One in 65 school children in Ireland has autism diagnosis

Report to Minister recommends changes to teacher training to better support pupils

Mary Byrne, head of special education at the National Council for Special Education  (left) and the council’s chief executive  Teresa Griffin at the publication of its  first major report on the education of students with autism in almost 14 years. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell Photography.

Mary Byrne, head of special education at the National Council for Special Education (left) and the council’s chief executive Teresa Griffin at the publication of its first major report on the education of students with autism in almost 14 years. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell Photography.

 

One in every 65 school children (1.5 per cent) in the State has a diagnosis of autism, much higher than the one in 100 estimated just three years ago, a new report says.

The policy paper from the National Council for Special Education, which has just been adopted by the Cabinet, found 14,000 students have an autism diagnosis. The revised figure is in line with prevalence rates reported in the US and the UK, however.

More than €300 million a year is now invested in teaching, technology and other supports in this area, the NCSE said.

Extensive research conducted for the report identifies 34 “evidence-informed” interventions for use in schools with children on the autism spectrum.

It makes 11 recommendations to Minister for Education Richard Bruton, including that teachers have at least three years’ experience before they take up posts teaching children with autism.

The report says initial teacher education does not sufficiently equip teachers with all the knowledge and skills they need to educate students with more complex special educational needs. It recommends the funding of extra training for teachers in this area.

‘Potentially unsafe’

It also expresses some concern that the Extended School Year Scheme (the July Provision Scheme) for children with severe general learning disabilities may result in “potentially unsafe” environments for both students and staff.

A safe, social summer day-activity programme for all students with complex educational needs to replace the scheme, it says.

Access to health supports, including diagnostic services, occupational therapy, psychology and speech and language therapy is not currently available to the extent needed for children with autism, the research also says.

It recommends that the Government provides for “sufficient ring-fenced resources” to ensure that an adequate level of multidisciplinary health supports are available for students with complex special educational needs.

The NSCE, an independent statutory body, estimates implementing the recommendations would cost an additional €20 million a year.

Chief executive Teresa Griffin noted the findings that students with autism are “generally well supported” in schools, especially at primary level. Support at post-primary level required further development, however.

“We know that students with autism have different individual needs and can respond differently to interventions,” she said.

“Research does not support any one approach or methodology as being best for all students. We need a flexible and responsive educational system which can draw on, and use, a range of evidence-informed interventions in line with each student’s needs.”

The report is the first major report on the education of students with autism in almost 14 years and follows what the NCSE said was “an extensive research and consultation process”.

Mr Bruton has established an implementation group to consider the recommendations.

The full research is available on the NCSE website ncse.ie