Without training, ‘there’s a lack of understanding’ of children’s needs

Kaiden Cunningham was placed on reduced hours at school before being expelled

Nicola Cunningham and her son Kaiden at their home in Blanchardstown.  Photograph: Alan Betson

Nicola Cunningham and her son Kaiden at their home in Blanchardstown. Photograph: Alan Betson


Kaiden Cunningham (9) loves cuddles, kisses, swings and bouncing around on trampolines.

“He is a kind, gentle little boy,” says his mother, Nicola. “But he has severe autism, very limited words and severe communication difficulties, so he can’t tell us if he’s cold or hungry or if he has pain.”

He progressed well for his first two years in the autism unit attached to a mainstream school in Dublin 15.

But the combination of two deaths in the family within a year, along with medical problems which led to his lengthy hospitalisation, took a heavy toll on him.

“He effectively had post-traumatic stress, which led to this self-injurious behaviour and taking chunks out of himself. We never saw that behaviour before,” she says.

The school said it was struggling to cope with his behaviour, she says, and suspended him last January.

On his return, Kaiden was placed on a reduced timetable for a number of weeks.

A few months later, she received an email from the school stating he was now being “permanently excluded”.

The school said it did “not have the resources or expertise to correctly manage Kaiden’s behaviour or his learning to an acceptable level”.

In April last year, Kaiden was left without a school place.

Nicola ended up appealing his expulsion under section 29 of the Education Act.

Her appeal was upheld recently after it found that the school did not follow required procedures and that Kaiden’s parents did not get a chance to present their case.

However, she does not want to return her son to the school and hopes he will get a place in a new special school due to open soon.

Nicola feels training and the availability of therapies in school is crucial if they are to meet the needs of children.

“There are some amazing teaching staff, but proper training needs to be mandatory for anyone dealing with children with special needs,” she said.

“Otherwise, there’s a complete lack of understanding of issues like autism, and children like Kaiden end up excluded from the system.”