The battle over ABA: autism education in limbo

Gail O’Driscoll, 32, from Cork, and her son, 12-year old Ciaran, who was diagnosed with severe autism and intellectual disability at the age of 3 and a half.  Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Gail O’Driscoll, 32, from Cork, and her son, 12-year old Ciaran, who was diagnosed with severe autism and intellectual disability at the age of 3 and a half. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tue, May 20, 2014, 02:00

It’s been one of the longest and most bitter fights in special education policy circles, and it still rumbles on. Campaigners for a particular form of education for children with autism, based on applied behavioural analysis (ABA), claim the Department of Education and Skills remains stubbornly biased against ABA despite what they claim is its status as the oldest, most researched and most successful such teaching methodology.

Even after a decade-long campaign of lobbying and legal action by a number of parents, psychologists and other ABA advocates, which included a gruelling, 68-day, €5 million High Court case in 2007 taken by two parents, those involved say that as well as continuing to misunderstand ABA, the Minister for Education has repeatedly failed to issue any cohesive policy document on autism education despite calls from the Children’s Ombudsman and several TDs.

However, talking to a number of professionals, teachers and parents, it seems that attitudes to ABA remain decidedly mixed.

It is estimated, based on international census data and other studies, that one in 100 of us (children and adults) has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, a new survey study from the US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention puts the figure for children at a staggering 1 in 68. There are around 130 special schools catering for children with ASD, but most now attend special classes in mainstream primary and post-primary schools. An ESRI report showed that 60 per cent of the 357 special classes at primary-school level are designated as ASD classes.

Over the years a small but well-organised group of parents of autistic children – citing international studies pointing to the effectiveness of ABA-based early intervention programmes – have sought support for schools or ASD units that use ABA as their sole method rather than the mix of approaches sanctioned by the Department, often referred to as an “eclectic” model.

In the High Court case, Cian and Yvonne Ó Cuanachain were seeking to compel the State to provide 30 hours a week of ABA tuition for their then six-year-old son, Seán. Judge Michael Peart ruled that the DES’s model of provision, which it had outlined to the court as “Model A”, incorporated ABA along with a number of methodologies and was therefore deemed not to be inappropriate for Sean.

Since then, according to Niall Conlon, a behavioural therapist and member of the Division of Behaviour Analysts in the Psychological Society of Ireland (DBAPSI), around 20 ABA schools, that had been funded directly by the DES either through an ABA pilot school scheme or the home tuition grant, have been forced to close down or turn into standard special State schools.

However, nearly seven years after the 2007 High Court case, it has emerged the Model A approach was already judged by the DES to be “outdated” at the time of the ruling, even though it was a key part of its defence in the case.

During a response to parliamentary questions last month from Tommy Broughan TD, Minister Ruairí Quinn admitted Model A became outdated around the period “2006/2007”.

Cian O’Cuanachain told The Irish Times he was not surprised Model A “disappeared” after the court case. He firmly recalls “at the time, our legal team did a complete demolition of Model A and its provenance”. But a DES spokeswoman insisted that as the department “subsequently recognised that the model concept was complex and multi-purpose”, its use of language around “models” stopped.

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