CAM Lavaring is loving school - well, as much as a 15-year-old can.
The Year Nine student enjoys maths and science and wants to be an "animaltologist" to indulge his love for creatures.
But the best part of his days at the first autism-specific high school in the Hunter, pioneered by the Aspect Hunter School, is that he feels in his element.
"[At other schools] they didn't understand me, it didn't feel right," Cam says. "This school is about autism. They know how to control it and they are better, they have classes that you can work in."
Cam's parents, NBN TV newsreader Natasha Beyersdorf and Enigma advertising agency communications director Brett Lavaring, say the impact the new Aspect Hunter high school has had on their son, their 12-year-old daughter Tilly and them has been life changing.
"I am still not quite willing to believe it, I don't want to assign myself too many things in a day because I can't believe it's working so well, even though I knew enough about Aspect to be confident," says Natasha, who until recently home-schooled her son because he wasn't coping in a mainstream high-school setting. "It's been a tough couple of years and this has just been incredible for all of us."
Adds Tilly: "Mum is less stressed and it's taken a lot of stress off the family. We can proceed through the day as if it's normal."
Aspect Hunter School for primary-aged children was founded in Charlestown in 1977. It moved to a spare classroom at Shortland Public before local businessman Hilton Grugeon, whose son has Aspergers syndrome, rallied community and business support to ensure a new school was built in 2012 at Thornton.
Natasha and Brett quickly realised Aspect's potential for Cam, who was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum before starting school.
"He started an early intervention program with Aspect when he was at daycare - he'd go one day a week and it was when we started to see light bulbs turn on," Natasha recalls.
While Cam received great support in primary school in a smaller class, his parents saw the support gap widening closer to high school.
"Once you get to high school you have special needs classes but they are a liquorice allsort, in that our kids aren't designed to fit them all," he says.
Cam attended three high schools in the past 18 months before Natasha opted to home-school.
"Even when Cam had been at school he was only there for two hours a day, that was the best they could do," she says. "Even though they were small, supported classes they are still in school settings with big [pupil] numbers. There are expectations that the student in a supported unit will go to this different classroom for music or cooking, which is great, because you want them to have that experience. But if it doesn't work it is disruptive."
Natasha and Brett were among many parents lobbying to get an Aspect high school off the ground.
Aspect Hunter School executive principal Lara Cheney met with Natasha and Mr Grugeon to get the ball rolling before building started on the new high school six months ago, located beside Aspect's primary school.
Thirteen students are now attending the high school's two classrooms and it will grow to accommodate 50 children.
Aspect is holding a fundraiser on March 23, emceed by "Rampaging" Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson, to raise further funds for the high school, which teaches the mainstream curriculum for Years 7 to 10 and will eventually offer the life skills Higher School Certificate.
"Eight of our students have transitioned from home education, which really made us think we were meeting an unmet need for kids for whom mainstream education was not working," Ms Cheney said.
She says high school can be confronting for autism students who often struggle with organisation.
"In high school they go to having seven teachers and have to move from one period to the next and teachers have different styles and expectations. The environment changes so much that it is difficult for some students to hold it all together," she says.
At Aspect, the curriculum is largely taught by the same staff and students' strengths and interests are incorporated into the program.
"We look at what they need to learn at their best, so they may need regular sensory breaks and they may need more time to process information and they may also need support to understand what is in it for them," Ms Cheney says.
Independence is encouraged to help students reach their potential. Some remain at the school, others transition back into a mainstream school once they have developed self-regulation and other skills.
Since starting at the new high school on February 1, Cam has thrived. Although the high school is still taking shape - the playground is not finished and there are plans to build a horticultural centre, industrial kitchen and technology centre - he is fully engaged.
"I was confident all of last term as I had been transitioning him and he was attending one day a week, even though it didn't properly exist," says Natasha.
"When I got home from dropping him I walked around in circles and the dog and I were tripping over each other, it was a happy and anxious day. When the principal called she said 'I just want to let you know he's going well', she was really conscious of us and I know the other families, too."
Brett says his son is "chilled and happy" to be attending school "just like a normal child".
"It's extraordinary, it's momentous," he says.
He is happy his son is in a supported environment, noting that many high schools don't have the resources necessary to help kids on the autism spectrum who have varied needs.
"[Cam] had an incident at his last school and their attitude was to put him in a sensory room for two hours and he just slept and he got depressed - they didn't know how to deal with him," he says.
"If he acts out and has a meltdown, he is treated like a normal student and goes through suspension or whatever and that is just wrong. They need to have a process to deal with kids on the spectrum rather than a standard, and while that continues it is not the right system."
Natasha felt she had a lack of choice for Cam and a lack of power as a parent once he reached high school and was grateful for Aspect's assistance. She says he is "happier and with some purpose in his life that doesn't revolve around us".
The couple have spoken publicly about their journey in their bid to raise funds to support the new high school and to support others in their situation. "l don't want another family to go through what we have, and if that is possible and we can help that, we will," Brett says.
Though she has always been involved in fund-raising for Aspect, Natasha says she was worried about "putting up my hand" because some would assume she "had a good job, and you know, what was I complaining about". She said she had been greatly supported by those in the autism community.
I don't want another family to go through what we have, and if that is possible and we can help that, then we will.Brett Lavaring
"We need to talk about it, we need to get it set up in the way it should be - this [new school] is what they need and deserve and we are passionate about making it happen," she says.
The couple hopes Cam can transition from school into life but live in the "day to day".
"No good can come for your mental health to sit about and think what is he going to do when I am not here and things like that," a tearful Brett says. "For us, if he can get a job and do something else, land a gig working with animals or just get him to do that and have a functional role in society that'd be great. Part of us thinks he'll be with us for as long as we are around. Maybe he'll be in a home with other kids or maybe he'll get married.
Natasha is starting to believe again that things are possible: "I had started to doubt that whereas now I think with the right support and understanding that Cam can really achieve his dreams."
For details on the Aspect Hunter high school gala night go to www.eventbrite.com.au/e/gala-dinner-high-school-fundraiser-tickets-56025443610.