Johannesburg - Almost R320m had been spent on building, refurbishing, and extending at least 12 schools for children with autism and other special needs, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi said on Monday.
An autistic child cost the department six times more than the average school pupil, he said. But the department was committed to creating opportunities for children with special needs and willing to spend even more, to make this a reality, Lesufi said.
"Those that are weak and vulnerable, especially the young ones, I'll ensure that with whatever resources I have, that they are not treated differently purely because they've got special needs.
"There is no excuse to keep these children at home, and those that are weak deserve our attention, and those that are vulnerable need our assistance," he said.
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Speaking at the unveiling of the Thulasizwe School for Autism in Orlando, Soweto, on Monday, Lesufi said the department was working hard to break down the stigma facing special needs children.
"We are targeting the areas where our people are. We are targeting the areas where we believe there is need. We are targeting the areas where people say 'my child is not suffering from autism, it's witchcraft'. There is no witchcraft."
He said 4 800 autistic children were currently on the waiting list to be placed in schools across the country. Parents could wait between 18 months and five years to have their child admitted to a school. Lesufi wanted no more names on Gauteng's list by 2018.
"The reason why they have to wait is because these schools were few, and the numbers are increasing.
"And we didn't have specific facilities. They are normally attached to hospitals. They are normally for the privileged few and prices are prohibitive."
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At the lighting up of the Nelson Mandela Bridge in honour of Autism Day in April last year, Lesufi had made the commitment to open 18 special needs schools by January 2016.
Although his team had not met the target, he said he was pleased with their hard work.
The other schools that had opened their doors were in Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Sedibeng, Johannesburg Central, and the South and North regions of the province. The rest of the schools were still being developed.