Ten years ago, a couple of parents in the Paarl-area realised with shock that they will have to wait up to six years for placement in one of the two Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) schools in Cape Town.

They came together, took matters into their own hands and bravely started the Boland School for Autism in Paarl.

Working closely with a psychologist, the parents registered an NPO and appointed a teacher to present an autism-specific curriculum to their four children.

From Humble Beginnings to Growing Success

Lizelle Raath, Manager of the Boland School for Autism in Paarl

By the end of the second year of the Boland School for Autism’s existence, they gained an additional learner and in 2012, Lizelle Raath was appointed as the manager of the centre where she is still serving today.

In that year, we grew to accommodate 11 learners, and from there, our numbers have steadily increased every year,” recalls Lizelle.

The school currently accommodates 50 learners, with many more that have successfully moved through the ranks. They offer three streams of specialised education where they prepare children between the ages of three and 14 for a return to mainstream classrooms or occupational opportunities in the outside world.

Because one child with ASD typically requires as much attention as six neurotypical children, the school tries to keep classrooms small – no more than six children per teacher.

Serving the Greater Community

Initially, the school mostly received enquiries from within the Drakenstein area. However, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in interest from much further afield.

We receive an average of two enquiries per week from parents who are desperate to find a school for their child with ASD,” she says. “People call us from as far as Robertson, Vanrhynsdorp, Vredenburg, Malmesbury, Springbok, Beaufort West and Britstown.”

In many of these cases, children receive an ASD diagnosis, but they don’t have a school close by to cater to their specific needs.

While the Boland School for Autism may be too far from home for many of these children, the team is so passionate about what they do that they offer telephonic guidance and support to these parents on a regular basis.

They’ve also seen an increase in the number of people who have moved to Paarl just to ensure that their child with an ASD diagnosis receives a quality education.

There has even been a couple who have moved back from England to send their child to our school,” Lizelle says.

A One-stop Support Network

While the Boland School for Autism’s ASD-specific curriculum is a major drawcard, what truly sets them apart is the fact that they offer an extensive support network for both children and parents.

One of the ASD classrooms at the Boland School for Autism.

Apart from the 10 teachers they currently employ, the school also has a full team of in-house therapists, including an educational psychologist, occupational therapist, social worker, child kineticist, speech therapist and a counsellor.

The only specialists they don’t have on the property are a paediatrician and a psychiatrist, but they fill this void through a close working relationship with various psychiatrists in town as well as Paarl Hospital’s paediatric and psychiatric wards.

When I started here in 2012, it was my personal dream and goal to become a ‘one-stop support shop’ for our learners and their families,” Raath says. “And that’s exactly what we offer now – parents can come here to receive a diagnosis from a psychologist, followed by professional counselling and our social worker can even visit their home for additional support.”

Ullie’s Success Story

When Ullie Heins was diagnosed with ASD when he was two, his parents were left feeling helpless and somewhat isolated.

The diagnosis came as an especially big blow to Toanette, Ullie’s mother, who describes the feeling she had en route to the appointment as being akin to driving toward her own death.

Six months after Ullie’s diagnosis, the Heins family heard about Boland School for Autism and immediately made an appointment and two weeks of observation.

He adjusted to the new environment quickly and we could see improvements immediately,” Toanette recalls. “As his social skills improved, he gained confidence and just seemed to be happier.”

Being able to find a place where Ullie can experience acceptance, understanding and integration has been an indescribable blessing for the Heins family. The structured environment has helped Ullie feel safe, as he knows exactly what to expect throughout the day. The patient teachers and staff members also played an integral role in helping him potty train, something that could have taken much longer without their help.

The Boland School for Autism has given us a future. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without it,” says Toanette.

While their journey remains a lonely one, the Heins family feel blessed to be able to draw strength from the community that has formed in and around the school.

Learners enjoying the sandbox at Boland School for Autism.

Community Involvement and Future Dreams

As the need for this type of comprehensive service grows, the Boland School of Autism is dreaming of accommodating more children and supporting more parents.

Their vision includes finding a property on the outskirts of Paarl that can offer the children a more tranquil environment – maybe somewhere they can even house a couple of therapy animals.

In the meantime, they are grateful for the immense support – financial, emotional and moral – that they have consistently received from the community.

If it weren’t for all the donations and support, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve half of what we have in the past decade,” she says.

Boland School for Autism is a member of Valcare’s network of nonprofit organisations in the Cape Winelands.

Valcare is proud to have sponsored 10 less-fortunate children to help their parents cover their school fees over two years.

If you can partner with Valcare to support organisations like Boland School for Autism, get in touch at admin@nationbuilder.co.za