For parents or carers of neurodiverse children, a visit to the local playground can be fraught with worry and fear.
That’s because few of the ACT’s playgrounds are fenced, meaning they are simply not safe for autistic children, many of who will run away if they feel unsettled or panicked, or else towards water if it is nearby.
Canberra Liberals MLA Giulia Jones personally understands this situation. Two of her six children are autistic, meaning a trip to an unfenced park simply wasn’t an option when they were younger.
She’s so passionate about the need for fencing around playgrounds that it was the first motion she ever raised upon being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly nine years ago.
Ms Jones can still remember the debate that ensued and the example she raised of how difficult it was to be a breastfeeding mother and take an older sibling with autism to a playground.
She also remembers the smarting feeling of a comment from then ACT Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury who told her quite clearly that “we’re not your babysitter”.
Ms Jones also experienced the feeling of her two-year-old son, Leo, escaping the family home on the first day they moved in and making his way straight to a bus stop on Hindmarsh Drive where he was subsequently found by their new neighbour.
“We’d literally just got there and I hadn’t had a single day to put chains on the fence,” she said.
At the time, Leo hadn’t been diagnosed with autism and Ms Jones said she felt like a total failure because it seemed like ‘normal parenting’ just wasn’t working.
“Some kids’ differences might not be noticeable to the outside world, but they have atypical logic so when they are young it can be quite dangerous,” she explained.
Ms Jones’s kids are now too old to visit playgrounds, but she’ll soon be sponsoring another question on notice in the ACT Legislative Assembly on the matter.
She’s concerned that little change has been made. While there are a few fenced playgrounds now, she thinks there needs to be at least one in every region that is fenced to a common standard.
For Ms Jones, fencing is a simple fix and allows parents to relax without needing to watch children who may run off like hawks all the time.
“It’s just so uncaring to assume, ‘Oh well, you had your children you need to look after them,'” she said.
After all, there are many situations in which someone who doesn’t know the child well may be looking after them, such as a new carer, foster parents, uncle or aunt.
Retired early childhood teacher Matthew Armstrong has been closely following this issue in recent years. He began gathering stories from parents and carers in 2017 and made several submissions to the ACT Government.
He worked at the uniquely set up Turner School, which has a program for children with a disability integrated into a mainstream schooling arrangement.
Often, he’d note the almost ‘Houdini-like’ abilities of autistic children, who can often scale fences and drainpipes with remarkable speed.
“You have to really see it to believe it,” said Mr Armstrong.
He’s heard stories of parents who have their entire homes locked up because the child escapes so much, and one mum who woke up to find her child – who loves cars – had got out in the middle of the night and was riding his tricycle in the street over a roundabout.
In 2020, Mr Armstrong began travelling around to local playgrounds to document the state they were in and found that only one met pool-safe fencing standards.
He also noticed that dog parks were much better fenced than those for children.
“There are more and better-built dog parks than there are truly safe, fully fenced playgrounds for children,” said Mr Armstrong.
Neither he nor Ms Jones are pushing for every playground in Canberra to be fenced, either.
However, the pair does want them to adhere to at least a standardised code, similar to that of pool standards.
Under the code, fences should be at least 1.2 metres high, as well as adhering to other specifications such as angled horizontals to match the slope of the ground so there are no gaps through which children can escape.
Under the proposed code, objects also cannot be placed within a 1.2-metre arc of the fence so children cannot climb out.