Learning for Life Autism Centre: Bennelong Foundation's charity in focus

29 June 2011

With the growing prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders, a Melbourne-based charity has taken on the responsibility of ensuring children affected by the disorder have access to leading support and educational services. Mary Muirhead, one of the founders of Learning for Life, talks to us about the drivers behind her involvement and how the group is working to rebalance the social injustices of accessing support services for this disorder.

Learning for Life Autism Centre provides intensive, early intervention programs to children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The centre's programs are based on Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) therapy, one of the few therapies for treating autism spectrum disorders to have been subjected to rigorous scientific investigation around the world. Its positive results have been published in world-recognised journals of psychology, psychiatry and medicine.

At Learning for Life, ABA therapy involves a home-based program of intensive early intervention, incorporating large amounts of play and positive reinforcement, tailored specifically to each child's individual needs. The program is then generalised into community settings as soon as possible: for example, playgrounds, shopping centres, childcare, kindergarten and, at a later stage, school. This level of intensity, up to 40 hours of 1:1 therapy, comes with a high cost, hence, Learning for Life's dedication to making their programmes accessible to families who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

"After seeing the programmes working so well for several years, we were increasingly concerned about the huge social injustice of access to ABA programs. Due to the people-intensive nature of our programs, only wealthy people could afford to access the therapy," said Mary.

In 2004, a group of like-minded parents, providers and teachers consolidated efforts to bring to life a charity arm of an existing ABA program provider and Learning for Life was born.

"The idea took several years to come to fruition, as it was trained resources that we needed rather than money for buildings or capital works," said Mary, "and training educators and professionals in ABA therapy took time. It also took many years to get the medical world to recognise and recommend ABA programs due to their high cost and intensity, however the programmes are evidence-based with a focus on longer-term outcomes and results are very positive showing real value for the high cost."

Supporting children and their families

Regardless of the hurdles encountered, the centre is thriving today and supports over 20 families. Learning for Life is the only ABA provider who offers the full service model of home-based ABA therapy to support children with ASDs. "We were finding that many families were simply overwhelmed by having to recruit, train and timetable therapists for their child's ABA program, so we coordinate all aspects of the programme with the families we support," said Mary.

Learning for Life not only removes the organisational burden but also offers financial support to subsidise the high costs of ABA programs. "In essence, the centre aims to relieve families of the financial and emotional burden, giving their child the greatest possible opportunity to reach their potential. One of our main aims is to transition our children into appropriate educational facilities, ensuring they have all the support required to function happily and successfully within that facility. We have a school behavioural consultancy service to help our families do this," said Mary.

Volunteer base is critical

The highly specialised nature of an ABA program means that untrained staff cannot volunteer to work directly with the children. However, Learning for Life relies on a team of dedicated volunteers, of which Mary is one, to ensure the ongoing success of the centre and its programmes. The Board of Management and management staff are all volunteers, as is the HR consultant who recruits the therapists to implement the programme. "There's also an army of volunteers who fundraise for us, organise events, and make materials for the children's programmes," said Mary.

Financial support from charities is critical

Whilst Learning for Life receives no direct Government funding, children with ASD are eligiblefor a $6,000 Government payment over two years to spend on support services such as the programmes run by the centre. However, the centre could not continue to offer subsidised services to affected children without support from various charities and the community. "The Bennelong Foundation currently supports the centre through the provision of a scholarship for one of the children involved in our programmes," said Mary. "A scholarship is a great opportunity for the charity to see first-hand the child's development through our programmes and the impact their support is having on the quality of life of the child and their family. Learning for Life and the sponsored family would like to thank the Bennelong Foundation for their generous support, which will change the life of a child and allow him to reach his full potential, giving hope to the family."

For more information about Learning for Life's programs, visit


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