‘Children’s needs have to be at the centre . . . otherwise, it’s pointless’

Mother increasingly concerned son’s access to special needs assistant has been diluted

Rachel Prendergast Spollen and her son Hunter (12). Rachel’s son Hunter has autism and is high-functioning and has the support of a special needs assistant. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

One boy’s access to a special needs assistant (SNA) has transformed his education over recent years, according to his mother.

Hunter, who is 12-years-old and has autism, used to regularly feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious in class.

“He is high functioning, so it was quite late into his schooling – third class – before he got a diagnosis,” says Rachael Prendergast Spollen.

“At the time, his behaviour was spiralling. He was finding it difficult socialising with his peers and to cope and manage in class. It was beyond the point where mothering or a teacher’s intervention could help.”


After his diagnosis, Hunter was allocated a SNA. The impact, Ms Prendergast Spollen says, has been life-changing.

“His SNA is an incredible woman who’s so in tune with the children she works with. She is able to understand, really and truly, where he needs supports,” she says. “She steps in when he gets overwhelmed; if she has problems understanding what’s going on, she interprets it.

“Even a simple game of ball in the yard can be very challenging, upsetting and can lead to him misinterpreting other children’s intentions.

“She understands and supports him to have a good day, rather than being frustrated, upset and anxious because he doesn’t understand what’s going on around him.”

Increasing worry

In recent times, Ms Prendergast Spollen has grown increasingly concerned that Hunter’s access to this resource has been diluted.

It started out with three children in one class sharing the same SNA; now it’s six children across two different classrooms sharing the same resource.

With changes due to come into force in the way SNAs are allocated from next September, she is increasingly worried that these supports will be diluted further.

“There are an awful lot of children losing out as things stand. The current allocations aren’t meeting children’s needs. This new system is being rushed, with no proper consultation and there is lots of confusion,” Ms Prendergast Spollen, who is co-chair of Kids Behinds the Cuts campaign group, said.

“We don’t know what his secondary school will be able to provide, and they don’t know either, which is causing parents and schools massive stress.

“Children’s needs have to be at the centre of these decisions. Otherwise, it’s pointless.”