Inspiring young Gold Coast man living with autism is turning his architect dreams into reality.
By Olivia Gordon
Benjamin Hawkins, 21, holds up a framed drawing of a plane, train and race car, grinning at his masterpiece. Drawing is Ben’s passion. For Ben, drawing became his way of communicating. At two years old, Ben was diagnosed with severe autism.
His mother and founder of Gold Coast’s Little Souls; Robyn Hawkins, 53, describes how seriously it impacted his life.
“It was as though he was the only one in the room,” Mrs Hawkins said.
“We would call his name and he wouldn’t look up,” she said.
“He didn’t seem to understand anything that we told him to do.”
Nineteen years later, and a beaming Ben tells me he’s just been offered the opportunity of a life time; to study Architecture at Griffith University.
“My long term goals really, are to be a building designer,” Mr Hawkins said.
“Then hopefully do a masters in architecture, so I can become an architect someday.”
But it hasn’t always been sunshine and blue skies. For Ben and his family, it was a long and bumpy road. When Ben was first diagnosed, his parents decided intensive early intervention was the only way forward.
Ben needed Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy, which examines how a child reacts to social and physical influences in their environment. The treatment requires a lot of one on one time spent repeating actions and positively reinforcing, until a child can perform the action independently.
Social worker Sue Trembath says while ABA is effective, there are many other strategies available.
“Autism spectrum disorder is not the same in each person, so you need a variety of options and parents should choose which treatment they judge will suit their child,” Mrs Trembath said.
Desperate to provide therapy options for her son and many Australian families, Robyn launched Arundel’s Little Souls Taking Big Steps in 2007. The non-profit early childhood service isn’t just for children with autism; it’s also for typically developing children, which gives them the opportunity to watch and learn from others playing naturally.
“We have a variety of different therapies here,” Mrs Hawkins said.
“We tend to look at the child and what their individual needs are.”
Robyn’s proud example of success is Ben. Having completed mainstream schooling, he went on to TAFE to study a Diploma in Building Design. Ben says he’s ready to take on the world, but there’s just one thing he wants the public to know.
“Tell these people to give me a chance,” Mr Hawkins said.
“Give me a chance to prove them wrong.”
Ben’s composure faltered as he anxiously spoke of how people misunderstand him and his condition.
“Sometimes the reactions can be quite negative,” Mr Hawkins said.
“They might say this person’s dumb, he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he said.
“It is very hurtful.”
Social worker Sue Trembath says there is a lack of public awareness about autism.
“The community has a very low level of understanding of the condition,” Mrs Trembath said.
“Children and adults who live with autism spectrum disorder experience stigma as they are seen as different and don’t behave in ways which fit the expected norm,” she said.
“Autism spectrum disorder can impact communication, social skills, relationships and many other areas of daily life.”
Another challenge the Hawkins’ face is funding the centre.
“The only government funding we get at the moment is the inclusion support subsidy, which is spread amongst all the children,” Mrs Hawkins said.
“The national disability scheme is coming in, but the Gold Coast is the last area in Australia to receive it,” she said.
“It doesn’t role out until 2018.”
With the fees costing over $55,000 per child a year, the centre tries to help families by subsidising their fees. Mrs Hawkins says it just depends on how well they do with fundraising.
“…They pay quite high fees because of the one on one intensity,” Mrs Hawkins said.
Little Soul’s campaign manager Peter Wotherspoon has organised an exciting fundraiser on November 1, with funds going towards purchasing new therapy equipment and subsidising fees.
“Our Melbourne Cup luncheon is being held at the Parkwood International Golf Club,” Mr Wotherspoon said.
If you would like to join in on the action and meet Ben and his family who help many Australians reach their full potential, head to www.littlesoulsgc.com. Furthermore, if your child is showing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, head to your GP or contact Little Souls on 5563 1490.