CHILDREN with autism who attend weekly playgroups have improved development and social skills, a study has found, supporting the inclusion of children with autism into mainstream education.The study, by national peak body Playgroup Australia, shows 80 per cent of the families who took part in the groups designed for autistic children reported an improvement in their children’s social development. It found a lack of play can aggravate social isolation for children with autism, hindering their transition to school.The study was funded as part of a federal government grant, announced in 2008, of $190 million.Playgroup Australia chief executive Karen Merange said playgroups provided an environment that was autism-friendly and where children were shown how to interact with each other in preparation for school.”The more exposure these children with autism get to a play environment, the more prepared they are for schools that may or may not be as autism-friendly,” Ms Merange said.Families Minister Jenny Macklin said as many as one in 160 Australian children have an autism spectrum disorder.A NSW parliamentary inquiry found there has been a 165 per cent increase in children diagnosed with autism in the past six years, fuelling debate about whether children with autism should be placed in mainstream classes.According to the NSW government submission to the inquiry, of the 33,000 students diagnosed with autism, almost half were placed in mainstream classes and did not receive adequate support.NSW Teachers Federation vice-president Joan Lemaire said:”In a mainstream class of 30, a teacher will have students with a range of abilities and interests. The class may also have a number of students with a range of quite distinct special needs.”Without appropriate support and funding this places enormous pressure on the teacher and the students and impacts on the learning outcomes of all of the students.”A spokeswoman for state Education Minister Verity Firth said this year there was a record budget to meet the needs of students with autism. “We provide more than 1400 specialist teachers to support to students with learning difficulties, including autism,” she said.