At AllPlay, Professor Nicole Rinehart is making the world fit for kids with disabilities and developmental challenges

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 11 October 2022

Child using colouring book

One in six Australian children experience a developmental challenge or disability, and so often, our social structures are not set up to include or support them.

Clinical psychologist Professor Nicole Rinehart, a specialist in working with children with autism, Asperger’s and ADHD, has dedicated her career to pioneering a strengths-based approach to better support these kids.

Professor Rinehart is the founder of AllPlay, a place where parents, teachers, coaches, carers and health professionals can access evidence-based resources to support children who experience developmental challenges or disabilities, so they can fully participate at school and in the community.

The organisation was founded in 2015 at Deakin University, and in 2021, it became a part of Monash University’s School of Educational Psychology and Counselling. It grew out of research, and now has three main programs – AllPlay Footy, AllPlay Dance and AllPlay Learn – which all help children engage in activities where they can play, be active and creative.

“We take a strength-based approach versus a deficit approach,” Professor Rinehart explains. “What we discovered through the research is the higher we hold the bar, the more these kids absolutely thrive. They can do so much.”

The inspiration for AllPlay came to Professor Rinehart after she became a parent, and began spending time on the sidelines of her children’s AFL games.

“I could immediately, tangibly feel the incredible benefits socially for my kids, their language skills, making friends, my husband and I were also making friends. Just what a wonderful and joyous thing it was to be included in the community,” Professor Rinehart says.

“But at the same time, I was absolutely struck by the fact there was not one child with a disability amongst the hundreds of children who were there. And my clinic was just down the road.

“I knew from research and my clinical work that children with disabilities who were included fully in education, sports and dance from an early age had much better outcomes than the children who weren’t.”

With this realisation, Professor Rinehart set out to create AllPlay Footy, to enable children with disabilities to be included in Auskick, and the wider community.

“I sent an email to the local Auskick coach the very next day, and just spent the next two years trying to get meetings and sit in meetings with the AFL until we started a partnership to create AllPlay Footy. It just really took off from there.”

“We started to switch the paradigm completely. It’s about making the world fit for all kids, so they can be included and gain developmental benefits by being in the community.”

After AllPlay Footy, Professor Rinehart went on to establish AllPlay Learn, which provides toolkits for teachers in Victorian schools and AllPlay Dance, in partnership with Queensland Ballet and Li Cunxi, to get children involved in dance classes.

AllPlay is also working to develop programs for children with more complex needs who might not be able to engage in mainstream activities.

On AllPlay, Monash’s Deputy Director of Development Heather Little says the university is focused on elevating and enabling the incredible work Professor Rinehart is doing.

“She’s done so much,” Little says. “She’s working hand-in-hand with communities to deliver this research and resources that change lives to provide that real holistic approach for people living with some form of disability or neurodevelopmental conditions.”

Professor Rinehart is also passionate about pursuing research relating to girls, and closing the gap when it comes to gender and disability research.

“When I started my career, the research evidence was all based on boys,” she says. “All the data that we were using to direct our practice and therapy, even assessment, was coming from the boy’s literature because many of these conditions predominantly affect boys.”

Rinehart says it’s important to put a gender lens on disability and address the gender gap to provide better services that specialise for girls.

Executive Director of MECCA M-POWER Lisa Keenan said it was rare to see such a genuine meeting of minds like there is between Dr Rinehart and the team at Monash University.

“Their mutual passion to push boundaries on behalf of children with development challenges is tangible,” Keenan says. “Nicole has pioneered research into autism in girls, where the body of research we rely on today is mostly conducted on boys. This in itself is groundbreaking and will change the lives of so many.”