Autism - no reason for exclusion


"HARRY has received tremendous benefits from attending here, his overall disposition is more placid, more happy, and more normal," says Jeffrey Greenwood of his seven-year old son, who was one of the first two pupils to be taken into a unique class for children with autism about a year ago. "He is better intellectually and socially and he is functioning much better."

Anne O'Connor, whose son Stephen (aged almost seven) joined more recently, is equally happy with the class.

"It is terrific for him socially and in every aspect," she says. "We have seen a wonderful difference in him, and he just loves coming to school."

The class is in St John's National School in the Co Clare village of Cratloe, which is located between Shannon Airport and Limerick city. At the start there were only two pupils in the class - Harry and one other boy, who now shares his time between an ordinary class and the special class. Three others have since joined, two boys and a girl - autism is rarer in girls than in boys. The five come from a wide radius in Clare and Limerick.

"Six will be the maximum we have in the class, but there is a waiting list of 12," according to Jody O'Connor, principal of St John's.

"There is a long drawn-out process of assessment before they can join here, involving the Community Care Officer, psychological and psychiatric assessments, medical tests and finally a decision by the admission committee.

Autism has a wide spectrum, affecting every child differently and only certain children will benefit from the type of class in Cratloe says O'Connor.

"In the overall context of provision of education for children with autism, special classes attached to primary schools are suitable for those children who are higher functioning within the autism spectrum. Higher functioning means that they can dress and feed themselves, are toilet-trained, have more developed social skills and are at the higher intellectual range.

The class is taught by Terry Lynch, who has specialist training and experience in special education. Since Easter, she has been assisted by Nellie Murphy, who has been assigned by the Mid-Western Health Board for a two-year term. Lynch herself is on temporary assignment from the Department of Education.

The children all learn in different ways, and have individual problems and strengths. Each child has his or her own separate work area and works on different material, all prepared especially by Lynch. There is no ready-made syllabus to follow, no resource book to draw on.

The only equipment is one computer, given by the school, some audio and video equipment and a camera, which is used to keep a visual link between home and school.

"We got an IEP 500 set-up grant from the Department of Education, and the school and the community have been very helpful, but we only have makeshift furniture and we need individual workstations," says Lynch.

Jody O'Connor would dearly love to see more resources coming from the Department of Education and the Mid-Western Health Board. The children would benefit from speech therapy and more psychological help and he would prefer a permanent assignment of personnel, he says.

The setting up of the class in the school is down to the determination of one man - Jeffrey Greenwood, says O'Connor.

His son Harry was diagnosed as having autism when he was five years old and already attending the Cratloe school.

Jeffrey Greenwood was determined that Harry should be taught in an ordinary national school, rather than a special school for children with mental handicaps. To this end, he met unceasingly with politicians and officials, and the school board. He now chairs the Mid-West branch of the Irish Society for Autism which was formally set up in June.

The school board, which is chaired by the parish priest, Father Micheal Liston, was very helpful, according to Greenwood. "But the school needs the continued support of the authorities and the original package promised has not yet materialised," he says.