Hundreds of autistic teenagers in ‘inappropriate’ schools

‘Urgent need’ to invest in secondary school places for such children, warns campaigner

Christopher Karagiorgis (13) with his parents Dimitris Karagiorgis and Diane Payne, from Ashford, who have been unable to find a suitable secondary school for their son. Photograph: Alan Betson

Christopher Karagiorgis (13) with his parents Dimitris Karagiorgis and Diane Payne, from Ashford, who have been unable to find a suitable secondary school for their son. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Hundreds of teenagers with autism are in “inappropriate” secondary schools, or not in school at all, due to a dearth of suitable places, a leading rights campaigner has warned.

Adam Harris, who has autism and is founder and chief executive of AsIAm, said while there had been significant and welcome increase in supports at primary school level for children with autism, it was like “falling off a cliff” at secondary level.

Across whole areas of south Dublin, until last year, not one secondary school had an autism unit. In addition there had been insufficient investment in “special schools” – deemed most suitable for some children with autism and additional complex needs.

Mr Harris was speaking as a moderately disabled and autistic boy in Co Wicklow, who should have started secondary school this week, can’t because the only school his parents believe meets his needs is full.

Diane Payne and Dimitris Karagiorgis, from Ashford, have been looking at secondary schools for Christopher since 2013.

Christopher also has cerebral palsy, moderate learning difficulties, limited verbal abilities and is partially incontinent.

Assessment report

In 2014, with the support of Christopher’s therapists at Enable Ireland and staff at Newtownmountkennedy national school, they chose Marino Special Community School in Bray. It caters for children on the autism spectrum with moderate learning disabilities and specific speech and language impairments.

Ms Payne shows the latest assessment report from Enable Ireland which identifies Christopher’s “moderate” intellectual disability, “mild deficit” in communication and living skills, and adds he “does not present with significant behaviours that challenge”.

By last year, however, when Christopher had not been offered a place there his parents looked at other schools, including St Catherine’s Special School, Newcastle, which they visited last year.

St Catherine’s, according to its website, caters for students with “severe and profound learning disabilities (LD), severe and profound LD and autism . . . moderate LD and moderate LD and autism”.

The parents said St Catherine’s is “absolutely not the right place for Christopher because he does not have the severity of autism or the challenging behaviour that the other students have there”.

Teresa Smith, principal at St Catherine’s, told The Irish Times the school could offer Christopher a place but “his parents say it’s not right for him and you have to respect that choice”.

However, the Department of Education, through the local Special Needs Education Organiser, employed by the National Council for Special Education, has identified St Catherine’s as appropriate for Christopher.

A spokesman said: “This department provides for a range of placement options and supports for schools, which have enrolled students with special educational needs, in order to ensure that wherever a child is enrolled, s/he will have access to an appropriate education.”

Sympathy

On Thursday the principal at Marino school, Oonagh Kenny, confirmed there was no space for Christopher. She had “real sympathy” for the family adding there were other families in the same situation.

She said the school had two classes of six at senior level. She could fill two more, she said.

“I have approached the department about funding for prefabs for a third or even fourth class but I’ve had no response.

“I would agree, this is an issue all over the country. I’d say there are hundreds of autistic children who are not in a suitable secondary school place.”

Principal at Christopher’s national school, Carmel Dempsey, described as a “growing issue” the anxiety among parents of autistic children about whether they would secure a suitable secondary school place.

Mr Harris said there was an “urgent need” to invest in appropriate secondary school places for children with autism and called for it to become mandatory on all mainstream secondary schools to provide spaces for autistic children.

“The choices of parents of autistic children, about their children’s education must be as protected and respected as those of all other parents.”

Meanwhile, Christopher has no school to go to that is acceptable to his parents.

“He loves school. It’s so important to him. We are not looking for a private education, or for Harvard,” said Mr Karagiorgis. “We are just looking for a school that is right for Christopher.”