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Creating His Own Change

20 April 2015 at 11:22 am
Xavier Smerdon
As the father of a child with autism and the founder of an autism organisation, Dr James Morton has built a reputation as a tireless worker for the community. A recent recipient of an Order of Australia medal, Dr Morton is this week’s Changemaker.

Xavier Smerdon | 20 April 2015 at 11:22 am


Creating His Own Change
20 April 2015 at 11:22 am

As the father of a child with autism and the founder of an autism organisation, Dr James Morton has built a reputation as a tireless worker for the community. A recent recipient of an Order of Australia medal, Dr Morton is this week’s Changemaker.

To mark World Autism Awareness Month and the 10th birthday of his organisation, the AEIOU Foundation, Pro Bono Australia News spoke with Dr Morton.

A Haemato-Oncologist by profession, Dr Morton and his wife Louise founded AEIOU in 2005 because there were no suitable high-quality, early intervention programs available for their then-young son Andrew who had been diagnosed with autism.  

The AEIOU Foundation is one of Australia’s largest providers of early intervention for preschool aged children with autism, through a multi-disciplinary education and therapy program. The Not for Profit has grown to nine centres across Queensland and one in Adelaide, with a vision of further national expansion.  

About 70 per cent of children who complete the AEIOU program successfully transition to mainstream school.  

Dr Morton was also one of the brains behind the popular fundraising event, the World’s Greatest Shave during his time at the Leukemia Foundation in Queensland.

What are you currently working on in your organisation?

Our focus at AEIOU is on extending our program outside of Queensland to become a truly national provider and address unmet needs for children with autism and their families across Australia.  We are also learning a lot of valuable lessons – regarding funding in particular – with our first interstate centre in Adelaide that operates under the National Disability Insurance Scheme pilot, which is really important for when it rolls out nationally.

Like a lot of service providers, we need to ensure that our model is sustainable under the NDIS funding structure and that there is bi-partisan awareness of the necessary adequate levels of funding to enable children with autism to access high quality early intervention.  

How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?

My experience began with the Leukemia Foundation (Qld) in the late 1990s and I was on the Board until 2004. However, in 2005 my wife Louise and I decided to establish the AEIOU Foundation primarily because we were unable to find a suitable early intervention program for our son Andrew, who has autism. Our journey with AEIOU over the last ten years has also been an intensely rewarding experience, and it’s obviously a deeply personal venture also because of the connection to our family’s story and wanting to assist other families in the same position.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

I think the most rewarding part of AEIOU, for me, is seeing the dramatic improvements that occur with these little children so quickly by providing a program and resources that give them the key learning opportunities they require. We are also privileged to get to know many of our families and we see the positive impact fulfilling these needs can have on the family unit as a whole, not just the child.

What has been the most challenging part of your work? And how do you overcome that?

I’m sure like a lot of Not for Profits; funding.  It’s a continual challenge to raise the money to continue to provide the level of support that these children need to have their best opportunity in life. Currently this is done by way of substantial philanthropic efforts and Government funding. However our funding vehicle will soon operate under the NDIS and we are advocating strongly this is done properly from the outset. 

Our future fundraising efforts will be focused on infrastructure capital raising. Our purpose-built centres cost about $2m to build so we will be seeking partnerships with corporates and universities to further expand and capital build so we can deliver our program at a national level.

Part of our strategic plan has been to build facilities on university land which has many benefits such as the ability to interact with and be involved with the training of the next generation of professionals who will work with children with autism, and it also provides excellent opportunities for research.  However, we are looking at and are open to all sorts of options to enable us to open more centres around the country to fulfill the need we see.     

I consider my greatest achievement to be …

I guess the greatest achievement really has been to take an idea (AEIOU) and make it a reality.  Lots of people have great ideas but making it become a reality, and beyond the reality, where it becomes an accepted way of doing things is very fulfilling. I can still remember when the pilot program our son Andy was in was about to be shut down, my wife Louise saying, “we have got to do something about this,” back in 2003.  

And now we have grown from a tiny offering in 2005 with only a few staff to now over 160 staff and over 200 children in our program at any one time, with families seeing enormous improvements in their children. AEIOU is now nationally recognised as a respected early intervention provider.  We have families relocate from interstate and even overseas to access our program.  We have developed our own curriculum. We’ve come a long way over the past ten years.

Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?

That all young children who receive an autism diagnosis in Australia gains entry straight away into a program that is high quality and transitions into a school place that provides a supportive environment that sets them up optimally for success.

I believe if you can reach children early enough in this way, you can drastically change their life trajectory.

What, or who, inspires you?

The inspiration for me came from a couple of doctors that I have had the pleasure of working with – Dr Trevor Olsen and Dr Ian Bunce who were instrumental in setting up the Leukemia Foundation (LFQ).  Trevor set up LQF out of a van in his backyard when he saw the need to raise money for a cell-separator machine and having worked closely with Trevor as a trainee and then subsequently becoming involved with LFQ it showed me what could be done.  And so when Louise posed the question, “we’ve got to do something about this,” regarding the closure of Andy’s autism-specific program, I realised we actually could do something about it because of these fantastic role models. I knew what could be done.  

What is your greatest challenge?

I have two major ones. The first one is time. There’s never enough time!

The second is demand. As a consequence of the quality of the program that has been created by our staff and its success, our greatest challenge is waitlists. It shouldn’t be that way. When a child receives a diagnosis there should be a place available for them, but unfortunately the recurrent funding component doesn’t meet the need. We need to grow to meet the need but that is difficult for us to do without the funding to do so – currently that is grant based rather than needs-based. We have daily calls to our office with distressed parents who are desperate to find a suitable program for their child, and we’d like to be able to help so many more of these families.  

What’s your favourite saying?

It’s in a poem by the American poet by Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by”

I believe that path makes all the difference.  

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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