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‘I have applied to all of the special education schools for my son, but all say they’ve no places’

Marrita Coyne is struggling to find a school place for her son, Robbie, who has autism and Down syndrome

My son Robbie will be 13 next month, and has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He’s been in a mainstream school throughout his primary journey, where he has very good resources and access to a full-time special needs assistant (SNA), who he couldn’t manage without. Robbie has the best sense of humour and is a truly empathetic, loving and wonderful child.

But he has very limited danger awareness. His classmates and friends are amazing. They recognise Robbie’s needs and look out for him. They know he’s a flight risk, so if someone sees a door open when the class goes into the hall, they’ll run and shut it to keep him safe.

I fought hard to get Robbie the support he needs in school. And now I’m going to have to fight hard again. Robbie is in sixth class now but, as of yet, he has no suitable school place. Mainstream secondary school won’t suit Robbie’s needs. He’s at the stage now where he needs a different direction. He needs more help and he needs to develop his life skills and independence.

I’d love for him to be able to get on a bus, go for coffee, go for a little job. These are the skills he would learn in a special education school.


I’ve applied to all of the special education schools. I’ve also applied to mainstream schools with special education units, even though I fundamentally believe a mainstream school environment, even with a specialised unit, is not suitable for him. All of the schools that I’ve contacted in the past few weeks have said to me that they’ve no places and they have two-year waiting lists. The window of application was not open to me for these schools before this because Robbie was diagnosed with autism only in December, and at that stage applications had closed.

There’s no question of me homeschooling him; I don’t think it would be fair on him anyway. He needs the social interaction and routine. I live in a two-bedroom apartment with no garden. It’s not suitable for a child with additional needs. He did that through Covid. I’m not doing that to him again.

There is a ripple effect for my family if Robbie is not in an environment where he is happy. Or if he ends up in a school where he feels completely lost. I’m a single parent and I have another son – it’s going to have an effect on him. And it’s going to have a profound effect on our home life. It’s very hard for Robbie to communicate if he’s unhappy, because he’s non-verbal. The frustration comes out in other ways.

There are suitable schools in our catchment area. I worry if he’s sent to a school far away that hours spent on a bus daily will be difficult for him to manage. He needs to be regulated, like any child with additional needs.

Every professional who has worked with Robbie believes he is best suited to a special education school environment. He needs consistency and he will struggle in a secondary school setting – changing classrooms, noise levels in particular, crowding and academically.

My biggest concern is that he will be placed in a school that’s not suitable, just to find him a place. I’ve emailed Josepha Madigan, Minister of State with responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion, and I’ve told her this can’t happen. He needs the right school place. He needs the right support. My fear is that in the wrong environment, he will regress, and all the wonderful work achieved in his current school will be undone.

I can’t let this happen.

Marrita Coyne in conversation with Jen Hogan