‘Nobody wants their child to be diagnosed with autism’

Jacinta Walsh’s son Sam (18) was diagnosed with autism at two, but getting a diagnosis helped him get the educational supports he needed to attend school and make progress

Sam O'Carroll was diagnosed with autism 16 years ago when education supports for children with autism in Ireland were severely limited.

Now aged 18, he will leave full-time education this month having received the education his mother, Jacinta Walsh, fought tirelessly to provide for him.

Walsh, who is treasurer and co-founder of the Drogheda Abacas School for Children with Autism, recalls Sam, who has autism and intellectual disabilities, was diagnosed when he was two years old.

"At the time Sam was diagnosed there were no autism classes in Drogheda and there was nothing. There was nowhere he could go to school or receive an education," she tells The Irish Times.


“We were told when he was diagnosed that he would never speak and he would never love us.

“He can say a lot of words now and can be very interactive. He will never be independent. He will always need support.”

Living at home

Without the special educational support received by Sam at school he would not be living at home, but would be in a residential centre, Walsh says.

The Drogheda Abacas School for Children with Autism is one of around a dozen special schools in Ireland for children with autism and was founded in 2003 by parents.

A spending review carried out by the Department of Public Expenditure states that the Department of Education is to introduce a new system of allocating special needs resources to schools which will not depend on diagnoses.

It refers to the “incidence of inappropriate diagnosis and the unnecessary labelling of children”.

But according to Walsh, in 16 years she has never seen a diagnosis that was not warranted.

“Parents don’t go looking for a diagnosis unless they are really concerned. Nobody wants it for their child.”

No specific test

Because there is no blood test or one specific test to diagnose autism, this can lead some to incorrectly believe that diagnoses are being handed out “willy-nilly”, she believes.

“The danger is a child won’t get the supports if they don’t have a diagnosis.”

For a child with autism, educational supports help to set the ground rules for their entire life and for this very reason are hugely important, Walsh says.

“I have seen people make huge progress. We have had children come in to us who were non-verbal who have gone on to do third level.”

On completing his education, Sam will attend Praxis Care in Drogheda, a care service for individuals with special needs.