The diversity of autism: SA mum Fiora Christou’s daily fight for her son


To mark World Autism Awareness Day 2024 on Tuesday, April 2, The Greek Herald spoke with South Australian mum Fiora Christou. When her son Andreas was diagnosed with autism, she left no stone unturned in finding solutions, including eventually establishing a school for students with autism, which still operates today.

By Martina Simos

Fiora Christou first realised something was not right when her son Andreas was 12 months old.

Over the next 18 months she noticed a lack of eye contact, repetitive movements of hand-flapping and lining up toy trains, not pointing to objects and no signs of language development.

While his older sister Christina was meeting milestones, Andreas was becoming overwhelmed when routines were changed, losing control and at times yelling, rocking, crying and hitting or withdrawing.

The Adelaide mum-of-two began to research autism and was desperate to understand why Andreas was behaving and reacting in a way that was unfamiliar to her.

“There seemed to be a reluctance from doctors to hand out a diagnosis, with the advice that he may grow out of it or that he was delayed in his learning (but with no reason forthcoming,” she told The Greek Herald.

Eventually Professor Robyn Young from Flinders University in SA assessed Andreas and offered him the opportunity to participate in a four-week trial. The trial used the Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) method – an evidence-based approach aimed at helping children with autism by breaking down complex skills into smaller steps using repeat opportunities to practise the new skills.

“There were significant advancements in Andreas’ ability to sit in a chair and engage with the behavioural therapists,” Fiora recalled.

When Andreas was six years old, the family had to consider formal schooling for him. After trying two different schools in Adelaide, and despite being supported by a behavioural therapist and a School Support Officer, Andreas still felt overwhelmed at school – crying, kicking, headbutting and shouting, and in the process impacting other students.

The family then relocated to Victoria and Andreas was enrolled at Bulleen Heights School and thrived, supported by his family. But after three years, the family had to also consider their daughter so they packed and moved back to SA.

As Fiora reflected on how the Bulleen Heights School had fostered Andreas’ development, an idea began to form. Through research, she discovered a specialist school for children with autism in England, the United Kingdom, called ‘Treehouse.’

Fiora also traveled to New Jersey in the United States to visit a school called DLC Warren – Morris Union Jointure Program. The school offered a public school program based on the principles of ABA for students with autism and related developmental concerns.

Back in SA, Fiora first approached the then-Education Minister, Jennifer Rankine, about establishing an autism school in Adelaide but was not supported. This did not stop Fiora.

It took six years but in 2012, supported by an array of professionals, ‘Treetop Autism Specific School’ was launched on an unused school site not far from the city centre. When Fiora advertised the school on social media, 1,500 applications were received for 12 spots, with one reserved for Andreas.

“It was clear that parents were desperate to find solutions to their children’s educational and social needs,” she said.

In recent years, SA is becoming the nation’s leading autism inclusion state by releasing the draft State Autism Strategy 2024-2029 last month. The Malinauskas Labor Government has appointed Emily Bourke MLC as Assistant Minister for Autism.

For the first time in the state’s history, the SA Government also established the Office for Autism to improve outcomes for autistic and autism communities. Last year, more than 400 specialist autism inclusion teachers were rolled out in SA schools.

Fiora said Andreas thrived during his time at ‘Treetop’ and stayed until he was 18.

autism fiora christou
Andreas visiting the Adelaide Zoo.

He is now 22 and requires a high level of support with six carers through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

“His core tasks are making his bed, dressing himself, preparing breakfast, going to the gym aided by a personal trainer, grocery shopping, showering,” Fiora said.

“Andreas regularly goes to the zoo, music therapy, bowling, the art gallery and museum. He loves Disney princesses and Thomas the Tank.

“Andreas can remember all the words to all the films he’s seen verbatim. He likes hanging out with his family, surfing YouTube and listening to music.”

*Note: Fiora is not involved in Aspect Treetop School. It is owned by Aspect Australia and has 64 students.




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