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(Ireland) Nonverbal, autistic 13yo with no school place; special schools "are full"

Mar 15, 2024, RTE: Parents of non-verbal boy in struggle for school place

Sam Lewis turned 13 years old last week. He is autistic, is non-verbal and goes to a primary school that is outside his catchment area.

Now in sixth class, Sam's parents, Greg and Celine, have been looking for a secondary school place for their son since last October.

Separate 200-page reports, which include files from Sam's psychologist, occupational therapist, speech and language therapist, along with other documents were delivered by Sam's father to nine schools.

Greg received a no from each school, some of which were inside and outside the Dublin 11 catchment area of the Lewis family home.

Sam is in a difficult situation by virtue of his intellectual disability and his autism.

On one hand he could attend a special school. However, he could also function in an autism class within a mainstream school.

The problem in relation to special schools is that they are full.

It is understood that younger children with more complex needs are being prioritised because they cannot function in mainstream schools, which means children like Sam are left in limbo.

While Sam has done well in a mainstream environment in primary school, he is now in a position where he cannot get an autism class place in a mainstream secondary school or an enrolment into a special school.

It has left Greg and Celine in a situation where one of them will have to give up work to remain at home full-time with their son.

The pressure and the worry have consumed their lives.

"We can't ring up the bank and go, one of us have had to give up work because they have to earn. They have to get their money, you know?" Greg said.

They are not alone.

In Dublin 15, which is adjacent to Dublin 11, it has been an issue for ten years according to Síle Parsons, spokesperson for Autism School Dublin 15.

A survey of primary school principals in the area showed cracks in the system last year.

It warned of a shortfall of six places in second-level autism classes for 2024/2025.

Eight children are now without a school placement this September, in a constituency with two ministers and a taoiseach, according to Ms Parsons.

Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities places obligations on the Government to ensure that people with disabilities are not excluded from education on the basis of disability and can access education on an equal basis with others.

The national association for people with an intellectual disability, Inclusion Ireland, believes the situation regarding school places for autistic children and those with intellectual disabilities has improved in recent years.

However, CEO Derval McDonagh said that there are still significant issues in children transitioning from primary to second-level in pockets across the country.

"What we're hearing frequently is that children are applying to up to 20 to 30 schools. And unfortunately, they're only hearing at the last minute about whether they've been given access to a school place. . . .

The Department of Education has said that in 2023, it spent over €2.6 billion [$2.8B on special education and further progress would be made this year as an additional €113 million [$123M] will be dedicated to providing supports for children with special educational needs.

So, is the issue a matter of funding or planning?

Ms McDonagh believes planning is one of the most significant issues because of a backlog of needs that have been identified but haven't been addressed.

That includes resource issues such as additional teaching staff. . . .

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that "enabling children" with special educational needs to receive an education is "a priority" for the Government.

"The vast majority of children with special educational needs are supported to attend mainstream classes with their peers. Where children with more complex needs require additional supports, special classes and special school places are provided."

It said the department has been engaging "intensely with the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) in relation to the forward planning of new special classes and additional special school places".

"This forward planning work is well under way ahead of the 2024/25 school year. This work involves a detailed review of statistical data in relation to forecasting demand for special class places, an analysis of available school accommodation, consideration of improved data sharing arrangements and a particular focus on the provision of special classes at post-primary level."

The department has said that along with the two new special schools opening this school year, 390 new special classes - 254 at primary and 136 at post-primary level - have been sanctioned by the NCSE for opening this school year. . . .

The department has said it, and the NCSE are committed to ensuring that sufficient special education placements will be available for children for this school year and future years.

However, the Lewis's are worn out.

"Our special needs kids are just treated like fourth-class citizens in their own country," according to Greg.

"Every time you've reached the hurdle, there's a brick wall in the way and to get that brick wall down, you have to fight, fight, fight all the time. Nothing comes easy when you've got kids with special needs."



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