Different but amazing

Published: Thursday 27th October 2016

Photo of Associate Vice-Chancellor Brisbane Professor Jim Nyland

A message from the Associate Vice-Chancellor Brisbane Professor Jim Nyland: Earlier this year ACU Brisbane hosted its fourth Annual Archbishop/Vice-Chancellor Catholic Stakeholder panel discussion and dinner event with an expert panel that challenged 250 business leaders (across all sectors) to respond to the leadership challenge of what mercy means for their organization.

The ideas shared at this event have since been quoted on numerous occasions in Queensland State parliament - such is their impact - and a video link of this panel discussion will be circulated for your enjoyment shortly.  Of course, the twin concepts of leadership and mercy are not just matters of high-brow and many amazing examples are to be found amongst our very own student body – aspiring leaders of these same organisations - which bodes well for the future.

By way of example, Sarah Cameron, a third year Social Work student on the McAuley at Banyo campus, secured the Sophia Scholarship earlier this year, choosing to channel these funds towards establishing and running the brilliantly titled, ‘Different but Amazing Girls’ project – an innovative program designed to help break the glass ceiling for school girls on the autism spectrum.

I had the privilege of attending the final Celebration and Award Ceremony of this program last week at the Asperger’s Services Australia Centre just outside Banyo, alongside Course Coordinator Dr. Venkat Pulla, Sarah Cameron and external program volunteer leaders including Sandy Hobley (Community Health worker) and Bernadette Beasley (a qualified teacher).

Some examples of the program sessions were: "What are good friends and bad friends?", which involved interpreting and drawing from a squiggle on a piece of paper, to show that everybody sees things differently, and choosing descriptions off pieces of paper to say what you liked about yourself, what you like about the other girls in the group, what kind of friend you think they are etc.

Photo of participants in the different but amazing girls group.

Two examples of activities outside the centre were taking the girls to the Hendra Pony Club for ‘equine neuropsychotherapy’, as well as to ’self defence’ on a Saturday at lunchtime. Not only did the girls find the sessions fun, but they were learning skills as well and connecting with other girls who "got" them.

One mother discussed how her daughter went from being so quiet and reserved in school, to really being comfortable to be herself and being boisterous during the sessions, encouraging other girls to be themselves as well. Another girl (who was a select mute) found herself in situations where everybody else was calling out answers – and so was she. The design of the Girls Group was not just learning new skills, but also building support networks: supports for the girls and for the mothers, to make friends and connect over the school holidays, to talk with somebody who had similar troubles.

As a father whose son had been diagnosed with ADHD and managed to survive the school years, graduating last year, I know something of what the parents of the girls had gone through. Something, but not everything as girls and boys who sit on the autism spectrum present very differently. For a range of reasons, boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls and as a result are more likely to receive early intervention and help (as in my son James’ case) whereas girls often go undiagnosed and do not get that early intervention that is so crucial.

Some of the goals of the ‘Different but Amazing Girls Group’ was to help with those problem areas such as social reciprocity, non-verbal communication, also known as the ‘hidden social curriculum’, initiating and maintaining social relationships, building self esteem and making friends, such as like-minded girls in the group, and enhancing communication and daily living skills and reducing problem behaviors such as tantrums and self-injury.

I was tremendously proud to meet with the girls and present their certificates for successfully completing the Different but Amazing Girls program that has made such a difference to their lives and that of their families.  It served as a timely reminder, as we approach the end of this Year of Mercy, that our defining characteristics as a demonstrable University of hope and mercy can be found in the stunning work of our superb students and their staff.

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