Autistic teenager Nash Kirk-Clarke remembers feeling trapped behind the bars of his primary school fence.

“It felt like I was in a prison — like my mum not knowingly was giving me away to a prison,” he said, through tears.

“I was reaching my arm out for freedom — a whole year I had to go through what felt like suffering.”

The now 14-year-old autism support advocate dreams of working with trains.

But Nash is faced with a tough path after leaving school when he was 10 years old, missing crucial years of his education.

His mother, Paula Kirk-Clarke, said he was left out of the curriculum and isolated from his peers at his Adelaide Catholic primary school.

She said the school asked her to pick him up several times a week because he was so distressed. 

After trying hard to push for him to be more included, she said she had no choice but to pull him out.

“He was upset, crying that he wanted to go home,” she said.

“The other option I had other than picking him up was [for him] to stay in a sick room, which was a really small space.

“I don’t think any child would be able to stay in a space like that, let alone an autistic child.”

Nash’s experience common, expert says

University of South Australia education researchers have been examining the impacts of exclusionary practices in Australia’s public school system and found that Nash’s experience was common.

Lead researcher Professor Anna Sullivan said her research found Australian schools disproportionately suspend or exclude students from disadvantaged groups.

“Children who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders are more likely to be suspended, and if you have a disability, you are highly likely to be suspended,” Professor Sullivan said.

Anna Sullivan says it is concerning students with disabilities are likely to be suspended from schools. (ABC News)

“It’s highly problematic, it’s a form of discrimination and I think most schools are not aware of it.”

Professor Sullivan said repeated suspensions would further disadvantage those students because they were less likely to finish school and more likely to display anti-social behaviours. 

“It is pretty clear that [exclusion] doesn’t work as a punishment, what it does is exacerbate their circumstances.”

“The emotional toll on families is extreme.”

Research shows Australian educational laws and policies could be encouraging schools to exclude students and need an overhaul, Professor Sullivan said.

She said public schools needed more funding and resources to support all students.

“The conversation [elsewhere] is more what can we do for you as a school to help you manage these complex behaviours,” Professor Sullivan said.

“We’ve got to change the narrative in Australia.”

‘No support’ for children with complex needs

After losing her job while trying to keep Nash at school, Ms Kirk-Clarke started a community group for children with additional needs who are not able to attend school.

She said most kids who attended the weekly sessions have been suspended or otherwise excluded from across the public and private school sectors, some as recently as this term.

Paula Kirk-Clarke says Nash has spearheaded community initiatives to support other children with autism. (ABC News: Anisha Pillarisetty)

“A lot of these families are the same — they’re broken, there’s no support, there’s no financial support for mums who leave the workplace like me,” Ms Kirk-Clarke said.

“These kids are miserable, they are traumatised and we have to keep them home because school is becoming dangerous for them.”

Ms Kirk-Clarke said she volunteers her time to facilitate the group, which is at capacity every week.

“Some of these kids couldn’t even get out of the car when they first started,” she said.

“Some parents are in tears because they’ve been able to have a cup of tea with another mum or they’re watching their child connect and they’ve got friends.”

Schools not equipped to meet student needs, union says

Data released by South Australia’s education department shows suspensions and exclusions at public schools in 2022 were 10 per cent higher than in 2018.

The Australian Education Union SA Branch acting president, Kendall Proud, said teachers were stretched for resources and struggling to meet student needs.

“There is a lot of disability and complexity in cohorts of students at the moment,” Ms Proud said.

“[Teachers] need increases in support to be able to manage those, so we don’t get to a point where they’re suspending and excluding students because they’re at the end of their tether.”

Kendall Proud says teachers only suspend students as a last resort. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

A spokesperson from SA’s Department of Education said it was taking steps to reduce the risk of suspension for students with disabilities or extra needs.

The South Australian government introduced more than 400 specialist autism inclusion teachers in South Australian primary schools early last year.

At the same time, it also announced it would be employing 100 mental health and learning support specialists at primary schools across the state.

Catholic Education South Australia’s executive director, Neil McGoran, said in a statement they were continuing to refine their approaches to supporting students with disabilities.

“This includes specialist expertise and support for students with disability who have higher-level and more complex needs,” Dr McGoran said.

Meanwhile, Nash will continue advocating for and supporting children experiencing similar exclusion.

“We aim to help these kids not go through what I went through, because I don’t want any more kids to go through this,” he said.