Wednesday, 7 October 2020
Statements by Senators
Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre
Over the years, I have come across many admirable contributors to the autism sector, but few meet the amazing standards set by 92-year-old Olga Tennison. Her profound impact on the lives of autistic people and their families has been achieved through a close partnership with Professor Cheryl Dissanayake—I apologise; I'm sure my pronunciation is incorrect there—of La Trobe University where, through her generous support, they established Australia's first research centre dedicated to autism, the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre—OTARC. This world-leading research centre at La Trobe University would not have been possible without the significant private donations that now exceed a staggering $6 million. There are few people in this country with the energy, drive and determination of this impressive and inspirational woman.
She was born Olga Hayward in Rockhampton Queensland and attended primary school in Brisbane and St Ursula's, a Catholic boarding school in Toowoomba, for her secondary studies. While she was there, one of the nuns recognised her talent for clear speaking and acting and encouraged her to train as a stage and radio actress. She trained with Jean Trundle, the then well-known speech teacher in Brisbane, who also had a small theatre company where Olga performed. While training, she sat for and passed competitive examinations in speech for prestigious qualifications from Trinity College in London.
After completing her schooling and actor's training she worked at a bank while pursuing her acting career as a stage and radio actress with the ABC. She was married in Brisbane to Patrick Tennison, a well-known journalist and author working for the Melbourne Herald. They first lived in Sydney and then moved to Melbourne following a period in London, where her husband Patrick co-founded the Melbourne Press Club in 1971 and was its first president. Olga gave up working as an actress after her second child was born. Her interest in autism was triggered when her grandson was diagnosed with Asperger's disorder at 12, despite her recognition that he had a developmental delay from a few months of age. Mrs Tennison does not seek public recognition for her generosity. She is entirely modest about her significant contribution to OTARC and La Trobe University; although she greatly appreciates that her gifts may inspire others to support autism research and services. It was for this reason alone that she reluctantly agreed to have the centre named after her. Indeed, her initial support in 2007 that led to establishing the centre provided a critical visibility into autism that had not been realised prior to this simple act of generosity. Moreover, her voice as someone with a close experience of autism gives her authenticity to speak on behalf of the centre and promote the work that's being undertaken, of which she is incredibly proud—and rightly so, may I say.
Through its research outcomes and services, OTARC provides enormous value to the community at large. There is the training of students and professionals, including GPs, maternal and child health nurses and other educational and allied health specialists, as well as dissemination of information in the general community. Most importantly to those families living with autism, it means that evidence based information can inform best practice now and into the future. Beginning with a focus on infancy and early childhood, research within the centre over a period of 12 years now spans well into adulthood. There are programs supporting autism employment, suicide prevention and a core understanding of growth and development throughout the lifespan. Mrs Tennison's visible public support for the work of OTARC inspires its staff and provides comfort for individuals and families for whom and with the centre is working.
We've come a long way in autism research in Australia, including establishing the Australasian Society for Autism Research in 2009, a member based organisation to advance autism research and scholarship. This would also not have been possible but for Olga's support. This has been an outcome of the initial and ongoing unwavering generosity of a single individual in our community. It's important to note that Olga has never requested any recognition. If one were to calculate her donations as a percentage of her wealth she would rank in the highest echelons of philanthropic activity. Unlike many major donors and philanthropists in Australia, she is not from intergenerational wealth nor from a family with a long history of philanthropic giving. Nor is she from a successful corporate background. She lives a life without extravagance so that the money she and her husband accrued over a lifetime can be put to use in a significant and lasting, meaningful way.
I have an autistic son. When my child was diagnosed, the grief and challenges that I faced as a parent were in trying to discover what therapies were the best options to undertake, where to turn, where to get assistance and where to get support. That's incredibly challenging and incredibly difficult; it was nine years ago and it still is today. It's the work of organisations such as OTARC that has provided so much comfort to families like mine—especially in Melbourne, where they've worked on studies. That includes an incredible study I learnt about a number of years ago, where they're now able to look at and assess autism—recognise autism—in children under 12 months. This is a huge step forward, because, with autism, the earlier the intervention the more successful the outcome. Whatever interventions you provide a child with autism they will always leap forward. You don't know how they're going to leap forward and you don't know how they're going to develop, what success is going to come or where they are going to end up falling on the spectrum—that will move throughout a child's life—but we do know that the earlier the intervention and the more intense and better the quality of the intervention then the more successful the outcomes are going to be.
The work of OTARC in looking at the study of a number of children from when they were under 12 months and the success rate they had in identifying autism at that period to when the children were five was absolutely extraordinary. To be able to put these diagnoses criteria in place to have a better understanding throughout the medical profession about what it is they need to look for when looking at children with autism or potential developmental delays at that young age is going to ensure that we have the best possible outcomes for those children and their families.
It's also looking at best practice intervention. We have a challenging environment throughout Australia. There is an in-built resistance, in some respects, to best practice therapy. On the Raising Children Network website we have an acknowledgement that therapies such as applied behaviour analysis are well supported by evidence and research to be best practice early intervention therapies, and yet we have a blockage within much of the funding resources and government, which has traditionally been opposed to such significant behavioural therapy. It's also opposed considerably by some adults who have been diagnosed with autism, who have usually never experienced the therapy for themselves and who are certainly relying on evidence from perhaps 50 or 60 years ago as opposed to how these programs are being delivered today. It is through the work of organisations such as OTARC that we see the recognition of best practice and we see what research and evidence can produce and how best to help Australian families.
I know that my experience has been mirrored by so many Australian families. Most people in this room would know someone whose family has been affected by autism—someone who has a child on the autism spectrum or who is on the autism spectrum themselves. So many Australians are affected both directly or indirectly, but, thanks to people like Olga Tennison, there's comfort and hope. It's through the groundbreaking, significant research at La Trobe University and the understandings surrounding those on the spectrum that so much has been improved. I know that with our work in the Senate Select Committee on Autism we are hoping to build upon that, and we look forward, when Melbourne opens up again, to being able to meet with those from La Trobe University, including those at the OTARC.
So we have much to be grateful for. Many Australian families, I know, would like me to say on their behalf that it is with great gratitude that we acknowledge the amazing philanthropic donations that enabled the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre to be developed in the first place and that enable the work that it continues to undertake. So it's my great honour to highly commend Olga Tennison for her sincere charitable efforts and to record our deep and sincere gratitude for posterity.