Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Health Services

Special Educational Needs.

8:00 pm

Jerry Cowley (Mayo, Independent)
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The intention behind raising this matter is to ensure adequate funding is provided for autism-specific educational training centres in Mayo. At present if one looks at a map of the geographical spread of such centres it is clear that they are all located on the east coast and there is none in the west. It is obvious that children also suffer from autism in the west of Ireland and that autism-specific education or applied behavioural analysis, ABA, offers the best hope for an improvement in the condition to autistic children and their families. It is a terrible scandal that this essential service is not available in the west, specifically in Mayo.

I recently attended a special meeting organised by the Mayo Autism Support Group. People's eyes were opened to the need for and value of autism-specific education. The speakers at the meeting included Dr. Mark de Salvo, the parent of an autistic child. He was inspiring. He outlined how he set up the Saplings school in Celbridge, County Kildare which offers autism-specific education using the ABA system. Dr. de Salvo stated that there is already a waiting list for hundreds of children for that school. The school has a success rate of up to 50% which is a remarkable achievement as autism is a challenging condition that affects the entire family of those who suffer from it.

I am full of admiration for the cogent effort made by the families and carers of autistic children and adults. It is a national scandal that the parents of autistic children have needed to fight tooth and nail for proper education for their loved ones. Recently, I received a reply from the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. Millions of euro of taxpayers' money are being spent by the State to fight parents looking for these services. In other words, it is trying to defend the indefensible. That does not make sense.

Parents set up systems, but unfortunately those systems did not work because the teachers appointed with the help of the Department proved to be untrained in autistic teaching. They had primary degrees and were unsuitable for the job. The children, therefore, did not do well. I am less than impressed by the Department and how it behaved in respect of defending the indefensible and wasting millions in legal fees fighting parents who are looking for these essential services.

The 2001 report of the task force on autism states that the needs of persons with an ASD must be met as a matter of constitutional priority and that the costs associated with meeting the needs of persons with autistic spectrum disorders must be faced by society and by the administrators of the education system. It is a constitutional right of children to receive autism-specific training. Children who are past primary education have the greatest problems as the largest gap in the system is in that area. In 2001, the task force identified that gap, stating:

It is noteworthy that while all pupils with disabilities within the primary school system now have an automatic entitlement to a response to their needs as per Circular 8/99, this automatic entitlement has not yet been extended to pupils at the post-primary stage. In practice, however, provision is made for all identified post-primary pupils with disabilities at the request of the school. However, evidence from submissions indicate that considerable delays in procuring this provision are, in many instances, the norm.

This situation has not changed since 2001 and schools still have difficulties in sourcing staff trained to the appropriate level.

I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure that a school with applied behavioural analysis and autism-specific trained teachers will be set up in County Mayo. Those children matter, but they are currently left with inadequate teaching. A success rate of 50% in the school in Kildare, with the opportunity of entering mainstream education, is remarkable.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to clarify the position of the Department of Education and Science in respect of the educational provision for pupils with autistic spectrum disorders. The Department has not received any application to expand the pilot scheme to a centre in County Mayo, but as he is aware, the Department is committed to ensuring that all children, including those with ASDs, receive an education appropriate to their needs. In this regard, the Department has established 170 special classes for children with autism attached to special and mainstream schools, six of which are in the Mayo area, five special classes for children with Asperger's syndrome, 16 pre-school classes to facilitate the demand for early intervention provision for children in the autistic spectrum and 12 stand-alone facilities providing an applied behavioural analysis-specific methodology on a pilot basis. Approval has been given for the establishment of a further two such facilities. Saplings Centre in County Kildare is funded under the scheme.

The Department is of the opinion that children with autism, in common with all children, should have access to appropriate provision delivered by suitably qualified teachers within the school system where they can mix with their wider peer groups and have maximum opportunities for integration. Pupils with autism who are fully integrated into mainstream schools receive individual teaching support for a number of hours per week as well as support from special needs assistants and special equipment, if required. Pupils attending these classes benefit from having a wider range of autistic spectrum disorder teaching methodologies open to them, fully qualified national school teachers, a school structure and the option of integration into mainstream classes immediately available depending on each child's ability and progress.

Schools have the support of the special education support service, which is committed to providing continual training as appropriate. Staffing supports for autistic children in special classes in ordinary and special schools have a maximum pupil-teacher ratio of six pupils to every teacher. A minimum of two special needs assistants are provided per class with the possibility of additional special needs assistant posts being made available up to a 1:1 basis where required.

The newly established National Council for Special Education and its team of more than 70 special educational needs organisers is working throughout the country to ensure that the new services are put in place where needed so that children with special needs, including those in the autistic spectrum, have access to appropriate school-based provision. I assure the Deputy that the Department will examine any proposal submitted to expand the pilot scheme to a centre in County Mayo and I thank him for raising this matter.