Mother sues State over lack of education for autistic son


A mother of nine told the High Court yesterday she met evasion and irritation from State services and other institutions when she tried, from his first year, to secure appropriate education and therapy for her autistic son. Ms Kathryn Sinnott is still seeking such services for her now 22-year-old son.

Ms Sinnott, Ballinhassig, Co Cork, was giving evidence on the second day of an action by her and her son against the Minister of Education and the State.

Ms Sinnott said she had since learned that a doctor in the Cork area, since deceased, had in lectures to nurses in the late 1970s told them autistic children were made by "refrigerator mothers" who rejected their children and told the nurses it was up to them to act as substitutes. That approach was based on theories dating back to the 1950s and 1960s which were discredited, she said.

That same doctor had recommended she leave her son, Jamie, in his care for six weeks for assessment and that she should not see him. She refused.

After Jamie was diagnosed autistic in his first year, he was assessed in a Chicago hospital which recommended intensive and immediate intervention through occupational, language and physical therapeutic services, Ms Sinnott said. Jamie received such services in 1978 in Chicago, when he was one, and made great progress.

On her return to Ireland she was optimistic she would get such services, but was met with evasion and no direct answers from a range of institutions and services, she said. She was never directly told the services were just not available. If she had, she might have returned to the US.

She had to watch Jamie regress while she continued to seek the services, Ms Sinnott said.

The court heard Jamie Sinnott was diagnosed as autistic in 1978 and is profoundly mentally disabled.

Ms Sinnott said he was a healthy baby and developed normally until he was about three months old, when his development was frozen.

Ms Sinnott founded the Association for the Severely and Profoundly Mentally Handicapped in 1983.

The Sinnotts are seeking a declaration that the State has breached its constitutional obligation to provide free primary education for Jamie, an order directing it to provide such education into the future and damages for the alleged failure to date.

The defendants deny the claims and contend they have provided for free primary education for Jamie. They also deny the State is obliged to provide free primary education for him for as long as he is capable of benefiting from it.

In submissions yesterday, Mr Paul Sreenan SC, for Ms Sinnott, said if the courts made it more expensive for the State to ignore its constitutional obligations to the severely disabled through making the State pay damages, then the State might begin to honour those obligations.

The State disregarded the actual educational needs of the severely disabled, Mr Sreenan said.

In failing to meet those needs, the State was in breach of the constitution which stipulated all citizens as human persons shall be held equal before the law. Jamie Sinnott was discriminated against because of his autism. With other severely mentally disabled persons, he was allocated fewer teaching hours and teachers who were not qualified to meet his needs.

Ms Sinnott had also not received treatment equal to that accorded to a mother of a non-disabled child. The situation was worse because her predicament was brought to the State's attention at an early stage.

The courts had found the severely disabled benefited from education, but required a different programme than that afforded to the non-handicapped.

Mr Sreenan said three factors were vital to the education of the severely disabled. These were the age of commencement, the duration of primary education and continuity. The State failed to have regard to any of those factors. Jamie first availed of education in 1988 when he was 11. He was removed from an appropriate school just two years after starting and his entire education was utterly haphazard and discontinuous.

The hearing before Mr Justice Barr continues today.