that occur, maybe that aren’t so much funny, but always surprising, I suppose. Like we are in our environment, we’ll go and do new things often. So, we might go and camp for instance. Last year we went on a Flying Fox Camp, which was incredibly successful, and to see the kids in an environment that, the kids and young adults, sorry, in an environment that they are not used to, with a routine that they are not used to, although supported by people that they do know and see how successful they are. I think we prepared so much, we resourced so much, but they just come out and they just show us up every time.

We do these things that we’re like, all right, we need prepare. We’re ready for things. And then we’re just like, goodness me, look at this. And it really just shows the development that a lot of our kids and young adults, where they are, and being challenged is a good thing. There’s always a line, there’s always a limit, but being challenged is a good thing. There’s probably not a really funny story. I know you had Dean Cohen on and his funny moment was a bowel movement. And I can give you many, many bowel [inaudible 00:26:21]

Kristine Christ…:             [inaudible 00:26:20].

Andy:                                People probably don’t want to listen to that.

Kristine Christ…:             No.

Andy:                                Not every episode.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              What I find really curious Andy, is that, Louis is very structured, that’s him, and it’s fantastic, and that structure changes as he’s grown up, but through his structure, he’s made us more flexible. It’s really weird, isn’t it? That our ability to be more adaptable has come through his structure. And often, the things that I find funny are the things that I’m doing, not what he’s doing. That I’m trying to be that flexible person or deal with something that is a structure for him that makes him comfortable, and yet I’m the one that’s always put in the crazy funny situation. I remember a time that he went through a, I don’t even know why, he’d say to me, “Open your mouth.” And we’re at a deli in South Melbourne Market and queuing up waiting to be served. And he’s saying, “Open your mouth.” And I’m standing at the bloody deli with my mouth wide open, thinking, what are people thinking seeing me standing with my mouth wide open? But that’s just, I always find it amusing that through their structure, we become very flexible, adaptable, and have some funny moments.

Andy:                                Yeah. And resilient. Resilience, I think, is massive within families. And it reminds me, I guess, going back onto talking about our community access and building education through the community, we head to shops each week to purchase food for our cooking program. It can be a pretty exciting place to go, the supermarket, especially if you don’t go too often. We try to support, tend to understand what’s going to happen in there. There’s a lot of motivating things. Food is extremely motivating for everyone. And what’s awesome is to see the staff, and the understanding, and the flexibility they have also in understanding. And often, our staff are running around, maybe running around in the supermarket. The thing is that the staff within the Woolworths, I mean, this is Woolworth’s Q, I’m happy to talk about them, because they are incredible there, the people that work there. And that they just are so flexible themselves.

And it’s so awesome to see that understanding there, because often we walk around and we want ensure that things are done really well. But to know that they have that understanding is really comforting. And then, you know that they’re going to look at you and be like, “Hey, what can I do to help?” We actually also have the local police here, the Heidelberg police come past just to chat with us, to talk about what we can do to help in situations, not necessarily just with us and our participants, but with anyone with a disability. How can they be more accepting and inclusive within their organization? Which I thought was really, really incredible as well. So, there’s some great stuff that’s been going on.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              It’s not a bad idea, is it, to recognize businesses that are welcoming and treat people with disabilities in an inclusive way, and to really celebrate what they’re doing, because I think, how fantastic that that Woolworths in Q is making everybody feel comfortable and that the children and the young adults that go there feel like they belong. They’re not any different. They’re comfortable and happy and doing their stuff.

Andy:                                That’s how our organization runs as well. We rely on our partners. We rely on funding. Another way that our school and the organization is unique is we don’t charge school fees. So, we’re lucky enough to receive some funding through the government; however, we rely heavily on fundraising and donations. And the families are really involved in this area, in aiding in fundraising, as are our partners. Providing opportunities, helping to fundraise so that organization can continue, so we can continue to provide the opportunities for the kids and the young adults.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Well done, Andy. Sounds like [inaudible 00:30:26] time too. I know you were thinking that you might have had a few visitors while you were talking. We didn’t get one visitor, but that’s okay.

Andy:                                No, I could hear a couple of our guys hanging out there and they were wanting to come inside. And I was like, I could let them in and we could do a shared interview, but I kept them cooking. We’ll see what’s cooking out there.

Kristine Christ…:             Well, it was just amazing to get an insight, because we’ve obviously heard about you for many years now, and just increasing that to the college too and the community of families and getting out there and the community is just awesome. It’s what these kids need.

Andy:                                Yeah. Thank you. And I encourage anyone that wants to learn a little bit more about Giant Steps, head over to our website, and there’s a lot there that you can look up. And we’re very open to having people come through the school and check out what we’re doing. We just want to make the place as accepting as possible, and provide as many opportunities for the people that come to our organization as we can.

Dr. Lisa Interl…:              Thanks, Andy.

Andy:                                Thanks so much for having me.

Kristine Christ…:             Thanks, Andy. See you.

Speaker 1:                        Thanks for being part of the Loop Me in community today, and joining our conversation on raising children with disabilities. Join us for the next episode on some of your favorite platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts. If you would like to support us, please recommend the Loop Me In Podcast to your network of parents, carers, and providers. If you would like us to cover a topic or invite a guest to chat, please email us at contact@loop-me-in.com.au, or go to our website, at loop-me-in.com.au. If you’ve got any feedback, please let us know so we can improve and cover issues you want.

And of course, if anything in the podcast today has raised concerns for you, you can contact Beyond Blue on 1 300 22 4636, or Lifeline on 13 1114.

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