Autism and special classes

 

Sir, – Thank you for Carl O’Brien’s illuminating article (News, June 4th), which confirms that it is official Department of Education policy not to fund autism spectrum disorder (ASD) special classes in fee-paying secondary schools. This policy cannot possibly be justified on the grounds of either logic or fairness.

It is estimated that one in 65 of the secondary school age population is on the autism spectrum. While most of these children are academically suited to education within the mainstream sector, sensory and social issues can make life in secondary school extraordinarily challenging for them.

These barriers to education are not as visible as, say, the lack of a ramp would be to a child who uses a wheelchair, but they are just as real. ASD special classes provide both a refuge and a location where the individualised support that such children need can be offered within the mainstream school setting, allowing them to benefit from vital educational and social opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them.

The availability of such classrooms will in some cases be the difference between a child being able to stay in school or not and, ultimately, between a life of independence or dependency.

As your article makes clear, there is a great shortage of ASD special classes throughout the State. Especially in urban areas, schools that do offer such classrooms could fill them three or four times over.

In this context it is cynical for the Department of Education to maintain that their current policy is based upon a desire to be inclusive of children with ASD.

Given that half of all schools in areas like South Central Dublin are fee-paying, the practical effect of the department’s policy is to condemn children with autism to have to travel far from their home area, siblings and peers to receive the education which they are entitled to while entirely absolving local private schools of any responsibility to cater for their needs.

There is undoubtedly a debate to be had as to whether the tax-payer should be required to fund fee-paying schools at all. But, given that this is current Government policy, surely such funding should be conditional upon equality of access in all other respects rather than insisting upon the opposite? – Yours, etc,

NICK KELLY,

Dublin 6.