Autism provision is blocked by lack of partnership and investment

Everyone agrees that children with autism have a right to education. Underfunded, overcrowded schools need significant investment to provide it

The Department of Education is entitled by law to compel schools to create special classes for autism.

The Department of Education is entitled by law to compel schools to create special classes for autism.

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In early July, Nicola Scott wrote about trying to homeschool during the school closures. Her non-verbal seven-year-old son, Patrick, has severe autism, intellectual disability and ADHD. Trying to replace what her son’s much-loved school does was impossible. Furthermore, it was profoundly frustrating that the support services like speech and language therapy and occupational therapy, which Patrick was beginning to receive after a long wait, were suddenly withdrawn. Scott was doing her best for her son but becoming quite desperate.

Reading about Scott’s experience is harrowing. But it is equally harrowing that so many parents still cannot access an appropriate school placement for their child with autism. (There are serious problems for children with other special needs, too.)

The Department of Education is entitled by law to compel schools to create special classes for autism. At the very end of June, notices were issued to 39 south Dublin primary schools instructing them to open such classes.

The department published the responses and there was a great deal of angry social media commentary suggesting that schools are unwilling to be truly inclusive.

When you read the letters, a different picture emerges. Schools are willing to engage but are blocked from doing so by issues that plague every aspect of Irish primary and second-level education. 

These include cramped and unsuitable facilities, under-investment, overcrowding, poor communication, and lack of respect for schools (including that the department issued this notice just before schools were closing after one of the most stressful terms ever).

One school is more than willing to open an ASD class but needed the input of the department’s building unit. Several attempts to contact the building unit met with no response. 

Another school described a gap of 12 months in communication with the National Council for Special Education, perhaps because there was no special education needs organiser (Seno) assigned to the school for that time. It is a scandal that an inner-city school which is serving many children with complex special needs had no access to a Seno for a year.

A different school which has what it describes as “six wonderful pupils” with autism and many other children with significant needs, is so over-subscribed that it has been reduced to using former storage space and part of a repurposed toilet block as classrooms.

Some schools would have to displace a much-needed pre-school to include an ASD class.

Teachers also need training. Adam Harris, chief executive of AsIAm, an autism charity, has emphasised the need to create a tiered model of teacher training to ensure that every teacher has a level of knowledge on autism and additional needs which is consistent with her or his role. This should include intensive training for those in special classes, a different level of training for those in mainstream roles who are engaging daily with students with a range of needs and another still for students studying to enter the teaching profession.

Another significant roadblock is that many children with autism have complex needs and the services that they need are often not available at all, much less within the school. 

Scott mentioned her son Patrick’s long wait for services. Lots of parents are waiting to get definitive diagnoses. Tragically, these parents often think getting a diagnosis is a solution but then realise that it is just the foot of another mountain to climb in order to access help. 

Heavy-handed engagement

There was a recent pilot programme involving 75 schools and 75 pre-schools where there was an attempt to integrate services like occupational therapy and speech therapy. It seems to have been very successful.  

Even in this more integrated model, this pilot did not involve every parent and school’s dream of having therapists and psychologists on site, just a more co-ordinated approach. There are still huge gaps in provision.

It is important to acknowledge that there has been real progress in special education. The Department of Education has greatly increased its allocation. However, some of the engagement with both parents and schools has been heavy-handed and profoundly unhelpful. 

It would be naive to believe that every primary school is willing to welcome children with autism.

However, these letters show that many willing schools are being blocked by the lack of real partnership, help and investment.

It is equally true that an offer of a place in December or the following school year is no use to a family that desperately needs a place in August.

What is needed now is a cohesive strategy which really honours a spirit of partnership between parents, students, schools, patron bodies, advocates and the Department of Education. 

As Harris has said, “If we could achieve one reform it would be to improve communication and restore trust. Open, solution-focused engagement is needed from the department and schools so we can see that we are all on the one team”.

Special educational provision is not an optional extra. It should be at the heart of our education system. Children are children and they all have the right to an education that meets their needs.

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